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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin

Smear campaign

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Jerry Fodor

Jerry Fodor

I was delighted when my son gave me a copy of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong for my birthday. Not because I did think Darwin got anything significantly wrong but because I didn’t. I like having my opinions and beliefs tested. I had heard of Jerry Fodor but not Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (not a name one is likely to forget).

[First in a series on Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong.]

I read the book through once and then a lot of it a second time. I really struggled to make head or tail of their arguments, and why they thought they had such a killer critique of the theory of natural selection.

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Touched by an angel #2

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Did God do it Darwin fashion?

Second in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.1

See also: Touched by an angel #1

Towards the end of Chapter 1: A Summary of Your Argument Cornwell declares that

most sensible theologians have no problem with the theory of evolution. Being a religious believer is not synonymous with being a creationist – in other words, believing that the world and everything in it was literally created 5,000 years ago in six days by a patriarchal God in the sky. Most sensible modern religious believers accept, rather, that if God wanted to make the world in the way that Darwin proposes, why should he not?

I agree. Being a religious believer is not synonymous with being a creationist as described. For a start not all religious believers subscribe to the Judaeo-Christian god. And the Judaeo-Christian stable itself is the broadest of churches – I have yet to come across two of its congregation holding exactly the same set of beliefs. We should also remember that religious belief is not 100% synonymous with belief in a god either. Confucianism and Buddhism are two major religions which seem quite happy to do without.

The clash between modern evolutionary theory and a god of the Judaeo-Christian type is not however just about literal versus metaphorical readings of Genesis. Cornwell’s question alludes to an important issue rather nicely, particularly with its provocative use of the present tense in ‘proposes’.

Evolutionary thinking has moved on over the last 150 years – not by questioning or even significantly modifying the elements of Darwin‘s theory, but more by letting them sink in so their profounder implications can emerge. A Darwinist up to and even including the ‘modern synthesis’ of the mid-20th Century could see evolution as intrinsically progressive: ‘progress without a goal’ as Julian Huxley described it. From the late 20th Century onwards though evolution has been seen as a blinder, more callous affair. Any apparent progress is purely the result of competition between randomly-generated variants. And the ‘survival of the fittest’ entails the destruction of the overwhelming majority of individuals. The more sentient those individuals are, the more excruciating the destruction will be. Natural selection selects for killing machines (lions, tigers, wolves, leopards, hawks, sharks…) of greater and greater efficiency. Natural selection selects for greater and greater reproductive capacity: more and more grisly, often premature, deaths. If this is progress it is only that of an arms race.

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

The dark side of evolution was not lost on Julian’s grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley; or indeed Darwin himself, who recollected his own reading of Thomas Malthus‘s An essay on the principle of population2 in these words:

In October 1838… I happened to read for amusement [sic] ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; …3

So, yes, why shouldn’t God have made a Darwinian world if that’s how he wanted it? The only snag is that his reputation for perfect goodness – or indeed any kind of goodness – would start to look a bit shabby. Remember this is not the kind of ‘problem of evil‘ which has a supposed resolution in human free will. Free will does not come into it – other than that of the creator god. A creator god who created life on Darwinian principles would have deliberately and knowingly created the conditions for wholesale destruction and suffering.

There are only really three ways out, and they have all been taken many times. One is to keep the single creator god but deny its goodness. Another is to allow at least two gods – one who is the callous or positively evil creator of the world, and one who can be as good as you please. This is the route taken by strands of Gnosticism, Manichaeism and Catharism – all of which the early Christian Church regarded as deeply heretical.

The third traditional exit is mystery:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform…

An omniscient and omnipotent god can be as übermysterious as he chooses. But default mystery leaves Cornwell’s rhetorical question about what ‘most sensible modern religious believers accept’ looking more disingenuous than angelic.

See next post


1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

2 Thomas Malthus, An essay on the principle of population, 1798-1826.

3 Charles Darwin, The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882: edited, with original omissions restored, and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, Collins, London, 1958.

4 William Cowper, The Olney hymns, LXVIII: Light shining out of darkness, 1779.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Touched by an angel #1

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

When I was in New Zealand recently for a family wedding I picked up a copy of Darwin’s Angel1 by John Cornwell. It is written as if by ‘an angel special to natural historians and biologists’. He watched over Darwin, then Mendel, and is now the guardian of Richard Dawkins, deconstructor of The god delusion.2 Tongue firmly in both cheeks, angel Cornwell intends

not so much to pick a fight with the good professor as to offer a few “grace notes” and marginal glosses in the interests of sharper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy, not so much to settle the debate as to stir it once more.

First in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.3

Songs of praise

Darwins angel

Darwin's Angel

First a bit of gushing. According to the publisher’s blurb from the back cover

Cornwell corrects Dawkins on his errors of judgement and fundamental misunderstanding of faith. …offering rational, reasoned opinions, defending religion with elegance and great imagination.

For Julia Neuberger on the front end-paper, Cornwell’s book is

never strident. …and is the most consummately crafted work of deadly opposition I have ever read…

Peter Stanford in The Independent suggests it

should, in an ideal world, be sold taped to every copy of The God Delusion as an essential corrective.

Michael Ruse in the Times Higher Education Supplement thinks

John Cornwell deserves a medal.

After the confusion and disappointment of Antony Flew’s There is a god4 (see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest) I was clearly in for a feast.

You angel you

Or was I? Considering the length of Cornwell’s book (only 168 pages) I was surprised how much seemed to be hors d’oeuvre – as if softening up the opponent before the real fight. Perhaps it was tit for tat: if Dawkins had been unfair to believers, now it was his turn to see what it felt like.

Something close to misrepresentation begins in the first paragraph of the ‘letter’ proper (Chapter 1: A Summary of Your Argument):

In your mind there is essentially no difference between an Al Qaeda terrorist and your North Oxford neighbour who goes to church twice a year.

Dawkins would doubtless agree the two individuals had something fundamental in common. Or, perhaps more accurately, he would see the respective faiths of the two individuals as having something fundamental in common. But that is a long way from saying there is ‘essentially no difference’ between them. It is a bit early to sneak in a logical fallacy and hope no one notices.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler share some fundamental features. Both human; both male; both imprisoned for political offences; both popular and charismatic leaders of political movements with military wings; both finally elected into power. Does that mean there is ‘essentially no difference’ between Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler?

As Matt Ridley points out in Nature via nurture5,

Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one’s similarity to a third.

From a believer’s perspective there is a world of difference between the Al Qaeda terrorist and the occasional church visitor from Oxford. From a non-believer’s perspective they share an adherence to faith – which should be neither overstated nor understated. Having said that I am struggling to find a quote from The god delusion where Dawkins equates an Al Qaeda terrorist with an Oxford church visitor (which does not mean it is not there). But I can find a reference to a rather ‘milder’ kind of fundamentalist:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.6

Any believer shocked or insulted by this milder parallel might find it valuable to consider for a moment the perspective of one who sees doubt and scepticism rather than faith as virtues.

But in the ‘rational’, ‘reasoned’, ‘never strident’ words of angel Cornwell:

The mere fact of belief is the mechanism whereby religion morphs into murderous fanaticism.

Cornwell needs language like this because he has a route in mind:

The poet W. B. Yeats once wrote: “Hatred of God may bring the soul to God.” For what many atheists loathe is not God but all those false representations, “the tinsel and trash” that obscure Him.

Like Antony Flew’s book7, Darwin’s angel has no index. Unlike Flew’s book though it has no notes or references either, despite all the names on the carpet. The quotes above are in fact from Yeats’s Supernatural Songs: V. Ribh considers Christian Love insufficient.8

Cornwell follows this with an unreferenced quote from Iris Murdoch:

“No existing thing could be what we have meant by God. Any existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon.”

Fellow anoraks out there may be interested to know this is from her Metaphysics as a guide to morals.9 They may also be interested in how the quote continues:

(This is near to Kant’s thinking.) God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured.10

I have been unable to track down his next quote – from Don Cupitt – but it is so typical it could be from a number of his books:

“The dissolution of God, and our attainment of perfect union with God, are one and the same thing.”

Cornwell also mentions Spinoza, al-Hallaj and Meister Eckhart, all of whom

found God by dismantling every last paltry doctrine of Him.

These are sophisticated theological threads. Terry Eagleton touches similar ground in his own 2006 review of The god delusion, ‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’ (which I discuss in Eagleton on Dawkins):

Nor is [God] a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.11

Then Cornwell shows us what his target has been all along:

Yet such dismantling of God, especially when it is attended by contempt of fellow human beings who continue to believe in Him according to their different fashions, can lead, as Iris Murdoch warned, to the substitution of a rival godhead. Idolatry.

He acknowledges Dawkins’ wish that science could replace religion. But the good angel is honour-bound to guard him from something even more dreadful:

I should hate to think that you are on the way to substituting yourself for God.

To get beyond just reassuring his fellow believers Cornwell has to get beyond this. There may be atheists who loathe ‘those false representations’ of God, Yeats’s ‘tinsel and trash’. And, yes, an atheist typically does not loathe God – but this is because an atheist has no god to loathe.

For Cornwell and his fellow apologists to come close to convincing non-believers they need to take on board what atheism is: doing without a god. An atheist does not believe in a god and, regardless of individual spiritual or intellectual biographies, an atheist qua atheist can to all extents and purposes be assumed never to have believed in a god.

An atheist’s soul is unlikely to be brought close to a god who does not exist, and is therefore not hated. Borrowing Iris Murdoch’s terminology, the atheist does not even conceive of a god, or constantly experience or picture what makes him or her conceive of a god. There is nothing to dissolve, nothing to dismantle, no godhead to be replaced.

This is not to assume that atheists are immune from megalomania or idolatry. My point is that if Cornwell really wants to stir the debate, really wants to engage his opponent, he needs to step into his opponent’s corner and have a good look round; and keep on looking until he fully and finally comprehends that there is no god-shaped hole there and there never was.

In Cornwell’s own corner the slide from ‘substituting science for religion’ to ‘substituting yourself for God’ could well appear so seamlessly significant as to gather a round of applause or at least a knowing nod or two. The other corner would see it as at best a non sequitur and at worst a cheap insinuation unworthy of an angel.

More angelic discourse in the next post


1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

2 Richard Dawkins, The god delusion, Bantam, 2006.

3 John Cornwell, 2007: 1 above.

4 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

5 Matt Ridley, Nature via nurture, HarperCollins, 2004.

6 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 2 above.

7 Antony Flew, 2007: 4 above.

8 WB Yeats, ‘Supernatural Songs’, in: Parnell’s Funeral and other poems, 1935.

9 Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a guide to morals, Chatto & Windus, London, 1992.

10 Iris Murdoch, 1992: 9 above.

11 Terry Eagleton, ‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’, London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

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In the last few pages of Chapter 3 (ATHEISM CALMLY CONSIDERED), Antony Flew trots out his version of the ‘genes can’t be selfish – only people can’ argument.

Sixth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. 1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Naughty selfish gene

Is there anyone out there who has any idea what Flew is referring to in the statement below?

Dawkins… labored to discount or depreciate the upshot of fifty or more years’ work in genetics – the discovery that the observable traits of organisms are for the most part conditioned by the interactions of many genes, while most genes have manifold effects on many such traits.2

I cannot remember coming across anything in any of Richard Dawkins‘ books that remotely suggests he’s unaware of this ‘discovery’. Flew goes on to say that, for Dawkins,

…the main means for producing human behavior is to attribute to genes characteristics that can significantly be attributed only to persons.

…Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish any more than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections.

This reads less like a counter-argument or counter-evidence than a deliberate refusal to acknowledge or understand the logic of Dawkins’ own argument – and therefore why Dawkins coined the label ‘selfish gene’3 to summarise and depict it.

Dangerous metaphor

Dangerous metaphor

If ‘selfish’ necessarily has connotations of conscious intent to protect and further one’s interests, then of course a gene cannot be literally selfish. The sun does not literally ‘rise’ in the morning. Relative to the earth it is static, so it would be more literally true to say the earth ‘falls’ in the morning. An idea literally does not ‘dawn’ on me. An idea is a concept or a thought, not a morning. The moon does not literally ‘hide’ behind a cloud, not the way a child does when playing hide and seek. A heat-seeking missile does not literally ‘seek’ heat. A fierce wind isn’t really fierce like a tiger. And so on and so on. Pu-lease: this is the English language we are talking about – and with. Metaphor is its beating heart. Sorry – I don’t mean a real heart…

A gene is a section of material which, for present purposes, has four principal features. First, it can replicate – generally in combination with other genes, and generally accurately. Secondly it has, again generally in combination with other genes, and generally consistently, one or more manifestations in physical characteristics and/or behaviour. Some manifestations will increase the likelihood that the gene (or genes) causing (or contributing to) the manifestation, will replicate, such that relatively more copies of those gene(s) get made – at the expense of other genes, which cause or contribute to other manifestations.

The third feature could be seen as implicit in the other two, but it is worth making explicit. A gene exists within one or more ‘vehicles’, which is the collective manifestation of a set of genes. The successful manifestation and replication of the gene depend on the survival and replication of this vehicle or vehicles. The vehicle could be a single functioning entity – an organ or an organelle or an organism – or it could be a whole ecosystem or part of one. (Hence one or more ‘vehicles’: as in the examples just given, one vehicle may be ‘inside’ another.)

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

The fourth feature is implicit in the way the first was worded, but again it is best to make it explicit. The replication is not 100% perfect, so sometimes there are variations. Sometimes the variations are detrimental to survival; sometimes they are advantageous. The detrimental variations tend to outweigh the advantageous ones, not that this is particularly relevant here.

There may be other things which need to be true for these four features to be sustained, but they are also not relevant to understanding what ‘selfish’ does and does not mean in relation to genes. We only need to focus on the four principal features. We do not even have to define how big a stretch of material the gene is, as long as it has a definite causal relationship (singly or in combination with other genes) with one or more manifestations in the vehicle(s) – these manifestations are the gene’s phenotypic effects.

‘Selfish’, in its application to ‘gene’, means no more and no less than what these four features entail, in an intensely competitive environment. A gene which has phenotypic effects which, relative to other genes, promote the survival and replication of its vehicle(s) will make more copies of itself relative to those other genes. This is virtually true by definition, from the way the four features are formulated.

According to modern theory, this is the principal engine of evolution and of biological diversity.

So in order to understand how a particular feature, or species, or behaviour evolved, a useful perspective is to look at biological diversity generally from a gene’s ‘point of view’ – not literally: genes don’t really have eyes – as if the gene were (please note the subjunctive) a selfish entity whose only priority was to make more copies of itself. This is not because the gene has anything about it or in it which makes it actively and intentionally pursue its own interests of indefinite replication. It is because the genes which happen to have phenotypic effects which lead to relatively higher rates of survival and replication are the ones which do survive and replicate, while genes with phenotypic effects leading to relatively lower rates of survival and replication fall by the wayside.

This is what the phrase/image/metaphor/label ‘selfish gene’ refers to, no more and no less. So when Flew tells us that ‘[g]enes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish’ he is reminding whoever might need reminding that the phrase is ultimately metaphorical; but missing the crucial algorithmic insight which the phrase expresses.

There are times when philosophical and linguistic analysis is hugely valuable, for example in exposing logical fallacies of the form ‘all ravens are black, therefore all black things are ravens’ which so often get smuggled inside political rhetoric. Those are contexts where exposing the fallacy correctly undermines the argument.

But the deconstruction of ‘selfish gene’ which Flew and others have attempted is not one of those, because it leaves the argument untouched. It does not unearth a category mistake and so expose false logic. It only objects to the language the argument is expressed in. (You mean dig a category mistake out of the soil – with a shovel?)

None of this means of course that the ‘selfish gene’ theory is self-evidently true. The way to attack it is to question whether the theory actually matches reality – for example testing whether the four principal features are actually found in nature as described. Not so easy doing that from an armchair.

Follow the evidence…


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, 1976.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

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In the chapter ATHEISM CALMLY CONSIDERED Antony Flew recounts Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder‘s ‘point-by-point refutation’ of the ‘monkey theorem’, at a May 2004 symposium at New York University. I thought I’d dig a bit.

Fifth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Monkey puzzle

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Flew says this ‘monkey theorem’

defends the possibility of life arising by chance using the analogy of a multitude of monkeys banging away on computer keyboards and eventually ending up writing a Shakespearean sonnet.2

He says it has ‘been presented in a number of forms and variations’, but does not specify where, how and by whom.

A useful Wikipedia summary reveals a long history as a comparative image for depicting probabilities. (In pre-computer times the monkeys had to content themselves with typewriters.) In relation to evolutionary theory however only two names are particularly relevant: Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Dawkins.

Unfortunately neither provides much support for a religious apologist’s argument. Huxley is said to have used the image in his legendary 1860 debate with Samuel Wilberforce, Anglican Bishop of Oxford, about Darwin’s Origin of Species. But there is no evidence – indeed commercial typewriters only began to emerge in the 1860s.

Richard Dawkins on the other hand does discuss the image in quite some depth in his The blind watchmaker (Chapter 3: Accumulating small change).3 But he actually uses the image to make very much the same point as Flew remembers Gerald Schroeder making – ie that the probability of a set of monkeys generating even a single line of Shakespeare in any feasibly available stretch of geological time is infinitesimally small. Compare for example:

Gerald Schroeder, quoted by Flew:

If you took the entire universe and converted it to computer chips – forget the monkeys – each one weighing a millionth of a gram and had each computer chip able to spin out 488 trials at, say, a million times a second; …It would still be off… by a factor of 10 to the 600th. You will never get a sonnet by chance…. Yet the world just thinks the monkeys can do it every time. [Emphasis added.]

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker:

It isn’t difficult to calculate how long we should reasonably expect to wait for the random computer (or baby or monkey) to type METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. … The chance of it getting the entire phrase of 28 characters right is (1/27) to the power 28, ie … about 1 in 10,000 million million million million million million…

The numbers are different but the point is the same. Who is this ‘world’ Gerald Schroeder refers to – Aunt Sally?

I will probably survive

Interestingly it is Dawkins whom Flew immediately goes on to discuss. He starts on firm, if uncontroversial ground:

…[N]atural selection does not positively produce anything. It only eliminates, or tends to eliminate, whatever is not competitive.

Agreed, it is the random variation which does the producing. But then he goes a bit off-track:

A variation does not need to bestow any actual competitive advantage in order the avoid elimination; it is enough that it does not burden its owner with any competitive disadvantage.

He then gives what he calls a ‘rather silly illustration’, imagining he has useless wings tucked under his coat, too weak to lift him off the ground. They do not help him escape predators or find food:

But as long as they don’t make me more vulnerable to predators, I will probably survive to reproduce and pass on my wings to my descendants.

The illustration is not so much silly as misleading. It ignores the intensity of competition, and the unforgiving economics of survival. The useless wings represent a waste of material and energy resources relative to the competition. Vulnerability to predators is not the only risk. Anything that reduces the individual’s relative efficiency in staying alive, finding mates and producing viable offspring will tend to be selected against.

In debates like this it is important to remember that, generally speaking, the overwhelming majority of individuals in the wild do not survive to reproduce. So in the wild, generally speaking, a lack of competitive advantage and a competitive disadvantage come to the same thing. In fact in a competitive struggle of all against all, that is probably true by definition. Flew’s ‘I will probably survive’ is a little disingenuous.

Interesting, again, that he goes on to describe Dawkins’ The selfish gene4 as a ‘major exercise in popular mystification’.

But we’ll leave that to next time.


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker, 1986.

4 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, 1976.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Masters of war

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Why should evolution be at all relevant to ethics? Well, because (1) the kind of ethics we humans are primarily interested in is the ethics of how we humans interact with each other; and (2) we humans, with all our physical, behavioural and cognitive features, are products of evolution.

Perhaps not everyone would agree with both these statements – particularly the second – but for now I am taking them as sound assumptions. If that means I am primarily addressing an audience which shares these assumptions, so be it.

This article follows Great god progress in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

I was originally intending to review the thinking of other and later contributors to evolutionary theory (eg TH Huxley’s grandson Julian Huxley) but I think that would be too much of a tangent. The material is available elsewhere, generated by far greater experts than I. I don’t want to risk confusing my main argument with too much background and preamble.

So I shall try to make my point as clearly as possible, and only then consider what else I might need to add to make it more convincing. But as I’ve said before, I only need to make its feasibility convincing, not necessarily demonstrate its truth.

The starting point is my understanding of contemporary evolutionary thinking. But because I want to develop an argument involving ethical concepts I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to derive ethical values – either positive or negative – from any direction suggested by evolution. In that sense I want to keep firmly within the ‘Evolution is neutral’ position summarised in Darwin’s bulldog.

Replication of replication

At risk of understatement, I am struck by the profound simplicity and explanatory power of the contemporary synthesis of evolutionary thinking. If I understand it correctly, the idea is that, however sustainable physical replication first emerged, once it did emerge, it provided the engine not only for life itself but for the diversity found among living things.

The primary replication is of course that of genetic material (which for most contemporary forms of life means chromosomes made up of sequences of genes), rather than the secondary replication of somatic structures like leaves and legs, which happens as a result of genetic replication.

But the theory is not just about replication. A few other factors must be added to the mix. One, even simpler than replication, is high numbers. The period of time which has elapsed since the conditions were right for life on our planet is so immense we sometimes struggle to grasp its implications.

Then another battery of high numbers in generated by replication itself. This is particularly significant considering how much evolution of inheritable patterns and structures (multicellularity, sexual reproduction, aerobic respiration, the digestive system etc etc) took place within ancestors which enjoyed far higher reproductive capacity and far lower reproductive cycle times than occur in mammals, let alone humans. A single individual producing 10 offspring per cycle will generate 26 billion individuals after 10 cycles – assuming they all survive of course.

Another factor, grounded in the physical mechanism of replication, is variation resulting from intermittent errors in the replication process. Not all of that theoretical 26 billion will be exact copies. Some will include mutations. The majority of mutants may well be defective, perhaps not even viable. So after 10 cycles the actual total may be a lot less than 26 billion. But a proportion of mutations will be viable and inheritable; and in the context of competition (which is the last of our key evolutionary factors) some will be advantageous.

Replication is a physical process requiring energy and building materials. Accessible resources of the right kinds of these will be finite. So replicating entities which, by undergoing viable and inheritable variation, evolve features which improve their access to and/or exploitation of appropriate resources will enjoy advantages relative to their competition, and therefore survive at the expense of their competition.

Advantageous variations could be things like absorbing solutes at higher or lower concentrations or accessing energy at higher or lower intensities or in different forms. Or they could lead to exploiting secondary sources – like other replicating entities themselves, either ‘dead’ or ‘alive’ – and so not having to rely on primary sources like sunlight, water and atmospheric gases. Once this happens, any replicator which is a potential nutrition source for other replicators is competing not just for resources but for survival itself.

So driven purely by potentially infinite (but not infinitely perfect) replication within a finite resource pool, our community of replicators will inevitably descend into a something like the ‘war of all against all’ (bellum omnium contra omnes) which Hobbes1 saw as the state of nature for mankind.

In all wars there is an arms race. But this ‘evolutionary arms race’2 has no conscious deliberation behind it. Nothing is thinking ‘I must do x to survive’, then does x, and so survives. It is the replicator which randomly mutates so as to do x – or something equivalent – which survives to replicate. That is all the ‘survival of the fittest’ means. Fitness is purely in terms of survival so as to have maximum numbers of viable replicating progeny. ‘Survival of the survivors’ would be more precise but it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

As mentioned in Great god progress, it is primarily the arms race which generates complexity, sophistication and design – if this is what survival demands. ‘Arms race’ should be broadly construed, to cover eg the offensive ‘tooth and claw’ weaponry of carnivores; the escape velocity of antelopes; camouflage of both hunter and hunted; plant poisons to deter herbivores; protective mimicry among moth caterpillars; and countless more, stretching blind ingenuity to its limits.

The reason for saying the arms race is the primary generator of diversity is purely to acknowledge that the analogy almost fits but not exactly. Inherited variation which improves an organism’s exploitation of primary resources (inorganic energy sources, water, atmosphere, minerals), or which increases its longevity or reproductive capacity, cannot strictly speaking be classified as offensive or defensive weaponry, as there is no ‘enemy’ or ‘rival’.

The point though is that advantageous variation within a replicator’s competitors is continually (in the context of an evolutionary timeframe) intensifying the struggle for survival. The domain of primary resources may go through periodic change (volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere and reducing sunlight; encroaching and receding ice ages; …) but there is no equivalent ‘competition’ in design complexity from that quarter. The bottom line is that the ‘arms race’ is not the only driver of evolutionary change, but its contribution to change – and in particular its contribution to diversity – is overwhelming.

Kith and kin

The diversity is not just physical. As animal nervous systems evolved, sentience and behaviour diversified. And just as it is rare in human history for warfare to be literally all against all, so elsewhere in nature competitive behaviour has diversified to accommodate symbiotic and commensal relationships between individuals of different species, and social structures and alliances between those of the same species.

A replicator which mutated so as to recognise its own offspring and devour them would not leave many offspring behind. This would be an evolutionary cul-de-sac to end all culs-de-sac. By contrast a replicator which mutated so as to recognise its own offspring and help them to survive would, other things being equal or almost equal, leave more offspring than one without the mutation. This, simplified almost to absurdity, is the logic behind kin selection. At the level of the individual gene, kin selection goes beyond direct offspring to other family members (eg siblings and cousins) which have a mathematically calculable probability of possessing a copy of the same gene.

But cooperative behaviour among at least some animals – including humans – goes beyond kin and extends also to unrelated neighbours (‘kith’).

For a long time biologists were stumped as to how social cooperation had evolved, assuming natural selection operated at the level of the individual organism. Cooperation – for example that of wolves hunting in packs – makes obvious sense in the long run. But it was unclear how that long run was ever reached. Consider a mutation in an individual proto-wolf which led it to forego the chance to kill and eat a rabbit and instead help another bring down an antelope. How could a mutation like that survive natural selection? Surely purely selfish or kin-directed strategies (like sticking to rabbits and hiding the kill from all but family; or pretending to cooperate in an antelope kill but then whisking the best bits away before your allies had a chance to get their teeth into it) would always be selected for over more generous tendencies?

Then in the early 1970s Robert Trivers used mathematical models to establish how reciprocal altruism could have evolved. Subsequent research has extended and deepened the explanatory theory. Computerised simulations have been particularly important, showing how different inherited behavioural strategies might fare after multiple generations.

The theory is well documented and available from many sources (eg Nowak, 20063; Trivers, 19714; Dawkins, 19905; Hauser, 20086), so does not need repeating here.

What we do need to look at though is the relationship between the Golden Rule, Kant‘s categorical imperative, and reciprocal altruism as an evolved behavioural strategy. This will be the subject of the next article in this series.


1 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, 1642.

2 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, second edition, 1990.

3 Martin Nowak, Five rules for the evolution of cooperation, in: Science 314, 2006.

4 RL Trivers, The evolution of reciprocal altruism, in: Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 1971.

5 Richard Dawkins, op.cit.

6 Marc D Hauser, Moral Minds, Abacus, 2008.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Great god progress

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Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was as passionate about evolution as his contemporary and life-long friend TH Huxley. On its relation to ethics, though, he came to a very different conclusion.

This article follows Darwin’s bulldog in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Spencer was firmly of the ‘evolution is good’ persuasion. But he also did not see evolution itself quite the way Darwin and Huxley did. For Spencer evolution was nothing less than a universal natural law of progress. It was applicable within not only biology, but also the physical and cosmological sciences, psychology, language, art, music, religion, politics, economic activity, industry, sociology and ethics.

His 1857 essay Progress: its law and cause1 drew on a variety of sources (including Wolff, Goethe, Coleridge, Schelling, and von Baer‘s work in embryology) to propose a universal law of nature by which original simplicity evolved into greater complexity and integration. This was then developed in later work:

Evolution is definable as a change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and integration of matter.2

This was a conception of evolution very different from Darwin’s. Although Spencer did not discount natural selection of randomly-generated variation, he considered an important engine of biological diversity was use-inheritance – otherwise known as ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’. This was originally posited by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, entertained by Darwin, but now generally consigned to science history. For example in a discussion of the giraffe’s ‘ludicrous’ gallop:

If the effects of use and disuse of parts are inheritable, then any change in the foreparts of the giraffe which affects the action of the hind limbs and back, will simultaneously cause, by the greater or less exercise of it, a re-moulding of each component in the hind limbs and back in a way adapted to the new demands; and generation after generation the entire structure of the hind-quarters will be progressively fitted to the changed structure of the forequarters: all the appliances for nutrition and innervation being at the same time progressively fitted to both. But in the absence of this inheritance of functionally-produced modifications, there is no seeing how the required re-adjustments can be made.3

Another key difference was that Spencer’s concept of evolution was directed towards a final state of ‘equilibrium’. For Darwin evolution just happened, driven by natural selection. Spencer reluctantly admitted natural selection into his own thinking – it was he who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest‘ – but it sat uneasily with the rest of his ‘System of Synthetic Philosophy’.4

Evolution for Spencer was synonymous with progress. It would end with the creation of ‘the perfect man in the perfect society’, as predicted in his first book, Social Statics.5 For example human aggression was necessary for survival in a primitive context but less appropriate as communities advanced. Spencer believed instincts were located in particular areas of brain tissue. As the instinct of aggression became less exercised (because civilised life had less call for it), then in accordance with Lamarckian use-inheritance theory, less aggression would be passed on to future generations. Humans would become less aggressive and more altruistic, as they and their society evolved towards greater perfection:

…[D]uring the growth of … civilization … there have been slowly evolving the altruistic sentiments. Development of these has gone on only as fast as society has advanced to a state in which the activities are mainly peaceful. The root of all the altruistic sentiments is sympathy; and sympathy could become dominant only when the mode of life, instead of being one that habitually inflicted direct pain, became one which conferred direct and indirect benefits…6

Thinking like this had social and political implications:

If functionally-produced modifications are inheritable, then the mental associations habitually produced in individuals by experiences of the relations between actions and their consequences, pleasurable or painful, may, in the successions of individuals, generate innate tendencies to like or dislike such actions. But if not, the genesis of such tendencies is… not satisfactorily explicable.

…If a nation is modified en masse by transmission of the effects produced on the natures of its members by those modes of daily activity which its institutions and circumstances involve; then we must infer that such institutions and circumstances mould its members far more rapidly and comprehensively than they can do if the sole cause of adaptation to them is the more frequent survival of individuals who happen to have varied in favourable ways.7

To ensure that evolution moved in a positive, progressive direction people should not be shielded from the consequences of their behaviour. Otherwise the necessary improvements would not be generated and passed on to their offspring. Spencer was therefore against state intervention in eg public education, public health and poverty relief. Even private philanthropy if directed towards the ‘undeserving poor’ would hinder human progress by removing the link between behaviour and consequences.

But with obstacles like state intervention and indiscriminate philanthropy removed the perfect society would eventually evolve. People would instinctively respect the rights of others and, following utilitarian principles, would both get pleasure from exercising ‘positive beneficence’ (altruism) and practise ‘negative beneficence’ by not causing pain to others. Spencer’s eventual ‘Absolute Ethics’ was a moral system based on science which could replace outmoded codes backed by divine command, with his ‘Relative Ethics’ being guidance on how to get there while humans were still constrained by imperfection.

Spencer had long ago abandoned Christianity, and along with it any kind of ‘anthropomorphic’ deity. But his mature thinking displayed unmistakeable features of the Deism he had absorbed from his father and other influential figures in his formative years. Deism saw the cosmos as the creation of a benevolent and transcendentally kind designer, and as subject to natural laws decreed to promote human happiness. Spencer kept the natural laws, which were themselves benevolent in their universality.

It is illuminating to consider how significant a Lamarckian model of adaptation would be to this sort of world view. It draws together a number of powerful strands. There is human social, economic, industrial and intellectual progress as exemplified by triumphant Victorian exuberance. There is the explosion of knowledge about the living world and its buried history, proclaiming a further triumph of progressive evolution. Where these two pictures overlap Homo sapiens proudly stands, representing yet another explosion of knowledge – as both knower and known. The supernatural can finally be nudged aside, now we have an even bigger marvel, this time founded on irrefutable scientific knowledge.

Human civilisation progresses by striving, learning and improving. The Lamarckian model provides the same driving force for the rest of the organic universe; and if organic nature is itself a manifestation of inorganic nature, then perhaps for the whole cosmos. Striving, learning and improving: the macrocosm obeys the same natural law of progress as the giraffe stretching and stretching its neck to get at the leaves its competitors cannot reach.

Strict Darwinian natural selection does not contradict this vision but it does not exactly fit. Survival by striving, learning and improvement is endogenous in an industriously Victorian self-help kind of way. The giraffe who sticks its neck out bequeaths both its longer neck and its determination to its offspring. This is not quite a world where an external ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’8 takes out every proto-giraffe except the lucky mutant with the long-neck gene.

Every component of Spencer’s universe has at least some power to survive by striving, learning and improving. At least some of the ‘selection’ is self-selection. By the same token although the vision was taken to imply definite social and political policy, this does not necessarily lead to eugenics. Yes there are superior and inferior individuals, and the superior individuals are those aligned with progress and therefore ‘more evolved’. But even an inferior individual can strive, learn, improve – and then pass its improvement onto offspring who can then improve still more. This is not eugenics, with its sinister vision of futuristic human farmers scientifically breeding human livestock. Eugenics would address the genotype as manifest in the phenotype. Spencerian social policy would address the phenotype so as to modify the genotype.

Alas Lamarck’s use-inheritance has fallen from grace as an explanation of how evolution happens. And with this out of the equation the link which seemed so obvious between human social progress and the arrow of organic evolution suddenly disappears.

The contemporary consensus is that if there is ‘progress’ in evolution it is a result of competition between genetic blueprints as they are realised in the development and replication of organisms.9 10 Incremental growth in complexity and sophistication certainly occurs, if this is what survival demands. But the appropriate analogy is not so much an arrow progressing towards a preordained or inevitable target, but an arms race, for example between predators and their prey.

Is Homo sapiens more ‘evolved’ than the cheetah? Is the legless slow-worm more or less ‘evolved’ than its four-legged ancestor? Greater simplicity can also be selected for, not just greater complexity. The driver is economics, not design for design’s sake. And even the design is not designed – it is design without a designer; economics without a planner. It is blind, with no direction and no striving.

Read on


1 Herbert Spencer, Progress: its law and cause, 1857; later expanded into First principles of a new system of philosophy, First Edition, 1862.

2 Herbert Spencer, First principles, Second Edition, 1867.

3 Herbert Spencer, The factors of organic evolution, first published in The Nineteenth Century, April and May 1886.

4 Herbert Spencer, System of Synthetic Philosophy, 1862-1897.

5 Herbert Spencer, Social statics: or, The conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed, 1851.

6 Herbert Spencer, Morals and moral sentiments, first published in The Fortnightly Review, April 1871.

7 Herbert Spencer, Preface to the republication of The factors of organic evolution: see 3 above.

8 Tennyson, In memoriam, 1849.

9 Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker, 1986.

10 Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996.

© Chris Lawrence 2008.

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