Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The F-words of Evolution

Religion is commonly pegged as the biggest obstacle to teaching the backbone of biology – a.k.a. evolution.

But there’s also a formidable secular issue in evolution education and I think it’s far too often overlooked and underestimated:

Even after evolution’s accepted, it’s commonly misunderstood, mistaught, and misapplied.

Getting things wrong is bad enough, but scarier ramifications occur when wrong-headed evolutionary thinking, based on what or who is "favored" or "fittest," is used to support apathy or to justify hateful and violent behavior between humans.

So let’s think about how we throw around those
f-words. Especially in the presence of children!

Let my people evolve

Whether or not they realize it, people speak of a trait or an individual being
favored by Mother Nature (a.k.a. “selected for”) in the same way that religious folks talk about some people being "chosen" by God.

No, I don’t think it’s intentional.

But I do think that there's a real link: Whether or not you believe
that there's a God and s/he favors people, it's easy to transfer that thinking onto Mother Nature and to have her favor things too.

must be doing the selecting... natural, sexual, or otherwise. Something with agency.

And not only that, but that something might like me a whole lot! And it may like me more than my drunk, tacky neighbor! Because that's logical. I really am better than my drunk, tacky neighbor. And something bigger than me should recognize that.

Whether it’s God or Mother Nature or the universe or whatever you want to call it, that agent deems me better than someone else and I love that. And I
neeeeeed that.

If you cling to this belief that only the
favored are special in the eyes of a God-like Mother Nature, then evolutionary thinking can give rise to the same sorts of tribal and societal conflicts that derive from religious beliefs.[1]

We need to disassociate nature from "Mother Nature" which is an entity with agency and intention.

Nature can’t
favor anything. It’s our limited vocabulary that leads us to say so. And saying so tempts us to think so.[2]

Any which way but lose

Darwin incorporated Spencer’s phrase “survival of the
fittest” into his work, which helped him to paint the evolutionary landscape as one rife with conflict and combat. And it certainly has a lot of that.[3]

"Survival of the
fittest" brings to mind the fastest gazelle or the tallest giraffe or the busiest bee or the spiniest sea urchin or the pinchiest lobster. But that’s an extremely limited view of the world.

Most organisms are not the _____-est!

Are you the _______-est in anything or at anything?

I'm not.

Now, okay, you got me fair and square: I’m a tree-hugging liberal.

But I’m also a highly competitive person who was raised in the southern U.S. in the 1980s, who is a former captain and coach of various sports teams, and who doesn’t believe in giving every child a ribbon at a track meet.

So hear me as the latter when I say…

Evolution isn’t about the winner.

The winner? The
fittest? Nope. Think “survival of the fitter.”

Many individuals, not just the winner, the best, or the ____-est, pass on their genes to the next generation. Those individuals that do not pass on their genes (the evolutionary losers, if you must), those individuals are out of the game, along with their genes. All the rest, not just the ________-est or the winner, are still in the game!

We're used to games like running races or basketball with one winner or one winning team. This analogy doesn't apply to evolution.

Instead of “survival of the best” think “survival of the good enough.”

This change in wording can change your thinking and it reminds me of the difference between saying “early man” and “early humans.” When I hear “early man” I imagine only prehistoric adult males[4] and "early humans" fixes that by adding females and juveniles to my head movies.

“Survival of the
fittest” may be even more accidentally exclusive than “early man.”

So let's phase out “fittest” and let's phase out "favored."

Let's work on censoring these f-words and, when they must be used in historical contexts, let's be mindful of their power to not only mislead and limit our evolutionary understanding but to also support racist beliefs and behaviors.

Just because Darwin said these f-words, does not mean that they're necessary or correct.
Origin of Species should not be treated as holy text.[5] There’s no such thing as blasphemy in science.[6]

And I bet Darwin, as sensitive as he was, would have dreamt up a better language for evolution and selective mechanisms by now.
But since he can't, why don’t we?

Coming soon... another f-word: Forwards (a.k.a. progress)

[1] Have you seen
this map of the hate groups in the U.S.? Have you studied history? Religion isn’t the only route to superiority. Among these hate groups, you're bound to find misapplications of evolutionary theory, like "social Darwinism" and the like.

[2] This is similar to how our limited vocabulary leads us to say that silverback males are "securing paternity," which then leads us to incorrectly assume that they know the concept of fatherhood in the sense that humans do.
Read more here.

[3] But none of any of this would be here today if there wasn’t also very powerful cooperation at all levels of size and complexity within the biosphere. For more on cooperation, see the book The Mermaid’s Tale
by Ken and Anne (of this very blog!)

[4] There's that tree-hugger rearing her frizzy-haired head.

[5] No text should be treated as holy.

[6] Even the f-words of evolution could be rescued from cuss-dom if the evidence supported it.


  1. Natural selection is probabilistic survival of the fittest. For example, frequently recurring advantageous mutation such as a point substitution would likely fix. But a rare advantageous mutation would unlikely fix.

  2. something that I was covertly addressing in the post is the incorrect assumption that all evolution occurs by natural selection.

  3. Actually, Jim, Darwin said repeatedly that natural selection detected the tiniest of differences in 'fitness'. That itself is rather a mystical concept and there are people who would argue that we have not yet got a good theory of natural selection.

    More to the point, is that the concept of 'fitness' is not easy to justify when viewed probabilistically, especially if--as seems mainly to be true--the purported fitness difference is very small. Whether fitness is different from zero (neutral) is almost a mystic premise in itself.

    In addition to the points Holly made in her very nice discussion today, we spend a lot of time in our book on these issues about the nature of selection.

    The idea that good enough is good enough and all that Nature 'cares' about is right, but we still have the problem of explaining the supposed precise, exotic, or fine-tuned 'adaptations'. How do they come about if good enough is good enough?

    There are still some under-appreciated challenges to understanding how evolution works---and how we can infer it empirically.

  4. I could have added to my post that there is no one size fits all rule or explanation for evolution.

  5. Doesn't anyone know people who aren't Creationists, but are averse to evolution, nontheless, because of how people have used it to justify racism?

    I do. Very well, actually. They're smart people too. They just don't know much about biology.

    Anyway, evolution's got a serious PR problem and not just with closed minds... with open ones too.

  6. Gazelles aren't very much faster than cheetahs (or the other way around)... is that fine-tuned or just good enough? And from what perspective?

    That bat with the long tongue to feed from that deep flower: Its tongue isn't any longer than need be. It seems perfectly fit for that task, for eating nector from that flower. Maybe too long a tongue is bad, but maybe that length tongue is just good enough (not "fine tuned").

    We see perfection all around us but maybe we see through perfection-colored glasses. These perfect adaptations could just be good enough.

  7. There have been many philosophies and social movements beyond (a minor side of) Christianity that objected to evolution because it was so manifestly used to justify inequity and racism.

    One of the nominal, at least, reasons that Soviet Communism rejected western science was that it used evolution--and they, anti-Darwinians but pro-'Lamarckians', believed all humans could be improved by improved conditions and this could then be inherited. That was one reason Lysenkoism was accepted.

    The hard-core Darwinians simply say "tough luck, the world is cruel" and stick to their Darwinian guns. Rarely is the issue hinged on a serious examination of evolutionary theory and the nature of its strengths and weaknesses.

    Most people want simple answers, in this sense I think.

  8. As to selection, there is what we have referred to in our book and elsewhere what we have called 'organismal selection' by which organisms choose where and how to live among available alternatives. This is related to 'niche construction' by which organisms modify their environments. There can be genetic bases, in some generic sense, for these behaviors, but there need be no Malthusian (over-crowding) based, nor differential reproduction involved.

    Do humans farm because we adapted to do that? Or is it that given our nature, we choose to do it, or are able to do it? One can say we were 'pre-adapted' for farming by prior selection but one can push both sides of that back as well.

    There is now a movement, led by several people but recently by positive reviews of a book by Nowak, that stresses the central importance of cooperation. That is mainly in the social sense of the term, and of course is a major objective of our own book. But there is a danger that a 'cooperation' school of thought will now grow that will be as strident, say, or polarized as the competition fervor of our present time.

    It is difficult for people to look for what one might call a 'balance' among various things that, clearly, are part of the fabric of nature.

    Most people want simple, and convenient answers, it seems.

  9. Maybe we should stop talking about "evolution" and, instead, just refer to all of it as "nature." Nature, as a label, doesn't seem to limit and circumscribe things the way that the label "evolution" does.

  10. Something of a tangent: conversations are often a minefield for this sort of thing. The other day, I was having lunch with some fellow nonbelievers, and we were talking about movies. In a partial quotation of Roger Ebert, I commented that it was a "miracle" that something like a movie would be produced at all. One of the fellows took offense to it, where really all I meant was that something like a movie involves dozens to hundreds (to thousands) of actors, artisans, arists, moneymen, and other workers putting in millions of hours to create a cultural document; that a cogent anything that has power and meaning can emerge from this is quite remarkable. A miracle, even!

    Of course, it's a mistake to use the word, though how else could we describe such an improbable document? There's an additional worry here in that language can devalue something that comes from human agency and expertise. I'm reminded of the time John Paul II was shot, and a team of doctors worked for days to save him, and afterward, everybody said "Thank God!"

    One last point: ideas are most powerful at their simplest. A lot of these words and imaginings have deep roots in our minds, as well as the rich soil of shared culture. I agree that a "better language" is something that's needed. Do we have any good ideas?

  11. 'Marvelous' is perhaps a suitable word, with unclear origins but capturing the idea.

    That the one survivor of a tornado that levels a church and its worshipers inside thanks God for his survival is certainly an interesting skewing of the usual ideas about God.

  12. I thought that my comment about the loss of most advantageous mutations went along with this critique of hyper-Darwinism, but perhaps I needed to develop and introduction to make that clear.

    Anyway, in regards to the statistical analysis of evolution based on population genetics, the concept of "survival of the good enough" is expected, while in some but not all cases the "good enough" evolves into the "fine-tuned," but never necessarily.

    By the way, my perspective of evolutionary science could be described as a conflation of the views of Masatoshi Nei and Stephen Jay Gould, while I see their views are harmonious.