Politics As If Evolution Mattered

Politics As If Evolution Mattered

by Lorna Salzman

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ISBN-13: 9781462034758
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/23/2011
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.21(d)

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Politics as if Evolution Mattered

Darwin, Ecology and Social Justice
By Lorna Salzman

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Lorna Salzman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-3475-8


Chapter One

Why Darwin Matters Today

"... it took nature more than a billion years to develop a good worm." The Sea, Robert C. Miller

"Miracle ... is simply a synonym for the total absence of explanation." River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins

"... the framework of human life is all life ... it is life, not man, which is the main contour, and it is ecology in general where human ecology is to be found." The Subversive Science, Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley

The theories and writings of Charles Darwin, in particular his On the Origin of Species, have grown into the foundation of all modern biological thought. It is no exaggeration to say that the disciplines of biology, ecology, modern medicine and agriculture, among others, could not exist without Darwin. Without him, these would be forced to rely on random observation and anecdotal experience, mere trial and error, with all the inherent handicaps.

Biological and medical science would operate in a vacuum, accumulating clinical and experimental evidence that would lack coherence and predictability. The development of modern medicines and the refinement of food crops (conducted by traditional farmers over millennia through simple observation and experiment) would be haltingly slow. Humanity would have virtually no understanding of biological systems, their functions or their importance. The treatment of disease would be limited to treatment of symptoms alone. Management of natural resources would lack a scientific basis. In truth we would still be in a Dark Age of science, scarcely any better than the shamanism practiced in some parts of the world (which as a cultural practice has some social validity in non-industrial societies). As Theodosius Dobzhansky cogently observed, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

No original aspect of Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection (and evolution is accepted as fact today) has been proven wrong, with the exception of Darwin's belief in inheritance of acquired characteristics, an understandable error given the total ignorance of heredity mechanisms in his time. The basic precepts of evolutionary change and natural selection remain the foundation—the working hypotheses—of scientific research and experiment. No one has yet proposed any different working hypothesis, nor has any experiment indicated that the use of these is flawed or erroneous. In every laboratory and field study, analysis and re-analysis, evolution and natural selection have proven to be unshakeable and valid. The reliance of biology on the fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection is as justified as the reliance of engineers on mathematics and physics for building bridges, skyscrapers, airplanes and machinery.

Even the claim sometimes made that natural selection cannot be demonstrated or proven is false. Chemical manufacturers constantly reformulatepesticidesandpharmaceuticalsbecauseofthespreadofresistant microbe strains or populations of insects, most notably the AIDS virus. Every year the Centers for Disease Control, as well as drug companies, must come up with new drugs as resistance to earlier ones grows. Malaria, the largest disease killer on earth, has resurfaced with a newer deadlier strain that is resistant to nearly all existing drugs and which can only be treated by a dangerously toxic drug that itself can be lethal (and which itself will eventually become useless). Influenza, which killed at least 40 million people in the 1918 global epidemic, must be confronted every year by scientists who try to predict what type will appear so that they can design the proper vaccine. Recent studies by two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, of the finches in the Galapagos Islands—the same ones observed by Darwin—have shown that evolution by natural selection is actually observable over short time periods (see The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, Vintage Books 1995).

While no reputable biologist doubts or uses anything but Darwinian precepts for research, the philosophical and ethical implications still trouble many people, and not just those who adhere to fundamentalist religions. Some of these concerns are over the implications of evolution for religious believers in a deity; others have difficulty with the notion that the human species is not intrinsically "superior" to other animals; yet others are disturbed by what they see as violence and competition in Nature and wonder whether this is inherent in humans; there are those who refuse to accept the role of chance and stubbornly adhere to belief in purposeful design; and there are those who may believe in evolution but insist on the notion of "progress" and "purpose" in Nature.

There are many reasons for this: a general lack of familiarity with science and how it functions; an expectation that science can attain "final" answers; an inability to regard science as a process, not a religion; the prevalence of a broad spectrum of differences in interpretation of scientific data; the unavoidable ideological bents and biases of individual scientists; a reprehensible emphasis by the mass media on discrete facts and events rather than on processes or systems—all these, plus the distortions of self-interested political and religious ideologues who hope to promote their own agenda, have combined to make science in general and Charles Darwin in particular suspect.

One would have thought by now that rationality, education and evidence would have dispelled the doubters. But apparently human nature still has a tendency to pick and choose the facts it wants to believe. No one wants to subject her heartfelt prejudices to an impartial test without being certain that the result will be in her favor. Far safer and more comfortable it is, therefore, to avoid such tests. And far more comforting it is to find other "evidence" that will substantiate your beliefs.

While the religious creationists and supporters of "intelligent design" have done this with a vengeance, they are not the only culpable ones. Irrational beliefs, cults, and ideologies have always existed, but for some reason the past four decades have been particularly rife with these, culminating in the appearance of New Age groups with distinctly pre-Enlightenment views, whose supporters, far from being uneducated or uninformed, come primarily from relatively affluent educated circles. There is also an incredible distrust of science and scientists in general, due to a lack of education in many cases but also because there is no denying the abuses that have been committed by science and technology, such as nuclear energy, toxic chemicals and genetic manipulation. A favorite simile of journalists writing about social and economic issues is the use of the term "Darwinian struggle" or something like it. Put these all together and you have a large body of citizens who can easily be misled into thinking that Darwin is responsible for it all.

There is also the fact of serious disagreement by credible scientists on the intricate details of how evolution and natural selection work, compounded by the large time scale involved in these processes. There are debates on the importance of adaptation, on the target of natural selection, on the issue of gradual vs. rapid evolutionary change, on the definition of species, and so on. But despite the acrimony that sometimes accompanies these arguments, contrary to appearances and inflammatory media pieces, none of these competing hypotheses in any way undercuts or challenges the acceptance of evolution and natural selection.

Several things should be kept in mind. First, nothing was known in Darwin's day about genetics and heredity; it was not until the early 20th century that the findings about these subjects, based on Gregor Mendel's experiments, were added on to the concepts of evolution and natural selection, to form the "Modern Synthesis". This synthesis enabled scientists to refine and expand their understanding of how evolution works. To blame Darwin for shortcomings in his theories when the science was lacking to even ask the right questions is obviously unfair. For example, Darwin assumed new species only arose out of one pre-existing lineage. Since then additional theories on speciation have arisen of which Darwin never dreamed, most notably speciation arising from geographic isolation of populations within a species, and the subsequent development of isolating mechanisms that arise and keep these new species separate from earlier ones. A whole new field of theory and study has arisen around the hot issue of what defines a species. But this only builds upon rather than replaces Darwin's theories.

Second, these essays do not discuss sexual selection, another aspect of evolution which involves the selection by females of males of a species who are visually or behaviorally most attractive to them, such as those with conspicuous or aesthetically pleasing characteristics or behavior, such as the peacock's large ornate train or the spectacular breeding displays of prairie chickens and Birds of Paradise. "Sexual selection is ... one of the most potent causes of speciation in animals ...", says evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma.

Third, the subject of sociobiology, or what is now called evolutionary psychology by social scientists, has become one of the touchiest subjects of our time, though none the less fascinating and important. Initially it was called ethology and started with the work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen and their field observations of animal behavior. It later evolved through the writings of, among others, Edward O. Wilson, who later expanded his theories about the simultaneous evolution of human culture and the human species. On the way it was tainted (unfairly) by charges that it supported the "biology is destiny/genes determine human behavior" concepts, pop media notions that no respectable scientists, Wilson included, have ever claimed. Finally it has at least become a field of study worthy of pursuit, though tinged, according to some on the Left, with racism, fascism and sexism.

The "Nature vs. Nurture" debate still rears its tiresome head, and when it does it needs to be dealt with, especially in light of the inability of the general public to examine scientific controversies in a politically neutral manner. Few if any scientists deny that there is some genetic basis for human behavior as there is for human appearances (phenotypes). It could hardly be otherwise, given the fact that the human brain, source of culture and ethics, evolved along with all our other organs and systems. How and how much heredity contributes to human behavior, values and culture, whether we should continue investigating and what we should do about it, remain the subjects of raging ideological battles, which are often portrayed as political (Left vs. Right), but which really reflect different attitudes about the criteria for ethical decision making. Thus these debates should be removed from the scientific arena and resolved in the social arena.

In fact one of the reasons that Darwin withheld publication of Origin of Species for so long was not because he feared antipathy to the notion of evolution from earlier life forms—this notion had long been extant—but because his theory implied that the human species and its individuals arose from a material basis. This materialism of course infers that the human brain evolved in a similar manner to that of other organs, and that humans similarly evolved from other animals. The only conclusion to be drawn from this fact is that if the brain has a material basis, so does the human mind, including religious beliefs. And this in turn leads to the inescapable conclusion that the notion of a deity is simply a product of the human mind. In this light the present-day arguments of creationists and "intelligent design" proponents can readily be seen as feeble attempts not only to refute evolution and impose irrational religious beliefs on everyone else, but ultimately to rebut materialism per se.

A clearer separation is needed for rational political discourse, one that understands that human ethics, while highly likely to have a strong evolutionary base (see Michael Ruse's writings), exist in a context of free will and choice, and thus are more appropriately raised in a discussion of human social and political change rather than in a discussion of human origins and genetics. Moreover, no aspect of genetically based human behavior is fixed or compelling, including those aspects of adaptive human behavior that we voluntarily accept, such as incest avoidance. Such taboos are accepted not because we consciously know they are genetically harmful but because such ethical choices are defined in abstract terms called epigenetic rules and are not articulated in biological terms. We don't need to know that incest is a bad biological idea; we just dislike the notion and that is enough, in most cases, to discourage it.

Indeed, epigenetic rules are really the most effective method for preventing counter-adaptive behavior because they function perfectly in the absence of scientific evidence or intellectual comprehension. That natural selection enabled us to develop these rules is almost by definition a proof of natural selection, because early humans lacked sufficiently advanced cognition of what constitutes non-adaptive behavior. Early humans knew nothing about the genetic dangers of inbreeding; instead, those early humans who were not repelled by sexual relations with family members had less reproductive success and failed to produce more offspring with such tendencies than those who were instinctively resistant to such relationships. The latter eventually out-reproduced the former, allowing the instinctive avoidance (the epigenetic rule) to spread widely in the population. Our contemporary abhorrence of incest has its roots in our ancestors' distaste, upon which natural selection conferred an enhanced reproductive edge.

In some of these political exchanges, those who, for want of a better category, come from the Left traditionally condemn the notion that human behavior may in some measure be biologically "determined" and go to great lengths to discredit scientists like Edward O. Wilson and his theories about the biological basis of human culture. Aside from the fact that neither Wilson nor anyone else argues for biology as a supreme authority in human society—Wilson argues more for respect and deference—and that humans, like many animals, can make behavioral and normative choices (as well as mistakes and misjudgments), those who denigrate even the study of the evolutionary roots of human behavior ignore the most important aspect of evolutionary theory: its lack of determinacy and hierarchy.

If nothing else, the work of Charles Darwin and his successors in the field of genetics has clearly shown us that there is no biological basis for the concept of socially repressive dogmas or discrimination on the basis of physical characteristics. Similarly, evolutionary theory rebuts the notion of any non-material origin of the human species. Evolutionary theory thus carries within it—in fact made it possible to define—the notion of biocentrism (functional equality of all living species) and the corollary absence of any biological basis for hierarchy in human social, political and economic relations. Far more effective it would be, for the Left, to focus its ire on religion, which has a much longer track record than biology in oppressing humanity.

Finally, a word about spirituality is needed. There is no intent in this book to ridicule individual spiritual beliefs or dismiss private religious practice as motivating factors for those who support ecological causes. The notion that a political movement must be based on a purity and uniformity of intent and motive is anathema to the concepts of cultural diversity, cooperation and mutual respect.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Politics as if Evolution Mattered by Lorna Salzman Copyright © 2011 by Lorna Salzman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction....................1
Why Darwin Matters Today....................5
The Evolutionary Debate....................13
Science vs. New Age-ism....................19
Ecology and Evolution....................24
Evolution Misunderstood....................29
Evolution's Balancing Act....................35
Sidestepping Evolution....................38
Biodiversity....................42
The Threat of Genetic Manipulation....................46
Counter-evolutionary Technologies....................51
Ecosystems as Models for Human Systems....................54
Progress and Purpose....................58
Humanity in the Biosphere....................61
The Ecological Imperative....................64
Formulating a New Agenda for Social Change: Nature Comes First; Nature Bats Last....................70
Afterword: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible....................75
Recommended Reading....................77

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