Sunday, November 01, 2009

We have evolved to reject evolutionary theory; The Irony of Creationism

A friend of mine told me I should(as should all MA's) read promiscuously; That is to say, not only course-related or even discipline-related literature. So I am thinking about the social response to evolutionary pressures.

Darwin saw that overproduction and limited resources create a struggle for existence in which some organisms will succeed and most will not. He also recognized that organisms in populations differ from one another in terms of many traits that tend to be passed on from parent to offspring. Darwin's brilliant insight was to combine these two factors and to realize that success in the struggle for existence would not be determined by chance, but instead would be biased by some of the heritable differences that exist among organisms. Specifically, he noted that some individuals happen to possess traits that make them slightly better suited to a particular environment, meaning that they are more likely to survive than individuals with less well suited traits. As a result, organisms with these traits will, on average, leave more offspring than their competitors.
-T. Ryan Gregory "Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions" Published online: 9 April 2009

Gregory, a biologist at U. of Guelph, made me think about how certain behavioral traits have different evolutionary advantages. And how these same traits might yield attitudes resistant to how evolution works, or a least as how

Recent economic theory looks at how notions of fairness channel our decision-making process. Thus if you offer people two buttons, one which gives themselves fifty cents and a stranger fifty cents and the other button gives themselves a dollar but a stranger gets four dollars, many if not most people press the first button. This seems to be a hard wired response for fairness, that has also been found in Chimpanzees and other anthropoids.

Classical economic theory expects people to press button two, because the reward for the button presser is twice that of button one. Now, evolutionary theory describes how individuals don't matter, as long as someone gets to reproduce. This idea is appalling to people who seem hardwired for fairness. Why should Jack have kids and not me? Why should his genotype be more evolutionarily successful. It's not fair, from that perspective.

Of course, our responses are more nuanced and generally less reflective. As social creatures, much of our ability to survive and reproduce is predicated on traits of cooperation and trust. Societies that lack that seem to be less successful than others. The biggest strongest, most dominant male is likely to be assassinated by a group of friendly males, if the 'alpha's' leadership starts getting in the way. The neo-nazi idea of a single genotype as being the best is both foolish spacially, because many different people successfully have children who in turn reproduce, and it is foolish temporally, because different strategies for survival and reproduction are successful at different times. The diversity of people offers a diversity of strategies to cope with a constantly changing environment. The facial features of the Inuit are more resistant to snow glare and frostbite. The diversity of hair colours among northern Europeans arose from women trying to attract mates during a period in the last ice age that killed off a lot of men. Apparently, blonds and redheads are declining in numbers because hair colour no longer confers an evolutionary advantage.

So the survival of the fittest is proven by one's ability to pass on one's genes. That idea appalls others who tend to see themselves as equal to others. So much resistance to evolutionary theory may lie in a trait that helps humans reproduce and survive. The natural process that we refer to and theorise as 'evolution' doesn't care (at the risk of ascribing agency to a natural process) any more than oxygen cares if we breathe it in as O2 and out as CO2. The fact that we care arises from evolution.


Anonymous said...

My first instinct was to choose button number two, because sure I would get a buck, but better than that, I would get to give the other guy four and feel good about making him happy.
Great. My line faces extinction.

adamvs said...

Yeah, I am a button number two person. Because I can always apply a cudgel to the other guy and steal his lunch. After all he is a stranger, so I have no genetic investment in him.

Seriously, my point was that while fairness is necessary in an environment of really tight resources( the early Pleistocene)that instinct becomes counter productive in an age of plenty(21st century post-industrial west). If I get a buck, and you get four, that's great. Next time, we'll switch.

As i write this, I am beginning to see a useful critique of Marxism, as well as a cautionary tale for free market liberals. Marx advocates for button number one, because he couldn't see button number two(Industrial workers with a house, two cars and leisure time and income).

The problem is that capitalism fails to address the situation that with economic power comes commensurate imbalances of political power. So pretty soon a third, VIP button comes along where the button pusher gets 8 bucks and the other guy gets diminishing returns starting at 50cents.

Even Adam Smith argued that government was needed to prevent such third buttons, as they distort market forces. Most free market liberals only read the first chapter of Wealth of Nations.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster