Understanding Evolution

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By Mark Lundegren

I am often asked why a life philosophy based on evolutionary theory and its central idea of natural selection does not lead to human chaos. This questioning suggests a common assumption today that our natural human condition is one of perpetual strife and competition, and that strong social controls are needed to counter our evolved nature and ensure civility between people.

While evolutionary science does suggest that context matters a great deal in determining human behavior, it is a mistake to think that our natural state was one of disorder, or that an evolutionary perspective offers no solution to the imperative of human cooperation and benevolence. In the next few minutes, I would like to explain how and why natural evolution, in fact, predicts not ongoing human belligerence and antipathy – the model of Social Darwinism, as it is often called – but instead leads to a progressive and more adaptive condition of increasing social harmony, order, and even equality.

Likely, you know already that evolutionary theory implies a “survival of the fittest.” In Charles Darwin’s time, this phrase grew out of his synthesis of two long-recognized facts of plant and animal reproduction. One was that the attributes of individual plants and animals naturally and randomly vary to some degree at birth. The second fact was that these alterations are often passed down to the individual’s offspring. Darwin’s ground-breaking insight – based on observations of nature, horticulture, and animal husbandry – was that these natural variations have enormous long-term significance and lead to an evolution of species.

Darwin realized that random natural variations sometimes could provide survival and reproductive advantages to an individual plant or animal, encouraging the variation to spread in its species and progressively alter the species to favor the attribute (i.e. in a process of “natural selection”). Darwin believed that random attribute variation in any individual organism was most likely to have negative effects on survival and reproduction, and thereby to have its transmission naturally curtailed within the species. He also recognized that sometimes a random natural variation might have no effect on survival and reproduction, and might perhaps thus linger or drift in the species.

An example of this process in action might include a species of grassland bird with a medium-length bill, which serves it as a good general-purpose tool for gathering food in a range dominated by ground-dwelling insects and small seeds. In this case, variations in bill length might be expected to reduce reproductive potential, either by lowering food-gathering ability and health, or simply by proving visually less appealing to prospective mates. Over time, however, the species’ range might gradually extend to forested areas or trees may be favored by the climate and encroach on the grasslands. In this new setting, an altered bill length might prove advantageous – a longer one better getting at insects in bark, a shorter one better managing larger nuts – and these advantages would be rewarded by nature. If these environmental changes are sustained, evolution predicts the emergence of new long and short-billed variants of the original species, simply through the compounding reproductive success of birds possessing (or mating birds favoring) the variations.

Today, this is still the basic view of the evolutionary processes that underlie all life, though evolutionary theory has grown richer and more complex. For example, we now know that attribute variation is based primarily on genetic variation (genes were discovered after Darwin’s time) and that evolution is principally a process of genetic variation and selection. I make this general statement amidst other developments in the theory, which now include the idea that cultural attributes and learning are each subject to similar patterns of variation and environmental selection, via natural social and cognitive dynamics, and thus can be reinforced without genetic encoding. A simple example of this is driving on the right or left side of a roadway. Such practices are arbitrary and random, and are reinforced without genetic changes, simply because variation from cultural norms proves either too difficult cognitively or too dangerous practically.

Natural evolution is correctly seen as a long, vast, and continual process of usually modest random variations in each new individual of each species, some helpful but most not, in the test for fitness that is the challenge of survival and reproduction in nature. This unhurried and intricate process occurs over remarkably large periods and in timeframes that test our natural human intuition (and thus point to the innate or selected nature of our intuition). For perspective, watching paint peel is far more dynamic and action-packed theater than observing biological evolution, since the peeling of paint from a barn board is on the order of 10 million times faster than the historical evolution of early single-cell bacteria into modern humans.

But since there is nearly endless time in the life of a middling star like our sun and any life-enabling planets it may harbor like our own, even the inhumanly slow and random walk of natural selection can lead to remarkable developments and compounding states of change, producing life-forms and interdependent ecosystems of extraordinary variety and complexity. If you would like another intuitive analogy to get a better sense of the potential for small but compounding attribute changes to create vast works of biology over great stretches of time, imagine putting one cent in a bank and leaving it there for, say, a billion years – to grow at a modest interest rate and, perhaps unrealistically, assuming no bank charges. Can you guess the result?  As a hint: my popular and quite powerful spreadsheet program could not manage the number.

Based on this understanding of the inner workings of evolution, scientists surmise that our genes and the process of evolution itself are blind actors on the stage of nature. By this, they mean that genes and nature in themselves are unintelligent, unemotional, and amoral (meaning not moral, rather than immoral), much like our insensible cent accruing in a bank vault. Simply because of the workings of natural chemistry in our universe and the force of physical complexity itself, our genes are naturally subject to and have been selected for a certain amount of randomness and variation.

Strings of genes, held in strands of DNA, don’t “mean” to vary, they just do. Genes vary naturally, and the chemicals forming them have been selected for this precisely this quality, much in the way that throws of dice just vary and that dice themselves were selected for their ability to tumble. Like dice, genes can neither steer nor judge themselves anymore than can a coin in a bank vault. Living entities thus can evolve to become more “red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson, or more loving and nurturing, in the spirit of our highest human teachings, if these attributes are naturally selected by the environment. Blind genes will tumble in whichever way attributes are reproduced in a particular species, or in nature more broadly, relative to alternative and equally randomly variations.

In spite of this precarious potential for evolving life to lead to belligerence and baseness, evolutionary scientists now understand that as the natural world (or any evolving system) progressively develops, it naturally begins to favor or become internally biased toward selection for strategies of greater order. Evolution naturally seeks cooperation or reciprocity over time, in other words, even as this course is still a product of random variation and environmental selection. This idea is still quite counterintuitive to many people, but it is easy to understand why it is true. The phenomenon of evolution toward increasing order is driven by the fact that, after many rounds of variation and selection in an evolving system, many or most of the system’s more competitive (and objectively less organized, intelligent, and efficient) positions become “taken” and dominated by established players or species, who are then naturally-selected to specialize to hold these positions (or who are replaced by newer species who can).

Late arrivals in the progress of any evolution must therefore adopt alterative and more inventive strategies, if they are to displace or circumvent established players and extract resources from the generally highly guarded fabric of any developed ecosystem. This natural fact of life is an inherent truth of all evolving systems. It can be seen at work in the seemingly diverse cases of newcomer flocks seeking to displace large birds of prey from commanding roosts, smaller plants searching for sunlight in a valley of dense redwoods, avante-guard artists crafting new works to garner acclaim amidst established traditions, and start-ups pursuing the market share a dominant business in an industry. In this way, once less cooperative and organized niches are occupied, simple natural selection trends not just toward greater complexity and embellishment within existing niches, but to higher states of ecological cooperation and social organization to create new niches or upset old ones. Our species and natural history are, of course, rich living examples of this important idea.

If the production of genes that enable cooperation – movement to greater complexity, efficiency, and self-organization – is a naturally-occurring evolutionary trend, we must remember that this is not a sign of wisdom or intelligent design in nature. Instead, this development is rooted in and entirely explained by the nature of complexity itself, and the opportunities that naturally emerge and persist for more complex and harmonious forms of order once simpler species and less efficient ecological structures are widespread in an evolving system. Equally, however, we must add that this natural tendency toward order and cooperation applies both to species in wild nature and to our species and human society. For this reason, the rise of more efficient, cooperative, and adaptive social structures should be the true meaning of the phrase “Social Darwinism,” for humans and all other social species. We will come back to this important idea in a moment.

In addition to misunderstanding this central tendency of evolving systems, many people today believe or fear that to understand nature and life in this new way, as an undirected and evolving system, is to rob it of its earlier majesty and scope. Many believe that an evolving nature is inevitably smaller and less inspiring than a consciously created one. To people who feel this way, I would point out that many of our most insightful scientists are also deeply spiritual in their outlook on the world. After all, with the full scope of science before us, our evolving planet and larger universe can be seen as awe-inspiring, both in their vast scale and scope and in their remarkable intricacy and complexity. Out mysterious natural world is at least as awe-inspiring as any human idol, for anyone taking the time to observe it, and more profound and deserving of our reverence and humility.

Between the extremes of baseness and harmony, natural evolution and our varying genes in fact work in extraordinary ways, producing a counterintuitive and even inhuman richness of processes and outcomes. The actions of genes and the practical workings and eventual strategies of evolution are more easily visualized in the simpler case of plants, even as plant life evolves to astonishingly levels of vitality and expression. Through the random and sightless genetic variations we have discussed, amidst the real sightlessness that is the fate of a plant, an individual plant seed might be created that leads to an adult plant that it different from its neighbors of the same species.

As an example, a plant seed may contain an altered gene that leads to an adult plant with leaves that are slightly larger or darker or more acrid than others of its kind. This “mutated” plant will then grow and make what seeds it can through sexual reproduction, with its new mutation in tow. Its life course will naturally promote its variation in its ecosystem, and may offer still added variation in the sexually-produced genes of its seeds. Ultimately, all such seeds will be either more, equally, or less successful at reproduction in nature, and the gene pool of the species will be biased in the direction of this individual’s mutated genes, or not, for the reasons we have discussed.

As you may have guessed, animal reproduction works in similar, if more complex, ways. But before considering animal and then human evolution, I’d like to point out that even in the simpler and truly senseless case of plant evolution, we can expect and do see clear natural strategies emerge from random genetic variation and the implicit competition of plant genes that results in the environment. In addition to the more straightforward tactics of enhanced species size, robustness, growth rates, and fertility, plant genes in fact naturally evolve to adopt at least five complex evolutionary strategies:

1.      Pre-emption – the rapid blocking of sunlight or alteration of soil conditions to keep away other plants, as in the case of many species of trees

2.      Condition-dependency – seen in areas with variable climates or terrains, when plants take different forms, for example, in rainy or dry conditions or at different altitudes

3.      Parasitism – relying other plants to aid reproduction, as in the case of vines

4.      Cooperation –  mutually beneficial attributes within a species, as when stands of a plant species block incursions of other species and provide mutual protection from the weather

5.      Synergism – when plants of different species evolve to beneficially rely on one another or occupy complementary niches, as in the case of forest stratification or when multiple plant species alter a local climate for their general benefit

All these complex and seemingly thoughtful attributes and behaviors can be fully explained as the result of randomly evolved, naturally selected, and genetically encoded attributes of the plants involved. Together, these highly sophisticated actions of plants, arrived at by random attribute variation and without vegetable brains or senses, provide an important window into the natural potentials contained in all evolutions and evolving forms. They offer us essential guidance on the likely contours of animal evolution and even the potential range of human attitudes and behaviors we might expect to find naturally evolved in our midst today.

Let’s turn then from the more straightforward but still complex dynamics of plant evolution to that of mobile and far more active animals and humans. Once evolution created animal life and its greater anatomical complexity – with its senses and brains, fins and feet – genetic variation and natural selection became more complicated and multifaceted. This proves especially true when animals are further evolved to live socially among its kind during all or most of its life. With animals, the genes and associated attributes that vary and are selected through reproduction, though still blind and senseless themselves, do their work in more far complex environments and normally with a much greater range of attributes subject to variation.

After all, animals are subject to all or most of the perils of nature that affect plants. The wind and rain are still present, seas swell and fall, and climates fluctuate and change over time. But now, for animal genes and genetic variations to be replicated, they must contend with other natural factors. Animal genes must help their hosts to pursue food and protect themselves against aggression. They must lead to qualities that often keenly sensing and reasonably discerning mates will find attractive. And eventually, for the reasons we have discussed, animal genes will be called on to innovate and foster rich and highly advantageous cooperative and symbiotic behaviors. Producing sets of animal genes that meet all these requirements is real evolutionary work. Fortunately, nature has plenty of time to get the job done.

Even with these added complications, it is clear that plant and animal selection share similar essential qualities. Both processes advance genes in a complex world of other individuals and species, each trying do to exactly the same thing.  We should thus expect and do in fact find through scientific inquiry that all of the evolutionary strategies employed by plants also occur in animal species. But given the wider selection considerations and scope of attributes in animals, we also find that the expressions of these essential evolutionary strategies are more numerous, more nuanced, and of course far richer behaviorally.  Instead of adding to the complexity of our discussion, however, I would like to simplify it, and prepare us to consider the implications of evolutionary theory for a nature-based outlook on human life and society.

Across all animal species, the five genetic and behavioral strategies we have discussed, plus their variations and combinations, and others we might include, can be reduced productively to the idea that animals act with regard to their own species in one or more of three essential ways:  1) socially or cooperatively, 2) opportunistically or competitively, and 3) anti-socially or parasitically. Through scientific investigation, we can see countless expressions and varying degrees of each of these intra-species strategies or approaches in the natural world. We also can see these three strategies in our human condition – today, in our history, and across all of our cultures.

As animal and human behavior is studied, we increasingly understand that animals are specially adapted or equipped by evolution to carry out one or more of these strategies within the distinctive settings that are their species environment. In examining the expressions of the strategies in different species, including our own, we find that context and situational forces often mater a great deal. In particular, we find that the specific factors of transparency, equality, and reciprocity often determine the timing and general dominance of the strategies within species. For example, species like fish that live in conditions of low social transparency can be expected to favor more competitive behaviors, while banded species like primates produce an environment dominated by conditions of high transparency and can be expected to be shaped with a more cooperative natural bias. Similar examples can be found for the attributes of equality and reciprocity.

Through the force of natural selection, individual members of different animal species are thus gradually constructed to act within their own species in different weightings of these three general ways. Animals, in fact, can be reliably predicted to favor one of the three behaviors over the other two, in proportion to the likelihood that the behavior pattern has led to the advancement of its species genes over the course of its recent evolutionary history. An important exception to this rule involves advanced species like humans, where acculturation or new self-awareness can lead to the selection of new behaviors over inherited patterns. In other cases, even when species are subject to invasive conditioning procedures by scientists, genetically programmed imperatives normally dominate daily behavior.

To summarize this part of our discussion, these three natural modes of intra-species conduct can be restated as the following potential modes of behavior:

  • Cooperate and foster the species – acting in either absolute or reciprocal forms of altruism that advance one’s own genes or the genes of others related to us
  • Compete within the species in a bounded way – general behavior is more self-focused and often less optimal collectively, but that is limited so species advancement is not curtailed if the conduct becomes the norm
  • Exploit vulnerabilities in the species – operating selfishly in relatively unbounded ways that accomplish individual reproduction, but that are possible only if the behavior is an exception to a dominant species pattern of cooperation or bounded competition

As suggested, the overall behavioral category that will dominate in an advanced social species like our own depends on both nature (its species history and pattern of natural selection) and nurture (its current dominating settings and contexts). In early studies of human behavior and associated genetics, for example, there is some data to suggest that an individual’s genes matter to some degree in determining dominant personal behavior within these aggregate categories. These findings point to an innate bias in at least some of us us to naturally favor one of these general strategies over the other two.

But a larger set of emerging data suggests that, at least with humans, context and situational forces may matter much more than varying individual genes and innate preferences in determining our attitudes and behaviors – especially the key environmental factors we have discussed: 1) transparency, 2) equality, and 3) reciprocity. In principle, this tendency owes to the fact that, as a strongly social species, we are generally evolved to seek social standing and esteem, via cooperation and the display of pro-social behaviors, as an aid to reproduction. On average, we are unlikely to readily jeopardize these forms of long-term “social capital” within our social groups, especially in the face of immediate but genetically more dubious opportunities to satisfy our primal instincts.

Most of human life of course lies on one side or the other of its average. As suggested, ongoing research on humans offers evidence that some of us may be genetically biased to be generally more angelic or devilish, but most of us appear inclined toward fairly well-bounded competition as our basic pattern of conduct. This finding explains why, except in the most extreme human genetic portfolios (for example, the small percentage of people with apparently strong innate sociopathic tendencies), we generally behave in a close correlation to our social setting, and the intentional or unintentional incentives it matches up against this waiting natural opportunism.

For this reason, special care with our social systems and settings is strongly suggested by evolutionary theory, rather than the popular misconception of a lassie-faire approach. Only with care in crafting our built environment and social institutions, or the most fortunate vagaries of chance, can people be encouraged toward and expected to reliably act in the cooperative and universally more beneficial end of our natural behavioral range.

This imperative for new concern with our social fabric reflects the highly social nature of human life, one that is on average gradually evolving toward and benefiting from higher states of cooperation, but that is also subject to situational variability and less than ideal manifestations of its full potential at any point in time. It also acknowledges that socially-minded genes naturally vary within our species. Just as evolutionary theory predicts increasing order and beneficial cooperation within our species overall, it also cautions that competitive and unbounded behavior is possible and that genes enabling these approaches will regularly seek transmission forward, even at a considerable expense to the species at any point in time.

For these reasons, evolutionary theory suggests strong emphasis on learning and increasing awareness, including new understanding of our evolved human nature and transcendence of our context-dependent and often naturally-biased intuition (evolved to serve foraging life on the savannahs of Africa). In return, this work offers the potential to build on our natural and generally pro-social genetic and cultural inheritance, and engender ever more harmonious, mutually-beneficial, and adaptive modes of life all people.

This general area of modern inquiry is admittedly one that still offers as many questions as answers, but already suggests important opportunities for people today to improve our general quality of life. Its ideas are also ones that are not without historical antecedents – and important and predicted benefits – since the systematic promotion of social transparency, equality, and reciprocity forms underlying power and is at the heart of our modern democratic political systems.

This revolutionary and pre-Darwinian model of governance did not know of genes and their potential for selection, but saw a natural need and opportunity to steer our variable behavior in more favorable directions. The many benefits of this system of government have now proven but hardly exhausted in practice the important principle of promoting transparency, equality, and reciprocity. Wherever social conditions can be guided toward these conditions, evolutionary theory tells us that we should expect improved and naturally compounding states of human cooperation and benefit.

I hope this summary of contemporary evolutionary science proves helpful to you in appreciating our full natural inheritance, the underlying potentials contained in our evolved human nature and condition, and the important implications a natural understanding of our species has for the mastery of individual and collective life, today and in all times.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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