Mr Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is generally acknowledged in the western English-speaking world as superior to any other explanation for the diversity of life on earth.
Over the last 150 years there have, however, emerged many rival doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, most recently environmentalism.
In the following essay written to acknowledge this anniversary year, scientist Vincent Gray, outlines how the work of various influential scholars including Julian Huxley, Ernest Mayr and Richard Dawkins would have benefited from a better understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Dr Gray concludes with an explanation of why the continued survival of the human race is by no means certain and what the international community needs to learn from the work of Charles Darwin.
by Vincent Gray
It is to be expected that this year, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, will see many celebrations of his birth and the publication of “The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection”. But there are few, even among the most enthusiastic, who are willing to accept the consequences of Darwin’s work, even those he drew for himself, let alone those which have emerged more recently with the advances of the science of genetics.
Darwin did not discover the evolution of all organisms from common ancestors but he provided and gathered together enough evidence to establish it as amongst the most firm of all scientific discoveries. He also, with Alfred Wallace, first formulated the mechanism of evolution, “natural” selection, which, more properly does not require the epithet “natural”.
The desires of most humans to embrace a variety of irrational beliefs, has led to the growth of a large number of anti-scientific rival doctrines that nevertheless claim to be compatible with Darwinism. But they are not.
The continued survival of the human race is by no means certain, particularly if we do not learn from Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution.
2. CREATION DENIED
In his Autobiography (1953) Darwin attacked the claim that evolution is “designed”. He says: “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows”
The current persistent argument, the argument from design, goes back to Bishop William Paley who in 1802 claimed that if you found a watch on the beach you must know that it had a designer; therefore you would know a starfish or a seagull had also been designed. Dawkins (1986) has shown convincingly that selection over long periods can account for “design”.
Nowadays the role of the “Designer” is sometimes relegated to that of a beneficent supervisor of evolution, ensuring “progress”. Darwin had no room for such a concept. “Progress” in terms of continued survival and prosperity is not a necessary part of evolution. Organisms come and go, and we will go if we fail to respond to our surroundings.
3. HUMANS ARE SPECIAL
Darwin hardly mentioned the evolution of humans in the “Origin” (1859). He tried to overcome this omission later with his “Descent of Man” (1875), but this book tended to be taken over by the topic of “sexual selection”.
In Darwin’s day there was no fossil evidence of man’s evolution. The first early human remains were found in 1856 at the Neander Valley (“Neanderthal”), near Dusseldorf, Germany. For a long while there was the search for the “missing link” between humans and apes, enlivened by the “Piltdown Man” hoax, but nowadays the human and pre-human lineage is fully established with all manner of hominoids thought to have originally emanated from Africa.
According to evolution, humans are part of the system of living organisms. They have evolved just like all the other animals, and therefore they have no special status and no reason to qualify for a privileged supernatural supervisor or life after death.
Few biologists can accept this. Amongst Darwin’s friends and acquaintances, only Joseph Hooker was prepared to deny the special status of humans. Joseph Hooker was the son of the first director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Hooker and, as the Secretary of the Linnean Society he arranged the first joint announcement of the Darwin Wallace theory. He visited New Zealand with Sir James Clark Ross in 1839 and wrote the first New Zealand Flora. Haast named the Hooker Range after him and the Hooker glacier and river after his father.
Even Charles Lyell, Darwin’s close collaborator and mentor, would not go along with him. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s most vigorous public defender had some doubts. Prominent opponents were Richard Owen, the great anatomist, Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born US geology professor, and Robert FitzRoy, the former Captain of the “Beagle”.
Many of Darwin’s naturalist colleagues accepted some part of his arguments, but they often found it impossible to accept all of them. Alfred Russel Wallace, whose prior publication of the theory of natural selection stimulated the composition of Darwin’s “abstract”, rejected God, but took up spiritualism, together with several other contemporary scientists like William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, and other intellectuals like Arthur Conan Doyle. Critics complained that Darwin had not explained how offspring simultaneously resemble their parents and differ from them. Darwin attempted his own theory, but there could be no doubting that the facts were correct even if they could not be explained. Today we have the explanation with the genetic code and DNA.
Opponents of evolution try to claim that it implies that men are descended from monkeys. This is untrue; we are merely descended from common ancestors. We share common ancestors with apes and monkeys, but we also share common ancestors with rabbits, redwood trees, cockroaches and the malaria bacillus. We possess some chemical mechanisms in our bodies and genetic codes which are common to all organisms. The only differences are the dates of departure from the common ancestry. Our departure from our ancestry with apes was a mere four million years ago.
In the 1940’s a group of biologists got together to agree on what they called “The Modern Synthesis”, which was the title of Julian Huxley’s textbook on evolution in 1942. They were a somewhat disparate group. Huxley was the grandson of the Thomas Huxley who had defended Darwin. J B S Haldane was a ”biometrician”, a communist, and a notable popular scientific writer. Theodosius Dobzhansky was a Russian geneticist. R A Fisher invented much of the statistics we use today, and G. G. Simpson was a palaeontologist. Ernst Mayr, a German field naturalist based in the US, was the great survivor of this group as he has provided some of the standard current textbooks on Darwin and evolution, and has only recently died at the age of 101.
The “Modern Synthesis” tried to argue that man is somehow different from all the other creatures, presumably sufficiently different to continue to support a religion.
Huxley (1942) puts it this way, “The last step yet taken in evolutionary progress, and the only one to hold out the promise of unlimited (or indeed of any further) progress in the evolutionary future, is the degree of intelligence which involves true speech and conceptual thought: and it is found exclusively in man… Conceptual thought is not merely found exclusively in man: it could not have been evolved on earth except in man.”
It is true that humans have secured advantages in their struggle to survive and progress by their development of advanced conceptual ability and the use of technology. But this does not guarantee “evolutionary progress” whatever that may mean. There are many organisms which “progress” from an evolutionary point of view without the “advantages” of humans but possessing others, such as small size, rapidity of reproduction or mutation, or capacity for parasitism which could lead them to replace humans.
We have to be aware of the challenges of evolution and avoid arrogance and complacency in facing them. It is only recently that the main nations of the earth threatened to exterminate all of us with nuclear weapons, and this threat has by no means disappeared.
Whie Mayr (1982) has written, “’Man is just an animal’ goes too far. He is a ‘unique animal’ different in so many fundamental ways”. But Every organism apart from identical twins and clones is “unique” genetically, and even twins and clones are influenced differently by their surroundings and all are different in “many fundamental ways”.
We exaggerate our importance by viewing the world from our perspective. It looks different from the point of view of the bacterium, the pine tree, the fungus, or the individual plankton. The idea that humans are “special” or “different” continues to pervade our biological literature and media presentations. “Conceptual thought” is all very well, and it is currently helping us to hold our own. It does not follow that it will continue to do so.
Even Darwin was capable of assigning a special status to humans. He, and almost everybody, tried to distinguish between “natural” and “artificial” selection, and said so in his title. This is based on a belief that “selection” carried out by humans is somehow different from “selection” carried out by the interaction of other organisms with the rest of the world.. Human interactions are not essentially different from any other interaction. “Selection” is equivalent for all.
4. THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES
The other major modification of Darwin made by the “Modern Synthesis” is even more fundamental, as it denies the whole purpose of Darwin’s great work. Darwin chose his title carefully. He knew that the most important issue was “The Origin of Species” because creationists have taken the supposed essential difference between different species as their last evidence of individual creation.
“Species” is merely one of the set of hierarchical divisions used to classify living organisms. They were mostly introduced in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus the Swedish botanist who founded our current system. He began by a division into “Kingdoms” (animal and plant), then subdivided each of these into a descending series of groups, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. The arguments for each subdivision were based on arbitrary differences between groups of organisms. The greater the difference, the higher up in the system was the division. There has always been considerable controversy over the extent of a difference which could justify a separation into each different category, and despite attempts to set up internationally agreed rules there are several different systems in use today and important disagreements between different groups of biologists.
The accepted familiar name of an organism is a binomial one, which ignores the higher classification levels and consisting of only the Genus and the Species. The “Species” division is, however, not the end of the road, as organisms can be further sub-divided into “sub-species” “varieties” and “races” The entire system has been much modified since Linnaeus, and recently several alternatives have been proposed; one by those who would prefer setting up an evolutionary tree (cladism) and another by those who would prefer to use DNA similarities for the classification.
The fact that Linnaeus’ system provided a binomial species name as its final designation encouraged those who wished to believe in creation to argue that this name represented an organism which was fundamentally separate from all other species, and therefore could be considered to be created. The role of the taxonomist was to discover the fundamental design of the creator, not to compile a mere card index of organisms.
The transition from one species to another in the course of evolution is a smooth one, and the point at which a decision is made to claim a different species is purely arbitrary. This is what he says from “The Origin of Species” (1959): “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that does not essentially differ from the term variety… Varieties have the same general characters as species, for they cannot be distinguished from species… In short we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience”. And in a letter to Hooke: “It is really laughable to see what different ideas are prominent in various naturalists minds when they speak of species: in some resemblance is everything, and descent of little weight- in some resemblance seems to go for nothing and creation the reigning idea- in some descent is the key- in some sterility an unfailing idea. With others it is not worth a farthing. It all comes, I believe from trying to define the undefinable”.
Mayr (1982) tries to justify a “Biological Species Concept” where species, alone of the levels of classification in taxonomy, is a rigid separation of organisms. The rigid division between species which is promoted by the “Modern Synthesis” means that biologists are always worrying about the process of “speciation”, the transformation of one species into another, which can be considered by some as analogous to creation. Actually the division is a purely arbitrary one, decided by the opinion of one or more taxonomists.
There is also the erroneous idea that it is possible to “count” species. Since the number of species is entirely dependent on the rules of separation, the number can be increased or decreased simply by modifying the rules. There cannot be any definite number, either locally, or globally.
Mayr provides his definition (1942/1982):“Species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups”.
This is in complete disagreement with Darwin (1959), who says:“It can be shown that neither sterility nor fertility affords any clear distinction between species and varieties”.
Haldane (1932), although associated with the Modern Synthesis, supported Darwin: “It is unfortunately impossible to give a satisfactory definition of the term “species” as used in zoology and botany”.
Mayr (1982) can go on to promote his definition to a status of extreme importance: “Because the species is one of, if not the most significant unit of evolution, of systematics, of ecology, of ethology, the species is as important a unit of biology as a “cell” is a precisely definable unit.”
Yet a “species” is not a “precisely definable unit” whereas a “cell” certainly is.
Mayr tries hard to reconcile the many anomalies in his species concept. They are legion. To start with, more than 90 percent of all species are extinct, and reproductive isolation is usually impossible to establish, particularly over millions of years. Then there are many organisms that do not reproduce sexually, where the definition cannot apply. Others can be made to reproduce by human intervention, but not otherwise. It will be interesting to know what “species” might result from genetic engineering.
5. DARWIN ON RELIGION
Darwin himself was a scrupulously honest thinker, who realised that his theory was incompatible with a belief in God. The long delay in publication of “The Origin” is largely explained by the fact that his wife was a devout Christian. Among Darwin’s personal papers found after his death were two treasured letters from his wife, one before they were married, expressing dismay at Darwin’s doubts about religion. On one letter is a note by Darwin saying that he had frequently wept at reading this letter (Browne 2000).
Darwin played down his religious views in most of his writings, but in his “Autobiography” (1958) written for his children late in his life he provided a whole section on the subject. His family edited this document for publication after his death and heavily censored it. The full version was not published until 1958, edited by his grand-daughter, Nora Barlow. In it he says this about religion: “But I found it more and more difficult… to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete… I have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct”. Later he says “I for one must be content to be an Agnostic”.
The pamphlet “The Religious Views of Charles Darwin” by Edward Aveling, published in 1883 casts light on this opinion. Aveling was the “partner” of Elinor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter. He translated and promoted Marx’s works, and he was a notorious scallywag who drove Elinor to suicide and was the model for “Dubedat” in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma”. He had a long interview with Darwin in 1881 which formed the basis for his article.
Aveling considered that the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” are equivalent, as they both imply a disbelief in God. An “atheist” is an aggressive unbeliever while an “agnostic” is a respectable unbeliever. There are several other current euphemisms and lesser forms for “atheist”, such as “humanist”, “freethinker”, “secularist”, or “unitarian”, but they all amount to the absence of a belief in God., with varying degrees of certainty or aggressiveness.
6. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
In his “Principles of Biology” (1864-67) Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a summary of the mechanism of evolution, as stated by Darwin, as an addition to his phrases “struggle for existence” and “natural selection”. Darwin did not use the phrase in his “Origin of Species (1859), but he endorsed it in his “Descent of Man” page 135 (1871) as equivalent to “natural selection”.
Darwin was influenced by the “Essay on Population” by Thomas R Malthus (1826) who argued that if the population exceeded the food supply some would not survive. Since most organisms produce more offspring than can survive, and these possess a variability,Darwin saw this as a mechanism of evolution, and the emergence of new species. Survivors in each generation would be those best capable of coping with the current circumstances, and as circumstances change, each set of survivors would change, first subtly, but eventually markedly. Darwin wrote of the “struggle for existence” but did not elaborate on how this struggle took place, and whether it was violent.
“Survivors” of the “struggle for existence” may not always be able to cope with their changed circumstances. Given more than 90 percent of all known species are extinct, they must have eventually encountered circumstances for which, however they tried, they could no longer adapt.
7. NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL SELECTION
Darwin was influenced by the contemporary obsession with “Nature” which, like “The Environment”, was supposed to be different from human activity. Actually, no such distinction can be made. All organisms interact in an unpredictable manner. There is no outer world free from human influence any more than there can be one free from plants, bacteria or birds. Evolution takes place by selection, however it occurs. There is no distinction in its ultimate effect between aphids bred by ants, dogs bred by humans or wasps evolved to fertilize fig trees. Flowers fertilized by bees cannot be distinguished from those fertilized by human activity. The distinction between natural selection and artificial selection should be dropped.
It is difficult to understand how the “survivors” of a “struggle for existence” can be regarded as “selected” by a disembodied entity such as “nature”. Darwin was, perhaps, making a contrast with those who believed that any “selection” would have to be by yet another disembodied entity, God. He also made a contrast with breeding of animals and plants by humans which was “artificial selection”. By making this distinction he was separating humans off from the rest. Anything humans did, however inadvertent, had to be separated from anything that other creatures did, however deliberate. For example, birds deliberately fail to feed weaker chicks when food is scarce. Is this “natural” or “artificial”?
The term “natural selection” has become so embedded in biological thinking that it seems impossible to say that it is nonsense. No entity, whether “Nature”, “God” or Man, decides which are the survivors of multiple offspring. It is decided by a whole range of circumstances, including the climate, humans and other creatures.
8. THE AGE OF THE EARTH
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, showed that the supposed age of the earth (currently estimated as 4.5 billion years) is incompatible with the rate of heat loss from the earth and heat gain from the sun. Darwin worried greatly about Thomson’s calculations, but Thomson made the following proviso to his prediction regarding his calculation of the Sun’s cooling: “Unless sources now unknown to us are prepared in the great storehouse of creation”, and he could just as well apply this proviso to his earth calculations as we now have a source of heat, radioactivity, to bolster the heat of the earth, that was unknown to Kelvin.
9. GENETICS AND DNA
The discoveries of Mendel, delivered originally by public lecture in 1865 and published in an obscure Journal in 1866 were unknown to Darwin, and did not come to public attention until de Vries and von Tschermak confirmed Mendel’s results in 1900.
These studies helped to solve one of Darwin’s major problems which he had unsuccessfully tackled: Mendel established the units of heredity as “genes” which could come from either parent and could account for the similarity and diversity in progeny. This eluded Darwin, particularly when “mutation” could account for a fundamental genetic change. The more recent discovery of the mechanism of heredity involving DNA has greatly clarified the process of evolution, and we now know that “mutation” takes place frequently.
Reproductive survival is often enhanced if the organisms is part of a social group. “Sociobiology” is the study of the social organisation of biological entities. The “Father of Sociobiology” as pointed out by D. C. Dennett (1985), is Thomas Hobbes, who in his “Leviathan” (1651) drew an analogy between the social organisation of the human body, and that of human society.
The following is a quotation from Hobbes (1651): “For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH OF STATE which is but an Artificial Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Natural; for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the Sovereignty is an Artificial Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body”.
Darwin, (1859), treats “species” as much as a social group as an individual, besides emphasizing its arbitrary character as a mere element of classification.
Spencer (1864) also followed Hobbes and others, when he showed that there is a close analogy between the organisation of human society and that within the human body. The human body is itself a social organisation of specialised cells, most of which originate from a single embryo, where only one group have the specialised task of reproduction. The function of each cell is determined strictly be genetic programming and chemical control. The system is an extreme quasi-fascist dictatorship. Co-operation is achieved without resort to “altruism”. Any inadvertent reversion to “egoism” by any cell could destroy the whole organism by cancer.
Hobbes took the analogy with society as far as to approve a strict monarchy for society. But the analogy does not have to go that far. However, it has to be appreciated that every society requires a control system which may include genetic inheritance combined with chemical control, laws and coercion, a police force, social pressure, and everything that is included in the terms “morality; and culture. “Survival” also demands a military.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) the founder of “Sociology” and inventor of “Positivism” argued that individuals in society were continually faced with a choice between “selfishness” and “altruism”. Both of these terms are misleading as they assume that individuals in society have a free choice between these alternatives.
If we consider “selfishness”; for every living thing, self-preservation is the most important necessity, without which reproduction would cease. For most organisms it is the most powerful of all inherited instincts. However, for the operation of any society this selfish instinct has to be modified or controlled if the society is to survive. In the human body this control is complete, overriding all tendencies towards selfish behaviour. An individual brain cell or skin cell is not able to choose an alternative function, except, perhaps, when the control mechanism fails and we have a cancer cell, threatening the whole organism.
In human society there is an array of inherited instincts which modify our selfishness. Motherhood and sexual behaviour require firm co-operative instincts. Elsewhere we may rely on laws, police, parental guidance, the education system and peer pressure. We are not free to indulge our selfishness, but when laws are relaxed we may be free to be selfish. Removal of the Government in Iraq immediately led to looting. Absence of restraint on genocide by Serbia led to its implementation in Bosnia and Kosovo.
“Altruism”, which was adopted by Spencer, also implies a free choice to co-operate. The choice is also not free as it is similarly limited by a combination of instinct and culture.
A recent copy of New Zealand Science Review (Segarstrale 2003) claimed that the “Father of Sociobiology” was Bill Hamilton, on the strength of his theory of “Kin Selection” (1963) a theory endorsed by E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology (1980).
Hamilton and his followers tend to ignore social evolution and assume that the only goal of evolution for an organism is survival of their own genes, as suggested by Dawkins in his “Selfish Gene” (1976). For them, the existence of social organisation at all, is a puzzle, as helping others conflicts with the selfishness of the gene. Social co-operation, described as “altruism”, implies that a biological entity has a free choice whether to co-operate or not. For example, it is surmised that the reason why worker ants should choose to remain in their miserable sterile caste is because they are assisting in the reproduction of genetically similar individuals to themselves, so satisfying the craving of their own, otherwise frustrated, genes.
This theory tends to ignore the greater or lesser measures of compulsion that are present in all social groups, designed to ensure that social structure is preserved. There is only a limited choice, and often a large measure of “altruism” at the level of the individual is compulsory from the laws and customs of society, reinforced by chemical controls.
The ants and the bees, as with the human body, are organised by genetics and chemistry, both as individual assemblies of cells surrounded by an epithelium, and as a society without one. There is only one, or a few, reproductive units, so the other castes have a similar pre-ordained fate to the cells in each ant body. Only the specialist reproductive cells in the queen are involved in evolution. Each caste is forced into its individual role. The free choices take place at a higher level, in such matters as how many of the two castes should be reared, or when a new colony should be formed.
Many people seem horrified at the thought that “fitness” in the evolutionary sense should imply moral rectitude. Morality and ethics form part of many religious and philosophical codes of conduct, but in practice ethics and morality are moulded by the society, or by social groups, and are subject to evolution by natural selection. Religious and ethical beliefs are often thought of as static, but they evolve also. “Winners” automatically justify their position with a moral code or a religious authority. Genghiz Khan, Henry the eighth, Hitler or Saddam Hussein, all believed that what they did was right. Modern declarations of human rights are often different from actual behaviour, and they are in any case, subject to regular modification.
Spencer justified the class structure of Victorian society, implying that it was superior to all that came before, even though it included some injustice. He envisaged only small future improvements. He should have realised from his own “Principles of Sociology” that much more drastic change was possible and even likely.
Spencer lost out in popularity to his contemporary, Karl Marx, who saw social evolution as the history of class struggle, and he appealed to those who wanted a change in the whole system, a “revolution” which would liberate the “working class”. As it turned out the Marxist revolution was often carried out on behalf of socialist intellectuals who ended up exploiting the working class just as much as the capitalists.
Darwin made a major contribution to “sociobiology” by his work on sexual selection In “The Descent of Man” (1874) and the “Expression of Emotions” (1872). Although it has to be recognised that most organisms inherit habitual behaviour, instincts, usually expressed or modified by the surroundings, there has been a reluctance to admit that human instincts even exist. Some of these social instincts can become a burden for subsequent evolution.
Animal societies employ genetics and chemistry to control social structure. “Instincts” are behaviour patterns more or less determined by genes (and previous evolution). Reproductive behaviour is very largely controlled by genetics. Most social creatures have a rigid dictatorial hierarchical structure, honed by the pressures of survival. Those who “choose” not to conform are likely to be killed.
Many aspects of human society are controlled by inherited instincts. A recent BBC programme by (Lord) Bob Winston elaborated on the many human instincts, many of which involve chemical controls called hormones.
Instincts that may have evolved as necessities in earlier periods of development may not always be so valuable at a later stage. In a BBC series on “Genetics”, David Suzuki visited a sheep dog trainer and asked him how he chose his dogs. The trainer pointed out that dogs are wolves. They have an inherited instinct to kill sheep in packs. His job was to select, from the variability always available. Those dogs whose killer instinct was relatively weak, with a capacity to learn that was comparatively strong, would be used for training. Those dogs less capable of training were rejected. Human training is not very different from this.
Skill and enjoyment in killing would have been a useful and eventually inherited trait in early human society. It is still encouraged in war and in sublimated blood sports. While generally controlled by laws and education there are some who can still evade the controls, and help provide the crime statistics. The idea that freedom from government would lead to an ideal society is the basis of the doctrine of anarchism, which played a part in the Russian revolution and the Spanish Civil war. It is recently advocated by Matt Ridley in his “Origins of Virtue” (1996). Unfortunately, it does not seem to work as illustrated by the “Lord of the Flies” (Golding 1955), and at the more practical level amongst the mutineers on Pitcairn Island and the Kibbutz of Israel, as well as the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia, which tool place as soon as government social controls were relaxed. Human societies seem to need controls on their more unsociable instincts.
The most basic instinct of all is selfishness, from the selfish gene upwards. If it were the overriding instinct there would be no social organisation at all, not even as in unicellular organisms. If kin selection is adopted as the major feature of sociobiology, as is advocated by Hamilton and Wilson, it could justify Nazism, racism, and euthanasia.
Instincts almost always require a social situation for their expression, a fusing of “Nature” and “Nurture” which is the subject of a recent book by Matt Ridley (2003). The concept of “nurture” tends to be treated too narrowly, applying mainly to family life, without paying attention to important influences from outer layers of society like poverty, unemployment, war, and political, racial, religious and gender repression.
One of the best examples of the interaction between genetic and social influences is the language instinct, discussed by Noam Chomsky (1975) and made more popular by Steven Pinker (2003). The basic structure of all languages is present in human genes and is inherited by all our children. The ability is enhanced by special expansion of part of the brain below the age of about twelve years. A famous experiment raised a collection of deaf-mute children together and found that they invented their own, original, sophisticated sign language without outside help. However, children deprived of society from birth, never learn to speak.
Another important instinct, so necessary for hunter gatherers, is the worship of authority, both of people and of doctrine. This may be a severe handicap for a modern human society whose survival is increasingly dependent on more widespread exercise of public participation, the encouragement of innovation, and the ability to make use of the talents of the whole society.
Religion is one means of enforcing obedience to authority as well as supplying a basic moral code. In providing support for authority it discourages political change and provides a fossilised moral code, based on out-of-date writings and obsolete ideas. It imposes absurd rituals. For example, the ban on eating pork by Muslim, Jewish and Hindu religions goes back to an ancient conflict between hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. A more recent excuse, that pigs are unclean, is equally spurious. Religions may also perpetuate discrimination against women, minorities, and non-believers and has often been an important contributor to violence and war.
12. THE SELFISH GENE
Richard Dawkins promoted a deviation from Darwin and evolution in his “The Selfish Gene” (1989). It is undoubtedly true that the Darwinian mechanism of evolution is the survival of those offspring most suited to the circumstances of existence, so that it is the genetic composition that determines survival. However, Dawkins confines that process to the individual alone. Effectiveness of social organization plays an important part in the survival of every organism. Aspects of effective social behaviour become incorporated in the genes themselves. These are presentl in all social organisms, are called instincts and were an important part of evolutionary thought well before Darwin. It is obvious that an ineffective society influences the effectiveness of reproduction of all its members. If that particular society becomes extinct, then so do the genes of all of its members. If the society succeeds the numbers of its genes increase.
Dawkins seems unable to grasp the fact the societies evolve in much the same way as individuals. The human body is itself a society of co-operating cells, all deriving from the same genetic composition; So are social insects such as ants and bees. Some societies are composed of genetically different individuals; examples are lichens or the Portuguese Man o’ War.
Dawkins is forced to admit that behaviour can be transmitted that is not always from adaptation. He coins a new name for this transmitted behaviour, a “meme”, but seems to believe that memes are transmitted solely by communication, not by heredity.
In his “God Delusion” (2006), Dawkins makes a very poor effort at trying to explain why people can believe in irrational religions because of his inability to “believe” in social evolution, and his embrace of his own alternative “religion”, which turns out to be “The Selfish Gene” upon which his reputation has been made. Dawkins tries to argue that belief in God is a “meme”.
Dawkins is similarly confused in his discussion of Morality. He admits that morality constantly changes (the “Zeitgeist”) but cannot admit that this is part of social evolution, and is ultimately determined by its success in ensuring survival and prosperity.
Religious people try to argue that morality is fixed, determined by the wording of the appropriate holy book. Actually even this interpretation evolves and different groupings within a society usually have different, and evolving, ideas on how people should behave. Of course, many of these are determined more by education and by the laws and customs of the society, which may be in conflict with instincts that have survived from a different generation. As an example, hunter-gatherers developed an instinct to enjoy killing animals and enemies. This may be less desirable in a more recent society and therefore requires suppression by education and legal means.
13. SOCIAL DARWINISM
“Social Darwinism”, according to the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” is the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. This definition and some critics of the Social Darwinists argue that evolution takes place only at the genetic level, and that it is wrong to claim that societies evolve. This claim is ridiculous. History is a record of the evolution of societies and nations, where the “fittest” survive.
Spencer’s “Principles of Sociology” is perhaps his most successful work as he demonstrates this point very clearly “Social Darwinism” lost much public support from the actions of Nazi Germany which, guided by a spurious doctrine of racial superiority, carried out policies of killing supposedly inferior races, political opponents ant handicapped people. These policies contributed to the downfall of the regime and the experience should not prevent sensible measures to improve human society. For example many societies today discourage the transmission of genetic defects.
“Social Darwinism” is usually blamed on Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who anticipated many of Darwin’s ideas by several years. In his “Social Statics” (1850, quoted in his “Autobiography” Volume 1, page 360) he described: “The ways in which, among animals the destroying agencies at work continually weed out the sickly, the malformed and the least fleet or powerful’ and by this and kindred processes all vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples is prevented. When a Government tries to prevent the misery necessitated by the stress of competition and the consequent ‘struggle for life or death’ it eventually creates far more misery by fostering the incapable: saying of the ‘spurious philanthropists’ that these sigh-wise and groan-foolish people bequeath to posterity a continually increasing curse.”
He goes on to say that: “Inconvenience suffering and death are the penalties attached by nature to ignorance, as well as to incompetence.” And he contends that “the State does mischief when it wards off such penalties”.
Although this discourages charity and would seem to justify killing of the handicapped, or other presumed inferior people, Spencer goes on to say: “In so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for one another it is proper that it should be so mitigated.” He is therefore admitting the fact that the “survival” of societies may require a measure of social cohesion and tolerance for the less “fit” which might outweigh his harsh attack on charity. He does not, however, discuss the origins of “mitigation” or its role in evolution.
Spencer’s sentiments were echoed in Darwin’s “Descent of Man” (1874, page 138): “We civilised men build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws: and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment…Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind… this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly applied leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but except in the case of man himself , hardly anyone is so ignorant to allow his worst animals to breed”.
But, then, as with Spencer, he “mitigates” this harsh opinion by invoking the instinct of sympathy, which cannot be checked “without deterioration of the noblest part of our nature”.
Although evolution undoubtedly favours the “fit” it is presumptuous of both Spencer and Darwin and of other “Social Darwinists” to assume that they know what constitutes “fitness” for societies. Social cohesion and an atmosphere of co-operation may be more important for “survival” than encouragement of poverty or violence. Capital punishment for criminals, ownership of guns, or killing of wild animals for “sport” might have overall harmful effects on society. It is not necessarily true that laissez-faire capitalism or political conservatism lead to better “fitness” in the struggle for existence, as some “Social Darwinists” have tried to argue.
It is difficult to criticise evolution. It happens; and efforts to stop it are usually misguided. Efforts to help it along may also be misguided.
Those who emphasise the importance of individual genetic fitness often tend to forget that the survival and prosperity of the society as a whole are as important as the fitness of an individual. Many desirable human characteristics such as intelligence, genius, or athletic skill, cannot exist without social input, so an exclusive emphasis on individual heredity is often unsuccessful.
Genetic fitness obviously plays an important part in the fitness of society, and those individuals possessing identified genetic defects, at least, should be discouraged from producing offspring. Non-reproducing groups (“freeloaders”) are not necessarily a burden on society or incapable of participating in evolution, as they may make important contributions to the fitness and survivability of the society itself.
Darwin’s first cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911) thought that evolution should be encouraged by affirmative action. He founded “Eugenics”, an offshoot of Social Darwinism which proposed a practical programme to improve the human race by encouraging reproduction from supposedly “fit” individuals. The idea attracted many prominent Victorians, and recently such people as Cyril Burt and Julian Huxley. It has usually been condemned because its desire to improve humans is sometimes based on highly dubious ideas of what constitutes “fitness”.
In 1986 Singapore became the first democratic country to adopt an openly eugenic policy by guaranteeing pay increases to female university graduates when they gave birth to a child, while offering grants towards house purchases for non-graduate married women on condition that they are sterilised after the first or second child.
Steven Pinker in “The Blank Slate” (2003) tells the story of US Nobel Prize-winner, George Wald, who was rung up by a high profile sperm bank which wanted him to supply his sperm. He told them that his sons were both guitar players, and the man they really wanted was his father, who was a poor Polish immigrant tailor. The point is, that effectiveness of an individual in society, and effectiveness of the society as a whole, is not determined exclusively by the genetic properties of individuals but by a complex system which certainly includes individual genetics, but also the effectiveness of the entire social system.
15. MULTI-LEVEL EVOLUTION
Evolution operates by selecting those parts of each generation which have been most successful in surviving. It takes place not just at the individual level, but at every level. It selects the fittest genes, cells, organisms, groups, societies, and nations, all simultaneously. Reproduction mechanisms are often different for each group. “Democracy” is adopted by others if it is successful in survival and prosperity, but it is not a “reproductor” in Dawkins’ term. All the same, the evolutionary success of democracy will assist the reproductive success of individuals in democratic societies. Similarly the failure of a dictatorship reduces propagation of the individuals within it. Social evolution goes beyond the “memes” and “extended phenotype” of Dawkins (1983) and his followers and even extends to the whole earth, as with James Lovelock’s Gaia (1989). Each level of social organisation evolves in much the same way as an individual organism.
Individual ants and bees are admittedly surrounded by a skin and therefore each is an organism. Each individual originates from a restricted reproductive system and is controlled by chemical signals in a similar way to the individual cells in an isolated organism so the whole society behaves in a similar way to a single organism. Associated organisms such as the Portuguese Man o’ War or the lichen are difficult to classify by the conventional system because apparently different organisms form a very intimate social group.
Evolution takes place by selection of the fittest individual, organism, social grouping, nation, or global population; all simultaneously. With nations it takes the form of a “Clash of Civilisations” (Huntington 1996). Human survival and prosperity is important at the level of the gene and the local society, but it is ultimately dependent on the result of these larger clashes. Since these larger clashes are capable of very great destruction, our future may depend crucially on our ability to develop local and international procedures for resolving conflicts without violence and destruction. It is at this level where “altruism” really needs to be promoted.
16. RELIGIONS AND CULTS
Dawkins (2006) in his “God Delusion” is altogether silent on substitutes for God, such as spiritualism, Stalinist, Communism, Fascism and Environmentalism; with environmentalism the fad currently sweeping the world. These substitute religions may sometimes be more dangerous for survival than beliefs in God.
Some of Darwin’s contemporaries felt the need for irrational worship even after faith in God has been lost from a study of evolution. The co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace became a spiritualist, and scientists such as William Crookes and Oliver Lodge joined him. Political movements, such as communism and fascism, can acquire the irrational fervour and hatred of believers of a religion. Many people today join religious or semi-religious cults from an instinct which harks back to human origins.
Social organization cannot take place unless its members comply with rules which maintain it. With assemblies of individual cells, such as our own bodies these rules are rigid, imposed by our genetics and by chemical controls. In societies composed of individual organisms similar rigid rules enforced by genetics and chemistry also apply. Anthills and beehives are examples. For looser social organization the rules are just as necessary, but they have to be enforced by a variety of mechanisms, genetic, chemical, education, and legal. Many past societies have been rigidly dictatorial, with a strong leader imposing rigid rules. This form of organization becomes necessary for societies under constant threat or engaged in constant struggle and it applies, for example, activities such as warfare and organized crime.
Religions try to claim that morality can be fixed from the teachings of a prophet or from a holy book, and although this tends to inhibit change, evolution still happens from changes in interpretation of the holy writings. A supposedly rigid constitution may also evolve from interpretation. If interpretation is sufficiently inhibited, pressure from the changing world could result in sudden change (revolution) or even the downfall of the society altogether.
Morality is, essentially, what people do at the time. It is usually different from what is officially promoted. It changes day by day, and is different within different communities. Each of us has a private morality based on our personal reaction to what we have been taught, our experiences, and our attitude to the law and to the practices and beliefs of our local community.
18. THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
The Romantic Movement which spread in the early 19th century has helped us to develop our individual personalities but it is in many respects anti-human, as it places more importance on feelings and aesthetics than on facts and evidence. It has been partly responsible for the horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It tends to promote ideas of racial superiority and euthanasia.
The Romantics developed the concept of Nature, the outside world without humans, separate from our own lives and actions. It is the basis for our current artificial distinction between the activities of human society and the rather static behaviour of “the environment”.
A persistent Romantic fallacy is that of the Noble Savage: the idea that primitive peoples are somehow free from the stresses and problems of civilised society, and that we can solve our problems by going “back to nature”, and embracing a primitive lifestyle.
This myth is so strong that it has engulfed the supposedly scientific discipline of anthropology where famous anthropologists like Margaret Mead could be hoaxed by mischievous Samoans (Francis 1996), and where the honest investigations of Napoleon Chagnon (1983) can be attacked. Chagnon found that primitive people behave in a very similar way to modern humans. They fight clan wars, mainly over women, they beat their wives, are addicted to tobacco, and they believe in witch doctors and primitive gods.
The arrogant Romantic fantasy that humans are the highest form of evolution who should treat the rest of the world as a form of recreation, can be contrasted with the arrogant Environmentalist fantasy that humans inevitably destroy their environment and are doomed to extinction.
19. THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
The Romantic Movement was based on a hatred of modern human society, a preference for the primitive, and adulation for those aspects of life which owed least to human activity, to Nature.
The Environmental Movement has taken these beliefs a step backwards by deifying Nature and calling it The Environment. The Environment has the fully fledged characteristics of a God. It is the subject of constant worship and it demands continuous and increasing sacrifices. It is an official state religion now in many countries, each of which supplies a Ministry devoted to its demands. It has captured the United Nations organisation which now imposes appropriate sacrifices by International Law.
The Environment has a typical characteristic of a God, as it cannot be clearly defined or located. This enables disciples of the movement to justify the most outrageous demands by claiming that it is required by their God, the Environment.
The fundamental belief of environmentalism is that humans are destroying the earth, or rather “the planet.” In order to justify this belief they have succeeded in capturing most of the news media who can be made to dredge the world press for examples of disasters and events which can be blamed on human activity and thus justify sacrifices to their God.
Scientists must be persuaded or paid to select, distort of fabricate scientific investigations to justify environmentalist campaigns against chemical pesticides, mineral resources, refrigerants, genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the most successful of all, combustion of fossil fuels. These campaigns have already achieved considerable economic damage as well as the loss of many lives.
Instead of an interpenetrating mixture of conflict and co-operation between all living organisms; the original “ecology” as envisaged by Ernst Haeckel, we now have to divide the organic world into two separate categories, those involving humans and “The Environment”, each of which has to be constrained to be static. Evolution is now seen as a destructive weapon in the hands of the new devil, humankind. Humans do nothing but harm to “The Environment” and we must be prevented from exercising this power.
20. IN CONCLUSION: THE SELFISH COMMUNITY
Environmentalism is a doctrine which inhibits human development rather than enhances it. It must be replaced by a doctrine that promotes human prosperity and development. It seems probable that the collapse of the scientifically unsound global warming theory will lead to a decline in the influence of Environmentalism, so what should replace it?
Darwinism implies that humans are responsible only for their own development and activity, and other organisms are responsible for theirs. Dawkins’s doctrine of the selfish gene is too restrictive as it fails to recognize the importance of social evolution and its overriding influence on the likely reproduction of individual genes present in the community. So, perhaps we can replace it with the “Selfish Community”.
“Community” applies to many different levels. Our own bodies are a community of individual cells which operate selfishly on behalf of each community as well as reproducing from genetic composition. Above that level we have the insight of Hobbes where the community itself is selfish to sustain itself and to satisfy the needs of its individuals. There are higher levels of selfish concern with the nation, and with the community of nations.
What about “The Environment” you may ask? Is a selfish community concerned with clean air and water, safe food, pleasant surroundings, recreation? Of course it is, but the concern is for the benefit of humans, not for the benefit of every other creature except humans which is the creed of Environmentalism.
A balanced view can be found from the theory of evolution. The continued survival of the human race is by no means certain, neither is its doom inevitable. Humans have advantages for survival, but they are not necessarily guarantees of survival.
Many times in the earth’s history there has been a tendency for competing creatures to grow larger, for protection, but the disadvantages in lack of flexibility, and an increasing demand for territory and food, tend to their eventual extinction and replacement by smaller creatures. The dinosaurs were successful for 140 million years, but extinction was eventually inevitable. Large animals in our world were in decline before the emergence of humans. Elephants and blue whales are extremely vulnerable to slight changes in climate and food supply. Humans are, perhaps, more resilient, but they have to be aware of the definite advantages of being an insect or a virus.
Humans need to develop controls and eventually instincts which promote co-operation on an international scale, instead of just the tribal and national scale. This is where “altruism” comes into its own. The slaughter and damage of the two World Wars was eventually repaired, but a nuclear war might not be so easy to repair. International peace organisations have not proved very effective. The League of Nations, set up after World War 1, collapsed because nations would not support it, and the United Nations, set up after World War 2 is today under threat from those nations which insist on waging war without its sanction. It is vital for the survival of the human race that effective international control of war and violence is pursued with vigour. The replacement of war with peace and an effective mechanism for its continuance is an essential for our survival, and we must avoid being distracted from this goal by arrogance or pessimism. “Democracy” and “Freedom” are highly desirable objectives, but they should be promoted within all nations as well as internationally.
Evolution takes place at many levels; DNA itself, the cell, the organism, the social unit, the society, the nation, the international community, the entire world, and all of these different levels ultimately influence reproduction by favouring individual genes against others. The concept of altruism is often out of place in the earlier levels, where techniques of compulsion prevail, but it becomes more necessary at the upper levels. Social influences on evolution go far beyond the “nurture” supplied by a family or small social unit.
Human evolution and survival are not guaranteed unless we promote altruism amongst humans at every level, particularly on the local and the international scale.
Vincent Gray lives in Wellington New Zealand. He has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University and is a founder of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition.
The image of Charles Darwin is from Wikimedia
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