Woohoo! First it was a joke that was taken seriously only in the post-psychiatry movement. Now it’s a mainstream opinion. Soon the only discussion will be how anyone could ever have believed in the syndrome of schizophrenia.
When I was at school evolution was taught in biology lessons according, I suppose, to the UK’s prevailing national curriculum. We had two main biology teachers – Mr. Davidson, a remarkable ex-soldier with a passion for discipline and Mr. Toogood whose enthusiasm for his subject seemingly knew no bounds. Between them they variously terrified and inspired generations of kids at Workington Grammar School into getting to grips with the basics of evolution by natural selection, among other things.
And yet – knowing what I know now I have to say that the curriculum (presumably through no fault of Messrs Davidson and Toogood) was sadly lacking. You see it missed out the most important part – the key bit of natural selection that makes sense of the rest. It missed out equilibrium.
Messrs Davidson and Toogood told us all about evolutionary change and how survival pressures favoured certain genes, leading to adaptation and eventual speciation over time. But they neglected to inform us that natural selection usually favours no change at all. They didn’t explain that speciation isn’t the norm – it’s the exception. Most of the time natural selection favours organisms that are well adapted to their environment – just as their parents were.
That’s why chromosomal changes that result in disorders like Down’s syndrome don’t suddenly swamp the gene pool. That’s why disorders such as spina bifida don’t take over the planet. These are real genetic changes but they hold no advantage in a relatively stable eco system and so they don’t prevail. Natural selection usually favours what has gone before because what has gone before is already well adapted to its environment. My parents lived long enough to breed. Natural selection has no reason (all thing being equal) to make any great changes to their basic genetic structure because it works.
In the last entry I raised the issue of why evolution seems to have stopped. Well – actually it hasn’t (as we shall see) but that doesn’t mean that it has to impose change for change’s sake. As the maxim goes….
If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it!
This is why Stephen Jay Gould came up with the term ‘punctuated equilibrium’ to explain the pattern of prolonged periods without change, occasionally punctuated by rapid explosions of adaptation and speciation. Some commentators have dismissed the concept of punctuated equilibrium as flawed because it doesn’t quite meet the criteria of ‘gradual change over time’ (also Gould used it to explain some of the gaps in the fossil record which caused problems of its own) but really it’s the logical conclusion of a system of natural selection that responds to change but maintains stability in periods of constancy.
It’s only when the environment or other circumstances changes that natural selection starts to favour adaptation. In a stable ecosystem with no significant pressure to adapt, very little changes. That’s why certain apex predators such as sharks and large predatory cats (tigers and lions for example) seem to have changed little or nothing for thousands or even millions of years. There’s no need for them to evolve – they’re pretty damn successful as it is.
If all the fish and other shark prey in the ocean suddenly died out then sharks would need to adapt. Natural selection would begin to favour those sharks who by some genetic fluke had developed the ability to digest the hulls of wooden boats. They would survive whilst their fellows with less digestive options would die off. Eventually all surviving sharks would be adapted to eat wooden hulls (and small fisherman would have a major problem).
This imposed change in diet caused by the death of a food species is what we call a ‘selection pressure’. There are several different kinds of selection pressure as we shall see. But first we need to make a few points about the nature of the theoretical basis of evolutionary psychology.
One early criticism of evolutionary psychology was that it assumed genetic change in isolation from the environment. This seems to have been due to a misunderstanding of the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology. So far as I have been able to ascertain (please feel free to comment on this blog post if you know differently) early critics assumed that evolutionary psychologists were working to a ‘1 gene:1 trait’ model whereby they assumed it would be possible to find single genes that would be sufficient to explain behavioural traits in humans.
In fact that isn’t the case. At least it isn’t currently the case (and I don’t think it ever was). Nobody whose work I have read seems to suppose that genetic determinism alone is enough to control and predict behaviour. Rather there is a complex interaction between genes and environments that shape our behaviours. That’s part of what we mean by ‘the modern Darwinian synthesis’. The role of natural selection in favouring some genes and not others has ‘stacked the deck’ by downplaying some genetic tendencies and emphasising others but the environment still plays a part.
It’s not ‘nature or nurture’ – it’s ‘nature and nurture’ combined.
Traits are selected because they are helpful in certain circumstances (although they may not be helpful in all circumstances) – so responsiveness to environment plays a role in human psychology. A good example of this comes from the realm of physical advantage/disadvantage via natural selection.
The genetic defence from malaria also creates sickle cell anaemia. Therefore in areas of the world where death by malaria is commonplace, sickle cell anaemia is also commonplace – there’s an evolutionary trade off. In areas of the world where malaria is rare or effectively unheard of sickle cell anaemia is also rare or unheard of. Other examples of this trade off with regard to physical traits include the male peacock’s tail feathers which, whilst increasing his breeding chances also reduce life expectancy as they make him more visible to predators. The same trade off was observed in the Trinidadian Guppie populations mentioned in an earlier post.
Evolutionary adaptations, be they physical or psychological/behavioural, tend to be much more complicated than mere ‘either/or’ equations.
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.
Let’s be clear about just what ‘hard wired’ means. After all – there aren’t really any wires in the brain. There are nerves that look a bit like wires – indeed they carry electrical signals through the body just like the wires in a plug but that’s not really what we mean in evolutionary terms when we talk about ‘hard wired’.
In an evolutionary context what we mean is that some things are ‘fixed’ and immovable. They are ‘hard wired’ in so far as they cannot be changed.
When we talk about physical attributes this is easy to understand. For example, the colour of an individual’s eyes is hard wired – it’s the result of their particular genetic make-up. So is the ability to wiggle one’s ears (or not). These are genetically determined and they’re not about to change whether we like it or not.
It’s important to be clear about what we’ve just said….
Physical attributes such as these are not negotiable. They’re hard-wired.
There’s another name for this – it’s called ‘determinism’.
Determinism means that the individual has no control over these particular attributes. They’re as they are and that’s all there is to it. Short of modern innovations such as cosmetic surgery we all look the way we do because our genes determined our appearance without any reference to our preferences or desires. That’s why most people have two legs, two arms, four fingers and an opposable thumb on each hand, spines that are notoriously vulnerable to injury and chronic pain and extremely badly designed eyes (the optic nerve passes through the middle of the retina creating an unnecessary blind spot). Nor can we change the fact that our sinuses, perfectly adapted for drainage in our quadruped ancestors, are extremely inefficient in bipedal humans as anyone with a headcold can attest etc etc. We didn’t choose these things – they evolved that way and we’re stuck with them. That’s determinism.
That’s all very well and nobody would dispute the fact that we can’t control the basic evolved structure of our eyes (however poor that structure may be). But what if we couldn’t control our basic behaviours either? For a lot of people that might be a bit harder to accept.
In evolutionary psychology the idea is that our mental ‘modules’ are just as determined, just as ‘beyond our control’ as our physical attributes are. We are what we are, both physically and mentally because our ancestors evolved that way. Some evolutionary psychologists go so far as to suggest that free will is an evolved myth – an evolutionary con trick that lets us believe we’re in charge when really nothing could be further from the truth.
Others aren’t so rigid. They talk about the ‘default’ settings that spring from our evolutionary make up but also include into their theories the possibility that we can overcome those predetermined character traits. In other words that we retain a degree of free will even though the cards may well be stacked against us from the outset.
In large part this blog series will explore these two notions and in the process try to go some way toward deciding whether or not free will is an illusion. But it will also go further. We’ll also examine those aspects of human psychology that seem to be universal with the assumption that they evolved in our species (and other species) in exactly the same way that other characteristics evolved and by precisely the same basic mechanism – natural selection. Let’s look at another example.
Creationists often object to evolutionary theory on the grounds that, based as it is upon natural selection or ‘survival of the fittest’, it cannot account for widespread traits such as altruism. However that’s just not true – it can, and it does.
“The altruist expects reciprocation from society
for himself and his closest relatives.”Andrew Marvell (1650)
“I’d lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”JBS Haldane (1974)
Tit for tat
In 1981 Anatol Rapoport won a competition. It was a simple contest – the various contestants had to write a computer programme that would survive in a sort of electronic evolutionary environment. His programme, which he called ‘Tit for tat’ was simple and effective. In short it consisted of just 4 rules to apply to co-operative relationships with other programmes:
1. Never be the first to defect (defecting means ‘cheating’ to you and me)
2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected
3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation
4. Adopt this strategy only if the probability of meeting the same player again exceeds 2/3
The programme beat all other programmes including the selfish and opportunistic, exploitative ones. And it did so with ease. The reason for its remarkable success was that the rules it operated by meant that it rewarded cooperation and kindness from other programmes whilst punishing transgressors by withdrawing cooperation and kindness. In other words the altruistic programme rewarded altruistic others.
We can see how a genetic mental module that inclines us to be nice to others (so long as we expect to see them again) would thrive in the evolutionary environment where people presumably knew each other in their tiny communities for their entire lives. We can also see how little they would need to understand about the higher philosophy of altruism and cooperation – they just did nice things because their genes drove them to in the same way that people enjoy sugars and fats because the genes for those preferences gave their ancestors an advantage when food was scarce.
There’s no need to understand it or even be conscious of it
– just doing it is enough.
This unconscious trait – this tendency to act in certain ways in particular situations is what we mean by a ‘mental module’. It’s a genetically predetermined characteristic that responds to circumstance (a fellow altruist or a cheat) in predictable, predetermined ways.
Take that ‘Free will’!
“Axelrod and Hamilton emphasise that a formal theory for the evolution of co-operation needs to answer three questions.
1. How can a co-operative strategy get an initial foothold in an environment which is predominantly non-co-operative?
2. What type of strategy can thrive in a varied environment composed of other individuals using a wide diversity of more or less sophisticated strategies?
3. Under what conditions can such a strategy, once fully established, resist invasion by mutant strategies (such as cheating)?
The studies of TIT FOR TAT answer these questions about initial viability, robustness and stability. Provided that the probability of future interaction between two individuals is sufficiently great, co-operation based on reciprocity can indeed get started in an asocial world, can flourish in a variegated environment and can defend itself once fully established.”http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/tittat/story.htm
Disclaimer: As I made clear at the beginning of this series I’m writing this blog because I want to learn. I don’t profess to be an expert in evolutionary psychology and I don’t pretend to have an absolute understanding of human nature either. So if you read something here that strikes you as really, really, silly, pretentious or just downright inaccurate – please tell me. And please tell me why you think I’m mistaken – that’s how I’ll learn.
Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of people from many different ‘walks of life’, some with serious mental health problems and some who swore that their mental state was nothing short of perfection. I’ve met people with money and also those who struggle to find the next meal – actually I’ve met many more of the latter than the former.
But no matter what their circumstances, class or lifestyle many, and quite possibly ‘all’ of them, have a tendency to justify their ingrained behaviours by describing them as ‘human nature’. They spoke as though everyone behaves that way and there really isn’t any option. Interestingly the same argument about ‘universal’ behaviour is made by the ‘dog eat dog’ con artist who sells his second-hand car without declaring the fact that it’s good only for scrap and the sympathetic nurse who seems to live only to help others in need. Both would tell you with equal certainty that their behaviour is the result of universal human nature.
But if human nature means anything at all it must be consistent – it must hold true for all people. Otherwise it’s just a collection of preferences that people justify by claiming that they’re more widespread than they are.
One of the most important issues addressed by evolutionary psychology is this very question – what exactly is ‘human nature’? What are its components and why, if such a thing as human nature exists at all, do we see such widely differing behaviours from human beings ‘in the wild’, so to speak?
I confess that for many years this concept confused me. It seems that whatever aspect of ‘human nature’ I came across there was a contradiction waiting in the wings to knock it down again. It was as though human nature became nothing more than a myth – a widespread illusion that people use to justify whatever they like without so much as a grain of truth behind it. And then, just within the last few months, I read ‘The Moral Animal’ by Robert Wright (1994) – a fascinating book that suddenly helped me to make sense of the whole notion of human nature. You can get hold of the book here
Wright describes the way that human nature, far from being a collection of hard and fast, inflexible rules, is much more like a set of choices, alternatives that are turned on or off in response to opportunity and circumstance. To illustrate this I’ll take only one of these alternatives – the dichotomy between dominance and submission.
I know many very successful people who claim that the drive to dominate, to be in charge, to have authority over others is something that exists in all of us. They justify their behaviour, their often cruel and uncaring behaviour, by asserting that if they didn’t take charge of others, others would take charge of them. In the past I’ve dismissed this reasoning as just so much posturing intended to excuse their abuse of those around them. But now I’m not so sure.
To make sense of this I’ll begin with an assumption:
In evolutionary terms, dominance is preferable to submission!
This is because dominance is likely to result in more opportunities for procreation. Remember that the driving force of evolutionary adaptation is to get your genes into the next generation and the only way to do that, at least for primates like ourselves, is via sex.
Yes, of course, it’s possible in the modern world to produce offspring without sexual intercourse but that wasn’t the situation in the evolutionary environment. For most of our history (human and pre-human) sexual intercourse was vital to genetic survival.
So – the default is to strive for dominance. Our nearest relatives on the evolutionary family tree, chimpanzees and bonobos demonstrate this correlation remarkably well. The dominant males get most (if not all) of the sex. Their genes make it into the next generation. The submissive males are much less likely to procreate and so their genetic lineage dies out. Usually.
There is then, a great drive to dominate others, especially for males. But what of those who find themselves lower down in the ‘pecking order’ – the hierarchy of sexual opportunity? What choices do they have.
Well essentially they have only three choices….
1. They can risk injury or death (often amounting to the same thing) by challenging the dominant male;
2. They can support the dominant male in the hope that they will be allowed some limited access to females (this really happens);
3. They can accept submission and stay alive with the possibility of the odd sneaky liaison when the dominant male isn’t looking.
If the male in question is weak they tend to accept submission and the occasional liaison because this affords their genes a greater chance to be transported into the next generation. After all – there’s no evolutionary prospects at all if you’re dead. Staying alive by submission at least gives your genes a slight chance of making it through.
We can see then that dominance isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ strategy. It’s a sliding scale that prompts individuals to assume more or less dominant roles depending upon the circumstances that they find themselves in. In short it’s a hard wired, genetically determined, psychological ‘module’ that helps us to ‘play the odds’. We’ll hear more about psychological ‘modules’ as the series progresses.
For now let’s compare this principle to human behaviour…..
We all play different roles depending upon our circumstances:
1. The bullying office manager is dominant when surrounded by underlings but assumes a submissive role when called to explain the accounts to the chairman of the board.
2. The pompous professor is less domineering when surrounded by more respected academics;
3. The violent criminal may be quite prepared to assault his (weaker) victims but assumes a much more submissive role when sent to a prison populated by real ‘hard men’.
Of course – in the modern world these choices about dominance don’t always relate directly to opportunities to procreate but that’s not the point. They did during the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) and so the tendency to be dominant when we can and to submit as a form of self-preservation when we must is hard wired. That’s why ‘human nature’ seems so variable. It depends upon complex social and circumstantial cues to fine tune behaviour.
As we go through this series the theme of circumstantial adaptation will be integral. Nothing about human nature is quite so ‘cut and dry’, so ‘black and white’ as many of us – myself included – used to believe.
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.
You will never ‘win’ any debate unless you can persuade the other person to take you seriously. This means that you need to take the subject (which may well be very close to the other person’s heart) seriously. You will need to demonstrate that you genuinely are interested in sharing information and that gaining honest insight is much more important to you than merely being ‘right’.
That means being prepared to acknowledge when you have made a mistake – when you may have been wrong. Mature debaters are able to do this because they understand that to err is human and that there is no implied weakness or catastrophe in making a mistake. They simply admit their error and move past it. They learn from it, in other words.
Paradoxically – the debater who cannot admit to being mistaken is much more likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. The first step in refining our opinions is to acknowledge our errors. Failure to do this is a failure to learn.
So if you want to be taken seriously you must first stop taking yourself so seriously that you blind yourself to the possibility of error. That’s what children do. Such a perspective is perfectly acceptable among teenagers (black and white, concrete thinking is a normal, adolescent developmental stage) but in adult psychology it’s the hallmark of the ignoramous.
Learn from criticism
So don’t just ignore criticism – learn from it. Even if the criticism is unfounded (see the entries on ‘straw man arguments’, ‘ad hominem attacks’ and ‘not listening’) you can learn a lot about the debating ‘style’ of the other person. This is useful information in deciding whether or not to continue the discussion. Let’s face it, sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
The individual who refuses to engage with genuine discussion and who prefers instead to meet your attempts at engagement with cheap ‘point-scoring’ probably isn’t yet capable of genuinely reflective interaction. It’s OK to stick around for a while and try to help them to grow a little but there comes a point (in my experience it’s quickly obvious) when the discussion ceases to be worth the effort (more on that later).
So when your ideas are criticised you can learn useful information about your point of view – let’s face it we can all be wrong;
When the other person confines themselves only to criticism of you as an individual you can learn about their closed-mindedness;
Either way – the more you listen and try to understand, the more you learn.