Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Impact of Darwin by AC Grayling


There are a few faces which, when we see them depicted anywhere, need no accompanying text to say who they are. Einstein and Darwin are two outstanding examples. They are giants of science, and even more, they are giants of general culture, whose work has wrought fundamental changes in the way the universe is understood and viewed well beyond their own sciences of biology and physics.

These remarks are indisputably true, but a slightly misleading implication of them has to be guarded against. This is that without the two men in question, those same advances would not have been made. That would be a mistaken view. Science is a co-operative enterprise, and every advance depends upon those made beforehand, both in theory and in the practicalities of research. Had Darwin not lived to publish his Origin of Species its insights would have emerged anyway following the work of Alfred Russel Wallace and other naturalists. This is illustrated by the fact that when T. H. Huxley first encountered Darwin’s views he said to himself, “How stupid not to have seen that!”

Many before Darwin had proposed the ideas of evolution and the mutability of species; the great age of the earth was well understood; the convergence of lessons from geology, the fossil record, natural history, and the selective breeding of crops and domestic animals, which Darwin added to his own observations and reasonings derived from the Beagle voyage, would have been effected by others sooner rather than later, for these ideas were being energetically pursued. So it is the central ideas of evolutionary biology, for which Darwin was the prime convener, that have the impact that I shall sketch here, using “Darwinism” and “evolutionary theory” as a shorthand for this. Here too, though, a prefatory note is in order. Darwin saw that all living things have descended from a common ancestor by natural selection.

In identifying natural selection as the mechanism by which speciation occurs, he gave the first great impetus to the new world view which has followed, for he had identified a mechanism which applies in many other respects too, well beyond the biological sciences. It (natural selection) is a mechanism which economically describes how complexity arises from simpler elements through modifications selected by pressures of various kinds. From individual learning to social change to the development of technologies such as steam engines and computers, the pattern is visible and explanatorily powerful. As a result the concept of evolution has come to be deployed – sometimes controversially – outside biology, influencing thought in other natural sciences and in the social sciences, the humanities, philosophy and literature.

Familiarly, Darwinism itself had to wait until recognition of Gregor Mendel’s work on peas had given rise to an understanding of genes and their role, and then for the discipline of population genetics to develop, for what Julian Huxley called the “new synthesis” in evolutionary biology to emerge. This “new synthesis” is the standard view, and serves as the central organising principle of all the biological sciences. When I talk of “Darwinism” or “evolutionary theory” here, I mean this.

We can take for granted the transformative effect of evolutionary theory on the biological sciences, but as just suggested, the impact goes much further. The first and most obvious example is the impact on traditional views of humankind and its place in the universe. A first revolution in this respect had occurred when the Copernican view about our planet’s position in the solar system challenged the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation at the centre of the universe. It is hard now to appreciate the blow this gave not just to theology but to human amour propre. It was nevertheless still possible for many to continue believing that the earth and its inhabitants were created by an interested intelligent agency with some purpose for them in mind. But Darwin’s discoveries took the displacement of humanity from some kind of cosmic pole position further, by placing it squarely in nature, and describing nature itself as a realm of nonpurposive forces and circumstances in which, through vast tracts of time and with enormous wastage, biological complexity emerges from simpler elements and structures. There is neither room nor need here for the idea of an interested purposive agency or deity. Darwin was of course fully aware of this implication, and delayed general publication of his findings partly for this reason. Reception of Darwin’s ideas in his own day was very mixed, with some being variously frightened or outraged by them and others welcoming them.

His theory was widely misunderstood as the claim that human beings have descended from monkeys, and Darwin himself was caricatured as an orangutan. The spectrum of religious views was broad enough for some clerics to think that evolution was consistent with theology; the Reverend Charles Kingsley wrote to Darwin to commend his work, and Darwin included a reference to Kingsley’s endorsement in the third edition of the Origin, in an effort to placate some of those who accused him of destroying morality by attacking religion.

Whereas Darwin’s discoveries and those in geology and palaeology refuted religious views based on a six-day creation and the fixity of species, some religious apologists tried to articulate a view of “theistic creation”, in which a deity sets the evolutionary process in motion and perhaps occasionally puts a hand on the tiller to ensure “progress” towards the emergence of “higher forms of life”. But this too Darwin rejected, as he shows in his autobiographical writings and correspondence. The main argument against “theistic evolution” is that the involvement of an agency in the evolutionary process is unnecessary and redundant.

For Darwin the compelling reason was what philosophers call “the problem of evil”: that nature is so wasteful and so full of suffering that the idea it should even be countenanced, still less deliberately created, by an agency competent to do otherwise, was repugnant. He had, he tells us in his autobiographical notes, given up Christianity early; he had become a complete “agnostic” by the time the Origin was written. In the passage of the autobiographical notes where Darwin recounts these points – a passage which in earlier editions was omitted at the request of his widow as too painful to her sensibilities – he directly describes himself as an agnostic, and indirectly as a sceptic. He wrote, “Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of scepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life. Before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts, for he said that he had known extreme misery thus caused with married persons…[he] added that he had known during his whole long life only three women who were sceptics…[though] he had to own with respect to one of them, his sister-inlaw Kitty Wedgwood, that he had no good evidence, only the vaguest hints, aided by the conviction that so clearsighted a woman could not be a believer.”

Darwin was clear-sighted, as his scientific work vastly shows; the implication that he was “not a believer” (a stronger claim than that he was “merely” agnostic) follows. His use of the word “agnostic,” coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley in the first battles of the “Darwin wars” that followed publication of the Origin, should not be allowed to mislead. Even today in many parts of the world the word “atheist” has the resonance for some of “murderer” or “paedophile”; this was all the more so in the nineteenth century; it was a term of malediction. “Sceptic”, “rationalist” and “agnostic” did duty instead.

Religious apologists, clutching at straws, prefer it when people self-describe as “agnostic” because they hope that it leaves open a smidgeon of possibility that there might be supernatural agencies in the universe.

Manifestly, that is not what someone “too clear-sighted to be a believer” would intend by using the term. The expression “the Darwin wars” could be used to refer to the continuing effort mounted by opponents of Darwinian biology to cling to creationist views, including the more sophisticated (and sophistical) avatar of these views as “intelligent design theory”, a story that runs through the Scopes trial of 1925 to the present day, sustained by wellorganised and well-funded religious lobbies principally in the United States.

But the phrase “the Darwin wars” has come to denote a different aspect of the impact of Darwinism, relating to the use made of the concept of evolution in the social sciences, and specifically in the new fields known as socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. These have provoked a storm of controversy, their critics pointing out that the effort to explain society and psychology in purely evolutionary terms is too reductive, because it ignores the influence of culture, learning, and the concomitant transmission of values and beliefs, together with the feedback mechanisms that these factors themselves involve in prompting further change. The quarrel about the limits of application of evolutionary theory outside biology has often been a vituperative one, with Stephen Jay Gould calling evolutionary psychology a form of “fundamentalist Darwinism” and therefore “foolish,” “fatuous,” “pathetic” and “egregiously simplistic.” He also locked horns with Daniel Dennett and others over his own reformulation of Darwinian theory in terms of “punctuated equilibrium”. While these arguments have proceeded, other social scientists have been disturbed by the fact that in his Descent of Man Darwin himself gave some ground for the extrapolations of evolutionary theory into talk of race and eugenics that followed, in the hands of Herbert Spencer (from whom Darwin himself borrowed the term “survival of the fittest” in later editions of the Origin), Francis Galton, and eventually the Nazis and others. Here the point to be made is that a theory as powerful as Darwinism inevitably gets dragged through all sorts of bushes into neighbouring fields, too many of them inappropriate; and obviously enough the failure or misapplication of the theory in those fields does not in any way infirm the theory in its home sphere.

In line with this thought, it remains that the greatest impact of Darwinism is in biology and such related fields as agriculture, medicine and neuroscience, from which some of the greatest changes to life and the future are already flowing. When the “Darwin wars” over the insights offered by evolutionary theory into psychology and society have calmed down, there will doubtless be found much of value there too. Although evolutionary scientists themselves continue to investigate the fine details of aspects of evolution – the significance of factors such as genetic drift and catastrophe as well as chance mutation, for example – the fact is that evolution is a fact, not a speculative hypothesis.

Opponents of evolutionary theory, principally the creationist lobbies, try to insist on the point that evolutionary theory is a theory, as if doing so introduced a significant element of doubt. This is a misunderstanding (and a wilful one) about the concept of a theory in science. Unlike hypotheses, which are suggestions to be tested and scrutinized, scientific theories such as Newton’s theory of gravitation and Einstein’s general relativity are powerfully supported by evidence and the success of their application. They are facts, not suppositions, even if we can expect to refine and improve our understanding of them, and discover more about their implications, as our enquiries continue. Evolution is a fact, fully and overwhelmingly supported by evidence and by every consequence it supports. One example will suffice: we test new medications on guinea pigs rather than ants because the former are genetically closer to humans than the latter. This simple point is explained by the fact that the common ancestor of guinea pigs and humans is more recent than the common ancestor of guinea pigs, ants and humans.

The power of the theory explains why efforts, often successful, to apply it in fields other than biology are so attractive. Underlying it is the idea that complexity arises from simplicity without purposes or consciousness. Here is the key of the Darwinian revolution: beforehand it was thought that complex things can only be brought about by yet more complex things; there was no grasp of how matters could be otherwise.

That is why even after Copernicus religious views persisted. But “the blind watchmaker,” as Richard Dawkins called natural selection in contradistinction to Paley’s watchmaker analogy for purposive design in nature, is fully competent to produce the millions of life forms – 90 percent of them now extinct – that the planet has so far seen, nothing else required.

One thing is certain: evolutionary theory has changed the entire framework of thinking about the world and mankind in it, and there is no going back: Darwin’s life and work marks a watershed, and we are just beginning our journey into its further side.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How can Darwin’s insights be used profitably by policymakers? by The Economist

Daniel Bird linked to this article from The Economist.

My highlights
My comments.

Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition

As the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On The Origin of Species” approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers

WEALTH, according to H.L. Mencken, an American satirist of the last century, “is any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” 

Adjusted for inflation since 1949, that is not a bad definition.

But why do those who are already well-off feel the need to out-earn other people? And why, contrariwise, is it so hard to abolish poverty? 

America, Mencken’s homeland, executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?
Why, after 80 years of votes for women, and 40 years of the feminist revolution, do men still earn larger incomes? And why do so many people hate others merely for having different coloured skin?

Traditionally, the answers to such questions, and many others about modern life, have been sought in philosophy, sociology, even religion. But the answers that have come back are generally unsatisfying. They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.

The reasons for that ignorance are complex. Philosophers have preached that there exists between man and beast an unbridgeable distinction.

Tell that to philosopher Peter Singer!

Sociologists have been seduced by Marxist ideas about the perfectibility of mankind. Theologians have feared that the very thought of evolution threatens divine explanations of the world. Even fully paid-up members of the Enlightenment, people who would not for a moment deny humanity’s simian ancestry, are often sceptical. They seem to believe, as Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University, in England, elegantly puts it, that evolution stops at the neck: that human anatomy evolved, but human behaviour is culturally determined.

The corollary to this is the idea that with appropriate education, indoctrination, social conditioning or what have you, people can be made to behave in almost any way imaginable. The evidence, however, is that they cannot. The room for shaping their behaviour is actually quite limited. Unless that is realised, and the underlying biology of the behaviour to be shaped is properly understood, attempts to manipulate it are likely to fail. Unfortunately, even as the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s masterwork, “On The Origin of Species”, approaches (it was published in 1859) that fact has not been properly accepted. Time, then, to see what a Darwinian analysis has to offer the hard-pressed policymaker, and whether it can make a practical difference to outcomes.

Mencken’s observation neatly explains two aspects of modern life. One is the open-endedness of economic growth. The other is that no matter how rich your country becomes, the poor you will always have with you. But what explains Mencken’s observation?

For a Darwinian, life is about two things: survival and reproduction. Of the two, the second is the more significant. To put it crudely, the only Darwinian point of survival is reproduction. As a consequence, much of daily existence is about showing off, subtly or starkly, in ways that attract members of the opposite sex and intimidate those of the same sex. 

In humans—unlike, say, peafowl, where only the cocks have the flashy tails, or deer, where only the stags have the chunky antlers—both sexes engage in this. Men do it more than women, but you need look no further than Ascot race course on Gold Cup day to see that women do it too.

Status and hierarchy matter. And in modern society, status is mediated by money.
Girls have always liked a rich man, of course. Darwinians used to think this was due to his ability to provide materially for their children. No doubt that is part of it. But the thinking among evolutionary biologists these days is that what is mainly going on is a competition for genes, not goods. High-status individuals are more likely to have genes that promote health and intelligence, and members of the opposite sex have been honed by evolution to respond accordingly. A high-status man will get more opportunities to mate. A high-status woman can be more choosy about whom she mates with.

Life is about survival and reproduction
For men, at least, this is demonstrably true. Evolutionary biologists are fond of quoting extreme examples to make the point, the most famous being Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, a Moroccan ruler who fathered over 1,000 children. But kings have powers of coercion. Some better examples are provided by Joe Studwell, in his book “Asian Godfathers”, which dissects the lives of businessmen. Stanley Ho, a veteran operator in Hong Kong and Macau, has 17 children by several women. Oei Tiong Ham, a tycoon who died in 1924, had 18 concubines and 42 children. The relationship holds good further down the social ladder.

Danile Nettle and Thomas Pollet, of Newcastle University, recently showed that in Britain the number of children a man has fathered is, on average, related to his income, the spread of modern contraception notwithstanding.

Status, though, is always relative: it is linked to money because it drives the desire to make more of the stuff in order to outdo the competition. This is the ultimate engine of economic growth. Since status is a moving target, there is no such thing as enough money.

The relative nature of status explains the paradox observed in 1974 by an economist called Richard Easterlin that, while rich people are happier than poor people within a country, average happiness does not increase as that country gets richer. This has been disputed recently. But if it withstands scrutiny it means the free-market argument—that because economic growth makes everybody better off, it does not matter that some are more better off than others—does not stand up, at least if “better off” is measured in terms of happiness. What actually matters, Darwinism suggests, is that a free society allows people to rise through the hierarchy by their own efforts: the American dream, if you like.

Conversely, the Darwinian explanation of continued support for socialism—in the teeth of evidence that it results in low economic growth—is that even though making the rich poorer would not make the poor richer in financial terms, it would change the hierarchy in ways that people at the bottom would like. When researchers ask people whether they would rather be relatively richer than their peers even if that means they are absolutely worse off, the answer is yes. (Would you rather earn $100,000 when all your friends earn $50,000, or $150,000 when everybody else earns $300,000?) 
 Is this really Darwinism?

The reason socialism does not work in practice is that this is not a question that most people ask themselves. What they ask is how to earn $300,000 when all around them people are earning $50,000.

A Darwinian analysis does, however, support one argument frequently made by the left and pooh-poohed by the right. This is that poverty is relative. The starkest demonstration of this, discovered by Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, in England, is that once economic growth has lifted a country out of penury, its inhabitants are likely to live longer, healthier lives if there are not huge differences between their incomes. This means that poorer countries with low income-variation can outscore richer ones with high variation. It is also true, as was first demonstrated by Michael Marmot, of University College, London, that those at the bottom of social hierarchies have worse health than those at the top—even when all other variables are statistically eliminated, including the fact that those who are healthier are more likely to rise to the top in the first place.
In the 1970s, when Dr Marmot made this observation, expert opinion predicted the opposite. Executives were expected to suffer worse stress than groundlings, and this was expected to show up as heart attacks, strokes and so forth. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the Darwinian failure of being at the bottom of the heap that is truly stressful and bad for the health. That, writ large, probably explains the mortality patterns of entire countries.
In this case, therefore, the Darwinian conclusion is that there is no right answer—or at least no Utopian one. Of course, it does not take a Darwinist to work out that any competition has losers. The illuminating point is that losing has a real cost, not just the absence of gain. With the stakes this high—early death for the failures and genetic continuity for the successes—it is hardly surprising that those at the bottom of the heap sometimes seek status, or at least “respect”, in other ways. This is a point that should be taken seriously by policymakers. For those “other ways” are also explicable by Darwinism.
That crime is selfish is hardly news. But the idea that criminal behaviour is an evolved response to circumstances sounds shocking. It calls into question the moral explanation that crime is done by “bad people”. Yet that explanation is itself susceptible to Darwinian analysis: evolution probably explains why certain behaviours are deemed worthy of punishment.

The study of the evolutionary roots of crime began with the work of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, a married couple who work at McMaster University in Canada. They looked at what is usually regarded as the most serious crime of all, murder.

That murderers are usually young men is well known, but Dr Daly and Dr Wilson dug a bit deeper. They discovered that although the murder rate varies from place to place, the pattern does not. Plot the rate against the age of the perpetrator and the peak is the same (see chart). Moreover, the pattern of the victims is similar. They, too, are mostly young men. In the original study, 86% of the victims of male killers aged between 15 and 19 were also male. This is the clue as to what is going on. Most violence (and thus most murder, which is simply violence’s most extreme expression) is a consequence of competition between young, unemployed, unmarried men. In the view of Darwinists, these men are either competing for women directly (“You looking at my girl, Jimmy?”) or competing for status (“You dissing me, man?”).

This is not to deny that crimes of violence are often crimes of poverty (for which read low status). But that is precisely what Darwinism would predict. There is no need to invoke the idea that people are “born criminal”. All that is required is the evolution of enough behavioural flexibility to respond appropriately when violence is (or would have been, in the evolutionary past) an appropriate response.


An evolutionary analysis explains many things about crime (and not just murder)—particularly why most criminals are males of low status. A woman will rarely have difficulty finding a mate, even if he does not measure up to all her lofty ideals. In the world of Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, however, a low-status man may be cast on the reproductive scrap heap because there are no women available to him at all. Though the world in which humanity evolved was nowhere near as polygamous as Moulay Ismail’s, neither did it resemble the modern one of monogamous marriage, which distributes women widely. In those circumstances, if the alternative was reproductive failure, risking the consequences of violence may have been are worth the gamble—and instincts will have evolved accordingly.

For similar reasons, it is no surprise to Darwinists that those who rape strangers are also men of low status. Oddly, considering it is an act that might result in a child, the idea that rape is an evolved behaviour is even more controversial than the Darwinian explanation of murder. Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, who proposed it on the basis of criminal data and by comparing people with other species, was excoriated by feminists who felt he was somehow excusing the crime. On the other hand, it has become a mantra among some feminists that all men are rapists, which sounds a lot like the opposite point of view: biological determinism. Insert the word “potential”, however, and this claim is probably true. To a Darwinist, the most common form of forced mating, so-called date rape, which occurs in an already charged sexual environment, looks a lot like an adaptive response. Men who engage in it are likely to have more offspring than those who do not. If a genetic disposition for men to force their attentions on women in this way does exist, it would inevitably spread.
Sexual success, by contrast, tends to dampen criminal behaviour down. Getting married and having children—in other words, achieving at least part of his Darwinian ambition—often terminates a criminal’s career. Again, that is a commonplace observation. However, it tends to be explained as “the calming influence of marriage”, which is not really an explanation at all. “Ambition fulfilled” is a better one.

The murder of children, too, can be explained evolutionarily. On the face of things it makes no sense to kill the vessels carrying your genes into the next generation. And, indeed, that is not what usually happens. But sociologists failed to notice this.

It was not until Dr Daly and Dr Wilson began researching the field that it was discovered that a child under five is many times more likely to die an unnatural death in a household with a stepfather present (whether or not that relationship has been formalised by law) than if only biological parents are there. 

In this, humans follow a pattern that is widespread in mammals: male hostility to a female’s offspring from previous matings. In some species, such as lions and langurs, this results in deliberate infanticide. In humans things not are always as brutal and explicit. But neglect and a low threshold of irritation at the demands of a dependent non-relative can have the same effect.

Intriguingly, though, if a genetic parent is the killer it is often the mother. Infanticidal mothers are usually young. A young mother has many years of potential reproduction ahead of her. If circumstances do not favour her at the time (perhaps the father has deserted her) the cost to her total reproductive output of bringing up a child may exceed the risk of killing it. Not surprisingly, maternal infanticide is mainly a crime of poor, single women.
Many people might sympathise with those driven to commit this particular form of homicide. But in general crimes such as murder and rape provoke a desire to punish the perpetrators, not to forgive them. That, too, is probably an evolved response—and it may well be a uniquely human one. No court sits in judgment over a drake who has raped a duck. A lioness may try to defend her cubs against infanticide, but if she fails she does not plan vengeance against the male who did it. Instead, she usually has sex with him. Yet ideas of revenge and punishment lie deep in the human psyche.

…and punishment

Economists were long puzzled, for example, by the routine outcome of a game in which one player divides a sum of money between himself and a competitor, who then decides whether the shares are fair. If the second player decides the shares are not fair, neither player gets anything.
What is curious about this game is that, in order to punish the first player for his selfishness, the second player has deliberately made himself worse off by not accepting the offer. Many evolutionary biologists feel that the sense of justice this illustrates, and the willingness of one player to punish the other, even at a cost to himself, are among the things that have allowed humans to become such a successful, collaborative species. In the small social world in which humans evolved, people dealt with the same neighbours over and over again. Punishing a cheat has desirable long-term consequences for the person doing the punishing, as well as for the wider group. In future, the cheat will either not deal with him or will do so more honestly. Evolution will favour the development of emotions that make such reactions automatic.
What goes for cheating goes for other bad behaviour, up to and including the murder of relatives and friends. Moreover, if publicly observed, punishment sends the same message to those who might be considering a similar course of action.
It is therefore one of the marvels of civilisation that punishment and revenge have, for the most part, been institutionalised. But to be successful, the institutionalised punishment has to be seen as a proper outcome by the individuals who were harmed. Otherwise, they might mete out their own revenge. That may worry those who believe that reforming the criminal should be the main goal of sentencing policy. If people no longer believe that the punishment fits the crime, a Darwinian would predict that they will stop supporting the criminal-justice system.
Even deterrence, however, does not always work. On the face of things, capital punishment ought to be the ultimate deterrent. But it does not seem to be. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, suggests that this is further evidence of the reproduction-related nature of murder.

Since failure to reproduce is a Darwinian dead-end anyway, risking death to avoid that fate—or, rather, being impelled to do so in the heat of the moment by an evolved instinct—is not as stupid as it looks. Some sorts of murder might be discouraged by the threat of the noose or the needle. But not the most common sort: young man on young man over status and sex.

A woman’s place

Crime, then, is one field in which women are unequal with men. That does not bother feminists, but perhaps it should. For it might reflect a wider truth which those who believe that the sexes should not merely have equal rights but enjoy equal outcomes will find uncomfortable.
When outcomes are unequal in socially acceptable areas of behaviour, such as employment, it is often interpreted as a sign of discrimination. But people who draw this conclusion rarely consider that the discrimination in question might actually be being exercised by the supposedly disadvantaged women themselves.
A classic example is income. Women earn less than men. Or do they? In fact, younger women do not, or not much. A recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a British think-tank, found that British women aged between 22 and 29 who were in full-time employment earned only 1% less than their male counterparts. This age group corresponds for many women to the period when they are single. Once they have found the best available mate, the calculation changes: a woman no longer needs to show off.
In that context, it is less of a surprise that older women are out-earned by their male contemporaries. One reason is that they now care less about the size of their earnings. Of the top 25 ideal employers, as chosen by women, the IEA found that 12 were in the public or voluntary sectors—areas where salaries for equivalent work tend to be lower than in the private sector, though job security is higher and job satisfaction is often believed to be greater. For men, only four employers were in this category. The other reason, of course, is that women usually look after the children. Indeed, the study by Dr Nettle and Dr Pollet which found that reproductive success correlates with men’s income, also points out that with women the correlation is inverted. But the IEA study also found that it is women themselves who are taking the decisions about child care. It reports that two-thirds of the women who had not already had a “career break”, as it is euphemistically known, planned to take one at some point in the future. Less than an eighth of men had similar aspirations. That, too, would be predicted by a Darwinist.
Although there is a strong argument for making working conditions more sympathetic to the needs of parents of both sexes, the underlying point is that many women—and certainly many women with children—do not care as much about striving ahead in their careers as men do. Men, the report found, are more motivated by pay and less by job satisfaction than women are. If managers, they are more likely to work long hours. They also take more risks—or, at least, are more frequently injured at work.
The consequence, as Len Shackleton, the IEA report’s main author, puts it, is that: “The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate. The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individuals’ lifestyle preferences. Government can’t regulate or legislate these away, and shouldn’t try to.” He failed to add, however, that these preferences are often the result of biological differences between the sexes.
What goes for pay probably goes for career choice as well. At one extreme, it is foolish, as Kingsley Browne of Wayne State University, in Michigan, suggests, to expect equal outcomes in organisations like the armed forces. Not only are men stronger and more aggressive but, Mr Browne suggests, the psychology of both sexes has evolved to trust men (and not trust women) in combat, precisely because of this aggression and strength. At the other end of the scale, it is probably an opposite mixture of evolved aptitudes and attitudes that causes the domination by females of professions such as nursing.
This is not to say there can be no good female soldiers or male nurses. Patently, there can. But it is not clear evidence of discrimination that they are rarer than their counterparts of the opposite sex. A Darwinian analysis of the matter cannot say where the equilibrium would lie in a world free from discrimination. But it can say with reasonable confidence that this equilibrium will often not be 50/50.
Many may harrumph at such a Darwinian interpretation of feminism, and say that it is a circuitous route to a traditional destination. It isn’t: not expecting an equal distribution of the sexes within every profession is not the same as saying that a woman’s place is in the home. And having dared to question the assumptions of both feminists and their opponents, some evolutionary biologists are now hoping to turn conventional wisdom upside down in another area where civil rights meet long-standing prejudice. This is the vexed question of race.

Race to the finish

Racial difference is an area where modern Darwinists have feared, until recently, to tread. This is hardly surprising, given the topic’s history. Many early evolutionary biologists (though not Darwin himself) thought that just as man was a risen ape, so white, European man was the zenith of humanity, and that people from other parts of the world were necessarily inferior.
The consequences of that have been terrible. It gave a veneer of intellectual respectability to the eugenic horrors which culminated in the Nazi death camps. Indeed, it is probably one of the roots of the “evolution stops at the neck” point of view. But evolutionary biology is now making amends. By overturning understanding of what race actually is, it may yet provide the tools that allow people of different backgrounds to live in reasonable harmony.
Revenge and punishment lie deep in the human psyche
Its first observation is a bleak one. This is that racism, or at least xenophobia, is a deeply ingrained human characteristic. But its second observation is that, so far as can be determined, the traditional definition of race—the tendency of people living in different parts of the world to have different skin colour, hair colour and physiognomy—has no wider ramifications in areas such as intelligence. Racial prejudice, then, is just that: prejudice.
What is being proposed instead, by another husband and wife team of Darwinists, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a theory of ethnicity that explains the mishmash of categories anthropologists have tried to shoehorn into the general class of “race”. Are Jews and Sikhs, who are defined by religious exclusivity, races? Are Serbs and Croats, who share their religions with others, but not with each other, and whom no geneticist could tell apart? These examples, and similar ones, argue that race has no biological meaning. But it does. It is just not the traditional meaning.
Social psychologists have long observed that, on first meeting, people automatically classify each other in three ways: by sex, by age and by race. But Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby pointed out that before long-distance transport existed, only two of those would have been relevant. People of different ages and sexes would meet; people of different races would not.
The two researchers argue that modern racial discrimination is an overstimulated response to what might be called an “alliance” detector in the human brain. In a world where the largest social unit is the tribe, clan or what-you-will of a few hundred people, your neighbours and your other allies will normally look a lot like you, and act similarly. However, it is known from the study of modern hunter-gatherers, and inferred from archaeological evidence about ancient ones, that neighbouring tribes are often hostile.
Though an individual might reasonably be expected to know many members of his tribe personally, he would probably not know them all. There would thus be a biological advantage in tribal branding, as it were. Potential allies would quickly identify what marked them out from others, and what marked others out from them—and, because those differences would probably be small, the detector would need to be very sensitive.
In the past, such markers would often have been cultural, since local physical differences would have been minimal. A telling instance is recorded in the Bible:
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him.
The questioners were the Gileadites. The slain, an Ephraimite. But no physical difference could distinguish the tribes, so the Gileadite ethnic-cleansers had to rely on linguistic tics.
In a world where a syllable can get you killed, having differently coloured skin is a pretty strong brand of identity. However, it is not a unique signal. Experiments that Dr Cosmides, Dr Tooby and their students have conducted in both America and Brazil (another racially mixed country) suggest it is surprisingly easy to rebrand even people of different skin colour by making other badges of allegiance more significant—as happens when sportsmen clothe themselves in coloured team shirts. Moreover, Andrew Penner of the University of California, Irvine, and Aliya Saperstein of the University of Oregon have shown that perception of a person’s race can actually change in the real world. Many people shift from being “white” to “black”, in both their own eyes and the eyes of others, in response to unemployment, impoverishment or imprisonment.
That is an uncomfortable reminder of the way group solidarity works in America. The hope this analysis brings, though, is that there is nothing particularly special about biologically based brands such as skin colour. If other brands of group membership can be strengthened, the traditional ones may diminish, even if they do not disappear completely. If this theory of race is correct (and more research is certainly needed), it indicates a strong prescription: policies that encourage groups to retain their identity within a society will cause trouble, but those that encourage cultural integration will smooth things over.
In practice, the history of that most racially mixed country of all, the United States, supports this idea. When integration has been encouraged, as with the descendants of the great flood of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ethnic distinctions have vanished. When integration has been discouraged, as with the descendants of slaves liberated shortly before those European immigrants arrived, differences have been sharpened. Even in Britain, official policy seems to be shifting from “multiculturalism”, which celebrated diversity and thus encouraged distinction, to a deliberate attempt to forge a cultural consensus.
What the brand theory of ethnicity does not require, however, is that minorities submit to the majority’s definition of what the brands should be. All that is needed is for each generation to be encouraged to form its own identity from the widest range of materials possible.

A Darwinian analysis thus sheds light on a number of pressing questions. There are others. The rise of metabolic syndrome (obesity plus high blood-pressure equals diabetes plus heart disease) seems to Darwinists the consequence of people trying to sate appetites for sugar and fat that evolution put no brakes on because they were so rare in the natural world.
Pretending young adults are children so that they can be educated en masse in schools is another area ripe for investigation. And the refusal of people to adhere to the patterns of behaviour prescribed for them by classical economics has already spun off a field called behavioural economics that often has Darwinian thinking at its roots.
No one is suggesting Darwinism has all the answers to social questions. Indeed, with some, such as the role of hierarchies, it suggests there is no definitive answer at all—itself an important conclusion. What is extraordinary, though, is how rarely an evolutionary analysis is part of the process of policymaking. To draw an analogy, it is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works: not impossible, but as likely as not to result in a breakdown or a crash. Perhaps, after a century and a half, it is time not just to recognise but also to understand that human beings are evolved creatures. To know thyself is, after all, the beginning of wisdom.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two misunderstandings replaced by two myths by Michael Shermer

Two Misunderstandings
Darwins' term for the process of Evolution by Natural Selection was considered by Wallace as readily misunderstood. The source of the misunderstanding, Wallace said, was "Natural Selection" implies:-
  1. “the constant watching of an intelligent ‘chooser’, like man’s selection..”
  2. “thought and direction are essential to the action of ‘Natural Selection."
Two Myths
Wallace suggested the use of the term 'survival of the fittest' which Herbert Spencer had coined. Unfortunately, that is what happened, and so the two misunderstandings led to two myths about evolution that persist today:
  1. that there is a prescient (ie. perceiving the significance of events before they occur) directionality to evolution
  2. that survival depends entirely on cutthroat competitive fitness.
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.
my highlights
my comments
source: SciAm Feb 2009

By Michael Shermer

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 Natural 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
  • that “thought and direction are essential to the action of ‘Natural Selection
Wallace suggested redacting (i.e. to edit or revise) 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 cut-throat 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 �gladitorial� 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�' 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?� If 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.�"

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic ( and author of Why Darwin Matters.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

what Charles Darwin thought about faith and religion

An investigation into what Charles Darwin really thought about faith and religion. Although he has become an icon for militant secularists, and his theory of evolution is often used to challenge faith and belief, Darwin had a much more complex relationship with religion than is often believed and at one stage was even training to be a priest.

Broadcast on:
BBC Radio 3, 9:30pm Sunday 15th February 2009
45 minutes
Available until:
10:17pm Sunday 22nd February 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The explanatory Power of Darwin by Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins on the explanatory power of Natural Selection v ID
source: Free Enquiry Feb/March vol 29, No 2 published by Council for Secular Humanism

RD (Richard Dawkins) says Charles Darwin had a big idea, arguably the most powerful idea ever. A powerful idea assumes little to explain much.
Power of a Theory = That which it explains / that which it needs to assume in order to do the explaining

in Neo-Darwinist terms

Power of Darwins Theory = The diverse complexity of life / Non-random survival of genes in a gene pool
or in Charles Darwins terms

Power of Darwins Theory = The diverse complexity of life / Natural Selection

Darwin didn't define the fittest as those that survive. His 'fittest' were those endowed with the best equipment to survive, and that makes all the differnence!

The Power of Darwin


Charles Darwin had a big idea, arguably the most powerful idea ever. A powerful idea assumes little to explain much. It does a lot of explanatory “heavy lifting” while expending little in the way of assumption or postulation. It gives you plenty of bang for your explanatory buck. Its Explanation Ratio—what it explains divided by what it needs to assume in order to do the explaining—is large.
Power of a theory =
That which it explains
That which it needs to assume in order to do the explaining
If any reader knows of an idea that has a larger explanation ratio than Darwin’s, let’s hear it. Darwin’s big idea explains all of life and its consequences, and that means everything that possesses more than minimal complexity. That’s the numerator of the Explanation Ratio, and it is huge. Yet the denominator is spectacularly small and simple: natural selection, the non-random survival of genes in gene pools (to put it in neo-Darwinian terms rather than Darwin’s own).
Power of Darwin’s theory =
The diverse complexity of life
Non-random survival
Natural selection is an improbability pump—a process that generates statistical improbability. It systematically seizes the minority of random changes that have what it takes to survive and accumulates them, step by tiny step over unimaginable timescales, until evolution eventually scales mountains of improbability and diversity whose height and range seem to know no limit. 
Yet it is so magnificently simple that you can pare Darwin’s big idea down to a single sentence (again, this is a neo-Darwinian way of putting it, not quite Darwin’s): Given sufficient time, the non-random survival of hereditary entities (which occasionally miscopy) will generate complexity, diversity, beauty, and an illusion of design so persuasive that it is almost impossible to distinguish from deliberate intelligent design.
I have put “which occasionally miscopy” in parentheses because mistakes are inevitable in any copying process. We don’t need to add mutation to our assumptions. Mutational “bucks” are provided free. “Given sufficient time” is not a problem either—except for the problem of comprehension by human minds struggling to take on board the terrifying magnitude of geological time.

It is mainly its power to simulate the illusion of design that makes Darwin’s theory seem threatening to a certain kind of mind. The same power constitutes the most formidable barrier to understanding it. People are naturally incredulous that anything so simple could explain so much. To a naïve observer of the wondrous complexity of life, it seems self-evident that it must be intelligently designed. 

But intelligent design (ID) is the polar opposite of a powerful theory: its explanation ratio is pathetic. The numerator is the same: everything we know about life and its prodigious complexity. But the denominator, far from Darwin’s pristine and minimalistic simplicity, is at least as big as the numerator itself: an unexplained intelligence big enough to be capable of designing all the complexity we are trying to explain in the first place!
Power of ID theory =
An unexplained intelligence big enough to design everything
Darwin understood the immense power of his theory. So did Alfred Russel Wallace, the magnanimous hero whose independent discovery galvanized Darwin into shelving his magnum opus on natural selection in favor of what he called its “abstract”: On the Origin of Species. Claims to priority were made on behalf of others, including Patrick Matthew in the appendix to a work on raising trees for shipbuilding, as Darwin punctiliously acknowledged in later editions of Origin. How­ever, though Matthew understood the principle of natural selection, it is not clear that he understood its power to explain the whole of life. Unlike Darwin and Wallace, he seems to have seen selection as a purely negative, weeding-out force, not the universal driving force. Indeed, he thought natural selection so obvious as to need no positive discovery at all.

Here may lie the answer to a nagging puzzle in the history of ideas. After Newton’s brilliant synthesis of physics, why did it take nearly two hundred years for Darwin to arrive on the scene? Newton’s achievement seems so much harder! Maybe the answer is that Darwin’s eventual solution to the riddle of life is so staggeringly simple, nobody thought to look for it.

It is so simple that in the guise of “survival of the fittest” (the renaming that Darwin adopted from Herbert Spencer at the urging of Wallace), it has even been described as a tautology: the fittest are defined as those that survive, so the catchphrase amounts to “those that survive survive.” But if it were really a tautology, the same mud should stick to artificial selection, the non-random breeding of domestic animals and plants (to which Darwin devoted so much attention). Imagine the dusty reception a certain kind of bad philosopher might get after saying this to a cattle breeder: “You are wasting your time. No improvement in milk yield can come from a tautology!”

But Darwin didn’t define the fittest as those that survive. His “fittest” were those endowed with the best equipment to survive, and that makes all the difference.

By the way, Darwin had plenty of other good ideas (for example his ingenious and largely correct theory of how coral reefs form),

but it is his big idea of natural selection that I am talking about here. I think it is even more powerful than I have so far suggested. Not only is it the explanation for life on this planet, it is the only theory so far suggested that could, even in principle, explain life on any planet. If life exists elsewhere in the universe (and my tentative bet is that it does), however strange and alien and weird its nature may be (and my tentative bet is that it will be weird beyond imagining), some version of evolution by Darwinian natural selection will almost certainly turn out to underlie its existence. That is at least how I would bet: on the principle that I have called “Universal Darwinism.”

There is a different sense of Universal Darwinism that I want to counsel against. This is the uncritical dragging of some garbled version of natural selection into every available field of human discourse, whether it is appropriate or not. Maybe the “fittest” firms survive in the marketplace, or the fittest theories survive in the scientific marketplace, but we should at the very least be cautious before we get carried away. 

And of course there was Social Darwinism, culminating in the obscenity of Hitlerism.

Less obnoxious but still intellectually unhelpful is the loose and uncritical way in which amateur biologists apply selection at inappropriate levels in the hierarchy of life. “Survival of the fittest species, extinction of poorly adapted species” sounds superficially like true natural selection, but the apparent resemblance is positively misleading. As Darwin himself was at pains to point out, natural selection is all about differential survival within species, not between them.

Darwin’s great idea has moved on. Twenty-first century evolutionary science, if Darwin could return to see it, would enthrall, excite, and amaze him. But he would recognize it as his own. We are just coloring in the details. For my money, the most important thinker the human species has ever produced was Charles Darwin.

I’ll end on a subtler legacy of Darwin’s big idea. Darwin raises our consciousness to the sinewy power of science to explain the large and complex in terms of the small and simple. In biology we were fooled for centuries into thinking that extravagant complexity in nature needs an extravagantly complex explanation. Darwin triumphantly dispelled that illusion. There remain big questions, in physics and cosmology, that await their own Darwins. Why are the laws of physics the way they are? Why are there laws at all? Why is there a universe at all? Once again, the lure of “design” is tempting, but we have the cautionary tale of Darwin before us. We’ve been through all that before. Darwin raised our consciousness, and we are emboldened to seek true explanations of genuine power. 

Richard Dawkins, F.R.S., is emeritus professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. His latest book is The God Delusion (First Mariner Books Edition, 2008).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dawkins on Darwin


my highlights, as usual in blockquotes thus

Why we really do need to know the amazing truth about evolution, and the equally amazing intellectual dishonesty of its enemies

How can you say that evolution is “true”? Isn’t that just your opinion, of no more value than anybody else’s? Isn’t every view entitled to equal “respect”? Maybe so where the issue is one of, say, musical taste or political judgement. But when it is a matter of scientific fact? Unfortunately, scientists do receive such relativistic protests when they dare to claim that something is factually true in the real world. Given the title of Jerry Coyne’s book, this is a distraction that I must deal with.

A scientist arrogantly asserts that thunder is not the triumphal sound of God’s balls banging together, nor is it Thor’s hammer. It is, instead, the reverberating echoes from the electrical discharges that we see as lightning. Poetic (or at least stirring) as those tribal myths may be, they are not actually true.

But now a certain kind of anthropologist can be relied on to jump up and say something like the following: Who are you to elevate scientific “truth” so? The tribal beliefs are true in the sense that they hang together in a meshwork of consistency with the rest of the tribe’s world view. Scientific “truth” is only one kind (“Western” truth, the anthropologist may call it, or even “patriarchal”). Like tribal truths, yours merely hang together with the world view that you happen to hold, which you call scientific. An extreme version of this viewpoint (I have actually encountered this) goes so far as to say that logic and evidence themselves are nothing more than instruments of masculine oppression over the “intuitive mind”.

Listen, anthropologist. Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world. Science predicts, with complete certainty unless the end of the world intervenes, that the city of Shanghai will experience a total eclipse of the sun on July 22, 2009. Theories about the moon god devouring the sun god may be poetic, and they may cohere with other aspects of a tribe’s world view, but they won’t predict the date, time and place of an eclipse. Science will, and with an accuracy you could set your watch by. Science gets you to the moon and back. Even if we bend over backwards to concede that scientific truth is no more than that which enables you to pilot your way reliably, safely and predictably around the real universe, it is in exactly this sense that – at the very least – evolution is true.

Evolutionary theory pilots us around biology reliably and predictively, with a detailed and unblemished success that rivals anything in science. The least you can say about evolutionary theory is that it works. All but pedants would go further and assert that it is true.

Whence, then, comes the oft-parroted canard, “Evolution is only a theory”? Perhaps from a misunderstanding of philosophers who assert that science can never demonstrate truth. All it can do is fail to disprove a hypothesis. Evolution is an unfalsified hypothesis – one that was vulnerable to falsification but has so far survived. Scientists generally don’t mind this kind of philosopher and even thank him for taking care of such matters, thereby freeing them to get on with advancing knowledge. They might, however, venture that what is sauce for the goose of science is sauce for the gander of everyday experience. If evolution is an unfalsified hypothesis, then so is every fact about the real world; so is the very existence of a real world.

This kind of conversation is swiftly and rightly sidelined. Evolution is true in whatever sense you accept it as true that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere. If we refused ever to use a word like “true”, how could we conduct our day-to-day conversations? Or fill in a census form: “What is your sex?” “The hypothesis that I am male has not so far been falsified, but let me just check again”. As Douglas Adams might have said, it doesn’t read well. Yet the philosophy that imposes such scruples on science has no basis for absolving everyday facts from the same circumlocution. It is in this sense that evolution is true – provided, of course, that the scientific evidence for it is strong. It is very strong, and Professor Coyne displays it for us in a way that no objective reader could fail to find compelling.

Here I must anticipate another favourite accusation that will, as I know from personal experience, be plonkingly levelled against Coyne and his book: “Why bother? You are tilting at a dead horse, flogging windmills. Nobody takes creationism seriously, nowadays”. (Translation: “The Regius Professor of Theology at my University is no creationist, the Archbishop of Canterbury accepts evolution, therefore you are wasting your time arguing the case”.) The melancholy facts are these. Polls in both Britain and the United States show a majority wanting “intelligent design” to be taught in science classes. In Britain, according to MORI, only 69 per cent want evolution to be taught at all. In America, more than 40 per cent believe that “life on Earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time” (Pew) and that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” (Gallup).

Science teachers, especially in America but increasingly in Britain, feel beleaguered, and it is small comfort to them if a handful of theologians and bishops occasionally murmur a word of support for evolutionary science. Occasional murmurs are not enough. In October 2008, a group of about sixty American science teachers met to compare notes, at the Center for Science Education at Emory University in Atlanta, and they had some revealing experiences to relate. One teacher reported that students “burst into tears” when told they would be studying evolution. Another teacher described how students repeatedly screamed, “No!” when he began talking about evolution in class.

Such experiences are common throughout the United States, but also, I am loath to admit, in Britain. The Guardian reported that, in February 2006, “Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin’s theories as false”. The Muslim leaflets were produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a registered charity with tax-free status. The British taxpayer, that is to say, is subsidizing the systematic distribution of scientific falsehood to educational institutions. Science teachers across Britain will confirm that they are coming under slight, but growing, pressure from creationist lobbies, usually inspired by American or Islamic sources.

So, let nobody have the gall to deny that Coyne’s book is necessary. Not just his book, and here I must declare an interest. February 12, 2009, was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species falls this autumn. Publishers being as anniversary-minded as they are, Darwin-related books were obviously to be expected this year. Nevertheless, it is true to say that neither Jerry Coyne nor I was aware of the other’s book on the evidence for evolution when we began our own – his published now, mine in the autumn. And our two books may not be the only ones. Bring them on, I say. The more the merrier. The evidence is massive, the modern version of the story would surprise and inspire even Darwin, and it cannot be told too often.

Evolution is, after all, the true story of why we all exist, and an exhilaratingly powerful and satisfying explanation. It supersedes – and devastates – all predecessors, no matter how devoutly and sincerely believed.

Why Evolution Is True is outstandingly good. Coyne’s knowledge of evolutionary biology is prodigious, his deployment of it as masterful as his touch is light. His coverage is enviably comprehensive, yet he simultaneously manages to keep the book compact and readable. His nine chapters include “Written in the Rocks”, laced with examples that make short work of the most popular of all creationist lies, the one about unbridgeable “gaps” in the fossil record: “Show me your intermediates!”, say the creationists. Jerry Coyne shows them, and very numerous and convincing they are. Not just fossils of large charismatic animals like whales and birds, and the coelacanth-cousins that made the transition from water to land, but also microfossils. These have the advantage of sheer numbers: some kinds of sedimentary rock are almost entirely made of the tiny fossilized skeletons of foraminiferans, radiolarians and other calcareous or siliceous protozoa. This means you can plot a sensitive graph of some chosen measurement, as a continuous function of geological time, while you systematically work your way through a core of sediments. One of Coyne’s graphs shows a genus of radiolarians (beautiful protozoans with minute, lantern-like shells) caught in the act, two million years ago, of “speciating” – splitting into two species.

Such splitting of one species into two is what Darwin’s title actually means, and it is one of the few weak areas in that great book. Jerry Coyne is probably today’s leading authority on speciation, and it is not surprising that his chapter called “The Origin of Species” is so good. So also is “The Geography of Life”. Possibly the most immediately convincing evidence against creationism is to be found in the geographical distribution of animals and plants, on continents and islands (in the broad sense, “islands” include lakes, mountain tops, oases – from an animal’s point of view any small area where it can live, surrounded by a larger area where it can’t). After setting out the voluminous evidence on the subject, Coyne concludes:

"Now try to think of a theory that explains the patterns we’ve discussed by invoking the special creation of species on oceanic islands and continents . . . . There are no good answers – unless, of course, you presume that the goal of a creator was to make species look as though they evolved on islands. Nobody is keen to embrace that answer, which explains why creationists simply shy away from island biogeography."

Such dishonesty by omission is lamentably characteristic of creationists. They love fossils because they have been schooled, wrongly as Coyne shows, to believe that “gaps” in the fossil record are an embarrassment to evolutionary theorists. The geographical distribution of species really is an embarrassment to creationists – and they conspicuously ignore it.

The book includes a lucid exposition of natural selection at the level of the gene (knowing nothing of genes, Darwin expressed it at the level of the individual organism). Coyne describes how a parasitic worm changes the appearance and behaviour of its ant host, turning the ant’s abdomen into a simulacrum of a red berry, angled temptingly up in the air with carefully weakened stalk joining it to the thorax. You’ve guessed the sequel. The “berry”, full of worm eggs, is eaten by a bird, which is the definitive host of the worm. In Coyne’s own words:

"All of these changes are caused by the genes of the parasitic worm as an ingenious ploy to reproduce themselves . . . . It is staggering adaptations like this – the many ways that parasites control their carriers, just to pass on the parasites’ genes – that gets an evolutionist’s juices running."

Very true. That kind of gene-centred “adaptationist” language has become all but universal among evolutionary biologists working in the field. It is amusing, therefore, to recall the overbearing hostility with which it was attacked thirty years ago by the dedicatee of Coyne’s book, his old teacher, the distinguished geneticist Richard Lewontin. It is not irrelevant that Coyne also has a very necessary clarification of the idea of the “selfish gene”, in which he correctly explains that it has no connection with spurious claims that we are deterministically hardwired to be selfish. Thirty years on, how things have changed.

Coyne’s chapter on “The Engine of Evolution” begins with a splendidly macabre example. Giant Japanese hornets raid the nests of honeybees to feed their larvae. A single hornet scout discovers a beehive and marks it “for doom” with a sort of chemical black spot.

"Alerted by the mark, the scout’s nestmates descend on the spot, a group of twenty or thirty hornets arrayed against a colony of up to 30,000 honeybees. But it’s no contest. Wading into the hive with jaws slashing, the hornets decapitate the bees one by one. With each hornet making heads roll at a rate of forty per minute, the battle is over in a few hours: every bee is dead, and body parts litter the hive. Then the hornets stock their larder."

Coyne’s purpose in telling the story is to contrast the terrible fate of European bees, introduced into Japan, with native Japanese bees that have had time to evolve a defence.

"And their defense is stunning – another marvel of adaptive behavior. When the hornet scout first arrives at the hive, the honeybees near the entrance rush into the hive, calling nestmates to arms while luring the hornet inside. In the meantime, hundreds of worker bees assemble inside the entrance. Once the hornet is inside, it is mobbed and covered by a tight ball of bees. Vibrating their abdomens, the bees quickly raise the temperature inside the ball to about 117 degrees Fahrenheit. In twenty minutes the hornet scout is cooked to death, and – usually – the nest is saved."

Coyne adds that the bees can survive the high temperature, but it is another insight of the “gene’s eye view” that this would not be necessary in order for natural selection to favour the adaptation. Worker bees are sterile: their genes survive, not in the workers themselves but as copies in the bodies of the minority of hive members destined for reproduction. If the workers in the centre of the ball were cooked alongside the hornet, it would be well worth the sacrifice. Copies of their genes “for cooking” live on.

There’s a good chapter on “Remnants, Vestiges, Embryos and Bad Design”, topics that Darwin himself treated well, and also on “How Sex Drives Evolution”, and on human evolution. But Coyne really comes into his own with another strand of powerful evidence that was not available to Darwin. The molecular genetics revolution, which began in 1953, would have taken Darwin’s breath away and filled him with exultation. Every living creature carries within each of its cells a voluminous textual recipe for making itself. Nowadays, we can read these messages, accurately and with a completeness that is limited only by (rapidly shrinking) costs and time. Because the DNA texts of all animals and plants use the identical four-letter code, we have a gold mine of opportunity for comparison. In his own time, Darwin could compare, say, the wing of a bat, the flipper of a whale and the spade of a mole, and spot the relationships among a handful of bones.

Today – and more cheaply in the near tomorrows – we can do it on an altogether grander scale, lining up billion-letter DNA texts from bat, whale and mole, and literally counting the single-letter discrepancies and resemblances. Moreover, we don’t have to limit our comparisons to one group, such as the mammals. The universal genetic code allows us to make letter-for-letter textual comparisons across plants, snails and bacteria, as well as vertebrates. This not only provides evidence for the fact of evolution that is orders of magnitude more solid even than the powerful evidence Darwin could muster. We can also construct, finally and definitively, the complete tree of all life, the universal pedigree. And we can find, in huge numbers, the molecular equivalents of vestigial evolutionary relics like the human appendix and the kiwi’s wings.

For the genome is littered with dead genes. Huge wastes of DNA territory comprise a graveyard of discarded, superseded old genes (plus meaningless sequences of nonsense DNA that never functioned) with occasional islands of current, extant genes that are actually read by the translating machinery and turned into action. Dead, untranslated genes are called pseudogenes. The reason our sense of smell is poor, compared with, say, that of dogs, is that most of our ancestral genes for smelling have been rendered inactive. We still have them, but they are dead. Molecular biologists can still read them – serried ranks of molecular “fossils” – but the body does not.

It is wonderful enough that we can construct a tree of life based on active genes, and find that different genes agree on the same pedigree. It is even more convincing that we get the same pedigree with dead genes, whose DNA sequences represent nothing, and must be regarded only as the inert legacy of history. How would creationists explain that? How would they explain the very existence of pseudogenes? Why would the creator litter the genome with useless, untranslated variants of genes, and locate them, moreover, in exactly the right pattern around the animal and plant kingdoms to give the impression – the deceptive impression, as a creationist would presumably have to admit – that they evolved and were not created?

Coyne is right to identify the most widespread misunderstanding about Darwinism as the idea that, in evolution, “everything happens by chance”. This common claim is flat wrong – obviously wrong, transparently wrong, even to the meanest intelligence (a phrase that has me actively restraining myself). If evolution worked by chance, it obviously couldn’t work at all. Unfortunately, instead of working out that they have probably misunderstood evolution, creationists conclude, instead, that evolution must be false. This one misunderstanding, single-handed, accounts for much of the uncomprehending opposition to evolution that made it necessary for Jerry Coyne to write his book in the first place. The need was great; the execution is superb. Please read it.

Jerry Coyne
309pp. Oxford University Press. £14.99 (US $27.95).
978 0 19 923084 6

Richard Dawkins has just retired as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. His most recent books are The Ancestor’s Tale, 2005, and The God Delusion, 2007.

The Genius of Charles Darwin by Richard Dawkins

part 1 of 7 (i think)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

(Re)Reading The Origin

(Re)Reading The Origin


Charles Darwin's 1859 book On the Origin of Species is much referenced, especially in this double anniversary year. But, does anyone still read it? And, if so, what is the book itself like as a text? We have asked biologists from a range of fields evolutionary biologists, but also geneticists, ecologists, paleontologists and molecular biologists to re-read (or read) The Origin for Current Biology. Below are the responses, contributed by: Andrew Berry, Matthew Cobb, Simon Conway Morris, Jerry Coyne, Hopi Hoekstra, Peter Lawrence, Robert May, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Mark Ptashne, Matt Ridley and Marlene Zuk.


David Attenborough on Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

According to the Radio Times, Attenborough gets hate mail from creationists over his views.

DA says: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”


Darwin everywhere!


Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist

In yesterday’s Guardian the famous paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (describer of many of the Burgess Shale fossils and author of Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe) uses Darwin Day not as a reason to celebrate what the old man did, but to point out what he did not do, and to engage in some atheism bashing on the way:

Darwinian [sic] has reached near saturation and among the customary pieties there is little doubt that it will conveniently serve as a love-in, with much mutual self-congratulation, for atheism. But perhaps now is the time to rejoice not in what Darwin got right, and in demonstrating the reality of evolution in the context of entirely unexceptional natural processes there is no dispute, but what his inheritance is in terms of unfinished business. Isn’t it curious how evolution is regarded by some as a total, universe-embracing explanation, although those who treat it as a religion might protest and sometimes not gently. Don’t worry, the science of evolution is certainly incomplete.

He then beats the drum for evolutionary convergence (the arrival of independent lineages as similar evolutionary solutions, like the camera eyes of vertebrates and squid). His ultimate example of “convergence” (though it really isn’t one), is the high intelligence and mentality of humans. He claims that convergence shows the incompleteness of Darwinism.

What! Darwinism not a total explanation? Why should it be? It is after all only a mechanism, but if evolution is predictive, indeed possesses a logic, then evidently it is being governed by deeper principles. Come to think about it so are all sciences; why should Darwinism be any exception?

This is palpable nonsense. The “deeper principle” at work here is simply natural selection: organisms adapt to their environments. We can expect, in some cases, that different organisms facing similar adaptive problems will hit on similar solutions. Sharks, ichthyosaurs, and dolphins all adapted independently to life as fast-swimming predators in the ocean, and all developed similar shapes, for such a way of life requires fast, torpedo-shaped beasts with fins. And of course sometimes similar evolutionary problems are met by different solutions, and in those cases evolution is not predictable. Some fish, like seahorses, escape predators by being permanently camouflaged and hiding in a matching habitat, while others, like the flounder, can change their colors and thus be camouflaged while moving between different habitats.

Conway Morris then takes up Alfred Russel Wallace’s nineteenth-century position that the evoution of the human mind is inexplicable by evolution:

But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers?

His solution? God of course. This is no surprise to anyone who has followed Conway Morris’s biological arguments in favor of the Christian God.

If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe – a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics – then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. Farewell bleak nihilism; the cold assurances that all is meaningless. Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.

In his peroration, Conway Morris, triumphant, asserts that the fact of human rationality and consciousness puts paid to atheism:

To reiterate: when physicists speak of not only a strange universe, but one even stranger than we can possibly imagine, they articulate a sense of unfinished business that most neo-Darwinians don’t even want to think about. Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as much, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so. Please join me beside the coffin marked Atheism. I fear, however, there will be very few mourners.

I don’t want to fulminate at length about this terrible and misleading “logic,” but do want to make four points.

1. The conscious and rational human mind does not demonstrate convergence, because it is a singleton: it evolved only once–in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens. By definition, evolutionary convergence involves at least two species. I am puzzled why Conway Morris continues to use this example (well, not really puzzled–he wants to show that the evolution of the human mind is inevitable). I have criticized this viewpoint in a recent article.

2. Contra Conway Morris, there are many people who feel that consciousness is “material” in the sense that it arises from purely material causes in a material object: the brain. Understanding how and why consciousness evolved are hard problems, but to throw one’s hands up in despair and say, “God made it” is a ludicrous solution. Give biologists another century of work on the brain, for goodness sake!

3. This brings us to my conclusion that Conway Morris advocates a form of intelligent design. He seems to believe that things might have evolved as Darwin proposes–except for one thing. That, of course, is the human mind. Here a Creator must have intervened! In this piece he seems to go beyond his previously-published view that the evolution of our higher intelligence was simply inevitable; here he comes close to saying that it was impossible. It’s a bit confusing since he also makes the statement that mind was the result of an evolutionary search engine, but even if he is advocating only that God directed evolution to produce rational minds that could discover God (a rather circuitious way to create us!), that is still a form of intelligent design. Conway Morris has thus joined the ranks of what Dan Dennett calls “mind creationists,” a view that Dennett dismantled in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

4. Conway Morris is way, way peeved at atheists. He mentions them several times in his piece. He thinks he has vanquished them with his “unanswerable” evolutionary arguments. But he has not. He is simply proposing a “God of the gaps” argument, and here the gap is our mind. It’s Alfred Russel Wallace recycled. He is wrong: neither will atheism die, or even flinch a bit, and we will, I predict some day understand, as Darwin believed, that the human mind is simply a product of the blind and materialistic product of natural selection.

Conway Morris is straying from the scientific path here, but he simply can’t help himself. He is a committed Christian, and has to find some way to show that the evolution of humans was inevitable.

Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

source: why evolution is true.

Among the wonders that science has uncovered about the universe, no subject has sparked more fascination and fury than evolution. Yet in all the ongoing debates about creationism and its descendant, "intelligent design," one element of the controversy is rarely mentioned: the evidence, the empirical truth of evolution by natural selection. And that evidence is vast, varied, and magnificent, drawn from a huge spectrum of scientific inquiry ranging from genetics, anatomy, and molecular biology to paleontology and geology.

Why Evolution Is True is a succinct and accessible summary of the facts supporting Darwinian evolution. Scientists today are finding species splitting in two, observing natural selection changing animals and plants before our eyes, and discovering more and more fossils capturing change in the past—dinosaurs that have sprouted feathers, fish that have grown limbs. Jerry Coyne eloquently shows that evolution does not destroy the beauty of life but enhances it.


Richard Dawkins on Darwin (on National Geographic)

view the 5 videos each a couple of minutes.

"It’s such a beautiful thought that we are the heirs of four billion years of evolution."
Professor Richard Dawkins

To celebrate 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years since the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, which transformed the way we view the world, the National Geographic Channel spoke EXCLUSIVELY to Professor Richard Dawkins, leading scientist, author and world expert on Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Why is Darwin so important?
Richard Dawkins: Darwin told us why we exist and that’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not just us, it’s all living things. The living world is incredibly complex and staggeringly improbable – unless you understand where it came from; it looks as though it’s been designed; everyone thought that it was designed; but Darwin showed that it wasn’t. That’s the importance of Darwin.
How would you describe Darwin’s influence on your own life and work?
Richard Dawkins: I enormously admire Darwin. He’s the founder of really everything that I do. Of course he was wrong on many things, such as genetics, though he was closer on genetics than many people give him credit for. He was a marvellous intellectual; whereas some people make a discovery and they stumble upon it, Darwin devoted himself to making his theory clear, to listing all the evidence and spending decades of his life gathering the evidence so no one could doubt it. It’s an enormous privilege to have such an important theory, to have it launched in such a powerful form nearly complete, instead of dribbling out step by little step, the way theories often do.
How convincing is the evidence that Darwin was right?
Richard Dawkins: The evidence is compelling that Darwin was right. We are descended from simpler animals; we are descended from bacteria ultimately and are cousins of chimpanzees. Darwin wasn’t right about everything – he got some of his genetics wrong because not enough was known about genetics at the time, but the essential point that we are direct cousins of monkeys and kangaroos, octopuses and bacteria is beyond doubt.
How significant is Darwin’s influence in realising our place in the world?
Richard Dawkins: The human race has had a number of set-backs. We learnt from Galileo that the Earth was not the centre of the universe; Darwin did the same thing for living creatures. We once thought we were the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s own image, but we now know we are cousins of 10 million other species - a tiny twig in a vast bush of branching twigs buried somewhere in the depths of this bush; there is nothing special in the order of humans in creation. There are special things about us, such as the fact that we are cleverer than other animals and we have language, but nevertheless we are just cousins of all other living things.

How important is the evidence presented by fossils in backing up Darwin’s theory?

Richard Dawkins: Fossils are not necessary to prove evolution nowadays, as we can do that with comparative evidence, especially via chemical molecular evidence. But fossils are very nice for showing the direct course evolution took – fossils are the only evidence we have which show what animals were like in the distant past.

We are very lucky to have fossils, if we didn’t have fossils at all, we’d still know evolution was true. There are some gaps in the fossil record too, of course, which those sceptical about evolution think is important, but of course it’s not. The whole fossil record could be one big gap and we would still know evolution was true. But although there are gaps there are still substantial parts of evolution where we have a pretty good record of what exactly happened.

How strong a piece of evidence are whales as proof of evolution?

Richard Dawkins: If we needed any more evidence for evolution then fossils of whales would provide extremely good evidence. We now know that the closest cousins to whales are in fact hippos. A common ancestor of the hippo and the whale took to the water until it gradually became more wedded to the water and never left. The hind limbs eventually disappear and there is a tiny vestige of hind limb skeleton in whales today. What else could that be but evidence of evolution? There is not the slightest doubt that marine whales are descended from land animals and the fossil record proves this utterly.

What do you think of people who adhere to the biblical idea that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that we are all God’s creation?

Richard Dawkins: Anyone who still believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old, as many creationists do, the best excuse for them is lamentable ignorance. Anyone who is not ignorant and has been shown the evidence and still believes this, then they must have something wrong with them. To give you an example of the magnitude of the error, to believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old, when in fact we know the world is 4.6 billion years old, is equivalent to believing that the width of North America from New York to San Francisco is less than 10 yards. So to believe this you have to be either incredibly ignorant or insane.

Why do you think this view is still held by so many people 150 years after Darwin’s theory was published?

Richard Dawkins: I think that religious upbringing is immensely powerful and if its hammered into you as a young child it can be very difficult to get rid of in later life, especially if as a child you are taught that the devil will come to try and persuade you of error; sometimes they are told to ignore the evidence because faith is more important than evidence. Some people know that if they come out as non-believers their family will disown them. It really is an appalling stranglehold that these archaic beliefs have over people, whose minds have been warped since childhood.

s the creationist movement damaging to society as well as science?

Richard Dawkins: I think that it is such a privilege to understand where we come from, a privilege for all of us born after 1859, that to deny children that privilege is wicked, it’s a deprivation that should not be visited on any child, when the truth is so staggeringly exciting. When we have shared ancestors with every living thing, we have a history of four billion years of slow, gradual evolution, that’s not something that we can easily take on board, but the effort of doing so is well worth it. It’s such a beautiful thought that we are the heirs of four billion years of evolution. When you put that against the measly, piddling little ideas in Genesis it’s just no comparison, and it’s a sad and diminishing deprivation of a child’s opportunity to be denied that knowledge.

What evidence is there to prove that evolution and Darwin were right?

Richard Dawkins: Many pieces of evidence show that evolution is right. I’ll single out just two. The first is the distribution of animals across the globe. They are exactly as you’d expect them to be if evolution occurred. If you go to Australia all the mammals, save for one or two introduced by man, are marsupials. Why are they all there and not in Asia too? It’s exactly as you’d expect if animals evolved. It’s not the way it would be if God had gone around creating animals. Why on Earth would he have gone around creating animals in exactly the places where he would have created animals to give the false impression that evolution took place? If you believe in a god that plays those sorts of tricks then it’s not much of a god to believe in.

Secondly, if you look comparatively at all animals, especially biochemically: if you look at molecules in how they differ from animal to animal, or plant to plant, you find a hierarchical pattern of resemblance, which only makes sense if you assume that it’s a family tree, a pedigree. Everything – all the evidence – points to evolution. Once again the only way that you can maintain a creationist viewpoint is if you assume that God deliberately deceived us by planting molecules, that God played an elaborate trick on us.

Can you still have faith in God and evolution?

Richard Dawkins: There are plenty of theologians who believe in God and evolution, so, yes it is possible. I find it a little bit hard to do so because the main reason for believing in God is as the explanation for the living world. Once that’s gone, the most important argument for God has been kicked out and all you are left with is things like the Bible, which is pathetic: any fool can see is not written by God and it doesn’t have any special authority. Or you are left with personal experiences such as ‘God speaks to me’: if you’re convinced by that you’re convinced by that, but it’s pretty weak.

Why are you so convinced that God doesn’t exist?

Richard Dawkins: Well, I’m not really convinced that God does not exist. I’m simply turning the question around to say there is no positive reason to say that God does exist and he is therefore as likely to exist as the tooth-fairy or pink unicorns. So why bother to believe in something where there is no evidence, when there is so much for which there is evidence and you could spend a lifetime learning about it?

Is there any evidence for some sort of divine order, such as our consciousness or the beginning of the universe perhaps?

Richard Dawkins: The human consciousness is a great puzzle; it’s not helped by postulating anything supernatural. Human consciousness must stem from some brain stuff, either as a by-product or as an integral part of its function. The origin of the universe is another mystery, but physicists are working on it. Maybe one day we’ll understand it but, either way, postulating some sort of supernatural explanation doesn’t help us understand, because that simply raises bigger questions than it does answers.

So life is all a result of chance and molecular accidents?

Richard Dawkins: I would not like to say that we are here today as a matter of chance, because natural selection is not a chance process. Mutation is a matter of chance, but natural selection is a non-random force, because generations of genes have been non randomly chosen for reproduction and survival. If people think that Darwin said that life was down to chance, then no wonder they object to it.

Has human evolution come to an end?

Richard Dawkins: Nobody knows. If you look at the way natural selection happens, the fittest creatures have the most offspring and are usually the ones that survive. Over the last 2 or 3 million years humans have developed bigger and bigger brains, presumably because those with bigger brains survived better. But there’s no way to suggest that this is happening today, so there’s no reason to suppose that the same natural selection forces are taking place on humans today, though there are natural selection forces at work in terms of resistance to disease and things like that. If you came back in 10 million years then we’ll probably be extinct, because most species do go extinct. There’ll probably be something living but it won’t be our direct descendant.

Evolutionists are always very cautious to predict the future course of evolution for one species, but what they don’t mind doing is predicting the general direction of life – small herbivores, large herbivores, big carnivores – we can predict that we will get a similar range of animals, but we can’t predict what the descendants of mice, elephants or humans will look like. I think in a couple of million years humans will be extinct, but we may well have evolved into something else, especially if we colonise other worlds, then we may see natural selection taking place as species start diverging, as there’d be very little gene flow between the separate gene pools.

Why should National Geographic Channel and other media celebrate 200 years since Charles Darwin’s birth?

Richard Dawkins: The National Geographic Channel should celebrate his birth because Darwin is arguably the greatest thinker that humanity has ever produced. One should put him up there with Galileo, Einstein and Newton. In terms of the problems that he solved, perhaps it wasn’t as difficult to solve as it was for Einstein or Newton, but it was perhaps as revolutionary to preconceived ideas. Darwin has perhaps caused possibly the biggest revolution in humanity’s idea of man’s own nature.