Thursday, December 19, 2002

Most of the things I do have nothing to do with evolution

But I still can't see how everything we do is programmed by evolution...
- how can most of the things we do today have anything to do with survival of the fittest?

It's seems to be easy to pick holes in the idea that all our choices are attempts to maximise the survival chances of our genes - all you have to do is point to a few things that we do that appear to have nothing to do with our genes. Such as watching TV.

I've explained at length why making such a statement implies that there must be another mechanism of creation other (or in addition to) evolution.

But now I'm going to try to tackle those 'things that we do' that appear to have nothing to do with spreading our genes.

So here goes.

First of all, let's look at the totality of the results of human choices. Humans dominate the planet. (Ok, maybe there are more insects, but we have the capacity to wipe out the insects if we really wanted to.) The reality is that over the last two hundred years (ie the time during which humans have presumably been most 'free') we have gone forth and multiplied to an absolutely staggering extent. We have never been better at achieving the job of 'maximising the survival chances of our genes'. So if your argument is that we're 'more than our genes', then I don't think our genes are complaining too much.

Even though all those little choices you make might not look like you're improving the survival chances of your genes, you can't deny that the overall result of all the human lives over the last two hundred years is a big result for the genes.

Still not convinced? Ok, let's look at those little decisions you make every day.

First, a reminder that evolution isn't just about "survival of the fittest".
Simply picking the animals that survive is rather a crude way of selecting the best: it’s a negative selection - a way of weeding out of the worst. But wouldn't natural selection be so much more effective if you could actually pick the best individuals, rather than just getting rid of the worst?

Which is were sexual selection comes in. Sexual selection gives individuals the chance to make a positive choice about who to mate with:

Why is one person good looking? Why do we instinctively find one person more attractive than another? Because we're all trying to give our children the best chance of surviving. When we have children we're mixing our genes with someone else's genes and creating a new individual, which will, on average, have half our characteristics and have our partner's characteristics. And these characteristics will determine our children's chances of survival. Once again, we can compare it to business: if you're looking for a partner to start a business with, just about the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of that business is pick the best partner you can.

And once you start thinking of evolution in terms of sexual selection rather than survival of the fittest, it becomes a lot easier to see why evolution is still guiding all our actions today. If you combine sexual with the desire to see your own children successfully surviving and spreading their genes into your grandchildren, you’ve got almost all human motivation included.

Firstly, you’ve got to get together with the best quality mate you possibly can. It’s absolutely essential for us to get the best mate we possibly can. And this doesn’t just mean you choosing… the most difficult job is to get them to choose you. You’ve got a continual battle to make yourself as attractive and desirable as possible: how you look, your fitness, your clothes, how big your house is, how nice your garden and your car, how well you play the piano, how much you donate to charity... these are all very clear indicators to potential mates of your suitability to be the parent to their genes.

You're in a strange town where no one knows you. You're in a steady relationship and you've no intention of getting involved with anyone else.... and you're still worried about what you look like? Rational? Free will? Or something programmed into you by millions of years of evolution?

We need a few more categories:

Learning and educating - learning how to earn more money, learning what other people are up to, all give you clues about how to survive and how to increase your sexual selection chances

Gossip - learn who's sleeping with who, who's wearing what: information about targets and potential competition: what do they like, what is their genetic value...

Resting - conserving energy - but even then, you're active - thinking, learning, dreaming - laziness is good for you. It's often a tough decision - use up valuable energy or sit around waiting for something to happen?

Cooperating with others
Getting on with friends is one of the best ways to survive - many animals cannot survive on their own. From ants to most wolves and monkeys, most animals have learned to work in social groups. Your survival chances are increased the more help you get from others.

Play? just learning. Lion cubs do it. big deal

Music?- it's tricky to understand why on earth humans like music. But we'll ask the birds, maybe they've got free will too.

But these are no more than 'Just So' Stories

- These ideas might be possible explanations... but that doesn't mean they are the correct explanations - there's no evidence that we play the piano because it will increase our chances of sexual selection...

Rudyard Kipling wrote children's stories to explain such things as 'why the camel has a hump' and 'how the elephant got its trunk' - which was because an elephant with an ordinary-length nose had that nose bitten by a crocodile, who held on to the nose and used it to try to drag the elephant into the river. But because both animals were so big and strong, the only thing to give way was the nose itself, which stretched out to the length of a trunk.

Objecters to evolutionary explanations of modern-day behaviour often use phrases like 'that's just a Just So story' - in other words, 'it might be a possible explanation, but that doesn't make it the right explanation'.

And they are right. There's no proof at all that we play the piano to show off for sexual selection purposes.

If you don't believe that evolution is responsible for all our behaviour, a legitimate tactic to prove that it isn't is to point out various things that we do that couldn't possibly be explained by evolution... because then you've disproved the evolution explanation. (You don't have to prove your own alternative theory to disprove the evolutionary theory.)

Which is where the Just-So stories are useful:

If you come up with such an example, and I can come up with an evolutionary Just So story I've successfully defended the 'evolution is everything claim'. I don't have to prove that it's the right theory, just that it fits the available evidence for the way evolution works.

You, however, still have to come up with your alternative / additional theory to Darwin's. And when you've done that, maybe you'll get your face on the Great British Ten Pound note as well.

Next: href="">Genes build our brains - but surely our brains then take over?

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