Many aspects of human life that at first seem weird and hard to explain can make a lot more sense once you see them from the viewpoint of evolution.
It was Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene” which first led me to that conclusion, whilst I was still at university. After “The Selfish Gene”, I read “Sociobiology: the new synthesis“, by E.O. Wilson, which gave other examples. I realised it was no longer necessary to refer to concepts such as “innate wickedness” or “original sin” to explain why people often did daft things. Instead, people do things because (in part) of underlying behavioural patterns which tended to make their ancestors more likely to leave successful offspring.
In short, you can deepen your understanding of humans if you understand evolution. On the whole, attempts to get humans to change their behaviour will be more likely to succeed if they are grounded in an understanding of the real factors that led humans to tend to behave as they do.
What’s more, you can understand humans better if you understand evolution better.
In a moment, I’ll come to some interesting new ideas about the role played by technology in evolution. But first, I’ll mention two other ways in which an improved understanding of evolution sheds richer light on the human condition.
1. Evolution often results in sub-optimal solutions
In places where an intelligent (e.g. human) designer would “go back to the drawing board” and introduce a new design template, biological evolution has been constrained to keep working with the materials that are already in play. Biological evolution lacks true foresight, and cannot do what human designers would call “re-factoring an existing design”.
I’ve written on this subject before, in my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature” of the book by Gary Marcus, “Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind” – so I won’t say much more about that particular topic right now. But I can’t resist including a link to a fascinating video in which Richard Dawkins demonstrates the absurdly non-optimal route taken by the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe. As Dawkins says in the video, this nerve “is a beautiful example of historical legacy, as opposed to design”. If you haven’t seen this clip before, it’s well worth watching, and thinking about the implications.
2. Evolution can operate at multiple levels
For a full understanding of evolution, you have to realise it can operate at multiple levels:
- At the level of individual genes
- At the level of individual organisms
- At the level of groups of cooperating organisms.
At each level, there are behaviours which exist because they made it more likely for an entity (at that level) to leave descendants. For example, groups of animals tend to survive as a group, if individuals within that group are willing, from time to time, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group.
The notion of group selection is, however, controversial among evolutionary theorists. Part of the merit of books such as The Selfish Gene was that it showed how altruistic behaviour could be explained, in at least some circumstances, by looking at the point of survival of individual genes. If individual A sacrifices himself for the sake of individuals B and C within the same group, it may well be that B and C carry many of the same genes as individual A. This analysis seems to deal with the major theoretical obstacle to the idea of group selection, which is as follows:
- If individuals A1, A2, A3,… all have an instinct to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their wider group, it may well mean, other things being equal, that this group is initially more resilient than competing groups
- However, an individual A4 who is individually selfish, within that group, will get the benefit of the success of the group, and the benefit of individual survival
- So, over time, the group will tend to contain more individuals like the “free-rider” A4, and fewer like A1, A2, and A3
- Therefore the group will degenerate into selfish behaviour … and this shows that the notion of “group selection” is flawed.
Nevertheless, I’ve been persuaded by writer David Sloan Wilson that the notion of group selection can still apply. He gives an easy-to-read account of his ideas in his wide-ranging book “Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives“. In summary:
- Group selection can apply, provided the group also has mechanisms to reduce free-riding behaviour by individuals
- For example, people in the group might have strong instincts to condemn and punish people who try to take excess advantage of the generosity of others
- So long as these mechanisms keep the prevalence of free-riding below a certain threshold, a group can reach a stable situation in which the altruism of the majority continues to benefit the group as a whole.
(To be clear: this kind of altruism generally looks favourably only at others within the same group. People who are outside your group won’t benefit from it. An injunction such as “love your neighbour as yourself” applied in practice only to people within your group – not to people outside it.)
To my mind, this makes sense of a great deal of the mental gymnastics that we can observe: people combine elements of surreptitiously trying to benefit themselves (and their own families) whilst seeking to appearing to the group as a whole as being “good citizens”. In turn, we are adept at seeing duplicity and hypocrisy in others. There’s been a long “arms race” in which brains have been selected that are better at playing both sides of this game.
Incidentally, for another book that takes an entertaining and audacious “big picture” view of evolution and group selection, see the barn-storming “The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History” by Howard Bloom.
3. The role of technology in evolution
At first sight, technology has little to do with evolution. Evolution occurred in bygone times, whilst technology is a modern development – right?
Not true. First, evolution is very much a present-day phenomenon (as well as something that has been at work throughout the whole history of life). Diseases evolve rapidly, under pressures of different regimes of anti-bacterial cocktails. And there is evidence that biological evolution still occurs for humans. A 2009 article in Time magazine was entitled “Darwin Lives! Modern Humans Are Still Evolving“. Here’s a brief extract:
One study, published in PNAS in 2007 and led by John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that some 1,800 human gene variations had become widespread in recent generations because of their modern-day evolutionary benefits. Among those genetic changes, discovered by examining more than 3 million DNA variants in 269 individuals: mutations that allow people to digest milk or resist malaria and others that govern brain development.
Second, technology is itself an ancient phenomenon – including creative use of sticks and stones. Benefits of very early human use of sticks and stones included fire, weapons, and clothing. What’s more, the advantages of use of tools allowed a strange side-effect in human genetic evolution: as we became technologically stronger, we also became biologically weaker. The Time magazine article mentioned above goes on to state the following:
According to anthropologist Peter McAllister, author of “Manthropology: the Science of Inadequate Modern Man“, the contemporary male has evolved, at least physically, into “the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet.” Thanks to genetic differences, an average Neanderthal woman, McAllister notes, could have whupped Arnold Schwarzenegger at his muscular peak in an arm-wrestling match. And prehistoric Australian Aborigines, who typically built up great strength in their joints and muscles through childhood and adolescence, could have easily beat Usain Bolt in a 100-m dash.
Timothy Taylor, Reader in Archaeology at the University of Bradford and editor-in-chief of the Journal of World Prehistory, tackles this same topic in his recent book “The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution“.
Amazon.com describes this book as following:
A breakthrough theory that tools and technology are the real drivers of human evolution.
Although humans are one of the great apes, along with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, we are remarkably different from them. Unlike our cousins who subsist on raw food, spend their days and nights outdoors, and wear a thick coat of hair, humans are entirely dependent on artificial things, such as clothing, shelter, and the use of tools, and would die in nature without them. Yet, despite our status as the weakest ape, we are the masters of this planet. Given these inherent deficits, how did humans come out on top?
In this fascinating new account of our origins, leading archaeologist Timothy Taylor proposes a new way of thinking about human evolution through our relationship with objects. Drawing on the latest fossil evidence, Taylor argues that at each step of our species’ development, humans made choices that caused us to assume greater control of our evolution. Our appropriation of objects allowed us to walk upright, lose our body hair, and grow significantly larger brains. As we push the frontiers of scientific technology, creating prosthetics, intelligent implants, and artificially modified genes, we continue a process that started in the prehistoric past, when we first began to extend our powers through objects.
Weaving together lively discussions of major discoveries of human skeletons and artifacts with a reexamination of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Taylor takes us on an exciting and challenging journey that begins to answer the fundamental question about our existence: what makes humans unique, and what does that mean for our future?
In an interview in the New Scientist, Timothy Taylor gives more details of his ideas:
Upright female hominins walking the savannah had a real problem: their babies couldn’t cling to them the way a chimp baby could cling to its mother. Carrying an infant would have been the highest drain on energy for a hominin female – higher than lactation. So what did they do? I believe they figured out how to carry their newborns using a loop of animal tissue. Evidence of the slings hasn’t survived, but in the same way that we infer lungs and organs from the bones of fossils that survive, it is from the stone tools that we can infer the bits that don’t last: things made from sinew, wood, leather and grasses…
Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling – it doesn’t matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb – they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling. This means their heads can continue to grow after birth, solving the smart biped paradox. In that sense technology comes before the ascent to Homo. Our brain expansion only really took off half a million years after the first stone tools. And they continued to develop within an increasingly technological environment…
I’ve ordered Taylor’s book from Amazon and I expect it to be waiting for me at my home in the UK once I return from my current trip in Asia. I’m also looking forward to hosting a discussion meeting on Saturday 11th Sept under the auspices of Humanity+ UK in London, where Timothy Taylor himself will be the main speaker. People on Facebook can register their interest in this meeting by RSVPing here. There’s no charge to attend.
Another option to see Timothy Taylor lecture in person – for those able to spare time in the middle of the day on a Thursday (9th Sept) – will be at the RSA. I expect there will be good discussion at both events, but the session at H+UK is longer (two hours, as opposed to just one at the RSA), and I expect more questions there about matters such as the likely role of technology radically re-shaping the future development of humans.
Footnote: of course, the fact that evolution guided our ancestors to behave in certain ways is no reason for us to want to continue to behave in these ways. But understanding the former is, in my view, very useful background knowledge for being to devise practical measures to change ourselves.