What is evolution? Who was Darwin? What do the words Darwinism, natural selection, or survival of the fittest really mean? These words and phrases have been bandied around over the past century, used interchangeably, frequently in the news, and known very much as players of one of the most controversial topics in our society today. Basically, Darwin opened a pretty large can of worms when he wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, and the impact of “The Descent of Man” can still be felt today. In short, evolution is the process whereby species arise. Natural selection is a scientific mechanism for this process, which works by perpetuating traits that increase fitness and eliminating those that do not.

So what are the points of contention here? When “On the Origin of Species” was published, there was a huge outcry from the Church – his theory, many people felt, blurred the line between humans and beasts. Humans were removed from their pedestal, having descended from apes, and no longer were a superior species. Decades later, the controversy is still here: proponents of divine creation or intelligent design steadfastly disagree with the theory of evolution, and are striving to include these alternative theories in the school curriculum, much to the chagrin of the scientific community.

A study published in Science in August 2006 found that, of 33 countries surveyed, the U.S. and Turkey are the most un-accepting of evolution. One third of American adults believe that the theory of evolution is “absolutely false”, whereas the other 31 European countries, and Japan, were generally accepting of the theory. The authors of the study suggest that this disagreement in the U.S. is rooted in the Conservative tradition, since the mid 20th century, of adopting creationism as part of their political platform – quite in contrast to Europe, where no political party exists that opposes evolution in their platform. Indeed, today in America, seven Conservative states have tried to include creationism in the curriculum, with Kansas and Ohio recently making headlines

Among people who accept evolution, there are those who extend it beyond physiology, believing that it can explain human motivation and behaviour – a body of thought loosely referred to as social Darwinism. The opponents of this view argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection does not wholly explain why humans behave the way they do. In fewer words, all change is not evolutionary. In this paper, I will discuss the mistaken assumption that evolution has a purpose and that it progresses, providing examples of human behaviour that clearly do not increase fitness, and discuss the role that cultural evolution, in contrast to evolution by natural selection, plays in explaining human motivation and behaviour.

Natural selection is but a scientific mechanism to explain how species evolved – and in order for that to occur, as Darwin postulated, we must have variation, the variation must be heritable, and there must be differential reproductive success. If we have these conditions, then it’s possible for some traits to persist and others, over time, to be eliminated. But there is no goal or endpoint for this process; it is random and occurs as a response to changes in the environment. Organisms are not getting better; we are only responding physiologically to different environmental conditions. In Richard Lewontin’s words, “the reason that there is no general progress is that the environments in which particular species lie are themselves changing, and, relative to the organisms, are usually getting worse – so most of natural selection is concerned with keeping up.”

Jared Diamond echoes this when he observed, based on his 33 years of working with New Guineans, that they were, on average, more intelligent, alert, responsive, and engaged than the average Westerner. The fact that Westerners are technologically advanced says nothing of their intelligence, as people from technologically primitive societies are capable of learning to use these technologies. Europeans have always lived in densely populated cities, thus being able to evolve resistance to deadly diseases. New Guineans, on the other hand, with their low population densities, have had to work a lot harder to survive. Diamond describes New Guinean youth as “smarter” than their North American or European counterparts, which is attributed in part to the constant interaction between adults and children in New Guinean society. The modern-day televisions and game consoles that are so pervasive in developed countries are hardly adequate at providing stimulus at the crucial time window needed for promoting mental development in children. Technological progress is not necessarily related with intelligence or fitness – at least, there is no evidence to suggest that it is.

After a lifetime of developing his theory, Darwin was still puzzled by something: the existence of altruism in human behaviour, or the unselfish concern for the needs or interests of others. If natural selection is indeed a main mechanism for the evolution of species, why are some people nicer than others? Shouldn’t natural selection favour individuals who never behave in a purely altruistic manner? This aspect of the Darwin debate has been well-studied for decades, resulting in many scientific studies and philosophers concluding that there is indeed an evolutionary basis for altruism. Richard Dawkins and his predecessor, William Hamilton, took a gene-centric view of evolution that describes how we can evolve altruism, as we have genes in common with our relatives. Edward O. Wilson even asserts that altruism does not exist – any helpful behaviour has some selfish roots, including the work of Mother Teresa.

But can altruism be explained only in terms of evolutionary change? Paul Ehrlich, a modern day ethicist, says “No”, pointing out that the 100 000 or so genes in our DNA cannot be solely responsible for determining the 100 trillion connections between neurons in our brains. Genes interact with the environment, resulting in varying human behaviour or outcomes. The behavioral effects of Down syndrome, which results from a major genetic defect (the presence of an extra chromosome), can be greatly influenced by providing the affected child with a stimulating environment.

Peter Singer, another modern-day ethicist agrees. He uses examples of parental care and the reverse of that: offspring caring for parents in their old age. In the case of parental care, it is clear how this behaviour is perpetuated throughout evolution – parents care for their offspring, and the result is increased fitness. But sometimes parents go beyond what is necessary to increase fitness – for example, in the many documented cases where parents, who are still able to reproduce, willingly give up their lives for their children. As for children caring for their aged parents, this clearly provides no fitness benefit, yet occurs everyday all over the world.

How does evolution by natural selection differ from cultural evolution, or, in Paul Ehrlich’s words, “changes in the vast body of non-genetic evolution that humanity stores in its brains, books, buildings, computers, films” and so on. It is true that human behaviour and motivation can be partly explained by evolution by natural selection – but that’s only part of the story. The evolution of our cultures is the other part. As Peter Singer describes, this occurs by an evolutionary process, whereby some cultural variations adopted by different societies survive, and others do not. But this change can happen very quickly and within a single generation. If a cultural variation that increases a group’s fitness is passed onto the next generation, that variation will persist. Another major difference is that cultural evolution is directed at progress, whereas genetic evolution is not.

Jared Diamond also makes this distinction in Guns, Germs and Steel. Evolution by natural selection does not explain why there are haves and have-nots in our world. We need only look at countries with the same environment but vast differences in wealth to see this. North and South Korea, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the former East and West Germany are some examples of countries with huge differences in gross national product per capita despite the fact that they basically share the same environment and natural resources. The differences lie in the institutions in these countries, and, associated with these institutions, whether or not there are differences in the rule of law, levels of corruption, property rights, and so on. Public health, education and environmental integrity are also important variables in determining a country’s wealth. .

So why does this debate matter? It matters because there are serious implications for society when we adopt the view that it is natural to allow individuals to suffer since societies evolve in a progressive fashion. It matters because there are many who believe there can be no foundation for ethics if we accept that humans have evolutionary origins. It matters because the danger of perpetuating racism in our society unfortunately still exists. Human nature, as Rousseau wrote, is not fixed – and neither is it constrained by evolution. We should not think that, because we accept natural selection as a mechanism for evolution, all abhorrent human behaviour can be blamed on our genes, or, that we should leave the poor and weak to their own devices so that society can naturally progress.

In summary, human progress is not the result of genetic evolutionary progress, as natural selection is concerned with perpetuating individual fitness. In addition, although altruism can be explained by natural selection, human beings behave in ways that go beyond increasing their fitness. We are also spiritual, creative, and emotional beings. And finally, we behave as we do because of a complex mix of genes and our environment – or natural selection and cultural evolution. In Jared Diamond’s words, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of the differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.”