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.
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 2019.
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.
Improved language facilitates cooperation (largely based upon shared ‘memes’ or ‘explanations of the world’) which in turn facilitates more effective hunting.
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.
The extended helplessness of 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
Our series on evolutionary psychology continues with the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of natural selection and its impact upon speciation, survival and behaviour (flight, hiding, sexual attraction etc). This necessarily brief overview sets the scene for the rather more complex work on evolved psychology to come. These selection pressures have been the drivers that led our species to become fully human and to develop the enigmatic set of behaviours and attitudes we call ‘human nature’.
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.