Understanding Evolution

Natural Selection and Social Change:

The word “evolution” defines at least two quite different processes, biological and social. Confusion between the two led to some very flawed thinking several generations ago, and reactions against that flawed thinking still muddies the waters.

Darwin’s principle of natural selection is based on mutation and the resultant small variations in heritable characteristics that occur within a population of living organisms. Under a given set of environmental conditions some individuals within a population will have somewhat better chances of passing on their genes than other individuals will, and over long periods of time, involving hundreds or thousands of generations, the better-adapted types will predominate. This kind of selection was primarily responsible for the transition that took place between our pre-human hominid ancestors and their fully sapient descendants. It is a ruthless, unforgiving kind of process, with the losers almost always headed for extinction.

There is another kind of selection, which may or may not be labeled “natural”. Unlike Darwin’s natural selection it applies primarily to members of our own species. It involves selection for comparative advantage between individuals based on what each individual has learned, and between distinct culturally-identified groups based on which group is better able to cope with the challenges of the moment [1]. All that we know about human history, from the beginning of the Neolithic on, can be viewed as a playing-out of this form of selection. As a process, it can be as ruthless as biological selection, with the losers being wiped out. But this need not be the case, and indeed usually is not the case. Cultural selection has many gentler forms, more commonly understood these days as “competition”.

Cultural selection operates directly to produce changes in the society as a whole. Since it is based on what is learned, knowledge gained in one generation can be readily passed on to the next, as well as to other social groups. The result is an evolutionary process that is much faster than natural selection based on accumulated genetic variations. It took millions of years for our remote ancestors to evolve from hominid precursors into our own species. By contrast, it has only taken a few thousand for us to emerge from caves and produce the relatively complex material and esthetic culture we enjoy today. During this latter period there has been no perceptible evolution in the strict genetic sense. We are the same people, physically, as the people who first invented agriculture.

What can we say about the preceding epoch, the period that began when we became fully human and lasted until the dawn of agriculture? That covers a period of between a hundred thousand and a half million years (depending on which authority you accept) when our ancestors were fully human but still coexisting in natural balance with other animals in hunter-gatherer groups. How were we evolving then? Was it nature or nurture that dominated the evolutionary process? The answer, logically, has to be that it was a transitional period and that both processes contributed. Let us first examine the role of biological as opposed to cultural selection during that period. To do so, we need to look at the findings of that new branch of the social sciences known as evolutionary psychology [2].

The essential argument of the evolutionary psychologists, supported by a growing body of experimental data, is that there is in fact such a thing as a universal human nature, consisting of a constellation of basic behavioral characteristics with which we are all endowed at birth, forged and genetically implanted in us during the long period when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers living in small bands or tribes. This is not just an assumption or an article of faith: the behavioral patterns which contemporary investigators have identified as the core elements of human nature closely approximate those that would enhance survival prospects of small hunter-gatherer bands.

Presumably, since human nature is something that is inherited, it had to be acquired, initially at least, through natural selection in the genetic or original Darwinian sense. Can we postulate that while we were acquiring these genetically inscribed qualities, we were also developing new skills and new ways of coping with changing environments through the more modern process of learning, and transmitting learned knowledge to other members of our groups? If so, then competition between culturally distinguished social groups was already in operation as an evolutionary force, one that could and presumably did vastly accelerate the overall pace of human advance.

Clearly, our ancestors didn’t wait until the introduction of agriculture to develop culture as a way of differentiating social groups. Every hunter-gatherer tribe we know about has had distinctive linguistic patterns, distinctive aspects of its material and spiritual culture, and other dimensions of tribal life such that any person in the tribe, meeting someone else, immediately knows if that person is a member of the in-group or a stranger. We are talking here about learned behavior, not something transmitted genetically. And these learned behavior patterns have reinforced inherited attributes of our ancestors’ nature to determine the course of our prehistory for a very long time indeed. Where do we draw the line between instinct and learning, between nature and nurture, as we try to figure out what we are and how we got this way? The problem is as old as our species.

Whatever the answer to that question may be, it seems reasonable to postulate that during the Paleolithic, our ancestors changed in the way they developed from a largely genetic mode–natural selection in the true Darwinian sense– to one based on learning. Thus there was a gradual change over that period not just in terms of our own human evolution, but also in terms of the kinds of processes that were driving that evolution. It sounds tautological, but the fact of the matter is that evolution itself seems to have evolved along with us.

If this is the case, can we also postulate that the nature of the social evolutionary process that has always had us in its grip has continued to evolve into Neolithic and historic times? Selection based on competition between culturally distinct groups has obviously taken many forms over the past ten thousand years. Have there been trends, for example from more violent to less violent, or from simpler to more complex? Couldn’t valuable perspectives be gained if we examined recorded history from a broadly Darwinist point of view, one that examined what the underlying factors were that caused some groups to survive and others to vanish, and how those factors changed over time?

But most of us are not yet ready for that kind of analysis. Our perspective is warped and our view is blocked by something called Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism:

It was probably inevitable that when Darwin’s theories first burst on the scene, confusion would result. It was not inevitable that the confusion would last as long as it has. But regrettably, it is still with us. Much of it has been caused by a couple of approaches to the nature of humanity jointly known as “Social Darwinism”. Basically, the early Social Darwinists took Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which was intended to apply only to selection through genetic variability, and applied it to selection as between human groups differentiated by culture alone. What should have been explained on the basis of nurture became all nature. As a guide not only to history, but to current policy, the notion spread that natural selection among humans, as among animals in a state of nature, required that the strong survive and the weak perish. The “law of tooth and fang” was elevated to a moral principle.

A school of thought led by Herbert Spencer, an influential contemporary of Darwin’s, held that some people were naturally superior to others, and that the perfection of the species required that the inferior ones bite the dust, leaving the future of humanity to their betters. This theory merged conveniently with aspects of nineteenth-century capitalism to justify economic policies sacrificing social welfare in favor of rampant capitalism and the rich getting ever richer. Traces of that thinking persist in one form or another to this day[3].

Another version of “Social Darwinism” misapplied ongoing studies of the individual races of mankind to claim that certain groups were superior. This line of thinking provided a pseudo-intellectual underpinning to the racist doctrines of the Nazis and thereby contributed to that blot on humanity’s record, the Holocaust [4].

These misapplications of evolutionary theory have made it difficult for contemporary observers to think objectively about competition between culturally identified groups and how that competition has affected the course of humanity’s social evolution since the dawn of history. One social scientist has noted, for example, that “…there is as yet no generally accepted evolutionary explanation for human social complexity…” [5]. The paper goes on to postulate that “…the use of culture to erect symbolic barriers between groups can account for ethnocentrically limited altruism that underpins social organization…”.

There is evidently a huge gap in contemporary thinking about human evolution. The evolutionary psychologists have examined our paleolithic ancestors from a Darwinian point of view; meanwhile, they and other scientists have been chipping away at what makes modern people tick. The period in between has been left to the historians, and while they have done a great deal of competent research, it has seldom been inspired by an evolutionary perspective. It has simply not been fashionable to analyze human civilization using Darwinian conceptual tools–except among the Social Darwinists themselves. Meanwhile a substantial cadre of high-minded intellectuals, liberals, and anti-Nazis who ought to be taking an evolutionary look at human history are still too busy reacting against what they see as forces of bigotry, racism, and oppression to take on the job. A contemporary Darwinian look at history has, in short, been the victim of guilt by association.

Is Social Darwinism, in the sense I have just described it, a spent force? Some of my friends express considerable doubt whether this is the case, and argue that I am playing with fire when I urge others to bury the issue and move on to more fertile fields of inquiry. Social Darwinism is still alive, they assert: both arrogant racism and exploitative nineteenth century capitalism still lurk in the hearts and minds of many of our countrymen.

Well, that may be, but a whole lot of other primitive instincts lurk in the hearts and minds of most of us. If our species has any saving grace, it is that for countless generations we have been learning to control not only the instincts we inherited from our remote ancestors, but habits we learned from more proximate forebears, habits that no longer work in an environment that has changed.

Ultra-capitalist and racist doctrines have not been wiped but they have evolved, evolved to the point they are very different from the originals. Conservative Republicans, for example, sometimes sound a bit like nineteenth century railroad barons, but they are not the same and it serves no useful purpose to say that they are. That only obscures the debate and hinders us from addressing the issues we ought to be addressing if we want to cope constructively with the present and the future.

I am reasonably confident that there has been a multi-generational shift away from racist and robber-baron attitudes that has by now become irreversible. We are not going to revisit the shameful episodes in humanity’s recent past that cause the contemporary liberal to react in a paranoid manner toward any ideas that remind him or her of Social Darwinism.

There is, therefore, no longer any good reason for the continued absence of any “…generally accepted evolutionary explanation for human social complexity…”. It is time for the study of historic events from an evolutionary point of view to come into its own as a respectable field of inquiry.

A part of this new field might be the study of how evolutionary processes themselves have evolved over the long span of human and pre-human history. Such an approach could develop interesting interrelationships between our ancestors’ gradual shift from genetic to behavioral ways of changing, and other dimensions of the biological and cultural processes that have propelled humanity to its present complex estate.

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[1] I am indebted here to Richard Dawkins and the concept of the “meme” which he introduced in his book, The Selfish Gene , Oxford U. Press, 1976, 1989. A meme is an idea or concept, something that exists in the human mind or in human records; it competes with similar memes for survival in a process analogous to that which powers the evolutionary process carried out by biological genes, except that it operates in a much accelerated time frame. The “meme” concept “works” with what I say here about cultural evolution– indeed it adds interesting dimensions–but I shall not use it in this article in order to avoid complicating my presentation for readers who are not already familiar with it.

[2] Quite a few books are now available on this subject, several of them written expressly forthe layman. See for example The Moral Animal, Robert Wright, Vintage Books, New York, 1995. ISBN: 0-679-76399-6. Also Demonic Males, Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1996, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan, Random House, New York, 1992

[3] See “A Tale of Two Worksites”, by Stephen Jay Gould, in Natural History, October 1997.

[4] See The Evolution of Racism, by Pat Shipman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994.

[5] From an abstract of a paper titled “Evolution of Human Ultra-sociability”, delivered by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd at the 1995 meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Santa Barbara, California. Available on http://psych.lmu.edu/hbes/abst95.htm Thanks also to Science News, which brought this item to my attention (Nov. 25, 1995, p. 336).

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