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Darwin was my Grandmother

Mike Appleby considers thoughts about evolution and the evolution of thought.

My grandmother was called Darwin. Seriously, she was Mary Darwin before she married Robert Appleby. Unfortunately we have never been able to trace any connection with the more famous Charles of that name. It is also a shame that she died before I was old enough to be interested in how she felt about sharing a name with one of the most influential people in history. I wonder if she believed in evolution? Probably she did, given this link and the fact that she raised a son – my father – who became a vet. But whether she did or not, she will have learned many of her attitudes and beliefs, around the beginning of this century, from her parents, to whom the idea of evolution was very new. As a result she probably passed a world view to my father which involved the idea of God as creator, almost untouched by any views she may have had on evolution. My father and mother, who certainly believe in evolution, then taught me very similar attitudes and beliefs when I was young.

Some of my attitudes and beliefs have of course changed since then as I have tested them against experience and acquired other knowledge. In particular, my training as a biologist has changed my world view radically because evolution provides an overarching, coherent explanation of so many aspects of life on earth – including human life. However, some of my other attitudes and beliefs have been more resistant to change, including many of which I am unaware. Furthermore, I get the impression that the way in which many people think about life has changed even less than mine in this respect: even though the majority of people in Europe now believe in evolution they do not always seem to grasp the breadth of its implications. This article is concerned with such implications and with the ways in which knowledge about the world is or is not absorbed into our everyday approaches to life: the ways in which thinking evolves.

Two examples may illustrate how people have yet to come to terms with Darwinism. The first returns to the subject of grandparents.

A recent article in the Guardian described how “the trend for women to have children later in life, or not at all, is leaving a lot of would-be grandparents feeling cheated.” The title was typical of the Guardian: ‘Delusions of Grandma’. Weak pun aside, the title reflected the main theme that the desire to be a grandparent is largely arbitrary, even contradictory: parents encourage a daughter to have a career but then want her to interrupt or terminate that career to have children. The only explanations offered in the article were from a psychiatrist who suggested that desire to be a grandparent is linked to fear of death or the need for a sense of identity. What was remarkable was that there was no reference to a basic product of natural selection: the instinct for behaviour associated with procreation. Natural selection has produced an urge for reproductive behaviour in all animals, because any animals which did not have it would have left no descendants – and in many species that behaviour includes the interest in youngsters which is integral to parental care. It seems reasonable that in humans, with more understanding than other animals of the world in which we live, this interest should for most individuals extend to a concern that our children have offspring in turn. The only hint of this in the article was in the discussion of fear of death: “Grandchildren enable you to believe that after you are dead there is something that goes on that bears your memory.” However, the relationship of this idea to genetic descent was apparently not recognised by either the psychiatrist or the author of the article, because the passage continued: “There is a sense of defeating time because you are recapturing earlier phases of your life … through identifying with your grandchildren.”

The idea that desire to be a grandparent has been produced by natural selection is arguable. To prove it we would have to show that there has been genetic variation in this trait and that those having the desire left more descendants than those without. Some sociologists and anthropologists are very sceptical of such proposals from the developing field of evolutionary psychology, considering them speculative and unprovable. However, this still seems an angle which cries out to be discussed. From an evolutionary perspective other explanations such as sense of identity must be secondary to the production of descendants, which is certainly not arbitrary. The same perspective also makes sense of innumerable other details of a complex world, yet many people seem largely unaware of this.

A second example concerns a more fundamental question which people ask about the world: “Why is there suffering?” The question usually, although not always, concerns specifically human suffering. It is often posed in this general form, asking why there should be any such thing as suffering when the world would apparently be a preferable place if it did not exist. More often than not, though, it is prompted by personal experience – such as an illness or loss suffered by the questioner or someone close to them – and in this case it may be accompanied by related questions such as “Why me?” or “Why her?”

An evolutionary perspective is relevant to the question of suffering at two levels. First, we are beginning to understand at least some aspects of suffering as products of natural selection. For example, the sensation we call pain may seem at first thought to be wholly undesirable: life would be so much more pleasant if pain simply did not exist. Yet pain is essential for survival. If you or your dog touch a hot stove, the pain causes you to move away before serious damage is done. As natural selection produced more complex animals in evolutionary history, with more complex decisions to make (“What should I do next?”), those animals which had nervous systems which sent signals of this sort were more successful than others (“Forget the food you can smell and move away NOW!”). People sometimes ask why we don’t have a signal that works just as well without the pain itself – like an alarm bell – without it mattering so much to us. The answer is that the mattering is integral, otherwise we could ignore the signal (“Perhaps I’ll just taste what’s in this pan before I move away”). Think of a situation in which an alarm bell really does mean something important (“The house is on fire and my child is still inside!”) and you will be describing another type of suffering just as unpleasant as pain.

The evolutionary approach does not yet explain all aspects of suffering but our understanding of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary medicine is expanding rapidly. Nevertheless, a response from the evolutionary perspective to the question “Why is there suffering?” doesn’t necessarily satisfy the questioner, any more than does a straightforward cause-and-effect answer (“Your mother has cancer because she has smoked all her life”). Many people feel that the question “Why her?” remains unanswered, because neither their view of the world nor their understanding of its details have taken Darwinism on board. This is thus the second level to which an evolutionary perspective contributes, because the question is essentially pre- Darwinian (indeed, perhaps even pre- Copernican): “Why is the world the way it is?” Often the question has been put in the form “Why did God make the world this way?” The evolutionary perspective is that the world is not arbitrary and events are not the whims of a capricious God. Understanding of evolution helps us to see that suffering is part of life. How could there be an evolved world without suffering?

Richard Dawkins has made similar points in his particularly trenchant way, but his approach raises other issues. On BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze he said:

“ ‘Why’ questions are non-questions except in certain special senses. If I ask the question ‘Why do birds have wings?’ I can give an answer to that in a Darwinian sense: it’s a very special kind of ‘Why’. If I ask the question ‘Why does so-and-so whom I love have cancer, why did it have to happen to that person?’, that’s the kind of question that religious people might ask – ‘Why me? Why me, God?’ ” [and at this point the interviewer interpolated “Or why is there suffering?”] “ – that is a silly question, it’s a question that has no answer. You will get nowhere if you try to ask questions like that – you simply have to accept that you have cancer and that’s that.”

In fact it is not just religious people who ask such questions and dismissing them as silly was perhaps not the most sensitive way to alert people to the error of their ways. Furthermore, by ‘silly’ he apparently means ‘irrational’: people who ask “Why me?” questions are being irrational because they are failing to take into account their knowledge of the world and its evolutionary history. What is more questionable is the implication that irrationality is wrong and rationality is right. This article takes a different approach, with the contention that rational use of knowledge in this respect is helpful. This raises the question of whether increasing knowledge inevitably leads to increasing rationality: whether humans become more and more rational over the decades and centuries as our knowledge about the world accumulates. This seems unlikely. It is well recognised that much of our behaviour is non-rational (is buying a lottery ticket rational?) and by no means clear that this is undesirable (is listening to music rational?). Probably we shall continue to use a mixture of rationality and other rules-of-thumb in the future as in the past.

I think that I am less inclined to ask “Why me?” questions than non-biologists who are not so familiar with evolutionary arguments, but I still find myself thinking “It’s not fair” when I have insomnia or when I fail to win the lottery (and that really is irrational, because I don’t buy lottery tickets). It is interesting to speculate on whether Richard Dawkins ever strays from the path of rationality himself. If so, perhaps he blames his upbringing. He has suggested that evolution should be taught at kindergarten. I suggest that teaching nursery school children about evolution would indeed be helpful to them, but that if it were done in an attempt to make all their thinking rational and scientific then it would be dangerously limiting. My own children knew at least a little about human evolution by the time they reached primary school, but my wife and I are trying to help them with spiritual aspects of life as well.

Because ways of thought are largely learned rather than instinctive they can change a lot faster over the generations – by what is called cultural evolution – than aspects of our biology which are fully under genetic control. However, the slow rate of learning about evolution discussed in this article emphasises that there is also cultural inertia, influenced by the generational overlap discussed earlier. Perhaps when we consider it, though, the rate of learning is not all that slow after all. Ways of thought have been developing for thousands of years – the Greek philosophers of two and a half thousand years ago were particularly influential – while it is not much more than 100 years since the evolutionary origins of humans were first discussed widely. We still have some catching up to do – and undoubtedly we are also falling behind on other scientific advances and their associated perspectives. The world is a very different place for me than for my grandparents, and the facts and perspectives with which I am familiar are different from those they knew, but in other ways – perhaps the most basic aspects of our thinking such as our rationality and our spirituality – I am probably not so very different after all from my grandmother Darwin.

© Dr M.C. Appleby 1997

Mike Appleby thinks he is a biologist at the University of Edinburgh.

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