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Friday, 27 February 2009

DARWIN’S DELICIOUS IDEA

If the voice of the people is indeed the world of God, then Winston Churchill is the Greatest Briton. Brunel comes in at Number 2 and Princess Diana is third. My choice was Charles Darwin, who was ranked fourth, so it shows how much I know.

This was the result of a BBC poll a few years ago. Across the country parents and teachers rung their hands in anguish for the appalling job they’ve made of children’s education. Churchill is, perhaps, a reasonable choice. The engineer Brunel, although a surprise, at least DID SOMETHING in his life. But not many of us living in the twilight zone of reason would have guessed that Diana was a more significant person than Shakespeare, Newton and Faraday. In my book, she’d come some way behind Lily Allen, Timmy Mallett and that woman from the Shake-&-Vac adverts.

But I digress.

I wanted to take the luxury of this blog to reiterate the case for Charles Darwin, who 200th Anniversary is being celebrated this month.

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An apocryphal story tells of a prominent English Victorian lady, the wife of a bishop, who exclaimed to her husband, after hearing of Darwin’s theory of natural selection:
“Oh my dear, let us hope that what Mr Darwin says is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known!”

What Mr Darwin said is true, at least in general terms. Zoological, archaeological, molecular chemical and anthropological evidence all support his central claims. And this is despite 150 years of the most heated challenges levelled at any scientific theory. But even more remarkable is that the extraordinary advances in biology since Darwin’s insights all seem to corroborate and compliment the central tenets of his theory of evolution by natural selection, including the other major component of modern biological thought, genetics.

I agree with the American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, when he said:
“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful idea. It is a dangerous idea.”


However, despite its near universal acceptance among the scientific community, Darwin’s dangerous idea continues to cause controversy. Copernicus and Galileo may have moved us from the centre of the universe to a small and peripheral body, circling a remote star. But Darwin has moved us from the centre of God’s creation to a tiny twig on an enormous tree of life, with all of the twigs connected by descent, and the entire tree growing by a natural and undirected process. Moreover, the tiny twig that is the human lineage has been around for only the briefest fraction of the time that life has been on earth.

Those of us who accept Darwin’s dangerous idea can find themselves in danger, too. Evolutionary theory is attacked by religious fundamentalists, because it undermines their cherished creation myths. And it is attacked by people concerned that, by embracing this scientific truth, we run the risk of losing long-held comforts: that humans are special, and uniquely so, and that there is some greater meaning in life than simply the here and now.

And also it has been attacked, it ought to be acknowledged, because the concept of evolution has been used and abused by the fascists and the eugenicists, who saw in it a scientific justification of their plans to ‘improve’ the human race, and to rank people within an ‘evolutionary league table’, with (rather like our contemporary league tables) with white, middle-classed Anglo-Saxons at the pinnacle. But ‘Social Darwinism’, as it used to be called, has simply appropriated a scientific name to bolster unscientific nonsense.

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Difficulty with accepting Darwinian evolution cannot be attributed to its complexity. Indeed, it must surely rate as the simplest of the great ideas in science. In fact, it can be whittled down to three key facts, followed by a logical inference:

FACTS
I. All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
II. All organisms within a species vary from one another;
III. At least some of this variation is inherited by offspring
INFERENCE
Since only some offspring can survive, on average the survivors will be those variants that are better adapted to the local environment. And, since offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents, organisms of the next generation will, on average, become better adapted to local conditions.


So, perhaps, we can understand Thomas Huxley’s alarm when reading Darwin’s Origin of Species for the first time. He is reported to have said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that myself”.

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We are, whether we like it or not, primates. Genetically, anatomically and historically, we are very close relatives of the great apes. We share something of the order of 99% of the active genetic material of chimpanzees and bonobos (my favourite animal, aka the pygmy chimp), which a closer degree of relatedness than tigers to lions, or horses to zebras. Most of us, when we watch wildlife programmes or visit Howlett’s Zoo are happy to admit that we are like apes. We seldom realise that we are apes. Zoologically, there is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans, but excludes humans.

In truth, not only are we apes, but we are African apes. If you do not exclude humans, this forms a natural category. So, perhaps the most accurate label for humans is ‘The Third Chimpanzee’.

We are also, in very many ways, very unlike apes, having created unprecedented knowledge, technology and forms of social organisation. We, alone, have created socialism and liberalism; art and literature; space shuttles and digital watches. Even so-called traditional hunter-gatherer societies are characterised by degrees of social and technological complexity that are entirely absent in the rest of the animal kingdom. These are novel features, and they set human life history on a unique path.

This path is as explicable as any other: all species are unique. The Homo sapiens species is a cultural animal. It may well be the cultural animal. But culture is a result of evolution just as much as eyes and ears. It is unique, unprecedented and unpredictable. But it is not magical.

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I was first introduced to Darwin’s delightful idea thanks to Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. It is, perhaps, noteworthy, that I was not introduced to it through school (and English children today are still deprived of an appropriate presentation in the National Curriculum).

Aside from Dawkins’ wonderfully clear explanations of the blind and purposeless processes of adaptation and selection, I was most struck by a passing comment in the introduction:
“The full implications of Darwin’s revolution have yet to be widely realised .. even those who choose to study it often make their decision without appreciating its profound philosophical significance. Philosophy and the subjects known as ‘humanities’ are still almost as if Darwin had never lived”. (1976, p. ix)


I suspect that this is still broadly the case. Although there has been a revolution in our understanding and acceptance of Darwinian theory in recent years, there continues to be large-scale resistance to evolutionary explanations of matters that are close to home for us humans. Many social scientists continue to believe that biological explanations are simply incapable of helping us to understand the richness and diversity of human existence. And, moreover, that they are just not very nice.

Perhaps there is a concern stated by Jerome Bruner: ‘Culture imposes revolutionary discontinuity between man and the rest of the animal kingdom. And it is this discontinuity that creates the difficulty in extrapolating directly from evolutionary biology to the human condition’.

But, without an evolutionary foundation, explanations of human development will inevitably be incomplete. This is because human science and its subject matter are Homo sapiens. The nature of this species ought to be of enormous relevance, indeed urgency, to those of us working in the human sciences.

More on this subject:
Bailey, R.P. (2003) ‘Learning to Be Human: teaching, learning and human cognitive evolution’. London Review of Education, 1(4), pp. 177-190.


Other posts, resources and information is available from: www.richardbailey.net

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