Last January Farage promised to oust racists & homophobes from UKIP. Oh really? It seems to me that if he did that there’d be no UKIP members left for pathetic ‘little Englanders’ to vote for!
Evolutionary psychology, as we shall see, is tightly bound up with culture. To understand the evolution of culture we need first to explain how we developed our big brain. Without increased brain power it’s unlikely that human culture would ever have developed beyond the level of modern chimpanzees.
Whilst there is good evidence that our species (& its forebears) evolved ever larger brains the question of why they did so is much harder to answer. We do know that it must have resulted from selection pressures and that the process involved pre-existing traits but that’s about all. So far as I can tell there is no definitive evidence to explain the exact process. However there are a number of possibilities.
The following is a ‘just so’ story. It’s not even the only such story that has been proposed. It is, however the one that seems most plausible to me. It’s a speculative explanation for the currently known facts. Those facts undoubtedly will be added to as time goes on. As our understanding increases our explanations will improve. That’s the scientific process. We haven’t reached the end of our journey of discovery. After all, it is only 2013.
What is culture?
In this context ‘culture’ means shared beliefs, rituals, understandings and explanations. That’s not rocket science. It would be hard to imagine any sizeable human group that didn’t have at least some cultural traits. The real question isn’t why humans developed culture but why (and how) our ancestors evolved the ability to do so in the first place. It seems that many changes were necessary to make human culture possible:
Selection pressures and adaptations
Habitat changed (our ancestors became increasingly well adapted for life in the open and less well adapted for life among the trees;
Brain volume increased significantly;
Technology developed and changed (from basic ‘processed’ tools such as flint spear points and arrowheads to axes, jewellery and even boats);
Hunting changed (there is evidence of much larger game animals being butchered as the species evolved).
These things must have resulted from selection pressures favouring individuals best suited to cope with change. Collectively they represented significant advantages to those individuals who possessed even some, if not all of the necessary adaptations. The gene pool was changing.
It seems to me (at least at this early stage of my studies) that the most important selection pressures were:
Communication and language needs;
Need for larger amounts of food;
Need for cooperation to sustain large groups;
Need for co-operation to ensure the survival of larger groups;
Need to develop shared ‘memes’ to facilitate cooperation;
Need to develop explanations to foster group cohesion (and ‘out-group’ alienation);
Many of the ‘mental modules’ we’ll discuss later in the series are refined versions of adaptations resulting from these very pressures.
Existing traits available for natural selection via directional and sexual adaptative pressures seem likely to have included…
Rudimentary communication via mating ‘songs’ & dance
Studies of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos show a tendency to communicate via a range of sounds and gestures – especially during courtship. Gibbons which pair for life advertise their relationships to others via song and studies have shown that they also have different calls (rudimentary language) representing different kinds of threat.
All these things represent viable precursors of language. Assuming, as seems likely, that similair abilities were present in our early hominim ancestors, we have the raw material for natural selection to work with.
But there’s a problem. For sophisticated language to develop the animal would need a big brain. However to build a big brain the animal needs plentiful protein. Obtaining plentiful protein requires effective, co-operative hunting of big game. Co-operative hunting of big game requires communication which requires a big brain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Catch 22!
This was a major quandary for evolutionists for many years. It seemed as though big brain development was impossible and yet it happened. We have the fossils to prove it. What we didn’t have was an explanation. But now we have….
Theory of mind
Cooperation requires ‘Theory of mind’. That means an awareness of self and of others. It also requires an understanding that others may see things differently from ourselves. Without these two insights teamwork (and effective, cooperative big game hunting) would’ve been impossible for humans. And yet for years it was believed that no other primate species exhibited even rudimentary theory of mind. Until…..
Co-operation and empathy
Another set of primate studies
revealed not only significant theory of mind but also remarkable co-operation, especially related to aggression, dominant coalition and access to ‘mating rights’. Not only that, studies involving bonobos demonstrate significant empathy – another major requirement for the development of culture as we humans would recognise it. Once again we see the rudiments of another of the elements needed for big brain and cultural development. We can assume that our pre-human ancestors possessed the same rudimentary characteristics before the big brain developed.
So how might these elements come together? The process isn’t quite so complicated as it first appears.
As our ancestors left the forests and ventured out into the grasslands the need for effective warning systems became pressing. Natural selection (predation) favoured the best communicators creating a directional pressure toward more and more sophisticated language.
More effective hunting meant more protein which allowed better brain development leading to even better communication.
Dependency and parental investment
The mechanics of childbirth provided a new problem for the evolving apes. Bipedalism (walking upright) was necessary for survival out of the woodlands but it meant a narrow birth canal. That means that bipedal hominims need to be born before their brains are fully developed. Otherwise their heads will be too large for the birthing process. This results in extended periods of helplessness for newborns (a characteristic that exists in humans to this day). This creates a serious selection pressure. Only those babies that are well looked after survive.
This explains why, compared with most other primates, human males invest far more of their time, energy and resources in providing for and nurturing their young. Chimpanzee males, our closest relatives typically don’t even know which offspring are theirs. Human males generally do – and they participate. We are a ‘High Male Parental Investment’ (MPI) species.
human infants created a significant selection pressure. Empathic and co-operative males provided the best nutrition and protection. Females that selected effective providers and nurturers as mates were most likely to see their young make it to maturity and produce offspring of their own. Their genes will survive.
Consequently males and females are subject to directional and sexual selective pressure favouring empathy, high parental investment and cooperation. This selection pressure (over many generations) imbued our ancestors with the ingredients for social culture and the means to fuel a big brain. The big brain in turn built upon these qualities to facilitate even greater technologies, communication and social interaction. This remarkable combination of selection pressures and adaptations allowed our species to develop, step by step from small bands of hunter gatherers into the large societies with sophisticated cultures that we know today.
What do we mean by EEA?
The acronym ‘EEA’ stands for the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation/Adaptiveness’, otherwise known as the ‘Evolutionary Environment’ or the ‘Ancestral Environment’. Originally coined by John Bowlby it has come to mean the conditions in which a species adapts because of strong naturally selective pressures. (schore 2012)
Badcock (2000) estimates that for around 99% of its existence the human species lived in small groups of hunter gatherers. The bulk of human adaptation took place during the pleistocene (beginning around 1.8 million years ago) and continuing until around 12,000 years ago (10,000 BCE). The first human (homo) species arrived on the scene around 2.5 million years ago.
Our adaptation during that time, whilst well-suited to primitive societies, isn’t always helpful in the modern world of the last 10,000 years or so.
The figure of 10,000 years isn’t arbitrary by the way. That’s the time when humans first began to form larger societies – a change that our evolved psychology still seems to struggle with. We know that middle-eastern cities such as Jericho were founded around 7,000 years ago and that other cities such as Ur were founded sometime earlier. The fact is humans didn’t evolve to live in large towns and cities with national identities and we certainly didn’t adapt through the ages to spend our lives surrounded by strangers. But why not?
To answer this we need to consider a few fundamental points:
Evolution is slow;
Evolution occurs on ‘islands’;
Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation.
Evolution is slow
Although 10,000 years seems like an almost unimaginably long time for humans it’s actually a very short period in evolutionary terms. The process of evolution by natural selection, even in ideal conditions takes millions of years. For example a recent article estimates that the most recent common ancestor linking all the great apes lived some 11.9 million years ago.
The process relies more on numbers of generations than years passed & we’re really only talking about around 2000 generations over that time. So one answer to the question ‘why not’ is simply that our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve past hunter-gatherer societies.
Evolution occurs on ‘islands’
Evolution by means of natural selection happens most rapidly when survival pressures are most prevalent and life is so hard that new adaptations create genuine procreative advantages. It’s also important that any new adaptation isn’t ‘swamped’ by too much competition as it (and the human being that carries it) competes for survival/procreative advantage. In short natural selection works best when life is short and the breeding population is small. Otherwise genetic changes get lost before they can establish a foothold.
This is what we mean by ‘islands’. An evolutionary island doesn’t need to be surrounded by water but it should be isolated. This isolation could be the result of a natural barrier (a desert or mountain range, for example) or just the result of a small population, rarely coming into contact with other human groups. In these circumstances small, adaptive genetic variations can take hold and thrive. In large, modern, industrial societies adaptive mutations (for example keener eyesight) have much less impact on the population as a whole. My own short-sightedness is easily corrected by my glasses in modern UK whereas in the EEA of a million years ago it would have been a major handicap that may well have resulted in death long before I had a chance to breed.
At this point it’s worth pre-empting one of the more superficial and tiresome objections regularly raised by creationists. We’ve already covered the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ but I want to restate the point:
The fact that natural selection callously lets the weakest die doesn’t mean that it is right.
The ancient evolutionary environment was hard and ruthless, in one sense that was because early humans lacked the technology we have today to make things better. Acknowledging that life was cheap ‘back then’ doesn’t mean we think that’s how it should be. But let’s be clear:
Natural selection doesn’t care what you or I might think. Natural selection doesn’t care about anything.
Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation
As we will see throughout this series evolution isn’t the result of any grand design to ensure human happiness. It’s simply a mechanism’ a process by which different organisms compete with each other to survive.
Personally I wish it was different. I wish there was a plan. Perhaps a divine creator would have designed a world without so much pain and suffering. But that’s not how it is – unless you believe that starvation, disease and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ are somehow the hallmarks of a benign, intelligent designer.
Evolution has no plan, no compassion and no interest in ‘right and wrong’. Those concerns are solely human. To shirk our responsibility for creating our own moral code (whether we take our morality from nature or from Divinity) seems to me to be nothing more than intellectual and moral cowardice. If we can learn anything from either religion or the evolved natural world it’s that both are capable of creating almost unimaginable catastrophe. We accept uncritically either of these at our peril. So let’s stop pretending that Darwinism has anything to teach us about how things ‘ought to be’. Darwin’s great gift was to provide us with a way to understand how we evolved in the past. What we do with that knowledge is another question entirely.
Badcock, C. (2000). Evolutionary psychology: A critical introduction. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.
The Western world is awash with people claiming that their product or service is ‘healthy’ because it’s ‘natural’. From beauty and skin care products to healthy eating and a range of alternative therapies we are sold the message that natural is somehow ‘better’. Often these advertisements are dressed up in ‘sciencey’ language to add credibility but still the basic message is that natural is best. More significantly for this post the idea is that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘how it ought to be’.
This idea that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘ought to be’ is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy. It has dogged our understanding of the world and spawned entire political movements simply because people haven’t quite grasped the simple truth that describing something isn’t the same as supporting it.
Of course natural isn’t necessarily best at all. It’s not that simple. There are many natural poisons and a number of naturally occurring bacteria that will happily kill you given half a chance. There is much more to the equation than that. But that’s only one part of the naturalistic fallacy. The really dangerous one is the idea that natural shows us how things should be – that it can inform our ideologies.
That’s the fallacy that has created the biggest problems in our society.
In the context of evolution let’s consider Social Darwinism – a bastardisation of Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of natural selection’ that brought nothing but confusion, misery and death to mankind.
Charles Darwin brought us the theory of evolution in the mid nineteenth century and demonstrated how via the mechanism of survival of the fittest our species (along with every other modern species) evolved and outlived weaker competitors over unimaginably long periods of time. That’s why human beings exist at all – because the Australopithecines were good at escaping from predators and because Homo habilis learned how to be a little more creative than the next guy.
But Darwin didn’t make any sort of moral or ethical judgement about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He merely described the reality. Nature doesn’t care about our sensibilities. It doesn’t care about anything. Nature just is. Natural selection doesn’t give two hoots about our happiness either – it can’t – it’s an unconscious, inanimate process that has nothing to do with right and wrong, individual contentment or anything else except getting genetic material (DNA) into the next generation.
It’s true that evolution by natural selection has a great deal to do with our sense of morality (as we shall see later) but that most certainly doesn’t mean that our morality is particularly moral. In fact – in many instances it’s easy to see how, from a moral perspective, human evolution has left us sadly lacking. There is no benefit at all in assuming that the way we evolved in the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation’ (EEA) or ‘Ancestral Environment’ for short will be effective or even desirable today.
When we follow the evidence of natural history we can understand what has happened and even how it happened but we cannot draw any conclusions about what ought to happen. We particularly can’t use nature as a justification for what we’d like to do next. And yet that is precisely what the social Darwinists did. They took the knowledge of natural history and natural selection and confused it with the ideal of creating a master race. In its most extreme form it spawned the eugenics movement and inspired much of the thinking behind the holocaust in World War 2. And yet it is profoundly ill-informed and ridiculous.
Just because something is a particular way does not mean that it ought to be that way.
The naturalistic fallacy confuses reality with ideology and the results are not only foolish – they’re also extremely dangerous. The idea that if it’s natural it’s also how it ought to be has been used as a justification for social Darwinism and also by creationists to oppose evolution:
“It can’t be right if it’s not what God said!”
Both of these ridiculous assumptions are as bad as each other. They’re two sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t use the naturalistic fallacy to decide upon right action we can’t use ‘The Agency Fallacy’ either. Substitute the term ‘Natural selection’ for ‘God’ in any statement about how things ought to be and you have an equally silly proposition. In each case you have rules (conscious or unconscious) that suited a different time, place and culture but that have little or no real relevance here and now.
Evolution by natural selection is the mechanism that brought us to where we are now. But it has nothing to do with right and wrong and it has nothing to do with God or Gods (except that it can explain how we evolved the tendency to believe in Gods in the first place).
Of course many people will disagree vehemently with this assertion and in fairness, there’s no reason why they should believe me just because I said so. The next post will outline the evidence for evolution by natural selection, building upon the idea of ‘falsifiability’ described in part 2.
Darwin, animal husbandry and the Galapagos archipelago.
Charles Darwin wasn’t the most obvious person to come up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. In fact he was just as convinced of creation as everyone else in Victorian England was. He’d heard of evolution of course, the idea wasn’t new to Darwin, he merely refined it. Darwin’s own grandfather had written about evolution already and ‘Lamarckian inheritance’, the idea that animals can pass on acquired traits had been developed years earlier. What Darwin did – his ‘big idea’, if you will – was to outline the process of evolution by ‘natural selection’ – a new understanding of how evolution occurs.
He arrived at this conclusion by a roundabout route beginning with his observations of animal breeders and horticulturalists. Darwin understood, as did pretty much everyone that it is possible to influence the characteristics of plants and animals by selectively breeding from only those specimens with the characteristics you want to maintain and enhance.
So if you want long snouted dogs breed only from those dogs that already have long snouts. Over time, as long-snouted dogs from successive generations are selected the overall snout length increases. That’s why modern racehorses tend to have long legs – they have been bred for them for countless generations – selectively.
It wasn’t until he visited the Galapagos islands during his 5 year long voyage as naturalist on The Beagle that he saw evidence of the same selective breeding ‘in the wild’. Even then, when faced with the evidence it took a long time for Darwin to grasp the significance of what he had seen. From finches to tortoises Charles Darwin noticed that each creature was perfectly adapted to its own particular environment and that the different islands, with their differing flora and fauna provided their own challenges for the natural inhabitants to overcome.
He noticed that on some islands the finches had long beaks to help them to reach food whilst on other islands their beaks were shorter and more suited to the available food in that setting. On some islands the tortoises had high domed shells allowing them to reach up for their food whilst on others, where food was easier to obtain the shells were different to provide greater protection from predators.
Darwin noticed all of this and he marvelled at the wisdom of God, the creator whom he thought must have shaped these different varieties of creatures to suit the islands on which they lived.
The basic idea behind natural selection.
It was only some time later, after he’d returned to England and begun studying his collection of specimens in more detail that it hit him. The different variations within species were the result of selection just as surely as the differences in selectively bred dogs in England were. But in the Galapagos islands this selection had happened without human interference. It was ‘natural selection’.
The process isn’t all that different from selective breeding in animal husbandry. Some animals are allowed breed because they have desired traits (long legs or snouts etc). These traits are passed on into the next generation and again – those animals with the most desirable traits are allowed to breed – to pass their characteristics on to the next generation.
The process continues over many generations and the desired characteristics become more and more common until eventually all of the animals in that particular species have the desired characteristic.
Darwin’s insight was to understand what made the difference between which animals were selected for breeding and so passed on their traits to the next generation. And the answer was surprisingly simple – at lease surprising for Darwin. For most modern observers, with the benefit of over 150 years of Darwinism, it seems pretty obvious.
Survival of the fittest
Life is hard in the wild and some animals die young. Some die very young. Those least well equipped to survive die before they breed. Those who do survive long enough to breed, to produce offspring have the characteristics best suited to survival in their particular habitat.
So, on some islands tortoises with high domed shells live longest because they can reach scarce food. The low domed tortoises starve to death.
On other islands where food is easier to come by high domed tortoises are ‘easy meat’ for predators and their low domed counterparts live longest.
The selection isn’t done by human intervention – it’s a natural selection process that reflects the environment. The better suited an animal is to its habitat the more likely it is to breed and so, over countless generations the traits that lead to survival become more and more common. Eventually all tortoise shells look the same because the other tortoises have long since died away.
That, in a nutshell, is ‘evolution by natural selection’. It’s what people mean when they refer to ‘survival of the fittest’. In the natural world those animals most suited to their environment (the fittest) survive and the weak or less well-adapted die off. And dead animals don’t breed.
But Darwin didn’t stop there. He realised that if breeding was the key then animals that were most likely to breed were also more likely to pass their traits on to the next generation. So far so good and that’s really pretty obvious when you think about it. But Darwin went further.
He realised that the most successful animals wouldn’t just be good at surviving – they would also be good at breeding. They would be good at attracting mates. This was the insight that led to the concept of ‘sexual selection’. It’s the reason why some people are more attractive than others and why those people (at least until we discovered effective contraception) have most children to pass their characteristic on to the next generation.
It’s why so many men find large hips attractive – they’re good for childbirth.
It’s why so many women find physically strong men who are good providers attractive.
It’s why so many of the things we find attractive in the opposite sex are the way they are.
Our preferences evolved in an environment (in truth in many differing environments) where life was hard and successful breeding depended upon some very rudimentary characteristics like being a good hunter (men) or having firm breasts (women). Both of these characteristics would dramatically improve the chances of offspring surviving and so the most successful breeders were those who found them attractive. Therefore they passed those same preferences on to their offspring throughout the generations until many of the things that humans find attractive in the opposite sex have become almost universal.
This does not mean, by the way, that the modern world necessarily needs women to have firm breasts or men to be good in a fight (another of the attractiveness ratings). Rather it means that they were important during the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) in which our tastes and preferences were selected.
Today is ‘Patriots’ Day’ in the US. It’s also a date that will likely go down in history as yet another tragedy in the states. The Boston Marathon has just been interrupted by two explosions and police allegedly have cautioned people to avoid litter bins.
It’s hard not to consider terrorism although precisely who might have caused this atrocity (or why) remains to be seen. I’m not going to speculate – I remember the internet chatroom frenzy after 9/11 with everyone from ‘the blacks’ & ‘the commies’ to ‘the Jews’ being blamed by self-proclaimed ‘experts’ adamant that they had inside information.
All I’ll say is that the luckless victims of these explosions have my sympathy and I hope that whoever is responsible can be brought to justice soon.
Update: According to The New York Post 12 died in the initial two blasts. Other social media sources suggest that there has since been at least one further explosion while Sky news reports ball bearings scattered at the scene suggesting home made explosive devices. A ‘person of interest’ was arrested shortly after the explosions.
This just cannot be justified.
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises anyone concerned about loved ones in Boston to call 014780822.
Faith healing GP Accusations have come forward that a Staffordshire Dr. told his patient God would heal her & to stop taking her psychiatric medication. The GP denies any wrongdoing and claims that the allegations represent an attack on his Christian faith.
Whether or not this particular GP is guilty of such serious misconduct is a question yet to be answered. However it wouldn’t be the first time such medieval recommendations have been made in UK. The last few years have seen UK psychiatrists like Rob Waller refer psychotic patients for exorcism, several deaths resulting from exorcism worldwide and an Archbishop calling for exorcism of ‘the mentally ill’ in the House of Lords.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.