Biology was pretty well my worst subject when I was at school. (Well, if you don’t count sewing. Clearly, nobody does.)
We had a double lesson that involved almost 2 hours of slicing up dead things that reeked of formaldehyde. I was a child for whom the word “all-consuming” could have been coined. (At 11, I could eat at a tenth grade level, as they almost say in the Simpsons.)
But on those mornings, I would be gagging on the smell through my lunch break and couldn’t face eating anything. The formaldehyde, the dissection and the general air of a necromancer’s den (with jars of pickled foetuses and entrails) that pervaded the biology lab combined to act as aversion therapy. I certainly paid zero attention to the content of the lessons and my diagram of the circulation of the blood was in no way distinguishable from my cross-section of an earthworm’s diigestive tract.
However, deepest apologies to my biology teachers, because I do seem to have grasped one crucial point about evolution. (Or thanks to an illustrated library book about evolution, read when I was 10, which has strangely stuck in my mind across the decades, largely thanks to the fascinating series of artist’s impressions of cats developing in the womb.)
The point about evolution is the survival of the organisms that are best fitted to their environment. My moral compass is obviously set differently to the creationists’ but I’m buggared if I can see where there is a value judgement or any reference to morality here. We can see this happening all around us. Cities get built and expand into farmland and wild countryide and those creatures that can live alongside humans (rats, pigeons, cat fleas, houseflies) all do really well. Any creatures that live in scrub or farmland or mountains die out.
The moral issue here is trying to minimise the impact we have on the world – in our own self interest (FeaturelessVoid help us, if we find ourselves having to live on a diet of rats and fleas and marestail.)
The moral issue is clearly not that “fitter” means better or even more fecund (as in the masterly levels of logical absurdity assumed by the likes of the much-loved Dumbski, very well discussed by TW in his last post) It means suited to the environment.
(Just like us, really. Our bodies evolved to survive pretty well before the invention of agriculture. They’ve adapted well to a few thousand years of agriculture, although that’s just a blink of the planet’s eye. We are not very well adapted physically to the environments we are creating for oursleves in advanced industrialisation. For instance, we are straining our bones and tendons through actions like sitting at desks and in mrechanical forms of transport for most of our days; our mechanisms for storing food on our bodies to survive shortages are biting a lot of us in the non-metaphysical physical arse as we store more and more fat.
However, our most advanced adaptation tool – our monstrous brain, with its capacities for language and reasoning and creating things – lets us keep adjusting our environment, so we are still well ahead. The luckiest of us have medicine and enough food to live a lot longer than people did a couple of centuries ago.)
It would take just one major environmental change – a nuclear war, a global plague or a drastic change in our climate – and no matter how numerous our species is now, we’d no longer be “fit.” Our species would be extinct.
Dumbski’s potato famine topic is a good example. The Irish were indeed more prolific breeders, partly because it seems to have long been a Catholic imperative and partly because the potato could feed large families without using a lot of land. (They generally had tiny farms, as a result of the policies of Cromwell and his successors, who had set up Irish inheritance laws in such a way as to break the power base of Catholic leaders. See, I was a fair bit better at History than Biology.) A couple of years of failure of the potato crop and the Irish were dying in their millions.
If the theory of evolution can be applied to the Irsish potato famine – and this attempt to make a match is pushing the argument to the kerbside of insanity – it shows that fecundity and adapting to one environment doesn’t ensure “fitness” in the biological sense. One potato blight organism and the environment suddenly isn’t the same. Add in a few cholera epidemics. The survivors then become those with the capacity to resist starvation over years as well as to be resistant to cholera. Plus the financial and physical means and knowledge to be able escape to somewhere without a famine. A pretty tall order, but the genetic line of those without all these attributes has gone.
There was certainly a massive social and political component to how this played out. One part of which was the general demonisation of the Irish – to which Darwin may have subscribed, if Dumski is right on the evidence.
Just like today, when blaming the victim is one response to the guilt felt about not actually doing anything to help them.
(As an aside, poster campaigns telling us not to give to beggars is one of my favourite examples. It is basically saying – We’ll give money to our needy friends in the advertising agency instead of these homeless alcoholics that you feckless people persist in giving the money for a “cup of tea”).
So Darwin was just a typical example of his age and class then? Not a saint. Well, if you think he’s God or even a lesser saint, that must be a bit disturbing. But I’m buggered if I can see why being prejudiced against the starving Irish in anyway invalidates the theory of Evolution. Do satellites not work because the first rocket scientists were escaped Nazis?
He certainly wasn’t in anyway responsible for the potato famine, nor the British responses to it. And, even if he had been, the theory of evolution was completely blameless.
Are there really biology teachers so inept, anywhere in the world, that they can’t explain to these people the differences between discussing fitness to survive in a given environment and making value judgements about what living creatures deserve to survive?
I can only assume that some of these people have no more understanding of the basic points of evolutionary theory than I have of the complex prohibitions in Leviticus.
They don’t even believe in their Gods enough to credit them with giving humans the intelligence to draw conclusions about the natural universe.
Which makes it doubly unfortunate that they think they’re made in God’s image. They are clearly all worshippers of the Evil One, after all.