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Darwin Misunderstood

published February 2009
On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday two myths persist about evolution and natural selection
magazine cover

On July 2, 1866, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, wrote to Charles Darwin to lament how he had been “so repeatedly struck by the utter inability of numbers of intelligent persons to see clearly or at all, the self acting & necessary effects of Nat Selection, that I am led to conclude that the term itself & your mode of illustrating it, however clear & beautiful to many of us are yet not the best adapted to impress it on the general naturalist public.” The source of the misunderstanding, Wallace continued, was the name itself, in that it implies “the constant watching of an intelligent ‘chooser’ like man’s selection to which you so often compare it,” and that “thought and direction are essential to the action of ‘Natural Selection.’” Wallace suggested redacting the term and adopting Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Unfortunately, that is what happened, and it led to two myths about evolution that persist today: that there is a prescient directionality to evolution and that survival depends entirely on cutthroat competitive fitness.

Contrary to the first myth, natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is “selecting” organisms for survival in the benign sense of pigeon breeders selecting for desirable traits in show breeds or for extinction in the malignant sense of Nazis selecting prisoners at death camps. Natural selection is nonprescient — it cannot look forward to anticipate what changes are going to be needed for survival. When my daughter was young, I tried explaining evolution to her by using polar bears as an example of a “transitional species” between land mammals and marine mammals, but that was wrong. Polar bears are not “on their way” to becoming marine mammals. They are well adapted for their arctic environment.

Natural selection simply means that those individuals with variations better suited to their environment leave behind more offspring than individuals that are less well adapted. This outcome is known as “differential reproductive success.” It may be, as the second myth holds, that organisms that are bigger, stronger, faster and brutishly competitive will reproduce more successfully, but it is just as likely that organisms that are smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative will do so as well.

This second notion in particular makes evolution unpalatable for many people, because it covers the theory with a darkened patina reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog” defender, promoted this “gladiatorial” view of life in a series of popular essays on nature “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” The myth persists. In his recent documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein linked Darwinism to Communism, Fascism and the Holocaust. Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling misread biologist Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene to mean that evolution is driven solely by ruthless competition, both between corporations and within Enron, leading to his infamous “rank and yank” employee evaluation system, which resulted in massive layoffs and competitive resentment.

This view of life need not have become the dominant one. In 1902 the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin published a rebuttal to Huxley and Spencer in his book Mutual Aid. Calling out Spencer by phrase, Kropotkin observed: “If we … ask Nature: ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” Since that time science has revealed that species practice both mutual struggle and mutual aid. Darwinism, properly understood, gives us a dual disposition of selfishness and selflessness, competitiveness and cooperativeness.

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the same day as Abraham Lincoln, who also struggled to reconcile our binary natures in his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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6 Comments to “Darwin Misunderstood”

  1. stanley marcus Says:

    If you are not already aware of “The 10000 year Explosion ” by Cochran and Harpending, I suggest you do so. It argues for accelerated evolution in the last 10-30,000 years- very interesting

  2. Simon Says:

    Per the article above: can evolution be properly said to have pace, thereby making acceleration an applicable attribute? The rate of change discernible to us may (seem to) have increased, but, to paraphrase the immortal Mandy Rice-Davies “we would say that, wouldn’t we?” It is interesting that, in my understanding, the common misinterpretations of evolution are almost always OVER-interpretations which support the cherished idea of human centrality.

    In this particular case, I’m wondering if the authors are using that “explosion” as yet another way of glorifying the Cosby-esque wonderfulness of our good selves?


  3. Geoff Says:

    The last time I poked my nose into evolution was as an undergrad 15 years ago, so this line of thought may be dated (but pertinent nonetheless): Stephen Jay Gould argued that there are periodic “forcing houses” for the creation of new species, meaning short periods of time (geologically speaking) that show rapid change and the destruction and introduction of many species, followed by very long periods of equilibrium. “Punctuated equilibrium” is the name of the theory. Gould thought we were in the midst of a particularly radical period of change presently. So from that perspective, I guess Gould would agree that evolution has “accelerated”— but only to the extent that the change in our environment has accelerated to favour adaptive mutations.

  4. Glen McBride Says:

    I’m 84 – with an ancient degree in genetics – fell in love with Darwin when I went to Edinburgh to study and rented a house owned by the widow of a publisher whose shelves were lined with uncut books on science and philosophy – When I left, all of Darwin’s books had been cut and read – wonderful introduction. The inspiration continues. I wrote a book in 2000 on human evolution and have another finished. BUT having read the millions of words generated by the Darwin celebrtations, I have heard or read almost nothing that would excite ordinary people to enthuse about his great discovery – natural selection. When I say his discovery, he freely acknowledged several others who had also discovered natural selection in the 6th edition of Origin.

    There are many ways to look differently at natural selection – ways that appeal to ordinary non-scientists. I wonder whether your article would appeal to plumbers and carpenters, to electricians or civil service clerks. Yet natural selection has lots to say to them, about them, fascinating to them. Read your article – it is similar to hundreds of other articles sensibly celebrating Darwin. Ask yourswelf just which of the facts and consequences would appeal to people not already involved in scientific activities. What specific parts would challenge them to consider or reconsider their religious beliefs? or their beliefs about themselves? Yet this is what Darwin did for us.

    Warmly and cheerily
    Glen McBride

  5. Jor-L5150 Says:

    mr mcbride ,

    in responce to the baove post i hope you will be gratified by my experience and view:

    personally i a fully recovered former kook , and not a specialist in any field. just a working class guy raising a family .

    i find evolution to be the most fascinating science we have. i read on it all the time, the only science i enjoy nearly as much is archaeology followed by astronomy. basically anything written in SCI-AM , skeptic , and popular books for the interested non-specialist and i’m all over it. in my library the mosty well-worn books are :
    ” demon haunted world ” – carl sagan
    ” why people beleive wierd things ” – michael shermer.

    there have been several popularisers ( sp ?) of science , but at some point the INDIVIDUAL must make an effort to be better informed . folks like sagan , shermer ,de grasse tyson ..they do a great job – but a person needs to lift themselves out of malaise, denial and superstition . not everyone is up to it i geuss. but for those of us who make that excrutiating crawl from fundamentalism/apoclypticism or some other nuttiness ( astrology , mysticism etc ) then learning about science properly , evolution in particular is a very fulfilling and rewarding experience.

    hope that is reassuring, thank you for your post.

  6. Glen McBride Says:

    Ro Jor-L5150
    Greetings and delighted to read your comments. Yet I repeat – the presentation of Varwin has been poor – especially thru this celebratory period.

    Where do we see Natural selection presented as meaning that you and I have billions of ancestors, all who were successfully able to live, grow to maturioty, escape all the dangers of living and find mates, produce and real successfully offspring. All our ancestors were the winners – they were those natural selection found “successful”

    Think of it aother way.
    You have two parents, 4 grand parents, 8 great grandparents and the number doubles every genereation. So if you go back 10 generations, you have1024 ancestors in that generation and almost as many on the way back. Twenty generations back there are well over a million ancestors in that eneration. But at about 25 years per generation, you have only gone back 500 years. 40 generations produces the number of ancestors in that generation of a trillion – a million million! There have never been so many humans alove. Yet we are only back a thousand years. What happened that ma,es sense to ordinary people?

    If we had accurate pedigreees for everyone – and we don’t – we would find enormous numbers of people in that generation in 1009 with no descendants. They had no children, perhaps children and no grandchildren of great grandchildren. At the other end, there would be many people into whom there would be millions or billions of pedigree lines tracing beck to them. This is how selection works.

    Yet it still works separately every generation. Each new genereation contains a new assortment of the genes available in the last generation – and it is these that are resorted. Yet because of inheritance, those chosen in any generation have an increased chance of being selected in the next. I onve selected animals – many lines of them for hunmdreds of generations and traced these pedigree stories. Naturally there is also some inbreeding in such closed lines, and since this can operate against fitness, this operated along with the changes resulting from selection.

    Of course, even in huge human populations, not all these changes were due to natural selection. Chance played a part – think of all the people in wars killed – by chance. Arrows of bullets happened to hit people. Think of how many seafarers went to the bottom because a ship struck a storm – or pirates – or bad navigation. Chance always plays a part.

    But also there has always been migration throughout history. Sometimes there is “hybrid vigour” producing individuals possibly able to leave large numbers of descendants – Darwin was quite clear – it is not the mumber of offspring that is important but the mumber of descendants.

    I hope this adds to your excitement of natural selection.

    There are so many other ways of looking at evolutionary processes that seldom get mentioned. Many are hardly considered by evolutionary scientists.

    For example, societies are always part of the human condition. Humans did not change from apes and create human societies. Ape societies were the contwext in which apes lived – all of them. As our ancestors gradually made the many stepsof standing upright, gaining anytime sex, gaining silent ovulation, losing huge canines, communicating diferently from all other species, making gods, they always lived in societies. These were probably always small tribes ot troops, on terrritories, exchangingbreeding individuals, mostly females.

    When they invented crop growing and animal husbandry these tribes grew in size. For the first time in our evolution, people were surrounded by more indivduals than they could possibly remember – they were among strangers. But for all their history, strangers meant them thar neighbours in the next tribe – to be feared – never trusted – hated – fought. We dragged this hostility tooutsiders with us and it remains one of our most dangerous properties. But we seldom also consider that societies also evolve along with us. Animals have hundreds of society types and each species is always found with the same society structure. The societies evolved with them as contexts for living in the way they do.

    Yet society evolution is almost never discussed in teh scientific community – Ho Hum!

    Hope you have found this fun – for evolution is the greatest source of fun you will find.

    One day, an enterprising producer will make a film of our evolution – it is and always will be, the greatest story ever told.

    Warmly and cheerily
    Glen McBride

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