The other night I was lying in bed, speculating on whether I could write a post about all the things that seemed to be annoying me lately. Our neighbour had a water leak in one of his outside pipes but was determined that it should be traceable to our garden rather than his (it wasn’t), and that really got on my nerves. Then a friend of mine with relationship issues has rung a lot over the past few weeks to discuss her troubles without ever permitting so much as a change of topic. And an article lauding Darwinism in the Economist had been the scene of dissent between myself and my husband, as I think evolutionist theories suck and he is utterly convinced by them. He’d been really quite peeved by my staunch rebuttals, which was unusual considering that I give him a lot of grief over theoretical issues and he rarely rises to it. So there I was, pondering all of this, when my husband suddenly appeared in the doorway to tell me the water supply had been cut off. Cue minor panic and hasty checking of pipes, until he rang the local water board and found the problem affected our cluster of villages and was being investigated. We went to sleep uneasy, my mind whirring with contingency plans and all thoughts of minor irritations forgotten. In the morning the water was back on, and I felt very grateful to some poor soul who had probably had to spend a freezing night in a fenland ditch somewhere, digging up pipes.
I had forgotten all about the incident until I heard an item on the news this morning about a number of Eastern block countries having their gas supply cut off because Ukraine hasn’t paid its bills. I shivered at the thought of all those people without heat in countries where our current extreme temperatures of minus seven degrees would seem like a pretty nice day. It’s one thing to go to bed knowing the water board is doing its best to fix a problem, quite another to be waiting on a government to pay its debts. And so it brought it back to me, that abrupt and absolute switch I’d experienced from pondering ethical matters to being wholly focused on issues that concerned our survival. It intrigued me, to think about how dominating those problems of survival are to our minds when we must face them, how they wipe out other problems completely. But it also intrigued me to think about the paths the human mind follows when survival is not an issue. Once people’s basic needs are met, once they have a reasonable standard of living, what are the topics to which their minds naturally turn? Where do we go with our thinking once we have freedom of thought?
Inevitably this brought me back to my deep dislike of Darwinism, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Darwinism suggests that answers to some of the great philosophical questions of mankind – like why do we kill, what motivates us, what causes racial hatred, why are men and women treated unequally – can all be explained by our lizard brains, evolved over millennia although clearly not evolving much of late it would seem, to which certain basic preoccupations with the demands of survival remain paramount. For a Darwinist, life is bound up with survival and reproduction, the latter being the strongest force of all. All its explanations stem from this principle, which might promote survival of the fittest but in practice interests itself only with the lowest common denominators. And we’re talking low here, knuckle-dragging low. Darwinism stands resolute in the face of educators, sociologists and psychologists who would like to believe that given the appropriate teaching, people can alter their behaviour. Not at all, Darwinists believe, because when you come down to basics people are what they are, predetermined by genetics and hard-wired by selfish inclination. I suppose that’s the first contradiction that bothers me: that in the camp of the evolutionists, there can’t be any change, not in the here and now. I loathe determinism because if it’s true then every single person involved in nurturing or improving the human race – mothers, reformers, teachers, researchers, therapists – might just as well not get out of bed in the mornings. Crime will always flourish, women will only ever be interested in having children, capitalism will continue to dominate the globe. End of story.
There are many topics on which I could pick a fight with Darwin, but lets at least stick to one I may be presumed to know something about: the fate of women. The article in the Economist that riled me contained a few quotes I’ll share. Discussing women’s preference (stated as a universal truth) for rich husbands, it suggests that Darwinism has grown ever more sophisticated in thinking that this is not just for the security of any subsequent children. No, if high-status individuals are those who win out in the ongoing genetic competition, then a ‘high-status woman can be more choosy about whom she mates with.’ I would like to suggest this scarcely accounts for Kate Moss’s choice of Pete Docherty as a mate, nor Britney Spear’s choice of husband, nor Julia Robert’s multiple choices, to name just a few high-status women. I think women’s choice of partner involves an awful lot more concerns, personal, complicated and random, than that.
Then there’s the problem of rape, which Darwinism suggests is evolved behaviour, in which low-status men try desperately to reproduce themselves. Apparently feminists took exception to this explanation as ‘excusing the crime’. ‘On the other hand,’ the magazine continues, ‘it has become a mantra among some feminists that all men are rapists, which sounds a lot like the opposite point of view: biological determinism. Insert the word “potential”, however, and this claim is probably true.’ I don’t know where to begin with this ghastly reasoning. Firstly, the ‘men are rapists’ line of thought belonged to a small splinter group of feminists at least fifteen years ago, which, given the speed of feminism’s evolution, has now long since been bypassed. Secondly, even those feminists always talked about ‘potential’ rapists and it was the media that misquoted and promoted the mistake. Thirdly, inserting the word ‘potential’ and claiming this makes all the difference is a classic scientific misuse of language that does not alter any part of what is fundamentally alarming about the claim that ‘men are rapists’. Finally, given that all it takes is the insertion of the word ‘potentially’ to make the statement agreeable to Darwinists, we can see just how close to biological determinism the theories of so-called evolution actually are.
Finally a word about women’s careers and Darwinism. The magazine quotes a report that claims: ‘The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate. The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individual’s lifestyle preferences. Governments can’t regulate or legislate these away, and shouldn’t try to.’ The journalist then adds damningly: ‘He failed to add, however, that these preferences are often the result of biological differences between the sexes.’ The article proposed that once women have had children and their evolutionary task is done, they no longer feel compelled by competitive instincts any more, and choose to stay home where possible. Not of course that this has anything to do with the difficulty of finding appropriate childcare, or its cost, or the fact that women remain intellectually responsible for the maintenance of the family, (which often represents a huge unshared burden of work), nor the dominant culture of ‘being there’ that still rules the workplace, despite the advances in technology that mean that anyone, male or female, could much more easily work from home if they chose. Whatever else it may or may not do, Darwinist evolution theory is no friend to women within our culture.
If we look back over the history of Darwinist thought, it’s possible to see how evolutionary theories haven’t been the best of friends to most other marginal groups. What has Darwinism promoted after all? Well, cast your mind back to the rise of eugenics and the concurrent rise of the Nazi party. That line of thought gained its validation from Darwin. Theories developed from this basis have also seen European man as the zenith of civilization, meaning that other races were naturally inferior, and much research has been undertaken to prove that the black man’s brain is smaller, less powerful etc, etc. It’s no coincidence that the victims of evolutionary theory have been those groups – women, Jews, ethnic races – who did not do so great in the vast cultural competition that Darwinism celebrates, and the great promoters of evolutionary theory seem to me to be white, scientifically-minded males in developed countries. No surprises there, either. Theories are dangerous things because they become blindsided to their own preferences, their own desires. Any theory is the perfect encapsulation of a particular way of looking at the world – it’s the most coherent form of story you can have. That’s why no theory should ever do itself the disservice of saying point blank that it is the truth; it is always steeped in its own thinking, and thus distorted from within. But because Darwin is linked to scientific research, rather than the artistic kind, it gains its authority from declaring itself as the truth.
The article ends by claiming that ignorance of evolution means that any attempt to make economic policy without it ‘is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works.’ Of course evolution is a factor in understanding human behaviour, but the question, to return finally to where I started this post, is what we do with knowledge when we’ve got it? Darwinism works a treat where questions of survival are at stake. But how do we deal with human beings once the problem of survival is no longer the issue? When my worries have risen above the level of the water supply, what do I want to think about then? For instance, men and women may well have evolved patterns of response to deal with the fact that women are biologically capable of reproducing – but how do we encourage the sexes to behave in a society where that division of labour need no longer overshadow every decision we make? It’s the determinism of Darwinism that disturbs me, as I think it should be about helping people to rise against their baser instincts, not taking them as inevitable and organizing life around them. The worst things that we do stem from those distant competitive instincts – they make us aggressive and selfish and unethical – so what policy decisions should come out of evolutionary researches? I would hope the insights of Darwinism might provide a springboard to ethical decisions, but instead they seem still to encourage justification of self-interest, not least because ethics are indeed awkward and complicated to instill in a culture. Ultimately, I fear that Darwinist theories will continue to provide empirical data for the obstinacy of its truths, and that they will fail themselves to evolve in the face of changing civilization, at least for another hundred millennia or so.