Chapter 15. MORE ABOUT EVOLUTION

1. Social Darwinism

2. Spiritual Darwinism

3. Theological perspectives

 

1. Social Darwinism

Darwinism has, since its inception in the latter half of the 19th Century, been influential beyond the field of biology proper, in ethical as well as economic, social and political theorizing and commentary, some of which has been pernicious. Under the heading of ‘Social Darwinism’, racism, exploitation and violence were given a boost, causing much suffering to many people. Although similar ideas existed before Darwin published his theories, they gained credence and prestige from their superficial association with such an important work of biological science. Using pseudo-scientific discourse extrapolated from Darwinism, ideologies like Hitler’s could thenceforth pretend to justify conquest and domination.

Concepts like “the struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest” seemed charged with meaning, suggesting that biology condoned harsh, dog-eat-dog societal practices, pitting people against each other and judging whoever won the contest to have naturally deserved to win. Alternatively, the necessity of “adaptation to the environment” could be interpreted as a biological call to fit-in socially and not make waves, to accept and not rebel, to be subservient to the powers-that-be. The doctrine served both to justify the oppressors and to keep their victims docile.

Here, we wish to ask the question – is such reasoning logically appropriate? Given that human society is from a biological viewpoint an ordinary population grouping, one might well infer that such concepts can legitimately be applied to it. But if there are conceptual errors concealed in such discourse, what are they – i.e. what are the limits of the Darwinian concepts of evolution?

To begin with, it should be admitted that the conceptual error is not entirely on the side of the Social Darwinists – they were dished out a misleading terminology by Darwin himself. Terms like ‘struggle’, ‘fittest’ and ‘adaptation’ were no doubt chosen as approximations illustrating certain aspects of evolution, but the ignorant and their manipulators could readily misconstrue them as confirming a ‘law of the jungle’ scenario for society. In principle, epistemologically, these choices were of course legitimate; as our knowledge develops, we frequently expand and contract the meanings of existing words to match new data. But they were unfortunate, in that they were easily misused.

Paradoxically, such terms are based in the human (and animal, or at least higher animal) experience, but applied by the biologist by analogy to the whole range of living beings (including bacteria and plants), who thereby gives them new and specialized connotations. The Social Darwinist then comes along and picks up these same terms, reapplying them to human society, in view of their anthropomorphic flavor, glossing over the biologist’s precise intentions, and concentrating exclusively on the images the terms superficially project by virtue of their original meanings. Although the terms have returned to their original domain, they have in the interim acquired subtle ethological significations.

Thus, the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ projects an image of fighting for one’s life against difficult odds and powerful enemies; the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ implies that in this life and death struggle whoever won is naturally the best man, who in fact deserved to succeed all along, as his victory proved ex post facto; the phrase ‘adaptation to the environment’ suggests a scenario of submission, which the losers if they at all survive must remain content with, serving their masters, keeping their tails well between their legs. These dramatic connotations were conveniently adopted by the Social Darwinists, under the pretense that they came from biology.

What such phrases have in common, in their original senses, before Darwinism used them as biological expressions, is the underlying human (or animal) consciousness and will they imply. When biology co-opted them, it applied them indiscriminately to organisms without these faculties, notably bacteria and plants. Moreover, the harsher aspects of the original words were simply abandoned in favor of wider and softer applications. For example, when a flower appeared in nature, with a brighter color than hitherto, one more attractive to pollinating insects – this was labeled by the biologists as an ‘adaptation’, a maneuver in the ‘struggle’ and an increased ‘fitness’.

Apart from such terminological misappropriation, Social Darwinism involves serious misunderstandings of the concepts of biological Darwinism. Evidently, bacteria and plants cannot be said to have purposes, since they lack consciousness and will – their ‘actions’ can only at best be regarded as quasi-purposive, in the sense that they apparently de facto have a common direction, viz. the perpetuation of life. Thus, the flower in our example did not ‘do’ anything that could literally be characterized as adapting, struggling or becoming fitter; the flower can claim no credit for its evolution. According to Darwinism, there were just random genetic mutations, which happened to be physically compatible with surrounding conditions that happened to occur.

The concept of struggle for existence, as understood by biology, treats every possible behavior pattern under the same heading. It is not limited to situations of conflict or even of difficulty, but covers every aspect of the life of individuals and populations that happens to be ‘good for’ them. In this broad perspective, cooperation, sharing, mutual service and symbiosis are equally forms of ‘struggle’ – they are expedients adopted by the organisms concerned – consciously, or of course (by analogy) unconsciously, as the case may be – to further their own lives, by means of exchanges of goods and divisions of labor. Even true altruism (to the extent of self-sacrifice) may be assimilated under this concept, if separate individuals or groups are conceived as really parts of the same whole. Tolerance and peace are also expedients. Social Darwinism foolishly or cunningly ignores such nuances.

Furthermore, Social Darwinists misunderstand natural selection. Survival is not a product of conquest or at least compromise in some dramatic struggle of the organism with other organisms and with the environment. Survival, even for humans, is not proof of some sort innate fitness or personal credit; things are not that simple, orderly or satisfying[1]. As Darwin was careful to stress, survival is mostly a matter of plain luck. The law of averages makes some individuals or groups survive and some die off, with little or no regard for their genetic potential.

For example, a city tree has thousands of seeds; most of them fall on the pavement, with no chance of ever germinating; one or two may fall on the lawn under the tree and not get raked away by the gardener, each giving rise to a seedling; then comes the lawn-mower and puts an end to that attempt, though one seedling may be missed and grow on for awhile. In this example, the seeds all have genetic content of more or less equal value for the furtherance of life, though some may in fact be more robust and fertile than others; but it is generally mere chance and not their relative genetic potential that has determined which finally survived.

The same truism applies to all individual lives. Lightning may strike a tree, which falls and kills the dominant monkey in a group – supposedly, the best genetic specimen; it was not killed by any inherent unfitness, but by bad luck; there was no fault in its makeup that differentiated it from its mates, that earmarked it for genetic extinction (assuming it had no offspring before) – it was simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As, indeed, was the tree. The trees and monkeys spared by that accident of nature may in fact be genetically much weaker and in the long term have less chances of survival, so that the world’s genetic pool has in fact been impoverished by those two deaths.

Similarly, with regard to whole species: The existence of the human species today is just, according to biology, due to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago when a giant meteor struck planet Earth. The dinosaurs were eminently ‘fit’ for life here, more so than the mammals, since the former did much better than the latter for over 130 million years, keeping them small and insignificant. Only after these essentially fitter species were wiped out, could the mammals (those that happened to survive the cataclysm) emerge, diversify and grow, eventually giving rise to the human species.

It may be that if dinosaurs had survived, they would have in time given rise to species far superior to the human (i.e. more intelligent and more powerful, in the best senses of those terms). Maybe the genetic strains that did survive the catastrophe, and give rise to the human species, were by far inferior in every respect, except for a lucky break. One could of course argue that the mammals were proven fitter by the very fact of their survival; their fitness consisting presumably in being smaller (under 25 kg) and thus able to take shelter from the physical upheavals that destroyed the dinosaurs (though not all of them, note – since reptiles, birds, and other of their descendents persist). But this argument is rather circular, because it treats exceptional events as on a par with routine events.

Fitness, or adaptive capacity, should not be construed as implying a sort ability in principle to somehow preempt eventual disasters. In our above example of the tree and monkey struck down by lightning, the natural event involved was such that it would have killed any other tree and monkey that happened to be there at the time. The trees and monkey that survived had nothing notably different in their makeup; nothing saved them other than coincidence. In particular, the surviving monkeys did not sense the lightning coming and scatter.

Some commentators, after similar reflections, have suggested the expression ‘survival of the luckiest’ would be more accurate. More precisely, we might say that, within the range of those biologically fit enough to survive in a given environment, the fittest are not always the luckiest. The specimens that do ‘make it’ are not necessarily the ideal candidates. I shudder to think of all the great genes destroyed in natural disasters, and due to human wars and environmental devastation. Ours is not ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

The concept of fitness (as here described) is faulty not only because it ignores the important factor of luck, but also because it is applied in an undifferentiated manner to the whole organism or species, rather than to specific characteristics, and is then used for comparative purposes. It should be kept in mind that (a) each fitness is relative: what is fit in one respect may be unfit in other respects; and (b) overall fitness is an average: the same individual or group may have more characters that are usually more fit than characters that are usually less fit, and so be declared ‘on the whole fit’; therefore (c) comparisons of fitness between individuals or species are not very meaningful, since different circumstances are necessarily involved in their respective lives.

If a man is eaten by a tiger, it does not prove the tiger to belong to a higher species than the man. It just means that the tiger is physically stronger than the man. It remains true that, in other respects, the man is superior to the tiger, being able to invent a spear or gun that kills it at a distance, or simply by virtue of being able to write poetry. If the human species ends up eliminating the tiger species, it does not prove the tiger species to have been unfit for life on earth. It just shows how stupid and shortsighted mankind can be. Similarly, in human society: if a thug kills a gentleman, or a Nazi kills a Jew, it is only a demonstration that the former was more violent, and certainly not proof of greater moral or social worth. The victim is not shown genetically deficient or constitutionally less viable.

 

2. Spiritual Darwinism

Those who believe in Social Darwinism usually wish to flatter themselves that they belong to the class of the fittest; the superior, beautiful people; the dominant elite. I would say that a more logical impact from Darwinism would be to make us kinder, more sympathetic to other creatures. That is its impact on me, anyway. Once we realize that we are all really made of the same stuff, just genetic variations on the theme of living matter, we feel closer to other people, other peoples and other species.

Social Darwinism promoted a culture of racism, claiming a genetic basis for its collective evaluations of peoples. But the ‘value’ of a person is not in his or her genes, but in what he or she makes of them – in his or her ‘virtue’. The dignity of a human being, as of an animal, is in how it responds to the challenges of life with the means at its disposal, the use it makes of its cognitive and volitional powers. In the case of humans, the possibility and necessity of decency towards others seems essential, since violence, hatred and fear are in the long run to the disadvantage of all, even if they may in the short run seem advantageous to some. Nothing in biological science justifies the reading that war, of some against others or of all against all, is natural. For creatures like us endowed with reason and freewill, wisdom, kindness and intelligence are obviously the best course.

It is interesting to note that the image of human society projected by Social Darwinists matches perfectly with the traditional portrayal of the egoist grasping and clinging, climbing over the bodies of all those that are in his way, taking whatever he wants whenever he can. It shows up the essence of Social Darwinism, as a narrow-minded doctrine designed to vindicate selfish pursuits and the social injustice resulting from them. Instead of such mindless behavior, spreading suffering, one may of course propose an enlightened self-interest that considers the broader and longer-term consequences of one’s actions. In Darwinist terms, one could say that only justice, peace and love (excuse the clichés[2]) are over time likely to ensure survival of human life and life in general.

Finally, it is all an issue of quality of life. What kind of world do we want to live in – an obscure place of stupidity and conflict, death and destruction, or a shining place of wisdom and harmony, life and progress? Of course, utopian philosophies and religions can also cause much harm, but they should not for that reason be ignored, constituting as they do mankind’s attempts to probe more deeply into such issues.

Can Darwinism, properly conceived (and not as some have historically misconstrued it), assist the humanities (i.e. ethical, social, economic and political discourse)? The time frame of biological evolution is very long, very much longer than the span of human history. The humanities mainly draw on the latter for their empirical data, to predict what forms of social behavior and organization are likely to bring good or bad to individual humans, human groups or humanity as a whole. The survival of the human (and other) species is a legitimate standard of judgment for the humanities, drawn from biology. But within that broad framework, many conjectures are possible, between which we can only judge with reference to history, if only approximately. Many questions faced by humanity remain unanswerable, whether we look to biology or to history, for the simple reason that they deal with novel issues that have no precedent in the past.

In any case, we have seen in the present work the specificity of human beings, in terms of their degree of consciousness and volition compared to other animals. These two differentia are radical enough to suggest that whatever conclusions biology may come to with respect to life in general, it has to reconsider them very carefully when trying to apply them specifically to homo sapiens. A species that displays such major distinctions is bound to be subject to some more specific, less mechanistic biological considerations. Our fate cannot be left to chance. If humans have the power of choice, then their nature is to refer to ethical discourse, to help them decide in a pondered manner what courses to follow.

It is important in this context to understand the term ‘survival’ in a large and deep sense. Ultimately, it does not just mean physical continuity at all costs; this is only minimal survival. There are greater degrees of survival, ranging from physical health up through psychological wellbeing to spiritual life. The human being, especially, is no mere body, but a largely mental and spiritual entity. Mankind is not just driven by matter, but has other, seemingly ‘higher’ considerations. Consequently, the standards of success or failure may be different for humans than for other species.

A person may succeed materially but woefully fail in other dimensions of his or her being. Another may fail in the material domain yet succeed in the intellectual or spiritual domain. Who is ‘better off’? If we insist on applying ‘genetic perpetuation’ as the only conceivable biological norm, we will prefer the first. But if we allow that at the human level of existence other issues may be involved, we may prefer the second. The fact is, many people are no longer subject to the reproductive instinct, and choose to have sex lives without begetting children, or to become monks or nuns.

Physically, they are naturally selected out; but what does that prove? Perhaps some of the latter function on another evolutionary scale, wherein it is not the genes that matter most but the soul. Perhaps genes only exist to eventually give rise to souls, or as vehicles for souls. The materialist interpretation of things is not necessarily the final word. I mean, from an ethical point of view, it is just a doctrine like any other.

It could be argued, in accord with the biological principle of evolution, that the soul ‘evolved’ in certain forms of living organism, as an instrument of the body, improving the body’s chances of survival and reproduction. In a materialist perspective, ‘spiritual philosophy’ may then be considered as an aberration, whereby the tool (the soul) has forgotten its original function and acquired the pretension that it is life’s goal and that the body must serve it. But it is equally conceivable that, once the soul appeared on the biological scene, it surpassed all other considerations in the material pursuits of the organisms that had one.

The latter perspective might be characterized as ‘Spiritual Darwinism’ – or as the salvation of the morally fittest – a doctrine diametrically opposed to that of historical ‘Social Darwinism’, which refers to the physical or political dominion of thugs. If we reflect, the spiritual principle of salvation of the morally fittest is nothing new; it has always been the basis of spiritual philosophies like Judaism or Buddhism. Some people advance on the spiritual path, and some are left behind or regress. Some people make the effort to evolve spiritually and are ‘saved’ or ‘enlightened’; others refuse to use their life constructively, and remain in darkness or sink further down. So it goes – and few, very few, find their way to true ‘survival’ – i.e. ‘eternal life’.

 

3. Theological perspectives

Some observers, mostly out of religious motives, do resist the conclusion that there is evolution of species. They point to extreme mathematical improbabilities (approaching zero) of the proposed ‘changes’ taking place in the time paleontology makes available for them. They also offer statistical arguments against the possibility of life originating spontaneously by random combinations of molecules, in the first half to one billion or even full 4.6 billion years of the earth, or even the roughly 15 billion years of the universe. Furthermore, they argue that the alignment of astronomical and specifically earthly physical conditions necessary for life to emerge was too improbable for chance to be claimed.[3]

Such mathematical objections are certainly impressive, at least to a layman like me. One could for a start retort that the improbable is not quite impossible. Moreover, it may be that there are as yet undiscovered natural processes, or laws of nature, that would significantly reduce mathematical improbabilities once factored into their equations. Before rushing to a non-naturalist conclusion, however satisfying, it would seem to me wise (more in accord with inductive logic) to search for such missing data or laws.[4]

Objectors also contend that the paleontological record still has many significant gaps – and that till such ‘missing links’ are found, any such conclusion would be premature. They argue that the existence of such apparent discontinuities after over a hundred years of extensive research could be regarded as evidence of real discontinuity.

But with regard to evolutionary transition, these critics give no natural explanation as to how new species might appear without gradually emerging by procreation from previous species. To me, evolutionary continuity is more credible than discontinuity, because it is easier to explain missing links by the reasonable suppositions that (a) the populations of missing species were perhaps relatively small and short-lived, (b) the traces of most living specimens have been destroyed by natural processes over time, and (c) most of the few extant traces are too dispersed and well concealed to have been found – than to try and otherwise explain the observed abrupt appearance of fossils of numerous new species.

Such critics do not propose a hypothesis about jumps from one life form to the next by ordinary reproduction or other natural processes, but one of successive species creations; i.e. they appeal to ongoing miracles long after the initial Creation of the world. So, although their criticism of gradualism is in principle acceptable to naturalists insofar as there are unanswered questions (viz. the missing links), their suggestion of miraculous change is understandably not well received. It lacks weight, not because of atheistic prejudice, but because it is methodologically weak, since a simpler hypothesis (small and ephemeral populations, and destruction, dispersion and concealment of traces) does exist.

Certainly, modern biologists actively address the question and openly debate the issues. They consider four or five patterns of change, based on the fossil record, namely “phyletic change” (gradual “change within a single lineage of organisms”), “cladogenesis” (“splitting of lineages” based on the “founder effect”), “adaptive radiation” (“sudden – in geologic time – diversification… associated with the opening up of new biological frontiers”), and “punctuated equilibria” (based on “allopatric speciation”), as well as extinction. The theories proposed by Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, and Steven M. Stanley, are all intended to provide scientific answers to this interesting question of “the tempo of evolution”.[5]

One body of the evidence for evolution perhaps most disturbing to creationism is the great number and diversity of species existing and having existed on this planet, as well as the cantonment of different species in different geographical niches. A creationist would say this proves the richness of God’s imagination, and his making special spaces for each of His creations. However, if God’s ultimate purpose was specifically, as the Bible commentators claim, the creation of humans and the drama of their redemption, why go about it in such a roundabout way?

When the accepted scenario was as in the Bible narrative a seven-day process, mankind could seem like its crowning achievement. But now that science envisions a process of many billions of years, involving the birth, life and death, of innumerable individual organisms and species, only at the very end of which, some 6,000 years ago, does historical man appear, one may well wonder what that was all about!

Why did some species – which may look ugly and stupid to us – exist for hundreds of millions of years and then vanish without descendants in some natural catastrophe? An omniscient Being would not need to make ‘experiments’ before getting to the point. Although faith is shaken by such reflections, the idea of evolution should certainly not be regarded as intrinsically anti-theistic. Perhaps we ought to view God not as a linear technician, but as a fine artist who wished to add richness and depth to His creation.

However described, evolution can also be imagined as a process run by God, so that what looks like mechanism or chance is really hidden intention. We can say either: (a) He programmed the whole thing since Creation; or: (b) He is behind the scenes at every stage, choosing each turning at every major fork of the way. Or again: He created genes capable of a great many possible combinations and mutations, either (a) letting them naturally change, as secular science proposes, or (b) using them as a potential array of tools for providential interference, as religion prefers. In any case, there is no problem, no difficulty in reconciling the two viewpoints.

As I have made clear throughout, I am personally persistently open to the idea of Divine intervention. But I prefer to leave it as a personal faith (I stress the words personal and faith) applicable to any and all results of science, and not as a thesis in competition with scientific ones. This position makes it possible for me to retain my own faith in God, come what may in science. Whatever scientists at any time decide seems a true description of nature, I say: “OK—that was obviously God’s will”; and if scientists change their mind later on the basis of new evidence or discourse, I just say “OK” again!

The very possibility of such flexibility shows that nothing science discovers or concludes about the world can ever affect faith in God. The notion of God is indeed (as Karl Popper suggested) unfalsifiable; this may make it irrelevant to most scientific inquiry, but still does not falsify it. This is one sense in which we can think of God as an absolute: our idea of Him is not relative to any particular view of the world, but compatible with all (though of course, this is no proof of God).

However, this principle of tolerance fails if one insists on a rigid literal (as against allegorical) interpretation of certain religious texts, and refuses to constantly readapt one’s detailed beliefs to current empirical data and theorizing, continuing to promote received doctrines against all evidence and rational argument, so as to seem unshakably faithful.

The psychology of religious fanaticism is worth looking at. The fanatic seeks to appear firmly religious, thinking that such behavior demonstrates possession of the virtues of courage and loyalty. But in fact, beneath this veneer and bombast, excessive religiosity is on the contrary a mark of cowardice and betrayal, which the clerical class (of whatever persuasion) has historically often shown itself adept at exploiting. The victims (and ultimately the clerics are victims too, of course) are taught intellectual abdication, i.e. to relinquish their experience and reason when it contradicts religious dogma, under the threat that if they have different opinions (however well based and argued) they will lose God’s and the religious community’s acceptance.

The same frame of mind is programmed in people within a totalitarian society (like Nazism or Communism): to avoid punishment and obtain rewards, on a more material plane, they will admit and do anything the powers-that-be suggest or demand. I do believe that ‘fear of God’ is a good attitude, a religious teaching that many people unfortunately lack; but I cannot conceive God as wishing people to deny and incapacitate their own minds and those of their neighbors. Truth cannot be served by lying or pretending. Spiritual growth relies on honest witness and rational criticism.

An open-minded religious attitude need not be construed as an outright denial of revelation, or of its historicity; but as an admission that such revelation, if it occurred, may well have been formulated in the context of knowledge of man and the world at the historical moment of its occurrence, because its purpose was not anticipation of material information but timeless spiritual guidance. Inversely, any gainsay by scientists of the possibility or existence of God in the context of their findings and ideas is pretentious – it is using their (well-deserved) prestige beyond the limits of their field of study, making ‘inferences’ that are logically unjustified.

Religious people who resist science[6] do not bring credit to religion, but make it seem mentally retarded. It seems to me, granting God exists, that modern science has aggrandized rather than belittled the idea of God. Until recently, the scenario we imagined and believed of the creation of the universe, of the earth, of life and of mankind was very simple. The heavens were not very high, time was not very long, everything was relatively ready-formed and static, the earth was a small theater, and life on it a minor drama.

Now, the universe is perhaps 15 billion years old, containing billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, and black holes, all in motion, expanding. Inanimate matter has itself ‘evolved’ from quarks to electrons, protons and neutrons, to small atoms, to stars and larger atoms, to stars again and planets, to water molecules and carbon, to life. On earth, there have been massive geological and climatic changes, living organisms appearing and diversifying, a bewildering variety of individual and species fates in a changing environment, punctuated by a few gigantic natural catastrophes causing mass extinctions.

All sorts of weird and wonderful creatures have inhabited this planet for hundreds of millions of years, long before we and most of our most visible neighbors appeared on it. It has been estimated that “less than 1/10 of 1 percent, perhaps less than 1/1,000 of 1 percent”[7] of species ever existing are currently in existence. Humans (in their present garb) are only very recent arrivals on the time line of life on earth. Other species, very similar to humans, lived and disappeared; some even coexisted with our ancestors for tens of thousands of years before dying out.

Surely, this new scenario is much more interesting and impressive. Imagine the unfolding drama of it all over the whole sweep of time. If anything, it glorifies God!



[1] If they were evidently so, everybody would believe in God and Job would never have written his book!

[2] Most people would in principle agree with these “politically correct” generalities. However, some people treat “peace and love” as absolutes, which one must impose on oneself without regard as to whether the opposite party does so too. With that, I find it hard to agree – one has the right and duty to self-defense when necessary. That is why “justice” should also be mentioned; it ensures equilibrium.

[3] Whence, it is concluded that some Divine intervention must have been necessary – to load the dice sufficiently, as it were. I am not competent to judge the mathematics involved; but if it is correct, the miraculous conclusion would seem justified, until and unless some more natural explanation is eventually proposed. See for instance Schroeder, or the much earlier Proceedings of the Associations of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.

[4] There is no particular reason to expect God to intervene in a grandiose public manner in the course of nature. Rather, in my opinion, some sort of naturalist conclusion is to be expected and persistently sought.

[5] See Curtis and Barnes, chapter 39.

[6] It should be stressed that such attitudes are not peculiar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but equally found in Hinduism and Buddhism. The latter religions, too, contain many beliefs that are out of step with modern science. One example (drawn from various texts): the belief that the earth and humanity have always existed, with sentient beings (in human or other form) going round and round the wheel of karma forever, and so forth. These religions, too, did not predict the Big Bang or Evolution.

[7] Curtis and Barnes, p. 552.