Darwinism: It’s true. But it ain’t pretty

Connor Wood

Dangerous lionFor the scientifically literate, few things are as confusing as the persistent, even rabid refusal of millions of Americans to accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. How, the science-minded want to know, can these blubbering know-nothings ignore the vast body of evidence that supports Darwinism? How is it possible for them to trust a millennia-old Hebraic tribal legend over the hardworking efforts of countless brilliant scientists? Are they simply that stupid? The viscerally satisfying answer to that last question might be “yes.” But as a researcher, I believe the reality is far more complicated.

Instead of citing historical examples or quoting famous writers, I’ll use a personal story to show why. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I was exposed to quite a bit of evolutionary psychology. Granted, evolutionary psychology is a controversial discipline, and its conclusions are often oversimplified or spurious, sometimes even irresponsibly so. But I was, and still am, convinced that its basic project is sound: to associate human behavior with (hopefully testable) evolutionary underpinnings.

However, there is a major problem. Once you start looking at evolutionary reasons for human behavior, you very quickly run aground on some very uncomfortable ideas. These can be summed up in a simple formula: we are not here to love one another. We are here to spread our genes.

This means that, whatever aspirations we have, whatever loves we think we cherish, whirring beneath the entire mechanism of human social life is a bleak drive to win life’s game. This, in turn, implies that there all of life is ranked in order of how successful it is at this game. Attractive, sexy people are more likely to win life’s game. And so attractive people are valued more.

Rich people have access to lots of resources that make their families more likely to thrive.  And so they are valued more.

So, who’s valued the least in this Darwinian arena? That’s easy – the losers. The homeless bums you see downtown. The really ugly girl no one wants to talk with at the party. The poor. The sick. The dying.

Darwinism is not kind to losers.

As an impressionable undergraduate, I was severely shaken by this grim vision of the world. It didn’t help that the more I looked around myself, the more it seemed to be true. Good-looking people certainly seemed to make friends more easily than ugly ones, for instance. Kids from wealthy families used large-screen televisions and other flashy toys to gather merry parties of comrades around themselves, while poor, hunted-looking kids hurried to and forth from class alone. Queasily, the entire world began to look like a kind of vast sorting mechanism, a heartless machine for separating the beautiful and talented from the mediocre, charmless, and wretched.

Yes, I probably needed therapy. But Darwin would also agree (with a sigh) that this dark picture of evolution was basically accurate: it is a monstrous algorithm for sorting the successes from the rejects. It doesn’t care that those abstract columns are filled with living, breathing beings, because it doesn’t care about anything.

What’s more, seen from the perspective of Darwinism, an awful lot of human behavior begins to make sense. Our love of money and status, for example – which often seems so utterly ridiculous to songwriters and poets – is actually a cunning evolutionary strategy. Imagine the prototypical financially successful, balding, middle-aged guy cruising in a top-down convertible; he may look silly, but his cringe-inducing midlife crisis is perfectly reasonable. The more resources we have access to, the better our chances of wooing (perhaps many) attractive mates, of winning Darwin’s game. And if we want potential mates to know we have those resources, we’d better show them off. The dude in the car is a player – in the biological sense.

I don’t want to oversimplify things. Evolution isn’t just a dog-eat-dog battle; there are also incredibly complex arrangements of cooperation and symbiosis. The late biologist Lynn Margulis, for instance, famously convinced the scientific establishment that the mitochondria in cells were originally separate organisms, and that eukaryote life forms are actually cooperative amalgamations of different sub-organisms, winning life’s game by helping each other out.

At the human level, more research is produced every day showing that cooperative social groups fare better and last longer than selfish ones. Being cooperative is often a very good evolutionary strategy for humans.

But this cooperation is still happening in the context of Darwin’s game. And it’s not always the best strategy for every circumstance. Not everyone cooperates all the time, anyway – the history of human beings, cooperative and altruistic as they sometimes are, is rife with extraordinary selfishness, violence, and predation. I’m convinced that when we pan out, take in the entire spectrum of human history, we find that many of the most unfortunate patterns and tendencies of human nature find their roots in our drive to reproduce and fill the world, blindly, with our genes.

Curiously, many academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, turn up their noses at this use of Darwinian theory to explain human behavior. There are some complicated political reasons for this, but this distaste for pondering evolution’s effects brings many leftist academics uncomfortably close to the camp of their natural opponents: creationists and religious fundamentalists. Interestingly, despite their massively different social roles and ideologies, I think leftists and religious reactionaries alike are motivated to reject Darwinism, explicitly or de facto, by what I believe is the only appropriate response to Darwin’s vision of the world: revulsion.

Why revulsion? As the evolutionary viewpoint slowly penetrated into my undergraduate consciousness, I actually found myself trusting people less. Did my friend compliment my new shirt because he liked me, or because he was hoping to use me to meet a girl I knew? Was my love for my girlfriend real, or was it just the product of a series of steely calculations regarding her hip-to-waist ratio? Did anyone really care about anyone?

Bookish 21-year-olds everywhere indulge in paranoid self-questioning. But it must have been a bit more than a phase for me – I ended up dedicating my life to studying the interactions between religion and science. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues fall full tilt into  “Darwinian depression.” It’s quite a serious condition, characterized by a sinking feeling that the point of life really is to spread our genes, and that our worth as beings is completely determined by our success or failure in the Darwinian arena. The ancillary symptoms of Darwinian depression are referencing Richard Dawkins a lot, succumbing to existential despair, and drinking.

The long and short of it is that, once you start really pondering the implications of Darwinism for human life, the world – even a town as beautiful as Madison, Wisconsin – starts to look pretty dark awfully quickly.

But the story doesn’t end there. I think we can respond to this dark picture provided by evolution, and that’s where religion, in my view, comes in.

Think about it this way. What sin does the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) most warn against? Aside from religious idolatry, hoarding wealth might be a top contender. The Hebrew prophets castigate the Israelites for radical social inequality, while Jesus famously admonishes a rich young man that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven (Matthew 19:24). Meanwhile, Muhammad in the Qur’an constantly warns his followers against getting fooled by the worldly goals of money and children.

These seem like reasonable admonishments. But if you were a coach who specialized in helping people realize their maximum genetic fitness, what would you advise your clients to do? Exactly the opposite of what Jesus and Muhammad advised, of course – you’d advise them to get rich.

In other words, it’s often precisely the goals encouraged by the Darwinian economy that the religious values of Western culture most reject – at least as Darwinian evolution is described in most media. There is, then, a basic conflict in value systems. In an important sense, a good Darwinian adviser is a very bad Christian or Muslim.

I strongly suspect that evolutionary theory makes people so uncomfortable, not because it disagrees with Genesis (lots of things contradict Genesis), but because it presents a vision of a natural world whose “values” are fundamentally opposed to those of our religious cultures.

Still, Darwinism a good scientific theory. It makes us uncomfortable precisely because so many of its predictions seem to be  accurate. We really do manipulate one another for hidden social ends, rich and attractive people really do have an easier time of it on planet Earth, and much of our behavior is subtly motivated by our deep-rooted drive to produce children – to win life’s game.

But in realizing this, I began to suspect that many religious communities throughout history had been a step ahead of me all along.

Muhammad knew, just as clearly as any modern-day evolutionary psychologist, that people are basically motivated by sex, children, money, and status, and that they will kill, harm, lie to, and manipulate one another to get those things. But unlike evolutionary psychologists, Muhammad offered an alternative. He inspired his followers to imagine and then live their lives by a different set of criteria – to play a different game. Instead of the greatest good being children and wealth (the trump cards in Darwin’s game), Muhammad insisted that the greatest good was submission to the will of Allah, and Allah was far greater and more beautiful than the melée of evolutionary life – even if “evolutionary life” wasn’t the phrase Muhammad would have used.

And what is Allah, in this context? Well, in part Allah represents a decision to reject evolution’s standards for our own value. In evolution’s eyes, the poor are losers. They will die and be eliminated, period. In the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus, the poor might very well be more valuable than their superiors in the Darwinian ranks. Allah, or God, represents a different set of criteria for valuing ourselves and each other, an orthogonal standard for judging worth.

And that, I think, is the difference. Religion can offer a proud and defiant response to evolution, but it cannot offer scientific competition. Not a rejection of evolution’s objective truth, but a repudiation of its values.

Religions like Christianity, Islam, and others often suffer from tribalism, institutionalized prejudice, and out-of-date epistemologies. They can be infuriatingly error-prone and philosophically naïve. But nestled within all their weaknesses and exasperating conservatism is something we need: an acknowledgement that biological life is not all sunsets and daisies, that our legacy as living animals really is one of shocking greed, death, and selfishness. While Darwinism tells the very same story, it gives us no tools to build on top of it, to carve meaning out of that madness. In fact, it seems to whisper that the value of a life really is determined by its biological success or failure. What we need is to know that, even though we live in a Darwinian world, that world does not need to determine our value. We are more valuable than our genes. Religion, flawed as it is, can be a powerful way of trying to show exactly that.

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America’s public ritual gone terribly wrong
Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism
  • http://www.oboedire.wordpress.com Steve Harper

    This article is helpful in a number of ways, but hopefully there is some additional help in at least pointing out that a larger number of Christians than is sometimes thought actually believe in some kind of evolution. But that belief does not, to us, rule out the existence of God, or require us to attach the phrase “survival of the fittest” to the evolutionary theory. We believe that an evolutionary process can still leave room for God, and for the creation of human beings made in the image of G0d, such that the presence of goodness, truth, beauty, and love can still be part of the creation story.

  • Revruthucc

    I’m leaning strongly toward seeing an evolutionary purpose the ability to perceive something beyond human senses. This article points in that general direction, that people’s experience of the numinous leads to an awareness of the negative side effects of the evolutionary competition. Perhaps this is how the human species will continue to evolve, by including more of those who might otherwise be seen as unfit.

  • Doubting Thomas

    So how does the claim that Jesus and Mo reject the accumulation of wealth square with the fact that most of the people who lead organizations in their names seem to be all about accumulating wealth and power? Catholic cathedrals and the Vatican, mega churches and filthy rich televangelists and golden domed mosques all argue against the point. ‘Organized religion’ seems to be just another wealth and power accumulation strategy that uses the ‘teachings’ of Jesus and Mo as a tool to convince others that they should go along. That being poor is good for them but they should help make the ‘church’ wealthy and powerful.

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  • DMG

    I think it’s important to remember that for all the selfish impulses evolution has coded into us, it’s also equally responsible for our compassion and social inclinations.

    We have innate empathy for one another – we cringe when we see someone hurt, we feel angry when we see someone treated unfairly, we feel euphoric when we’re able to help someone.

    These have been wired into us as deeply as all our greed and lust by the very same evolutionary pressures, because they help us succeed as a group (and together reach greater heights than we can reliably achieve as individuals).

    Further, evolution has honed our minds to finely-tuned, self-reflective consciousnesses. We can perceive our own urges – selfish and short-sighted – and look beyond them, overrule our instincts for better, longer-term goals.

    That our genetic and memetic evolution has led us to today, with so much of the world (though still not all) cooperating peacefully and under the rule of law, is evidence that the “red in tooth and claw” aspects of Darwinism don’t trump the cooperative and rational qualities it’s cultivated alongside.

    To say that the “values” implicit in a Darwinian view of the world are inherently violent in selfish is as narrowly selective as saying the same about a Biblical view. Both have aspects of beauty and cruelty. Both demand that we use our evolved faculties of compassion and reason to select which examples to follow in leading a good life for ourselves and our communities.

  • http://patheos.com RickRay1

    As the saying goes, “Evolution is a fact whether you believe it or not.” And don’t respond with, ” The tide goes in, the tide goes out; explain that.” CHECK Out http://www.oldfartrants/youtube ….. “The Free Market Will Kill Religion” ……

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How, the science-minded want to know, can these blubbering know-nothings ignore the vast body of evidence that supports Darwinism? … Curiously, many academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, turn up their noses at this use of Darwinian theory to explain human behavior. There are some complicated political reasons for this…

    Evolutionary psychology also has very poor acceptance among evolutionary biologists; i.e. those who understand evolution best. I suggest you consider the possibility that the reason evolutionary psychology has such a bad rep is that it lacks the solid evidential support which you identify with “Darwinism.” The basic idea that our psychology is influenced by evolution is fine, but most of the specific proposals put forward as examples of evolutionary psychology are not well-evidenced; this is why they are derided as “just-so stories.”

    Attractive, sexy people are more likely to win life’s game.

    This could lead to a lengthy side discussion. Contraception has led to a decoupling of sexuality from reproduction. How many supermodels have you heard of who have 5 or more children? If such people achieve material success, but not reproductive success; then they may be winning life’s game, but not Darwin’s game.

  • Sean

    “The long and short of it is that, once you start really pondering the implications of Darwinism for human life, the world – even a town as beautiful as Madison, Wisconsin – starts to look pretty dark awfully quickly.”

    I think we would all like to live in a sunlit field of daisies and butterflies, but reality is reality: that sunlit field of daisies and butterflies is one big competing struggle for life. We can either accept this reality – and try to make things easier for ourselves and others – or we can put the blinkers on and live in a state of ignorance and apathy towards the harshness of that struggle. I guess that evolutionary drive to survive makes me choose the former – rather than the latter.

    “But the story doesn’t end there. I think we can respond to this dark picture provided by evolution, and that’s where religion, in my view, comes in.”


    “Well, in part Allah represents a decision to reject evolution’s standards for our own value. In evolution’s eyes, the poor are losers. They will die and be eliminated, period. In the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus, the poor might very well be more valuable than their superiors in the Darwinian ranks. Allah, or God, represents a different set of criteria for valuing ourselves and each other, an orthogonal standard for judging worth.”

    This article seems to be presenting evolution as some sort of invented ideology, religion, or philosophical way of living. This it is not. That said, the harsh reality of life is that the poor & the weak get the raw end of the deal. Naturally, this drives us – the poor & weak included – to create tools and develop behaviours & beliefs that make life less difficult; education, science, pseudo-science, philosophy, atheism, politics, money, material goods, medicine, crime, religion, gods, violent threats, curses, weapons, war, you name it – are all part of that struggle.

    Allah, as with any other invention, doesn’t represent a decision to reject evolutions standards. However, Allah, as with any other invention, does represent the fact that the poor and the weak – with the right tools – can also be the winners; even if they do cause mayhem, losers, & suffering along the way.

  • connorwood

    Hi Reginald,

    Thanks for your insights. I agree that evolutionary psychologists have an unfortunate tendency to produce “just-so” stories and that these stories are often unconvincing or insufficiently informed by cultural differences. However, I have more confidence in the project of evolutionary psychology than it seems you do (which is fine; disagreement is one of the basic engines of science, right?), and ultimately I do think that evolutionary explanations for human behavior can be profoundly useful for interpreting our own actions in the here and now. Jared Diamond’s little book “Why Is Sex Fun?” is a good example. Just because the discipline is at an immature phase right now does not mean it is not, or will not be in the future, productive.

    On the subject of attractive, sexy people – it’s true that supermodels tend not to reproduce as prolifically as some other women, but I think one thing that’s important to keep in mind is that beauty and access to resources (which often go hand in hand) provide a stabilizing buffer against all kinds of external difficulties and challenges in life. This means that the kids of rich supermodel parents (for example) probably are going to have a better chance of surviving any economic catastrophes, natural disasters, major disease epidemics, etc., than poor kids. So I think it’s very likely that the wealthy and beautiful have the advantage in the genetic game over the long run, even if at any given time the situation may look different in the short term.

  • HSingh

    This is a very true article. The problems I faced through my social and personal life and the corner I was pushed to by uncontrollable circumstances forced me to look for answer to worthiness and real reason of my struggle and suffering. I had exactly the same experiences when the puzzle began to solve in front of me as I looked through the social darwinistic point of view. All causes of suffering and what I thought happiness/fulfilment became meaningless.
    But I disagree with the hope you have described in the later part. Religion is not something beyond our natural insincts. Religion is simply a justification tool to comfort one self of darwinistic acts in misinterpreted acceptable form. Since cooperation and competition go hand in hand simply depending on resource availability and environmental circumstances it is paradoxical and absurd to the mind to justify such acts and so evolved gradually a thought process called religion which brought fundas of “good and evil”, free will, sancicity, love, purpose etc into life. Since birth we are all taught the lesson of “good and evil” through stories, movies, mythology etc which is simply genetic competition in disguised form.
    A living thing cannot disconnenct itself from the brutality of life as long as it is alive. Which is why people find it uncomfortable and do not prefer to give up beliefs if they are doing ok in their biological goals.
    Genes based differentiation, inequality, competition, natural selection/rejection, pleasure/suffering will always exist and cannot be overcome. Life and everything in it is derived from it. Peace, equality, etc are unreal.

  • Collin237

    You seem to think that by arguing against religion you’re arguing outside of it. You’re not. You’re describing biology as an intelligent system, and ignoring the vast evidence that life is utterly incapable of making intelligent decisions about its behavior and development.

  • Collin237

    “There are two kinds of people…”

    Right off the bat, he’s dead wrong. There are many people who believe in both. It goes downhill from there. This guy is so much the exact stereotype of an atheist that I highly suspect he’s a devout religionist playing a prank.

    Yes, evolution is a fact, the tides go in and out, the sky is blue, the earth is round, etc. etc. So what? Maybe if evolution were presented as what it is, a simple fact — instead of pretending it’s a socially meaningful narrative — most people would believe it without a problem.

  • Collin237

    Because they’re organized in a tree structure. As opposed to scientific institutes and democratic governments, which are full of loops.

  • Collin237

    Perhaps it will, because people who experience the numinous are less likely to use birth control or have abortions. However, that will work only if they don’t try to force these values on anyone else.

    (Wow! A purely rational argument against the Tea Party! Who’d have thunk?)