Tag Archives: Darwin

Evolutionary Just-So Story, Again!

So yet again we have a story of evolution that seems to say that evolution works like God, i.e., that it indulges in design. I am referring to an article recently published in the New York Times reporting on research into why the squid lost its shell. The phrasing of the article will, in the minds of the naive, create the impression that the squid lost its shell in order to move faster to escape its predators (shells being rather heavy and cumbersome). “The evolutionary pressures favored being nimble over being armored, and cephalopods started to lose their shells.” This seems to be an innocent enough statement, but its construction implies that the pressure to become nimble preceded and caused the loss of the shells.

That is design. It may not be God design, though one could easily make that leap, but it is design nonetheless.

Oh, if only they would read Lucretius!

Here’s what really happened: Originally, “squids” we shelled creatures; generation after generation were shelled. Occasionally, a genetic mutation or defect (call it what you will) resulted in progeny lacking shells. No doubt, most of these shell-less individuals quickly died or were eaten and left no progeny; but at some point, some of them survived (perhaps thanks to another mutation that enabled them to move more quickly than their shelled relatives) and reproduced, eventually giving rise to a new class of creatures, squids and octopuses, etc. In other words, the change occurred first, without intention or purpose, and the benefit followed. The change did not occur in order to confer the benefit. It just happened.

Of course, such changes often occur gradually, say by shrinking the shell over many generations, in what some have called “path dependency” (i.e., evolution follows an already established path and does not go backwards, in other words it doesn’t restore the shell to creatures who have lost it). But the principle remains the same: first the change, and then, if it happens to have an advantage, it sticks.

As Lucretius said, humans did not develop opposable thumbs in order to grasp tools; we can grasp tools because we have opposable thumbs.

Death of a Bug

The other day I squashed a bug. It was quite small, rather rounded in shape, and making its way slowly across the surface of my nightstand. I am usually not insecticidal, but having a bug of any conformation so proximate to my bed brings out my squeamishness. And recently my condo association had sent out a newsletter with an article about bedbugs. This was probably not a bedbug, but nonetheless, it had to die.

I regretted my brutality immediately. The poor thing had as much right to its life as I have to mine. In the great scheme of things, the life of a human is of really of no more importance than the life of any other creature. We got here through the same process of evolution as they did, and since I do not subscribe to any form of teleology, I do not consider Homo sapiens to be any more perfect nor any more the apex and fulfillment of some great cosmic plan than that poor bug and his cohorts. It is the attitude that we do count for more that has led to so much environmental destruction and so much cruelty, not only to other animals but also to other people. For as eugenics exposed, the idea that humans are the perfection of evolution leads all to easily to the notion that my humans, the people of my group, are more fully perfect than yours. Hence, genocide.

It is therefore not surprising that good souls who reject cruelty to other people also reject cruelty to animals; and also not surprising what psychologists tells us of serial killers, that they tortured and killed animals in their childhoods. Many children, especially boys, do mistreat animals, at least of the insect kind (remember watching ants burst into flame under the magnifying glass?), but most children, even boys, soon outgrow that tendency. Serial killers apparently do not, which suggests that there is an element of immaturity, even of that primitivism that can be both so charming and occasionally so alarming in children, in the serial killer’s makeup. Something having to do with the child’s sense of himself or herself as the center of the world, the world being that which was designed for one’s gratification.

There are other ways in which this juvenile belief that the world owes us gratification can be manifest. The despoiling of the natural world for profit, so that we may live in an abundance that exceeds what the world actually can supply to us, fits this bill. We take not only what is our natural due but also that which is the natural due of all the other creatures with which evolution has populated this planet, which is why so many are being driven into extinction (why so many already have been), and why, when we know perfectly well that our “lifestyles” are warming the planet, we continue to pillage as if there were no tomorrow—until one day perhaps there literally will not be.

Perhaps I am making too much of the squashing of a mere bug. I mentioned that we are the product of the same process of evolution that led to all other creatures, and that process is anything but benign. The process of life is the process of death. Virtually everything that lives does so by killing and eating some other living thing. Even a vegan lives by killing carrots and broccoli and mushrooms (do carrots scream in pain and terror when we yank them from the ground?) There is no escape from this round of death and life. The vegan may not eat any animal product, but his or her efforts make little difference in the great scheme of things—there are predators enough to override the effects of the vegetarian. That is how evolution works its mighty wonders.

Which is why I am not persuaded by those good souls who imagine that we can end suffering and wars and crime and all the other means and ways that we wreak havoc on each other and the world. I am not hopeful that we who live in the so-called developed world will rein in our greed for money and things for the sake of the planet or even for the sake of the starving and terrorized millions of so much of the rest of the world, or even for those who live within our own borders. Like all other creatures, we kill to live. Unlike other creatures, we can overkill. All too often we do, both literally and metaphorically.

That little bug on my nightstand was most likely harmless, at least to me, and maybe it even had some important function in the ecology of my apartment. Or maybe it was just quietly living its own life. I killed it anyway.

See also my “Requiem for a Tree” at this site.

What Is a Species?

That science is a human enterprise and not some pure and perfect object independent of culture is highlighted by a recent investigation into the DNA of American wolves—the gray wolf, the Eastern wolf, and the red wolf. An article in the New York Times (7/27/16) reports that analysis of the DNA of these three wolf species reveals that in fact “there is only one species [of wolf] on the continent: the gray wolf.” The other two are hybrids of coyotes and wolves—Eastern wolves are 50/50, red wolves are 75 percent coyote and 25 percent wolf. The investigators also concluded that the wolf and coyote species shared a common ancestor only 50,000 years ago, which is very recent in evolutionary terms.

Now, anyone comfortable with the fact that nature goes its own way without regard to the human need for tidy intellectual categories is not likely to be much disturbed by these findings. But such people are relatively rare, especially in academic and political circles, so it happens that certain people do find it disturbing that Eastern and red wolves are hybrids. That is, they are not “pure” and therefore may not be entitled to protection from, say, extermination—they are not “pure” and therefore not entitled to the protection of such laws as the Endangered Species Act. In a sense, they are not “natural” because—well, because they violate the notion of the purity of species, they don’t fit neatly into our conceptual categories. As one scientist was quoted (in dissension from the worry warts), “’We put things in categories, but it doesn’t work that way in nature.’”

Indeed it doesn’t. In fact, it couldn’t. The notion of “species” as neatly distinct forms of life, immune to crossings of the so-called “species barrier,” among other common myths of the “logic” of evolution, would cause evolution to grind to a halt. Evolution requires messiness, contingency, happenstance, the unexpected, for it to work. For example, genetic mutations do not magically appear in consequential response to environmental pressures, just in time to save a species from extinction. Instead, a mutation lies quietly in the background, sometimes for many generations, to emerge as the crucial factor of salvation (for those individuals who carry it, and their descendants) when and if a factor in the environment calls it forth.

I am reminded of a startling discovery during the height of the AIDS epidemic in America, that some individuals, despite a particularly risky lifestyle, were immune to the disease. Turns out, they carried a mutation that had first manifested itself centuries earlier, during an epidemic of an entirely different disease, bubonic plague. One could describe how this mutation protects against both diseases, but one could not explain why—why this gene mutation occurred in the first place, why it just happened to confer immunity or resistance to these two quite different diseases (one caused by a bacterium, the other by a retrovirus), and why it resided silently in the genomes of its fortunate carriers for so many generations before it could prove its usefulness.

A fundamental goal of all human endeavors is to reduce the entangled complexities of life, including our own, to a simple set of principles that fit the limitations of the computational power of our little brains, a mere three pounds of meat, of which only a relatively small portion engages in the tasks of reasoning. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to wrap our heads around the genuine complexity of the earth we inhabit, let alone of the cosmos. Being the limited creatures that we are, we need our categories—but let’s not worship them. Let’s not condemn the Eastern wolf and the red wolf to extermination just because they mess up our laws.

In Denial: Evolution and Climate Change

It would be hard not to notice that there is a link between denial of evolution and denial of climate change. Republican politicians hoping to get their party’s presidential nomination are almost unanimous in their denial of both. Yes, they tend to be mealy-mouthed about it when directly queried, but their policies and legislative voting records show clearly where they stand. It is also true that in general, conservatives tend to be skeptical of both, but particularly of climate change. They appear to be heavily immunized against the facts in both cases. They are what we can call explicit deniers.

Then there are the implicit deniers: those who explicitly accept both evolution and climate change, and further that human activities are a primary cause of the latter. They generally tend to be within a range that spreads from moderate conservatives through centrist to liberals and leftists. A significant number of them are Democrats, though there are Republicans within their ranks. But the majority of them act as if neither evolution nor (human caused) global warming were true; that’s what makes them implicit deniers.

Let’s begin with the implicit deniers of climate change. These are the people who religiously recycle their plastic water bottles, who shop at Whole Foods, who adopt advanced technologies to regulate their air conditioners, and seriously consider miles-per-gallon when they purchase a new car. Generally, they lead what can be called a conscientious middle-class lifestyle. Meaning that despite their convictions, they buy a lot of stuff. They drive a lot of miles, fly to a lot of distant places, charge a lot of cell phones and iPads, watch a lot of movies and stylish Netflix series at home, etc. They believe that a life of abundance, in the American style, can be maintained in the face of impending disaster. Their consumer lifestyle is so deeply embedded that even non-profit organizations dedicated to saving the environment and threatened species have to entice their donations by offerings of tee shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, and other “free gifts.” By their lifestyles you shall know them—as implicit climate change deniers.

Implicit deniers of evolution may be more interesting. For despite a central fact of evolution, that violence is at the heart of the struggle for existence, that eat and be eaten is the millions-of-years old means by which natural selection occurs, they nonetheless profess to be baffled by human violence, both to other creatures and to fellow humans. For some reason, they believe that violence is unnatural and that great violence is inhuman, despite the obvious fact that it is humans who act violently. Which is rather like accusing lions of being inlion, or sharks of unsharklike behavior. True, lions and sharks are “innocent,” in that they are acting according to instincts and are incapable of being aware of the immorality of their actions, and true, apparently only humans can have such awareness. But that does not mean that human violence is monstrous, inhuman, not normal, or the result wholly of culture or some other external cause. Violence is as instinctive to humans as it is to any other animal. It is, as Paul Bloom once wrote, an adaptation, not an aberration.

The animality of human beings is something that the middle-class urban and suburban lifestyle can obscure. The killing that makes that lifestyle possible is conducted at an unseen, unsmelled distance. We can eat our hamburgers, our veal, our Thanksgiving ham and turkey without having to think about the animals they were or the way they were killed and butchered before their various body parts appeared neatly wrapped in plastic in our air-conditioned supermarkets. We are unfamiliar with the smell of blood and manure; we can flush away our own manure without having to give its disposal much thought. Likewise, for us the killing of other human beings occurs at a distance, in other lands by professionals. Our own lives are insullated from violence and consequently we consider it aberrational rather than essential.

But consider the testimony of someone who has felt violence in all its instinctive glory. Tim Zaal, a former skinhead who now speaks on tolerance at the Museum of Violence in Los Angeles, recalls that extreme violence was a kind of high, an exhilaration of adrenaline, a supreme, energizing pleasure; it made him feel “elated.” The more violent he was, the greater the high (though like all highs, it was short lived). Rather than turning away from extreme violence, soldiers often revel in it—war, it has been said, is the supreme experience of sublimity and comradeship—which perhaps at least partially explains the difficulty battle-seasoned soldiers have in returning to the routines of civilian life. (One of the destabilizing factors in German society was the large number of demobilized WWI soldiers who so missed the camaraderie and heightened emotions of war that they recreated war on the streets of Germany. They were in many cases the first to support Hitler, himself a veteran who wrote lovingly about his war experience.)

We have virtually no control over the level of all the various hormones produced by our bodies nor over their effects on our brains and behavior. They evolved not in response to culture or education, but to the life-or-death circumstances of our ancestors’ lives—and not so distant ancestors at that. Human progress in moral thought has been in lockstep with the worst explosions of atavistic violence in human history. There is no reason to think that we can eliminate the instincts for violence in our own short lifetimes.

There is also little reason to believe that human beings will see the truth of climate change and collectively do something about it before it is too late. To do something, really to do, would require a level of self-denial that humans have not shown themselves to be capable of. Prophets of all kinds have railed against our materialism for generations, and generations of listeners have nodded their heads in agreement, yet we continue as we always have, consuming the earth faster than ever before. Just as one example, according to the OECD, energy consumption worldwide doubled between 1973 and 2012; so too have carbon dioxide emissions. The first Earth Day occurred April 22, 1970. Rather than reduce our lifestyles to a sustainable level, rather than distribute consumption in an equitable manner, we have instead expanded our consumption. We say that we want to save the planet, but the politicians we reward are those who promise to expand the economy, to maintain growth in GDP. We will not make the needed sacrifices even as the developing world labors to mimic our American consumption habits. It is instinctive to want. To want is to survive. To survive is to engage in violence. It is a paradox that our instinct for self-preservation is the very thing that will block our willingness to do anything about climate change, just as our instinctive violence will short circuit our hopes for world peace.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, to deny evolution, not just the fact that it occurred (which only the explicit deniers deny) but the heart of the mechanisms by which it occurred, i.e., the theory that explains it, is to preserve the illusion that human beings are special, the exception to the rules that constrain all other living creatures. Dinosaurs, passenger pigeons, and dodo birds can go extinct, but humans cannot. They were subject to the inexorable laws of evolution, but we implicit deniers don’t really believe that we are.

As long as we continue to believe that, we are doomed.

How We Think About Nature

It is so commonplace to think of nature as that which is free of human presence or interference that few people ever pause to consider how unnatural such a concept is. If human beings and their activities are not natural and do not occur in nature, where do they take place? If the answer is “in cities,” then we can further ask, “Where do cities exist?” Also, what are cities made of. Etc.

But in truth, human beings are as natural as grizzly bears and dandelions. We are animals; we have bodies which are composed of the same stuff as the bodies of all other mammals, of all other vertebrates as well, and at the microscopic level, our bodies’ cells are very like any other living cells. We reproduce as other animals do, we have DNA just as they do, and our brains, while noticeably more complex and capable that those of other animals, are otherwise pretty much the same as theirs. Like other animals, we must eat, breathe, and drink; we seek and/or build shelters, like beavers we divert water courses to our own benefit, and like many if not most creatures we create niches that are conducive to our well being.

It may also be said that we do not do anything that other animals don’t do, although we may do those things on a far greater scale. For example, we occasionally have carried companion organisms, whether deliberately as domesticated or useful, or inadvertently as parasites, to environments where they have not been present before and where they prosper in the absence of their traditional enemies: pigs, rats, and cats on islands, buffel grass in the American Southwest and Mexico, roses in South Africa, rabbits in Australia, foxes in New Zealand—there is a very long list. Those of us who are concerned about such things (apparently, not everyone is) call these creatures “invasive species” and would like to eliminate them from their colonial possessions. I agree: it is awful that Guam no longer has any native birds because of the introduction of the brown tree snake, and terrible that rabbits and mice wreak such destruction in Australia—an object lesson in how tragic it can be for a species to be without its predators, even for that species itself.

On the other hand, few of us would consider wheat an “invasive” species, yet with our help it has invaded every habitable continent and has taken over much of the American landscape from the native grasses; tomatoes, potatoes, and maize have spread from the Americas to the rest of the world, taking over vast tracts of land. But because we consider these species to be our allies, we do not call them invasive.

While island ecosystems can be disrupted by the introduction of new species, it is worth remembering that island ecosystems would not exist in the first place if islands were not invaded by organisms that had not previously existed there. When a new island forms, for example from a volcanic eruption from the ocean’s depths, there is no life on it, yet a few hundred or thousand years later it will be as verdant as the islands of Hawaii: green with flowering trees and shrubs, busy with the doings of birds and insects—all of which are, in a sense, invasive, their ancestors blown there by storms and winds or carried there on rafts of driftwood and debris. Organisms, even nonmobile ones like plants, do not stay in place—they wander, they spread, they invade, they take over, they flee, the die out, creating new species and new wonders in the process—a very long process, generally speaking. I’m sure that birds blown off course and landing on a less than ideal island in the storm may have had the seeds of some mainland plant in their digestive system, which, regardless of whether or not the bird survived, managed to sprout and struggle and survive and propagate, just as the seeds of some exotic plant have ridden on a human vessel and found themselves an hospitable new home. Kudzu, for example (intended), or Russian thistle (unintended).

What, then, is the difference between a seed carried in the gut of a bird and a seed carried in the pocket of a farmer, or an animal floating in on a raft of driftwood and seaweed and an animal floating in on the deck of a Polynesian canoe? They both accomplish the same thing, dispersing organisms to new ecosystems and keeping the evolutionary process churning. And the process of evolution over the billions of years to date has been marked by as much extinction as innovation. Human beings, themselves products of the same processes, are not engaged in an unprecedented activity—though we do seem, especially in the last 500 years or so (at least since 1492), to have accelerated the process to, comparatively, lightning speed. But aside from that, we are not actually doing something unusual, or even unnatural, in the annals of evolutionary time.

The difference is in ourselves, and is, broadly speaking, a moral difference. We are as capable of regret as we are of hope, of looking backward as forward; and while we often indulge in planning for the future and work towards improving our lot in life, we as often look to the past and itemize our mistakes as much as our triumphs. We can regret the passing of the dodo or the passenger pigeon, although none of us living has ever seen either; we can regret in foresight the impending extinction of the monarch butterfly or the African elephant—some of us can. Perhaps the moral sense arises from this ability to anticipate and retrospect, rather than (as some evolutionary psychologists are unduly prone to believe) from a moral molecule or altruistic gene. It is unlikely that our concern for the fate of other creatures is, or is entirely, out of concern for our own survival; we may have to adjust to a changing climate and a less “natural” world, but adjustment is not the same as extinction. From a practical point of view, i.e., from the view of human material needs, we probably have less to fear than the prophets lead us to believe—that is, if we learn to live without greed, that parasite that makes us want more than we need.

My concern, at least, is not with human survival, but rather with the survival of the many other creatures who also live on this planet, and insofar as aesthetics is a component of a moral vision, with the survival of the beautiful—I cannot see that human life is worthwhile without the beautiful. In one of his essays, Montaigne opined that voluptuousness is the equivalent of penitence; in religious terms, sin is its own punishment. One can also say that greed is its own punishment, for it destroys its object without gaining satisfaction. Of all the creatures on this earth, only human beings are greedy. Perhaps that is what makes us unnatural.

The Mismeasure of All Things

Some 2500 years ago, Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. By this he meant something like, mankind can know only that which it is capable of knowing, which in effect is a recognition that the human mind does have its limits; but Protagoras’ statement has often been taken to mean that man is the standard by which all other things are to be measured, i.e., that mankind is the standard of comparison for judging the worth of everything else. This meaning may have been colored by the Christian concept of man as the object of divine history, of man as just a little lower than the angels. The Christian concept, in its turn, derives from a common interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over the rest of earthly creation.

However, while both Protagoras’ saying and the Genesis story carry the concept forward through history, neither explains how the idea actually originated. It may have been Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who first recognized that it is ignorance rather than knowledge that makes man the measure of all things: “When men are ignorant of natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.” That is, when primitive men and women surveyed the world and sought explanations of phenomena, they had nothing to go by other than what they knew about themselves, so that, for example, a terrible destructive storm could be explained as the anger of the gods, since when human beings became angry they too engaged in destructive behavior; or when a gentle rain caused plants to grow, the gods were in a good mood, perhaps pleased by some human act of worship, because when humans were in a good mood, they engaged in benevolent acts. After all, the earliest humans could not have had any knowledge of the material causes of storms, droughts, etc., nor of course of animal behavior, which they attributed to motives much like their own. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield summarize Vico’s views, in primitive mythologies people “could measure the world of Nature only by that which they already knew—namely themselves” (The Discovery of Time).

Both Protagoras and Genesis simply give more sophisticated glosses on this primitive impulse. They reflect the increasing body and complexity of knowledge developed by ancient civilizations, particularly those that had developed writing systems, which in turn enabled them to impose order on what had been a plethora of local myths and their variants. Simply by creating relatively coherent pantheons containing gods with discreet attributes, roles, and positions in a divine hierarchy, ancient civilizations were able to organize their intellectual world and provide authoritative explanations. Monotheism carried this further, by providing an even more unified world view, but it also somewhat depersonalized the concept of God, making him more abstract and less personal (e.g., no images or idols, no household god or genie of the local spring, etc.). This was an important achievement in the ongoing development of knowledge, a necessary step in the process that led to the state of knowledge we enjoy today, in large part because it put more emphasis on cerebral, intellectual rather than personal and experiential modes of understanding—in a sense, creating theory to replace myth. Thus we see the Greek philosophers creating the first science and the Jews creating the first inklings of theology and, importantly, teleology (a sense of history with a goal towards which it was moving). Nevertheless, the Judeo-Christian god retained strong anthropomorphic features, especially in the popular imagination and in visual arts, in which, for example, God the Father was usually depicted as a white-haired old man. Perhaps as long as most people were illiterate and dependent on visual media for their abstract knowledge, anthropomorphism was to be expected.

The Western European, Christian intellectual (literate) tradition combined these two strands of ancient thought, the scientific/philosophical with the historic/teleological, setting the stage for a modern world view that sees the world as making coherent sense and as operating according to consistent, universal laws, which then can be exploited by human beings for their own betterment. As scientific knowledge expanded and material explanations could be provided for phenomena that once were viewed as signs of divine intervention, God receded to the back of men’s minds as less necessary to explain the world—at best, perhaps, He became little more than the Prime Mover, the one who got it all started or the one who established the universal laws which continue to operate without His immediate intervention. But if the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment put God into retirement, it did not give up the belief in coherent laws and the quest for universal theories, nor did it give up the teleological view of history.

It is important to note that the teleological view is always a human-centered view; history, whether of cosmos, nature, or society, was still about man; very few thinkers hazarded to speculate that man might be merely one among many creatures and phenomena rather than the point of the whole enterprise. In this sense, at least, the early modern era retained the primitive impulse to both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection did little, indeed perhaps nothing, to change that for most people. It was not difficult to switch from believing that God had created man for dominion over nature and as the center of the historical story of fall and redemption, to believing that evolution is teleological, both in the sense of inevitably leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the crowning outcome of the evolutionary process and in the sense of evolution as a progressive process. And it was easy enough, in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism, to believe that modern industrial culture was the natural continuation of progressive evolution—indeed was its goal.

It took a generation or more for it to dawn on people that Darwinism, along with the geological discoveries regarding the great age of the earth and the astronomers’ and physicists’ discoveries of the even greater age of the universe, implied there is no god at all, not even the reticent god of the Deists. One would think that once this implication struck home, both the teleological and the anthropocentric views would fade away. But, perhaps due to human vanity, neither has done so.

In a supremely ironic twist, both teleology and anthropocentrism have been inverted. Whereas the theological age measured other creatures in human terms, the evolutionary age measures humans in animal terms. We are no longer a little lower than the angels but only a little bit higher than the other animals—or maybe not even that. We are naked apes, talking apes, singing apes. We are like social insects, we are vertebrates, we are aggressive because we are animals seeking to maximize our survival, we are merely transportation for the real biological players, selfish genes. We are not rational or conscious, we do not have free will, we operate by instinct, each of our seemingly advanced traits is hard-wired. Our morality is nothing more than an adaptation. We take a word like altruism, which originally meant a certain kind of human behavior, apply it to ants, where it becomes a description of instinctive eusocial behavior, and then re-apply that meaning back onto humans. Thus making us just like all the other animals. Therefore, we study them in order to understand ourselves. We focus on the similarities (often slim) and ignore the differences (often radical).

This continues the old habit of anthropomorphism in new guise and fails to recognize the independent existence of other creatures—their independent lines of evolution as well as their ontological separateness from us. We unthinkingly repeat that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genes (or is it 98 percent?), as if that meant something—but then, it’s said we share 97 percent of our genes with rats. We neglect to mention that apes and humans diverged from each other some 7 to 8 million years ago and have followed independent lines of evolution ever since. We are not apes after all.

Consider the fruit fly, that ubiquitous laboratory subject which has yielded so much knowledge of how genes work. It is often cited as a model of human genetics and evolution. But consider what Michael Dickinson, a scientist (he calls himself a neuroethologist) at the University of Washington (Seattle), has to say about fruit flies: “I don’t think they’re a simple model of anything. If flies are a great model, they’re a great model for flies.” To me, this is a great insight, for it recognizes that fruit flies (and, frankly, insects in general) are so other than like us that to study them as if they were a model of anything other than themselves, as a model of us, is in a sense not to study them at all. It is rather to look into their compound eyes as if they were mirrors showing our own reflections. It is a form of narcissism, which perhaps contains our own demise.

Our demise because in continuing to look at nature as being about ourselves we continue the gross error of believing we can manipulate nature, other organisms, the entire world, to our own narrow purposes without consequences. It turns other organisms into harbingers of homo sapiens, narrows research to that which will “benefit” mankind, and misses the very strangeness of life in all its diversity and complexity. It continues the age-old world view of human dominion and fails to recognize that our “dominion” is neither a biological necessity nor a feature of the natural world. Dominion is a dangerous form of narcissism which a maturely scientific age should discard.

Marriage vs Mating

Yet Another Just-So Story

What is marriage? Ask an American of strong religious beliefs, and he is likely to say that it is a union between one man and one woman sanctioned by God. Ask more secular individuals, and they are likely to say that it is a civil contract between two individuals, committed to each other by love, but of practical importance in terms of legal and tax benefits, etc. Ask some biologists, and they will say that monogamous marriage is an evolutionary adaptation that increased the survival rate of helpless human infants, guaranteed to the father that the children produced by his wife were indeed his, and/or facilitated the development of human intelligence—or whatever, as long as the explanation can be stated in terms of natural selection. So at least is the impression one receives from a recent article in the New York Times (titled, somewhat misleadingly, since polygamy is discussed, “Monogamy’s Boost to Human Evolution”—but at least the title does neatly summarize the bias).

Ask an historian, a sociologist, or an anthropologist, and any one of them is likely to say that marriage practices vary over time and among cultures, from polygamy to monogamy, and they are also likely to mention that it varies by class. In warrior societies polygamy was common among the warrior elite (including kings and nobility, whose avocation was warfare, and who could have both many wives and concubines) to monogamy among the commoners; polygamy is common in societies in which there is a high mortality rate among young men (war, hunting mishaps, etc.) whereas monogamy is more common among societies in which the balance of adult males to females is more even, as well as in more egalitarian societies. Generally speaking, marriages were contracted for social purposes, to cement alliances, to protect inherited property, or to synchronize labor.

Marrying for love is a rather recent innovation and is characteristic of modern individualistic (and capitalist) countries, although monogamy has long been legitimized by Christianity, in part because of its dread of sexual license. Some people get around the stricture by having separate and unofficial multiple spouses, for example Charles Lindbergh, who had children in long-term relationships with three women other than his wife. Contemporary Americans seem to be practicing serial monogamy (divorce and remarriage) as well as unofficial and often temporary arrangements. In all cases, there has always been a whole lot of cheatin’ goin’ on. Then there is the added element of prostitution, including street walkers and courtesans, for which even the cleverest evolutionary biologist would have a hard time providing an evolutionary explanation. All of which suggests that marriage is different from mating. The latter is strictly biological—up until very recent times, there has been only one way to produce children, the sexual congress of a fertile man with a fertile woman, and this one way is unaffected by social customs. That is, socially sanctioned monogamy does not prevent either partner from producing a child with a person other than his/her spouse; eggs and sperm recognize no such boundaries.
I
t therefore seems both pointless and fruitless to try to concoct explanations for marriage customs and practices from natural selection. At some unknown point in the remote human past, people began creating nonbiological ways of organizing their lives. It’s what our big brains allow us to do. Mating may be in our DNA; marriage, however, is not.

Apart from the waste of time and grant money entailed in the pursuit of these evolutionary Just-So stories, the misguided notion, bordering on an ideology, that everything humans do can be explained solely in biological evolutionary terms, by a module in the brain, by DNA (i.e., instinct), denigrates other modes of knowledge that actually produce better explanations. We can learn more about marriage from historians and anthropologists than we can from biologists.

Paleolithic Fantasies

We live in an age like all previous ages, one in which thinking people assess the state of the world, find it wanting, and consequently seek a better, even perfect, way of life. Such people tend to roughly divide into those who seek their utopias in a vision of the future (today: think digital prophets, genetically modified crops) or a return to a golden past when human beings were in perfect harmony with nature (past: think Eden and the Noble Savage; today: think organic farming, artisanal cheese). Interestingly, one finds both types among both liberals and conservatives, though usually with different emphases (liberals tend to go for the organic, conservatives for traditional morality, while both seem to think that digital technology holds great promise for the future, either through greater community or better security). And advocates of both sides seem to appeal, either implicitly or explicitly, to “human nature” as the ultimate measure of the perfect way of life (using either Darwin or the Bible as the validating text). Thus, amid all the changes of outward circumstance, human nature has remained unchanged through time.

Marlene Zuk, author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (W. W. Norton, 2013), addresses the myth, the just-so story, of a fixed human nature from an evolutionary perspective. An evolutionary biologist currently associated with the University of Minnesota, Zuk has conducted extensive field research, particularly on crickets, and is the author of numerous specialized articles and several popular books on evolutionary biology, behavioral biology, and sexual selection. She is therefore particularly well-qualified to demolish popular myths about human evolution, which she does with clarity and wit in this new book. (Her wit is best illustrated by her statement that “After all, nothing says evolution like a brisk round of the plague.”) Her immediate targets here are evo-myths about diet and health, particularly those that base their tenets on the very false idea that contemporary human beings are Paleolithic creatures uncomfortably and unhealthily stuck in an unnatural modern industrial environment. In other words, the natural man, the Noble Savage, the Eden which we have lost, is to be found in the lifestyles of early Stone Age humans prior to the development of agriculture (the true Original Sin) and settled life, that is prior to about 10,000 years ago. Supposedly, humans of the Paleolithic lived in that much admired perfect harmony with nature, and to restore our health and souls, we need to retrieve that lifestyle and apply it to our urbanized lives today.

Alas, like all utopian dreams, whether of past or future, what Zuk calls paleofantasies are exactly that, fantasies, and in the course of demonstrating just how fantastic they are, she treats her readers to a particularly clear and nonidealogical series of lessons on what evolution really is. And what it is not: it is not purposeful and it is not perfect or ever perfected. Thus, she demolishes the notion of the Noble Savage (by whatever name) when she writes that there is no utopian moment of perfect synchronicity between human beings and their environment. Both organisms and environments constantly change (and both humans and environments certainly did over the 2.6 million years of the Paleolithic period), and to think that today’s human beings are unchanged from those of even a mere 10,000 years ago “misses the real lessons of evolution” and “is specious” (p. 59). And lest we think that evolutionary change moves in some kind of logical direction, she writes that “evolution is more of a drunkard’s walk than a purposeful path” (p. 78).

Evolution never intends anything. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption, or rather the creatures it throws up are, because, rather than aiming at or achieving perfection, it measures success only by reproductive success. “If something works well enough for the moment, at least long enough for its bearer to reproduce, that’s enough for evolution” (p. 8). When you think about it, this is actually an excellent measure, simply because “perfection” is purely a human concept, and no one can agree on just exactly what perfection is. Should we eat only meat, because, as some paleo diet buffs claim, that’s what our Pleistocene ancestors ate? Or should we eat only raw vegetables and fruit, because, as other buffs claim, those were the exclusive menu items of our ideal past? Should we eschew grains, because they are cultivated and therefore not natural? Just exactly what would the “perfect” diet for human beings consist of?

According to Zuk, it depends. As she shows, various populations of human beings have evolved to utilize foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would not have been able to eat. For example, adults of some populations can digest milk, while the majority of human adults cannot (lactose intolerance). Certainly, the latter should avoid dairy, but the former can consume dairy products pretty much as they please. Insofar as the deleterious effects of agriculture are concerned, yes, it appears to be true that initially human health and well-being declined after people began cultivating grain crops and living in permanent settlements, but Zuk points out that it did not take all that long for this disadvantage to disappear; and as we know, agricultural societies grew larger and faster than foraging societies (reproductive success again being the measure of evolutionary success). Certainly some kind of genetic mutations could have occurred that conferred a greater ability to prosper on a diet high in grains; but it is also possible that as people improved their knowledge of cultivation and selectively improved the quality of their crops, and also exploited the advantages of settlements in facilitating trade, they overcame the initial disadvantages of agriculture. But whatever the case, it’s important to keep in mind that the early agricultural peoples themselves apparently thought that the advantages of agriculture outweighed its disadvantages—why else persist in farming?

An analogous point could be made about our modernity: If modern urban life is so bad for us, so unnatural and maladaptive, why did we develop it in the first place? If we are really, as some do argue, merely products of biological evolution like any other animal and, as some do argue, our consciousness is merely an illusion, how did we “evolve” a state of affairs so contrary to our biological being? And why do we cling to it so tenaciously? If it were really so horrible, wouldn’t we be fleeing the city for the more natural environments of the northern woods or western prairies (the United States’ closest approximation of the Edenic savannahs)? The fact that we do not suggests that urban industrialized life may not be so bad for humans after all. (How bad it may be for other organisms is a different question.)

Whatever the sources of some people’s dissatisfaction with modern human life, a mismatch between our Paleolithic natures and modernity is not one of them, and the appeal to evolution is, as already noted, based on a misconception of what evolution is. A major aspect of that misconception is an over-emphasis on natural selection. But as Zuk points out, “it is important to distinguish between two concepts that are sometimes—incorrectly—used interchangeably, evolution and natural selection. At its core, evolution simply means a change in the frequency of a particular gene or genes in a population” (p. 251). The mechanisms by which these gene frequency changes occur include not only natural selection, but genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation. “Genetic drift is the alteration of gene frequencies through chance events” (p. 251). “Gene flow is simply the movement of individuals and their genes from place to place, and activity that can itself alter gene frequencies and drive evolution” (p. 252). “The final way that evolution sans natural selection can occur is via those mutations, changes in genes that are the result of environmental or internal hiccups that are then passed on to offspring” (p. 252). In order to see whether or not evolution is occurring in humans today, one does not look at superficially visible traits but at changes in gene frequency among human populations.

Another all too common misconception is that “evolution is progressing to a goal” (p. 252), what can be called the teleological error. Even well-known and well-informed people believe that evolution is goal directed. For example, Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic magazine and the author of a number of pro-evolution books, writes in The Science of Good and Evil that “Evolutionary biologists are also interested in ultimate causes—the final cause (in an Aristotelian sense) or end purpose (in a teleological sense) of a structure or behavior” (p. 8); he then states that “natural selection is the primary driving force of evolution” (p. 9). In contrast, Zuk reiterates throughout her book that “everything about evolution is unintentional” (p. 223), that “all of evolution’s consequences are unintended, and there never are any maps” designating a foreordained destination—and she is in fact an evolutionary biologist!

A good example of an unintentional evolutionary consequence is resistance to HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. As it happens, some individuals are resistant or immune to the retrovirus, but not because evolution or natural selection intended them to be so. Centuries ago, bubonic plague swept through Europe; millions died of this highly infectious disease, but some few people did not get the disease despite having been exposed to it. No doubt they thought God had spared them for some divine reason. Centuries later, some of their descendents were exposed to HIV and did not become ill. Did God plan that far ahead to spare these few lucky individuals? Did evolution? No. A random mutation happened to render human cells unreadable to the plague bacterium (or, as Zuk suggests is more likely, unreadable to the smallpox virus); consequently, the bacteria could not enter the cells and wreak their havoc. The mutation would have had to have occurred before the introduction of the disease into the lucky few’s environment (there would not have been enough time for it to occur and proliferate after the disease’s introduction), and may have had no prior function, good or bad. As chance would have it, centuries later, the same mutation also made the owner’s cells unreadable to the AIDS virus, thus rendering him or her immune to HIV—quite by chance. Pace Lamarck, perhaps we can say that it is not characteristics that are acquired, but functions. The gene mutation that confers HIV immunity has after many generations finally an acquired function.

Why then do organisms seem so perfectly adapted to their environments? Perhaps they are not so perfectly adapted as they appear to human eyes; more importantly, since environments change, organisms must change as well, but perhaps if they were too perfectly adapted (each and every individual of the species therefore being identical), they would rather quickly become imperfectly adapted to even small changes in their environment. Perhaps, then, perfection is an extinction trap rather than a desirable goal.

Darwinists and Telos

In a recent article in the New York Times, on the frequency of cross-species mating among birds, a Dr. Lovett,a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is quoted as saying the following: “much of the entrancing diversity of the avian world, like colors, plumes, songs and bizarre mating displays, ‘has arisen in part because these differences help female birds avoid accidental matings with a male of a different species.'” Given that Cornell has one of the more important departments of ornithology, and given that Dr. Lovett is a director of its evolutionary biology program, we can take his statement as representing a mainstream and widely accepted view of evolution.

The “because” in his statement is troubling, in that it quietly implies what is seldom aciknowledged–a teleological view of evolution, i.e., that traits arise in order to fulfill a prior need or to suit a purpose. That “because” is situated between and links a trait (avian diversity) to a goal (avoiding accidental matings). This gives intelligence to evolution, makes it goal directed, therefore teleological. Whatever kind of evolutionary theory this represents, it is not Darwinism, for the picture Darwin drew was nonteleological, accidental, contingent, and undirected.

One cannot say that a trait arose because of anything, and one cannot say that diversity arose in order to enable females to distinguish between species. If a distinction arose, and if it happens to function in such a way, that is after the fact, not before. A better way of stating the case would thus be, “as various differences arose among bird species as a result of random mutation, genetic drift, and other factors, and as they became fixed through isolation and natural selection, female birds may have come to recognize males of their own species by their particular distinguishing traits. This would have the effect of preventing cross-species matings.”

Yes, that takes more words; but it is also not misleading. It does not imply a teleology behind the evolutionary process.

What’s the Matter with Matter?

I have been intrigued for some time by the nature vs. nurture controversy and have read numerous books and articles that take one side or the other, or that try to find a compromise between the two.  The debate seems to date back at least to the time of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-originators of the modern theory of evolution, though in different costume the question probably goes back much further, to the origin myths of ancient peoples.  For example, the doctrine of original sin posits that humans are evil because of a terrible sin committed by Adam and Eve which passed on to all their descendents.  That original sin was to defy God’s will concerning man’s correct, designated place in Creation; Adam and Eve aspired to be as the gods.  (In this regard it is interesting to reflect on a stained-glass window in the cathedral of Milan that depicts Adam and Eve before the fall as having hairy bodies, which suggests that they were more akin to animals than to gods or angels.)  In Greek myth, of course, there is the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people, thus enabling civilization.  These and other ancient stories articulate the sense that early people had of being something more than animals yet something less than gods, an acknowledged conflicted condition that generated questions such as what is human nature (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) and do men have any degree of freedom or are we condemned to the irrational and incomprehensible turnings of the wheel of fortune.  In Christian terms, given the fatefulness of original sin, do we have free will, and if we do, to what extent?

Click here to read the article.