Darwinian Evolution: To What Extent Does it Apply to Man?
As the theory of evolution was being developed, scientists had to work a lot of things out in order to generate a “story” that was plausible and convincing. This called for especially rigorous attention to detail, since they were competing with the theory of creationism which said that variation of living things over time is not a result of interactions with their environment, but rather is a reflection of the Divine Plan; a plan that is fixed, and that foresees and governs every change we see in the living world. Some of the various problems that scientists had to work out to make a credible case for evolution included: How could they find proof for a process that had taken place over thousands of years, and for which the evidence was extremely scattered? What were the basic units of change; were they whole species, individual organisms, or individual genes? Finally, the biggest question they had to attempt to answer was: Why does evolution happen? Why don’t living things just stay the same?
Thanks to Darwin, evolution became a widespread and accepted theory. Not only did Darwin make significant contributions to our understanding of the role that genetics plays in evolution, but he also presented a powerful reason why evolution takes place. That reason was natural selection. As Ernst Mayr says in his book, What Evolution Is, “the theory of natural selection proposed by Darwin and Wallace became the cornerstone of the modern interpretation of evolution” (Mayr 115).
What were the governing principles of natural selection, and why did they provide such a convincing case for the constant changes we see in the living world? The theory of natural selection says that, on a planet that has limited resources (food, water, shelter, etc.) there can only be so many members of each species living on it at any one time. This results in intense competition among the members of each species for these resources so that they can stay alive and pass down their genes-- the genes that made them able to survive the current conditions of their environment. As a result of this competition, some members of a species live, and others die, and the ones that live pass down their genes to their offspring. Over time, due to many factors that produce genetic variety, such as sexual reproduction (in which there is a lot of gene variety), gene mutation, gene flow, etc., the phenotypes of populations change, and sometimes so much so that they become an entirely different species.
As we can see, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is quite convincing; yet, there are still many observations that scientists have made about living creatures that are not explainable by Darwinian evolution and his proposition of natural selection. One such aspect is altruism. Altruism is defined as the tendency of living creatures of all kinds to perform acts that serve other creatures, but that do not have any benefit for themselves. When Darwin first observed this tendency in nature, based upon his theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, he concluded that although some acts may appear to be altruistic, they ultimately are for the benefit of the giver whether this payoff is immediate or not. For example, according to Darwin, while may initially appear that parents performing acts of “kindness” towards their children is altruistic, in actuality it is not because the parents know that caring for their child ensures the child's survival. If the child survives until reproductive age, then he/she will reproduce and will carry on the parent’s lineage.
Later, in the 1830’s, Darwin revised his thinking about altruism after James Mackintosh, the brother-in-law of Darwin’s uncle, insisted that "the moral sense for right conduct, or our our immediate perception of what we ought to do in a situation, would not depend on any rational calculation of pleasures and pains utilities and disutilities. We would simply recognize innately what behaviors would be morally required in a situation” (Richards 138). This is especially true with human beings. At this challenge Darwin came to recognize the validity of altruism for its own sake, but ultimately argued that there is still some intrinsic biological basis for this mode of thought and behavior. Altruistic tendencies are somehow a necessary component to biological life.
Perhaps, however, we should not accept Darwin’s proposition that everything every species does is for a strict biological purpose so easily, particularly with regards to man. Why? As Mayr mentions in What Evolution Is, man is capable of producing many things (language, art, music, literature, etc.) which are purely cultural; that is, in order to understand these things, in order to process them, relate to them, and use them, we do not rely on our genes. We rely on skills that have been acquired during our lives. Furthermore, our culture is not something that contributes to our survival. It is merely for pleasure and enrichment.
How then, do we make sense of the transmission of culture from a Darwinian perspective? It is very difficult to find any parallels. Let’s think about literature, for example. In J. Hillis Miller’s Book, On Literature, one of Miller’s central arguments is that literature creates a kind of virtual reality. Says Miller, referring to literary works, “each is the fictive actualization of one alternative possibility not realized in the ‘real world’” (Miller 33). Granted, sometimes this virtual reality can mimic the real world, but the fact is that as humans, we are able to create something that is entirely disconnected from the physical world in which we live. Therefore, going back to Darwin, it would be hard to argue that our creation and transmission of literature benefits our bodily survival. Many people agree that it benefits our intellectual survival, but again, this deviates from Darwin’s theory that everything living things do is motivated by stimuli they receive from their environment.
This same kind of alternate or parallel world can also be created through other cultural products. A painting or a sculpture, for example, can represent something in the real world, but it is not that actual thing that is in the real world. Or, art can be completely abstract, and have nothing to do with the real world. There are many abstract pieces of art that affect us just as deeply as those which represent something realistic. Music is yet another cultural phenomenon that has the quality of creating an alternate universe. Immersed in the world of sound, we isolate our consciousness from the phyisical world--the world in which Darwinian evolution takes place.
What else in our world are we as humans able to “think our way past?” Perhaps an even more convincing example of the limitations of Darwin’s theory is how far we have come as a species in terms of technological advancement, especially those advances which enable us to have control over the very environments which Darwin claimed controlled us! Such advancements include things like medicine, genetic engineering, and so on. We have also mapped our entire genome, found ways to manipulate the results of birth, and are even currently working on drugs that will prolong the natural life span. Whether all these advances are “good” or not is a highly controversial topic, but the fact is that we have discovered them and applied them, and probably will continue to discover and apply more technological advances to our lives.
That having been said, there are aspects of our environment that we have absolutely no way to control. We cannot stop a tornado, or make a person live past his natural life span, or proclaim that we are above such basic instincts as needing to eat, sleep, etc.
However, given that we have proven time and time again that we as humans have in many ways risen above the constraints of Darwinian evolution, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the place of Darwinian theory in such times. What lies ahead for us as a human race? Given the astounding power of our brains, is it possible that one day we could evolve into a species that is more sophisticated and complex than what we currently understand as “human?” It is not likely that Darwin would think so, but then again there seem to be a lot of characteristics of the human species that Darwin was not able to account for, as we have seen in this paper. Therefore, maybe it is time to create a new discourse through which we come to understand the basis of human life—specifically, the workings of the human mind.
Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Miller, J. Hillis. On Literature. New York: Routeledge, 2002.
Richards, Robert J. “Darwin’s Romantic Biology: The Foundation of his Evolutionary
Ethics.” Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. Ed. by Jane Maienschien
and Michael Ruse. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.