Once, people thought God had created the world and every living thing, each with a purpose in an ordered universe over which our creator presided, rewarding good deeds and punishing sin. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection blew a hole in this comfortable explanation of life and faced us with a blindingly obvious yet disturbing truth – humans don’t have dominion over animals.
We are animals. We are the fifth ape. But even Darwin hesitated to say this out loud. It throws into question our trust in our fellow human beings. Are our morals and manners just a veneer? Since a struggle for existence drives evolution, why don’t we humans run an entirely dog-eat-dog (complete egotism; action based on utter cynicism / “Survival of the fittest” in its most literal definition. Everyone fends for themselves. If you can’t take care of yourself, you get eliminated) world? How about genocide and ethnic cleansing?
Are they some kind of survival strategy? I want to confront the issue that Darwin skirted around
in The Origin Of Species, the evolution of human beings. I want to ask what it means for us to be evolved. The question is more urgent than ever.
Increasingly, religious people and others attack Darwinism for, in their view, excusing selfishness and barbarism. Natural selection is the driving force of our evolution, but that doesn’t mean that society ought to be run on Darwinian lines. I’m thrilled by natural selection, but as a human being, I abhor it as a principle for organising society.
Evolution by natural selection is a very simple idea. Over thousands of generations, in a struggle for existence, successful variations have survived to reproduce, the process that gradually carves life into more and more specialised forms. Life forms that include the apes – gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimps…and us.
Here, at London Zoo, back in the 1830s, the arrival of the first apes outraged polite society. Queen Victoria, for one, found them painfully and disagreeably human. But another visitor was spellbound.
The young Charles Darwin saw the unmistakable truth staring back at him from the other side of the cage. The uncanny familiarity of ape hands and the humanity we seem to glimpse in their eyes was, for Darwin, further evidence to support the idea of evolution, that all life was related. The African apes, he realised, were our closest evolutionary cousins. East Africa – my birthplace and, rather more importantly, the birthplace of the human species itself.
Between five and six million years ago, there lived in Africa an ape who had two children. One of those children was destined to give rise to us, the other was destined to give rise to the chimpanzees. If I stood here and held my mother’s hand, and she held her mother’s hand, and she held her mother’s hand, and so on, back to the grand ancestor of all humans and all chimpanzees, how far would the line stretch? The answer is about 300 miles.
Over that surprisingly short distance, the fossil record shows evidence of extraordinary changes. The palaeontologist Richard Leakey and his family have uncovered the hard evidence in Kenya’s Rift Valley, evidence that charts the evolution of our ancient human ancestors. About 1.9 million years ago, This is what they were calling Homo habilis. Largish brains, still got a flat, big face, and probably ancestral to Homo erectus, which turns up in Africa at about 1.8 million years. This, then, is the ancestor to Homo sapiens. This persists for almost a million years, this condition, and then it gives way to something with an even larger brain – things that are much more like ourselves.
The brain has really expanded. It’s much more like a modern human brain in terms of size and in terms of shape, and by the time you get to this, all of these others have disappeared from the fossil record. So all the major steps in the human story are, in fact, told in Africa.
We never separated from the apes, we just do things differently. I’ve often found it fun to go to an ape exhibit in one of the big zoos and you can watch people looking at a group of chimpanzees, and what is very clear, if you watch their facial expression, you can see that they’re not so sure that that ape’s like them but they can look around and say, “There’s a similarity “between the person on the other side of the cage.” We’re closer to chimps, African chimps.
It’s an unsettling thought. In evolutionary terms, we’re so closely related to chimps that it’s not ridiculous to ask whether we might still be able to breed with them. We’re the human animal, upright, big-brained ape cousins who evolved to out-think the competition. As a biologist, I’ve wondered at the challenging implications of this, what it tells us about human society now. But over half the people on Earth are so horrified by what Darwinism reveals about our origins, they just refuse to believe it.
I’m an ape. Are you an ape? No, I’m not, I’m a human being.
I’m on a journey exploring the dark side of Darwinism. I want to confront what it means for us to have evolved in nature’s brutal struggle. Why should the fifth ape love thy neighbour? The thought of our animal origins can upset people. Read The Origin Of Species, Darwin’s masterpiece that set out his theory of evolution, and you will find only a handful of passing references to human origins.
That man was made in God’s image, having dominion over the animals, defined what it meant to be human, so discussing human evolution was just too risky. Darwin shied away from it and simply wrote near the end, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
But when the book came to be published in 1859, the buzz was all about the extraordinary implications for mankind. Were we just beasts in fancy dress? Evolution become known as “the monkey theory”. The row has not gone away. In Kenya, the cradle of mankind, religious groups are trying to block the opening of the National Museum’s exhibit of human fossils. The fossil record of human ancestry has a particular fascination. To me, these are far more precious than the Crown Jewels.
The Turkana Boy. Homo erectus, 1.5 million years old. The most complete ancient human skeleton ever found. It’s one of the most precious relics in any museum anywhere in the world. It would be an enormous pity if there were any pressure not to allow it to be seen. The ten-million-strong Evangelical movement in Kenya has run a hide-the-bones campaign. By coincidence, I was born right next door to the church where the protest is being led by Bishop Bonifes Adoyo.
Well, I’m an ape. I’m an African ape. I’m very proud to be an African ape, and so should you be. Don’t you think the evidence should be displayed for all to see and make up their own minds?
Everybody should make up their own mind. No, I am not against the display, I am against the attachment of the evolution theory to the display.
See, that’s all we’re talking about.
You’d be happy for them to be displayed but not the evolutionary messages?
they are complete human being skulls.
Well, not really.
They’re very much smaller than ours and they’ve got very much less brain. The three-million-year-old one had the same-sized brain as chimpanzees. They were kind of chimpanzees on their hind legs, so it was a first step towards becoming human. The next step was then, in the Turkana Boy, to have a bigger brain, and the final step was to have an even bigger brain, like us.
If that’s where we originated and evolved into this stage, why aren’t those chimpanzees also evolving…into man? Why aren’t they extinct? Because by the time they developed to this level, they should have been extinct.
No, that’s not the way evolution works. We’re not descended from them. We are cousins of them. So we and they go back to a common ancestor. There are the chimpanzees, there’s us. We go back to a common ancestor. Now, that common ancestor was not a chimpanzee and it was not a human, it was something else. And it evolved towards being a chimpanzee and in a different direction, it evolved towards being a human. So chimpanzees have been evolvingall that time, and humans have been evolving all that time, and they’ll probably both go on evolving but we can’t predict where that will go. ‘Our discussion now threw up an important point about evolution.’
So what is the goal of evolution? It doesn’t have goals. It’s a misunderstanding to say evolution has goals. It never had. It just changes. This is crucial. To understand evolution by natural selection, you have to grasp that it is not a grand scheme with goals. It’s a harsh, unguided process which simply favours those that are most successful at passing on their genes. It has no morality or purpose. And we humans are just one of its products.
Darwin took man off his pedestal and made him an animal, like all others. We evolved in the ruthless competition of nature. So what does that mean for us and our society? To begin to grapple with this problem, we have to understand what nature is in all its brutal glory. It looks like nature in harmony. Actually, as Darwin realised, there’s a struggle out there. All the players are working for their own benefit and because they are surrounded by others working for their own benefit, they tend to exploit each other.
In the shady forest, all the plants are struggling to get to the light. Big trees pay the price legitimately by growing up to the sun. But this strangler fig does a very strange and cruel thing. It started life high up in the tree from a seed, perhaps dropped by a fruit-eating monkey. It then sent roots down towards the ground in order to get nourishment from the ground. And then these roots proliferate all around the original tree and strangle it to death. Eventually, the original tree will die and the fig will be left standing on its own, having usurped its position in the sun. The bitter struggle for survival in nature has been the dynamic force that has driven the evolution of life. And this is where my own struggle with the consequences of Darwinism begins. Attacks on Darwin have claimed that his goalless, soulless theory has unleashed the worst of human nature. If nature is ruthless competition, and nature is where we evolved, then is this the model for human society? Every man for himself? Well, let’s look at this. There is one area of human affairs in which the dog-eat-dog mentality seems to many entirely natural.
In business. Certain elements of business have always loved what they perceive as Darwin’s message – the strong must survive, the weak perish. Here is apparent justification for unrestrained capitalism and denying help to the poor. Several of the great entrepreneurs of the early 20th century, the so-called “robber barons” like the oil tycoon John D Rockefeller, were unashamed social Darwinists. They believed human progress would be delivered by modelling business and society on nature, on the unceasing struggle of the jungle.
So Darwinism in business seems to be little more than a metaphor, an analogy. It certainly doesn’t provide a straight forward natural law for economic progress, as social Darwinists used to argue. But can Darwinism be applied to other areas of human affairs? What about taking back the reins of our own evolution? Don’t copy nature but control it. Speed up the elimination process.
‘Once they have been born, defectives are happier and more useful ‘in these institutions than when at large, but it would have been better by far ‘if they had never been born.’ It’s been tried before. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century aimed to stop the weak procreating through compulsory sterilisation of the unfit. Eugenics seeks to apply the known laws of heredity so as to prevent the degeneration of the race, and improve its inborn qualities. Here was a slippery slope down to a nightmare. At its worst, eugenics became a dark, tribal vision ultimately used to justify ethnic genocide in Nazi Germany with horrific echoes in Bosnia and Rwanda.
I feel strongly that the barbarism that was the culmination of eugenics in the 20th century was atrocious. But it’s important to say eugenics is not Darwinism. Eugenics is not a version of natural selection. Hitler, despite popular legend, was not a Darwinist. Every farmer, horticulturalist or pigeon-fancier knew how to breed for desired outcomes.
Eugenicists like Hitler borrowed from breeders. What Darwin uniquely realized was that nature can play the role of breeder. Darwin has been wrongly tainted. I’ve always hated how Darwin is wheeled out to justify cut-throat business competition, racism and right-wing politics, and throughout my career. I’ve grappled with the apparent paradox of the way co-operation, being nice to each other, even morality, could evolve from the mindless brutality of nature.
Charles Darwin argued in Origin Of Species that evolution of life on Earth had been driven by a brutal struggle for existence. Natural selection can seem bleak for many biologists. Certainly, nature can be pitiless and cruel. But I’ve been intrigued by what appear to be acts of kindness in nature – warning cries, huddling for warmth and comfort, and mutual grooming. Animals like these are displaying what we call altruism. They’re giving something to another at a cost to themselves. The question I’ve grappled is why. The explanation must, at some point, involve the brain. Altruism, like any other behaviour, must have evolved over time as brains have evolved.
We’ve every reason to believe that the mind is a product of the activity of the brain. It’s clear that the brain is an organ. It’s got an evolutionary history. All of the parts in the human brain you can find in the brain of a chimpanzee and other mammals. And we also know that the brain is not just a random neural network, and we have reason to believe that a lot of the products of the brain – our perception, our emotions, our language, our ways of thinking – are strategies for negotiating a world – surviving, bringing up children, finding mates, negotiating relationships.
I suppose we can all understand why sexual lust has a Darwinian survival value And people have…no problem accepting Darwinian explanations for emotions that are triggered by the physical world – fear of heights and snakes and spiders and the dark and deep water, disgust at bodily secretions that might be carrying parasites, or rotting meat and so on but often feel a little more surprised and even resistant to the idea that some of our moral emotions might have an evolutionary basis – like trust, sympathy or gratitude. But I think that, as clear as it is that fear has an evolutionary basis, I think our moral emotions can be analysed in the same way.
I think Stephen Pinker is right and we do have an evolved morality. But I also understand why there is resistance to the idea. Why would the genes for the parts of the brain that involve giving at a cost to oneself be inherited in nature’s brutal struggle for existence?
I want to look at another case where individual survival doesn’t appear to be the priority. A peacock’s plumage is gorgeous but it must get in the way of its own survival. It’s easily spotted by predators and its huge weight must hinder a quick escape. So why isn’t the peacock’s tail eliminated by natural selection? Charles Darwin was puzzled. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail whenever I gaze at it,” he wrote, “makes me sick.” But it was Darwin himself who hit upon the answer – sex. The peacock’s tail is a burden to himself but a boon to the genes that built it.
Why? Because the tail wins sexual partners. Something about the peahen’s brain is attracted to bright feathers and extravagant, maybe costly, advertisement. Peacock evolution has been shaped
not jut by individual survival but by peahen brains. Peahens, in effect, selectively breed peacocks
as pigeon fanciers breed pigeons. Darwin defined this as sexual selection Evolution, he now realised, wasn’t just about which animals survived, but which could prevail in winning the favours of the opposite sex.
There are two ways for an individual to pass his genes on to the next generation – you’ve got to survive and you may have to be attractive to the opposite sex. A peacock is a walking advertising hoarding. A peacock’s tail with its eye spots is like a walking neon sign.
I became fascinated by the issue of how animals evolved to be nice. This was barely ten years after the structure of DNA and genes had first been cracked by Watson and Crick, and I was intrigued how the new science of genetics could help provide an answer to the puzzle of altruism. Genes are coded instructions that build every living thing – body and mind. They give rise to the distinctive family nose down through the generations. They dictate what colour eyes you have. Now here’s the point – we organisms – you, me, an octopus, are survival machines. We are vehicles for the genes that ride inside us – vehicles that are thrown away after we’ve handed the precious coded information on to the next generation through reproduction. Genes are copied from one generation to the next, on and on. So they, and they alone, are immortal.
I advocate a kind of genes’-eye view of nature. The genes that survive are the ones that consistently provide slightly longer necks, slightly keener eyes or improved camouflage and so help their vehicle to survive and therefore pass those same genes on. The survival of the fittest really means the survival of genes, because it is only genes that really survive down through many generations. A gene that didn’t look after its own interests would not survive. That’s the meaning of the phrase “selfish gene”.
OK, so how can selfish genes support kindness? If genes are striving selfishly to make more copies of themselves, how can a gene achieve this selfish objective by making its bearer behave altruistically? One part of the answer is kinship. An altruistic gene can spread through the population so long as the altruism is directed at other organisms that have the same gene.
In other words, at family. So selfish genes build parent animals who protect their young. In human terms, parents who’d rush into a burning building to save their children. This is called kin selection. The other part of the answer is reciprocal altruism.
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. When animals live in groups where they encounter each other repeatedly, genes for returning favours can survive. Individuals sacrifice themselves for each other, they give food to each other, to close kin and to other individuals who might be in a position to pay back favours on another occasion. Selfish genes give rise to altruistic individuals. The idea that altruism ultimately boils down to a survival game for genes raised hackles, but it’s now widely accepted among biologists.
Ideological streak which says animals are not nice to each other, we humans should not be nice to each other. There’s no reason to help the poor because the poor need to help themselves and if they cannot, they perish and that’s fine. ‘I hate social Darwinism too, ‘but that doesn’t mean we should romanticise nature ‘or not face facts when it comes to the genetic roots of altruism. ‘I think altruism has been favoured ‘by kin selection in small groups in nature. ‘But when it comes to humans, something special is going on.’ We’ve gone beyond kin selection.
Our world now has been scaled up. We live amongst large, anonymous populations of strangers, not kin who share our genes and not people who we might expect to return favours. And yet we still have a lust to be nice. The rule that’s built into your brain says, “Be nice to everyone you meet.” And that works in nature because everyone you meet is part of the small group. Everyone you meet is probably going to be a cousin. So when I see another human being in distress, weeping, or something like that, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to go and console, to maybe put my arm around them. “What’s the matter? How can I help?” “Um…please let me help you.” And that’s a strong inner urge which, as a Darwinian, I believe has ancestral roots in a past when I lived in small groups like this, small bands in which I was likely to be surrounded by kin or surrounded by individuals who could reciprocate. I no longer am. This person who’s weeping is a complete stranger to me. They will never reciprocate, and yet the lust is still there. I can’t help it.
Oh, she lost it.
She got it last time.
I got another one.
Why are humans often so good to complete strangers? Could it be because our selfish genes are,
in some sense – a blessed sense – misfiring? Compare it to sexual desire. The lust to copulate, even though we deliberately use contraception to thwart its evolutionary purpose, is still there because of hardwiring from the genes. Similarly, we have a lust to be nice, even to total strangers, because niceness has been hardwired into us from the time when we used to live in small groups of close kin and close acquaintances with whom it would pay to reciprocate favours. This, for me, is the antidote to the darkness some have seen in our Darwinian heritage. And it goes further. The joy of being conscious human beings is that we rise above our origins.
Our misfiring selfish genes mean we don’t ape the nastiness of nature but extract ourselves from it and live by our values. As Darwin recognised, we humans are the first and only species able to escape the brutal force that created us – natural selection.
We civilised men do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. We institute poor laws and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.
the 999 Club in London’s East End. It takes in the less fortunate, alcoholics, drug addicts and the homeless, providing them with tea and hot meals. Such altruism is, I believe, among the pinnacles of human civilisation. We care for the most vulnerable in our society. We look after the sick, we give welfare to the needy. I feel, which I’ve always felt, that they need something hot… to warm ’em up. When they’ve been out all night sleeping and…they’ve got no warmth in their bodies. If they only have a cup of soup…
And what makes you feel the need to be so nice and so good? Well, I was a war child, so we never had a lot of food, and that’s why I’ve always tried to look after these as best I can. If they’re hungry, I’ll feed ’em. You felt hungry as a child, so you felt you didn’t want that to happen to others. That’s it. That’s how I felt. We can empathise. We can imagine how it is for others. A society run on crude Darwinian lines would be a ruthless, merciless place. Fortunately, natural selection gave us big brains. With those big brains, we can plan a gentler society – the sort of society in which we would want to live. Evolution has no purpose. There’s no benevolence there, no forward planning. Some people find that disturbing, but there is a better way to think about it.
We, alone on Earth, have evolved to the extraordinary point where we can understand the selfish genes that shaped us. They’re not models for how to behave, but the opposite. Because we are conscious of these forces, we can work towards taming them. Through kindness and morality, modern medicine, charity, even paying our taxes, we can overthrow the tyranny of natural selection. Our evolved brains empower us to rebel against our selfish genes. Next time, into the lion’s den – today’s religious backlash against Darwin. The ever more elaborate strategies to deny the evidence of evolution and how Darwin himself struggled with the implications of his own theory.