Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Irrelevance of Evolution

Author Tom Wolfe recently argued that culture is far more important than evolution in the development of the human race since we developed the power of speech.
Evolution ended when man learned to talk, argued Tom Wolfe in the 35th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday night in Washington, the novelist and journalist invited his audience to set Darwinian theory aside and "look at the actual nature of the human beast -- at artificial selection, 100 percent manmade.....Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, 'man reasoning,' but Homo loquax, 'man talking'!" |Chronicle of Higher Ed (Sub'n Req'd)|
It's an interesting thought, and one that I am inclined to agree with. Evolution moves slowly (even under punctuated equilibrium) with species slowly responding to environmental changes. But humans long ago discovered how to change our environment. Of course, it turns out that the long range consequences of our actions were far beyond our ken, but that is usually the case for us, we are finite creatures and our actions have many unintended consequences.


Corduroy said...

Hi Neal,

Just thought I'd point out something fairly obvious (Darwin used this to great lengths in Origin): if you happened to encounter specimens of two different dog breeds in the wild - say doberman & chihuahua - your first guess would surely be that here were two different species.

"Evolution moves slowly" is so often quoted, it's almost dogma.

But think: domesticated dogs (the earliest domesticated animals) first appeared at most 15,000 years ago.

Just consider the incredible variety of biological forms that domesticated animals take, and reflect on the forces that produced them:- just billions of individual human choices as to which animal would be sold, which slaughtered, which animals would be bred, etc. - certainly, nobody operating under any conscious grand plan.

Now consider the forces that we create in our everyday interactions: enjoying humour, music, pulled toward beauty in movement, in sport, in social grace. Here we all are: attracted to symmetrical faces, nice personalities, and good laughs.

It seems to me that, if anything, the selection forces we are imposing on one another (collectively: on ourselves) must be stronger than what we are imposing on our non-human companions.

Is it not possible that human evolution is ongoing, accelerating, and integral to the world-shaping forces we can see operating under our very eyes?

Safety Neal said...

Will, I totally agree with all of your points. I think the question is one of terminology. I totally believe that evolution is descriptive of the changes in species over time. Evolution is natural selection. What we've done to dogs and what we are doing to human society is unnatural selection. I think to use the term evolution to describe this unnatural selection is to misuse the word. We need another term...Progress has too many other connotations, ditto with social darwinism. Any thoughts?

DR said...

From where I sit, the problem with this proposal is that it rests on being able to draw a principled distinction between the natural and the unnatural. But what is that principle supposed to be? The difficulty is that culturo-linguistic forces that Wolfe appeals to are themselves the product of natural causes. Why, then, is their further action to be classified as unnatural?

Corduroy said...

Hi Neal,

First, thanks for your warm welcome in response to my experimental first blog. :)

Here, the response that first springs to mind is an echo of Zwichenzug: we need to be clear about the way we're using language.

My feeling is that the word 'artificial' (as contrasted with 'natural') is a relic of a time (still with us, for some!) when the distinction between humankind and the rest of the world still seemed to be absolute. Certainly, the world has changed a great deal since 6m years ago (a time when what we might now refer to as 'artificial' did not yet exist). But I think it's useful to recognise that no absolute distinction can be drawn here.

From Lloyd Geering, The World To Come: ''Once we acknowledge that we are not just in the universe but are a part of the universe, then the universe itself must be conceived of as alive -- as we are. And because we are a part of the universe and think, the universe has the capacity for thought.''

I certainly agree that it would be nice to have some fresh words to discuss these ideas, unladen with distracting connotations etc!