Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God

February 27, 2018


The Book That Changed America is the title of one by Randall Fuller. It’s about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, looking at its impact particularly in Concord, Massachusetts.

That wasn’t just Anytown, U.S.A. Concord was the center of America’s intellectual ferment. The protagonists in Fuller’s book include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray — all living in or near Concord and interacting with each other and with Darwin’s bombshell book.


It hit Concord almost simultaneously with another bombshell in late 1859: John Brown’s attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his subsequent execution. Brown was not, as often portrayed, a madman. He considered slavery a great sin that could be undone only through war, which he aimed to start. He was just about a year early.

America was already, of course, hotly divided over slavery, and Harper’s Ferry raised the temperature further. So did Darwin’s book.

How so? The only possible excuse for slavery was the idea of blacks’ racial inferiority. Thus their constant denigration as a degenerate, brutish species. And slavery apologists, being besotted with religion, had to believe God intentionally made blacks separately and enslavement-worthy. Efforts to prove their inferiority litters Nineteenth century science. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)

(Even most abolitionists thought blacks inferior. But they opposed slavery nonetheless because it was cruel and unjust. This applies to every pogrom, genocide, or other ethnically based abuse or exploitation. Even if its victims were lesser, degraded creatures — it’s never true, but even if it were — their mistreatment would still be cruel and unjust. The creatures proven inferior and degraded are the perpetrators.)

Anyhow, the races’ biological separateness continued to be a matter of intense science-oriented debate.* That’s where Darwin came in.

His book prudently refrained from specifically addressing human origins. (Darwin bit that bullet later in The Descent of Man.) Origin discussed living things in general, and all its numerous examples and case studies concerned non-human life. Many at the time imagined humans were something apart from all that. Yet many others were not so deluded, and they realized that if Darwin’s varied finches and so forth were all close cousins, branches of the same tree, obviously then so were whites and blacks. (We now know that blacks came first, and whites descended from them.)

Thus did Origin explode the moral underpinnings of slavery. And Darwin was not just another polemicist with an axe to grind. Not only was his a science book, it was powerfully supported and argued, hence a devastating blow.

Yet still it was disputed. Inevitably, for a book that gored cherished oxen. And slavery was not the only ox. The other was God himself.

Gods have always been the answer for natural and cosmic mysteries people couldn’t otherwise penetrate. That territory used to be huge. But science has progressively answered those mysteries, inexorably shrinking godly territory.

To naive eyes, the world might look designed, the only possible way to explain life’s diversity and complexity. Literature is filled with rhapsodizing on this theme. Though would any intelligent designer have so filled creation with pain and suffering? Calling this a mystery is no answer.

Thoreau had studied nature intensively, and likewise studied Darwin’s book. He got it, completely; it explained so much of what he’d actually observed. Fuller casts Thoreau as holding that the world is indeed filled with magic and mystery — just not the kind religion postulates.

But Darwin greatly demystified life. His theory was a revelation, a revolution. He called it “natural selection” and “descent with modification;” for short, evolution. His book explained it thoroughly and cogently; there’s hardly a word in it that doesn’t still hold up. A stupendous achievement of human intellect.

And once Darwin unveiled it, the idea of evolution was actually obvious. (I recall Richard Milner’s song, wherein other scientists of the time moan, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”) As Thoreau found, evolution instantly made sense of everything observable about the natural world, everything previously so puzzling. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it thusly: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, to this day, half of Americans reject it. Fuller’s book recaps the opposition to evolution as it played out at its advent, with famed scientist Louis Agassiz in the attack’s vanguard. Its essence remains unchanged. Evolution shrinks God almost to irrelevance. And not just in biology. If life is attributable to natural, not supernatural causes, couldn’t the same be true of the entire cosmos? To Agassiz, all this was something literally unthinkable.** As it is for his modern counterparts.

Likewise that we “come from monkeys” (or even lesser creatures). Some believe that degrades us. But “there is grandeur in this view of life,” connecting us to every other living thing. And our animal antecedents make us all the more remarkable. It’s sublime that a Darwin, descended from apes, could have the insight to see it. All we’ve achieved we’ve done ourselves, with no help from any god.

A reader of Fuller’s book must be struck by how one key mistake — belief in a god — traps you in a carnival house of mirrors, distorting everything about life and the world. Escape it and all becomes clear. This is the main reason why Agassiz and other scientists of the time failed to see what Darwin saw. Religion blinded them. And even when shown the light, they hold tight to their blindfolds. They torture facts, evidence, and logic, struggling to hammer the square peg of their belief into the round hole of reality.

I find it far better to just accept reality.

* Some even argued for different species on the basis (by analogy to mules) that mixed-race people tend to be sterile — simply untrue. Furthermore, the vast genre of argument that race mixing somehow “pollutes” and degrades the quality of the white race likewise contradicts manifest biological fact: mixing different gene pools improves strength and quality. It’s called hybrid vigor.

** Scientist Asa Gray entered the fray on Darwin’s side, but even he was unmoored by God’s banishment, coming up with the fallback idea that evolution is God’s method for managing life’s pageant. And even Darwin himself seemed queasy about a purely mechanistic view of creation.


Why Do Richer People Have Fewer Kids?

September 29, 2014

UnknownThe Economist magazine has discussed the “demographic transition” – as people get richer, they have fewer children. It’s a key reason why Malthus’s famous prediction of population outrunning food supply – as well as latter-day echoes like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich – proved wrong. Population growth has been decelerating; numbers are projected to plateau around mid-century, and fall thereafter. This is largely due to declining poverty; some countries have seen birth rates drop to a fraction of former levels.

But The Economist wonders why richer people have fewer kids, which it labels “biologically bonkers,” because normally animal populations in flush environments reproduce more, not less. Noted are two distinct reproductive strategies: “r-selection,” throwing a lot of offspring at the wall hoping some will stick, versus “k-selection,” having fewer offspring but investing heavily in their success. The latter, The Economist points out, may produce fitter descendants, but not more descendants.  Unknown-2And natural selection (as Richard Dawkins elucidated in The Selfish Gene) targets not quality but quantity, with genes “trying” (not consciously of course) to propagate the most copies of themselves. (It’s simply math: genes that do so become the most common.) That biological logic seems violated by k-selection.

The Economists’s suggested answer is that while today r-selection might produce more gene copies, because most offspring survive, the opposite may have been true in the primitive past, in which case k-selection would have better proliferated genes; so evolution programmed us toward that strategy of heavy investment in fewer offspring. In other words, we were bio-engineered for harsh conditions which no longer obtain. Which, somewhat paradoxically, is saving us from the Malthusian trap (by limiting reproduction).

But this doesn’t explain poor people – for whom conditions are still pretty harsh – generally favoring large families. More importantly, it seeks the answer in the wrong place; and this is actually a crucial point for us to understand. While human behavior is heavily influenced by genes, and the corresponding characteristics that evolution bred into us, we are not slaves to our genes. When it comes to behavior, genes give us predispositions, but not ironclad marching orders. Human beings have minds of their own, and other concerns, that can trump genetic predispositions.

images-1That’s free will. An individual with a genetic predisposition toward violence may never be violent. And what we’re talking about here is the most salient example: the one thing our genes most “want” us to do is reproduce, yet many people choose not to.

Thus it’s simply wrong to seek a biological/evolutionary explanation for the demographic transition. The answer lies instead in sociology and economics. Unknown-1People choose family size for reasons unrelated to our evolutionary background. To name just one, for poorer people children tend to be economic assets, helping them earn their bread and protecting their old age. Richer people don’t expect or need such protection or income contribution, and their children tend to be money pits, and a lot of work. Sure, many of us still choose to have some; but the sociological and economic influences are very different between rich and poor and they, not biology, drive the choices. It appears that humanity as a whole is moving toward a k-selection approach: fewer children, but living better lives, because that’s what we prefer, biology be damned.

Note that if poor families do fare better with more children, improving their joint survival, then genes for that behavior should spread (at least among the poor). Yet still, when those people get richer, they can and do ignore such genetic programming.

And that free will aspect is the larger point. Again, we are not like robots programmed by genes or biology; nor, for that matter, are we prisoners of sociology either. Even while all those influences matter, they do not compel us; we can still make our own choices.

images-2Some people think evolutionary biology implies Social Darwinism – leaving the less fit among us to their fate. But here too, the impersonal forces of nature that created us do not control how we choose to live our lives. As biologist T.H. Huxley observed, human society is not doomed to play out “survival of the fittest” but can, instead, work toward fitting more of us for survival. Our mission is not conformity to nature’s process but combating it.