Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Today is ‘Darwin Day’

160 years ago this year Charles Darwin published his ground-breaking, paradigm shattering volume ‘on the origin of species by means of natural selection’. 210 years ago today on February 12th, 1809 the great man himself was born.

Nobody could have guessed as they gazed upon the tiny infant Charles that his eventual legacy would be so far reaching. In many ways it was Darwin’s ground-breaking work on natural selection and the origin of species that dragged humanity, kicking and screaming, toward a rational view of ourselves and our place in the universe that would have been impossible without him – or at least without his theory. It’s important that we don’t forget natural selection’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russell-Wallace who came up with the exact same mechanism for evolution independently of Darwin. In that sense it’s important to understand that the theory is more important than the man.

I could write at length here about Darwin’s contribution to science and to our understanding not only of the natural world around us but also of our own species. I could write about the subsequent work of countless dedicated scientists whose efforts have built upon Darwin’s great theory to enhance our knowledge of human origins as well as our present characteristics and nature. In fact that’s the basis of my video series on evolutionary psychology – hard-wired. So on this anniversary of Darwin’s birth I’ll forego that and simply take the opportunity to dispel a myth.

It has long been suggested that the great Mr. Darwin renounced his life’s work shortly before his death, converted to Christianity and adopted a creationist view of the world. The reality is rather different.

In life Darwin described himself as ‘agnostic’ (possibly to avoid offending his devout wife, Emma). His final words were not, as Lady hope claimed (33 years later in 1915) an expression of his conversion to Christianity and creationism. According to his children he spoke last to his wife saying:

“I am not the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me.”


Of course, it’s not too surprising that someone would come up with such a misrepresentation after Darwin’s death. His arguments were far too well constructed to combat in life. Schoolyard ridicule and pious deceit may well have been all that was left for the established creationists of the day, just as they are still all that is left for creationists in the 21st century.

On this Darwin Day let’s all spare a thought for the man who taught us so much and yet who was treated so badly during his lifetime. And let’s stop lying about the last words of a dying man whose final thoughts were of compassion for his wife and children, not a marketing opportunity for intellectually impoverished creationists.

Hard wired 7: The evolutionary environment

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 18/9 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.

Schore (2012) http://www.lifespanlearn.org/documents/Schore%20Slides2012.pdf


Evolutionary psychology: The naturalistic and agency fallacies

Just because the theory of evolution by natural selection explains how we got to be the way we are, there’s no reason to imagine it can tell us how we ought to behave. There’s no particular goal-direction for the human or any species inherent in evolution. Nor is there any master plan pointing us toward perfection. Nobody is in charge and no great plan exists in a realm beyond.

Natural selection is a non-conscious, automatic mechanism that determines how likely individuals are to get their genetic material, their DNA into the next generation. That’s it. The fact that certain individuals with specific adaptations and attributes survive whilst others die off may provide the illusion of a plan, even of design but don’t be fooled.

Natural selection isn’t random because it follows some simple principles and it does so consistently. But those principles weren’t designed either. They just are.