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This is the 200th year celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth. There are new books by the dozens, there is a tremendous amount of new research into evolution and its mechanisms, and in many ways, the specifics of Darwin’s ideas have been surpassed, shown to be wrong (or inadequate), or fleshed out in ways he would hardly recognize. While an essay on the topic of evolution may seem rather oblique to the central purposes and thrust of this website, I hope to demonstrate its relevance by way of critique– certainly a method supported and favored by COUNTERPUNCH contributors and editors.
As befits the anniversary, the popular media today is filled with material on evolution. It has even permeated art and literature. In general, the issues of evolution vs. creationism (or intelligent design) are, despite the noise and smoke, peripheral battles–in that the forces of evolution have the ultimate power, not withstanding some of the strident media-hyped fears. Any resistance from marginal segments and isolated regions are not of real significance, for the hegemonic assent of “evolution” is clear and its establishment secure. I will argue, however, that it is not secure because of better argument or superior logic. Quite the contrary, this short essay might be subtitled: “Adaptation, survival of the fittest, sexual selection, selfish genes, selection for, and other truly awful ideas.”
A cardinal Darwinian notion of the mechanism of evolution is natural selection. That is, nature acts against non-human individuals (plants or animals) or groups of individuals of the same species (not genes) by way of elimination—they are, in terms of natural selections, selected against. This does not mean the survivors are selected for or favored, it simply means that survivors are not, at least for the time being, selected against. Nature is not specifically purposeful—it is not seeking out individuals or groups to eliminate. Indeed, it is benign to outcome, and individuals or groups, in a manner of speaking, make themselves available to elimination–by being too slow on the highway when a car speeds by, or by not being fast enough when a predator is chasing, or by being confined to an environment with insufficient food resource, or by not being able to breed, etc.–or (most important for non-humans), by being made available to natural selection by their social organization. Specifically, we can only hope to know how units (individuals or groups) are selected against by speculation or examination of the deceased after the fact of their elimination. Even then, it is seldom clear. That’s why the fossil record is often so inadequate. It is clear that some didn’t survive—but not always why, at least in an evolutionarily significant way. This all seems straightforward enough and relatively undebatable.
The problem, however, becomes apparent when people begin to talk with another logic (known as affirming the consequent—modus ponens—a frightful logical error) and speak of selection for one or another characteristic that can be seen on survivors, characteristically regarded by the analyst as essential to the creature’s success in not being selected against.
Survivors in natural selection—those not selected against–are only survivors. Of course they are minimally “fit” or they would not survive, but they do not have to be the “fittest,” nor can we easily attribute their survival to some supposedly advantageous characteristic. To say they are well adapted simply is to say they have not yet been selected against. Natural selection does not care, and any notion that survivors are “fittest” is logically indefensible–it is simply wrong. Survivors are simply those minimally fit individuals (or groups) that are able to propagate successfully, and– especially amongst non-humans—live successfully for the time being, according to the group dynamics and social organization that arranges individuals in time and space. That is, the social organization of non-human animals (and some plants) arranges individuals across the landscape and through generations, commonly by way of territorial management, gender and hierarchical arrangements, making some available to natural selection, some to possible elimination. These arrangements are also their means of population control (so they do not exhaust their food resources with excess numbers since they—unlike humans—have no way of expanding such food resources), and since in successful species, births always outnumber deaths.
No animals or humans–who are alive (minimally “fit”)– can be thought of as selected for, only as not yet selected against. The only kind of selection for occurs in breeding experiments where deliberate characteristics are chosen to be artificially passed on to future generations—i.e., in the domestic crop field, barnyard, and research laboratories. And this is where a lot of contemporary bad ideas about evolution had their origins. The choice of ostensibly advantageous characteristics (that is, those most appealing to the person supervising the artificial breeding) is regarded as an example of how some natural process must operate. Unfortunately, many of our evolutionary ideas (and some of Darwin’s) come from the barnyard and the forced breeding of the crop field or competition in Victorian England. and in human society rather than from deductions made from observing nature.
Moreover, as many experiments and countless observations indicate, any individual of any species (sometimes, but not always), including humans, has a vast store of unused genetic potential, and great capacities commonly unneeded and unexpressed. Individuals of every species are brighter and more capable than the requirements made upon them by the species’ social organization or societal demands. If this were not the case (particularly in the case of humans), there would be no significant change at all. Consequently, the variation within species is the key to change. Natural selection could not operate otherwise. Natural selection is not the only mechanism at work (there is mutation, genetic drift, epigenetic and development potentials and change), but we’ll here confine our discussion to natural selection.
This leads to another bad idea associated with the notion of selection for is the notion of adaptation. Humans (and all other living things) are commonly noted as being adapted if they are surviving. But we can only say this if survivors are not as yet selected against, as argued above. Adaptation is a lousy notion that most likely came about because it is difficult for Westerners to see evolution as anything but purposeful– a mechanism that is forever ‘improving’ species, individuals, etc. After all, goes the logic involved, if natural selection is at work, surely the survivors are somehow ‘better’ adapted. But in fact we can only say they have not been selected against. Nature, in the grand scheme of things, simply doesn’t care. Thus, the idea of “selfish genes,” espoused by some biologists, makes no good sense. There are some amazingly bizarre examples of species that no longer exist. And there are some amazingly bizarre species that do exist. But we cannot examine existing species or individuals in the environments in which they are found and say anything about adaptation and survival that is not trivial. Measure the total of all species that have ever existed against those species that still exist, it can be seen that nature is ruthless. Only a very miniscule percentage of all species of all time still exist today–so much for the alleged constant pressure toward greater or more successfully adapted species.
The notion of adaptation is rampant in the social sciences, such as anthropology, as well as in biology. It is seen as advantageous for species and social forms of humans to have. But surely the “best adapted” species or social group is the species or social group that is on the most evolutionary thin ice, for without variation, environment change (especially if dramatic) leaves these “well-adapted” species or social forms vulnerable. We read endlessly that various human groups are well adapted, and the archaeological literature if filled with examples. But are these not the social forms that would be least likely to be able to adjust to significant change? The successful form is surely the form that contains the most variation, the most alternative possibilities to adjust, accommodate, react to change—and to maintain and reward those possibilities and options.
This critique of adaptation in evolution is particularly applicable to humans. Like it or not, humans—amongst all other living things—are unique. And Social Darwinians, Evolutionary Psychologists, Socio-biologists, and today, even literary Darwinians don’t like it. Humans exist in all sizes, shapes, and environments. And we have an amazing capacity to change our environment, produce and expand our food resources, breed in ways that do not combine deleterious recessive genetic combinations, and maintain dramatic differences between us. In other words, we are characterized by amazing variation in genetic terms, and amazing variation in how we produce, transform, and live in all manner of environments. And despite this array of different characteristics, we can all successfully breed. Just how, then, do all these differences come to be? Why do we not, with sufficient variations, speciate, like all other species have done in history? And how do we persist (without speciation) in all this immense variation? Can we say anything about the differences observable between humans that are not essentially trivial? Black skin, white skin, etc., is found where it is because it was not selected against, but the functional significance of each skin color is not something that can be deduced easily from the fact that it is not selected against.
Yet physical anthropology and human evolution scientists have spun the most amazing tales about it all—assuming that these various differences between humans in various environments must have some advantage. In fact, they may only exist where they do because nothing is selecting against these specific characteristics. And if there any significant pressures selecting against any particular characteristic, humans survive because they have pushed back such pressures, rendering them no longer very significant in natural selection. The differences in phenotypes may be visibly clear, but why they exist is not so clear. Consequence cannot be read as cause, and the invisible potentials in all individuals to be something else, in genetic terms, is lost to history, and remains only potential. Indeed, we could go so far as to say that overall, natural selection in humans has been rendered insignificant today, save in trivial ways. Since humans can transform and produce so much of their environments, they not longer are significantly subject to it.
Thus, just how various skin colors came about in previous generations is largely of no significance to survival or natural selection. There are advantages to dark skin and there are advantages to light skin in the environments in which they are found. The important point, however, is that there is no longer any selective significance to dark or light skin in any environment in which humans are found today.
As another example, it can be argued that secondary gender differences amongst humans also have ceased to have any selective significance. Facial hair or beards, for example, still exist on mature males of most of the human species simply because there is nothing selecting against them. They have no selective advantage and apparently no selective detriment. Large breasts or the lack of abundant facial hair on many human females are similarly of no selective significance. Indeed, sexual dimorphism in non-human species is also frequently unrelated to mating (or attracting a mate), and specific sexual characteristic of males (say, brilliant plumage of some male birds) are often directed toward other males (as in territorial management) rather than attracting females. The concept of sexual selection probably stemmed more from Victorian social dress customs between sexes than natural law, for most dimorphism is related to territorial management, cooperation, and not to attracting a mate.
The view that any of our various individual or group differences might be fodder for natural selection is certainly true, but some of these differences are acquired by individuals during their lifetimes. While nature can perhaps act against some of these differences, it is not significant, since acquired characteristics are not passed on to offspring. While some believe (or believed) that acquired characteristics might be passed on or inherited– the view that the giraffe acquired its long neck because it needed to reach leaves on trees–they have little support. The observational facts are easy: the giraffes’ long neck enables them to eat the leaves of trees. But the deduction is wrong. While there is a burgeoning new field called epigenetics (the study of the activation/stimulation or lack of activations of particularly genetic characteristics through time—or the inheritance of characteristics that are not reflected on the genetic sequences of the nuclear DNA), this is wholly different than inheriting genuinely acquired characteristics with no genetic basis. This new field, indeed, relies heavily on a careful study of genetic potential and environmental interaction.
Getting back to the maintenance of immense human variation—just why is it that we, of all other species, are unique in having such immense variation without subsequent speciation? While our capacity to produce our environment (and make no mistake, human hunters and gatherers produce their environments quite as much as do industrial social forms (through the use of poisons, fire, traps, sophisticated organizational techniques, sharing mechanisms, exogamy, etc.), unlike other animal hunters and gatherers, it is our unique kinship system that has effectively preserved our immense variations and store of vast genetic potential. We do not marry (or breed with) our close kin. This is not sibling avoidance, as found, say, amongst Egyptian gray geese avoiding nest mates, but a social rule known as the incest prohibition. Exogamic rules exist amongst all human populations. The fact that close breeding sometimes does occur is not significant, for it is always accompanied by negative sanction. Humans have had these rules for probably well over 100,000 years, and thus have since then preserved vast sources of variation. Since we do not normally breed close, various possibly deleterious recessive genes are not expressed. We are literally genetic time bombs waiting to explode upon close mating. We breed out, however, and are thus capable of successful propagation with all other peoples in the world, save our closest kin. This means that every human is a repository of enormous genetic potential (much of it possible fatal) that is rarely expressed, and is indeed unknown, except through genetic counseling.
Racists, meritocrats, and others think otherwise. They think the most “successful” humans must be the most fit, and that the poor (for example) are unfit because of their own lack of success, usually specified in some way as inherent in their being. These folks are at work everywhere, in social sciences, biology, psychology, literature and art, and they are commonly powerfully placed. They have not been eliminated by Obama’s election, and many of them rule in various institutions such as universities and governments. It will be a constant struggle to expose them and their ideas. But so long as we live in hierarchical social forms, we must keep up that struggle.
JAMES C. FARIS is the author of Navajo and Photography. He lives in New Mexico.