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Biology: The Truth About Where We Stand
Radio National Transcripts and
Ockham's Razor, Sunday, 12th January, 1997

Even though Darwin's theory of evolution has been around for a considerable period of time - the subtlety of his arguments and theories still continue to elude the casual observer.

Robyn Williams:

Isn't it humbling the way the pedestal smashers have put humanity in its place. More than one writer has pointed out that it was Galileo who removed us from the centre of the universe, Freud who took away our confidence in the conscious mind, Einstein who removed out belief in commonsense, and, of course, dear old Charles Darwin, who took us off the pedestal as Nature's prime creation. No wonder we feel a certain resentment. We want to be special. Not just a glorified monkey.

All this goes to misunderstand what Galileo, Freud and Einstein really said. And as for Darwin, the subtlety of his theories continue to elude the casual observer, as Scott Field complains in today's talk. Scott Field is completing a PhD at the Waite Institute for Agricultural Research, which is part of the University of Adelaide. His passion is evolutionary biology and his concern is how too few Australians understand what it has to offer.

Scott Field.

On a recent ABC Lateline program, in which biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Paul Davies discussed the scientific evidence for a "cosmic draughtsman", that is to say, God, the journalist quoted a recent survey result, that around half of Australian university students didn't believe Darwin's theory of evolution was true. For a biologist, living in a supposedly scientifically literate age, that's quite a sorry statistic to hear. It's a blunt reminder that the basic principles of biology still aren't commonly understood, and not just by the general public. Half of the elite intellectual youth of our late 20th century society either aren't aware, or haven't accepted, that the theory of evolution is true. Perhaps this also means they haven't accepted its logical consequence, which is that they, along with the rest of humanity, are evolved organisms. In a society so steeped in science and technology, this naivete is something that, at least for the record, if not for the sake of human dignity, warrants addressing. In considering this issue I've got three main points to make:

Firstly, there's no longer a need for anyone to wonder whether evolution is true or not. That debate is well and truly over. What remains is to sort out exactly how it works, and connect it to other disciplines, particularly the social and medical sciences.

Secondly, I expect much of society's reluctance to embrace evolution comes from a deep psychologically-rooted fear of its consequence because it's certainly not from a lack of scientific evidence. Evolutionary biology promises to explain a good deal about human behaviour, a fact which many people find grossly unpalatable.

And thirdly, I want to argue that such fears of evolutionary theory are misplaced, that an evolutionary explanation of human society is not a bad thing at all, in fact there is every reason to welcome the Darwinian society, rather than to fear it.

To begin with the first point, about the evolutionary debate.

Eloquent and seamless defences of Darwinism are increasingly common today, so I have little to add, except to say that the 130-odd years since The Origin of Species have seen a series of unequivocal triumphs for evolutionary biology. This is despite more than a few attempts to rock the evolutionary boat from the outside, and a good deal of healthy debate from the inside.

Fortunately, many biologists are also gifted writers, and have brought these evolutionary breakthroughs into the public awareness time and again, with the result that a number of excellent books on evolution now grace our shelves. Some of these I'll mention later, but I'd also like to put debates about evolution in a more immediate, everyday perspective.

For a biologist, to hear someone claim that evolution is not true is to witness a startling contradiction, like the equivalent of riding in an aeroplane at 50,000 feet with someone who doesn't "believe in" the Navier-Stokes equations for fluid dynamics, or holding a telephone conversation with someone who thinks the Kolmogorov cut equations for queuing calls in telephone exchanges are "just a hoax", or perhaps watching TV with someone who is convinced that the quantum effects governing the behaviour of electrons in microscale environments were Paul Dirac's private fantasy.

Few 20th century people, I expect, would embarrass themselves by making such ridiculous armchair allegations. It seems the theory of evolution is fair game. From the very same armchair will often come the equally absurd allegation that even organisms so extraordinarily adapted as venus fly traps, greater gliders, leaf cutters ants and not least of all, human beings, could not possibly have evolved. By implication then, the theory of evolution by natural selection - the only theory capable of giving a rational explanation of how these creatures could have become so well adapted - must be a specious deception.

The most common, and in many ways understandable, problem people have with evolution is believing that there has been enough time for a "chance process" to produce the complexity and elegance of structure and function we see in a human being.

If evolution was "random", there would be a problem indeed, but it's not; it just takes random variations and selects them in a very non-random way, such that there is an accumulation over time of variations in a particular direction. Generally speaking, the direction of being better adapted to a particular environment.

Given this kind of selective process, we can be sure that there has been no shortage of time, but more likely an extravagant surplus of time for such wonders as predatory plants, flying possums, gardening ants and of course, university students, to evolve their adaptive tricks. It turns out that even the much-debated vertebrate eye could have evolved in less than an evolutionary blink.

So while the astonishing capabilities of eyes, antennae, trunks, stripes, and innumerable other structures in the living world are certainly no less impressive than telephones, TV pictures and jumbo jets, they're no less explainable either. Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection wasn't just simple and ingenious, it also happened to be powerfully, elegantly, correct. To a biologist, who is by definition a person with evolution as their primary working assumption, the fact that much of the world hasn't caught on yet is quite an arresting paradox. Why could it be?

This brings me to the second point, about the social, as distinct from scientific, sources of opposition to Darwin's theory. The most extreme, and least sensible, attacks on evolutionary theory that have come from religious groups, under the heading of scientific creationism, gives us virtually nothing worthwhile.

There is very little worth saying about creationism - discussing the scientific credibility and impact hardly differs from zero. Yet despite this, it manages to keep its momentum, primarily, I think, because there is something in its arch-enemy Darwinism that many people find quite frightening, so they wouldn't mind seeing it discredited.

This "something" is the fact that evolution strikes at the heart of the human psyche, by accounting much of what our folklore, mythology and religious doctrine had previously been invoked to explain, and something we are so intimately connected with, that is, our biology. The biological philosopher Daniel Dennett has likened Darwin's "dangerous idea", as he calls it, to universal acid, a substance which dissolves anything it touches, and in a human context, that makes Darwinism an idea that penetrates to the core of understanding human society.

After all, we really did evolve, and much as that fact is avoided or even denied, it will remain true that it is evolution that set the foundation for human society, and understanding the nature of that process is important to us. Even as I speak, legions of Darwinian anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists are busily identifying the behavioural traits and neural architecture that arose in our distant ancestors as they navigated the primitive social world, and clarifying the extent to which we may or may not have inherited these characteristics and tendencies. From this perspective, features such as an advanced moral structure and order is a prediction of evolutionary theory for a technologically-advanced social primate, and not a command from a supernatural power. Indeed, the very concept of a God, and the religious structures and practices so ubiquitous in human societies, are often obviously and demonstrably derived from the relationship of primitive humans to their environment, that is to say, they're fundamentally a consequence of human ecology.

Biological science is fast accruing the power to take religion and moral systems, and indeed all other spheres of human endeavour, off their pedestals, and subject them to the same criteria for analysis as adaptive features in any other organisms.

This may well be a very timely development. For those concerned with the colossal social problems we might face in the 21st century, the Darwinian approach, and its unique biological perspective on human nature, holds before us the possibility of understanding the essence of social structures and problems, and may well turn out to be a welcome solutions provider.

But people, it seems, are terribly afraid of being explained, and perhaps even more afraid of how biological explanations of human nature might be used to disrupt, rather than promote, social harmony. When the prospect of an evolutionary analysis of human biology was first raised some 20 years ago by the eminent Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, he was besieged by waves of ugly protests and violent denunciations. The word he coined to describe the fusion of the social and biological science, sociobiology, has been scarred so terribly from the initial backlash that those now following his lead are mostly unwilling, for political reasons, to use it. Wilson became something of a martyr for telling the world that human behaviour was now the domain of biology. But someone had to say it, because it's true.

There's no stopping science, and the dangerous knowledge it produces.

One of the great challenges facing humanity is its ability to adjust to the knowledge of its own inner workings, knowledge that will stream forth over the next century from the fusion of the biological and social sciences.

Wilson himself once noted that some cultural phenomena, such as fashion, dress, and speech, change very quickly, while others like political ideologies, are more stubborn. Religions, of course, possess the greatest inertia of all, and having the most to lose from the success of Darwin's idea, promoted the first, and strongest continuing attempts, to stamp evolution out.

Nevertheless, and to come to my final point, there need not be a conflict between evolution and society. Indeed, there is a note of reconciliation between the antediluvian mythologies that cradled our species in its intellectual infancy, and the modern scientific approaches like Darwinism, which lead it to a more mature, rational understanding of itself and its place in the universe. Some exceptionally lucid Darwinists have become adept at weaving the colourful threads of old myths from biblical times into modern biological themes. In doing this, they demonstrate that the transition to the Darwinian society need not rob the world of its poetic rhythm and sublime imagery, indeed such feelings of rapture are exactly those that a deep understanding of biology evokes. In this sense, the animal spectacles that the David Attenboroughs of the world have devoted their lives to bringing us, are not just good viewing, they are positively sacred.

In a recent book, the celebrated evolutionist Richard Dawkins casts evolution as the River out of Eden, a river of DNA that splits and branches as it runs through time, and waters the paradise that is biodiversity. Then, in his latest work, Climbing Mount Improbable, he observes how the sceptical and the incredulous stand before the supreme design of nature, searching for explanations like defeated mountaineers at the bottom of a sheer, towering cliff. But not Charles Darwin. Having had the mental courage not to give up in the face of a formidable problem and undaunted by the social pressures of a superstitious society, he staged an inspired act of intellectual defiance and history now celebrates his revolutionary discovery of the gentle slopes that can lead us all the way from the lowlands of primal origins up to the summit of immaculate adaptation which seemed so unattainable from the other side. Not unlike an heroic biblical character, he clambered to the summit, a much taller order in his time, and returned with "the message from the mountain", the theory of evolution by natural selection, which today makes those slopes a pleasant walk for all.

And on that journey, so I've realised, these two images connect.

This river out of Eden is one that branches (into more and more species) as it goes, unlike other rivers, in which streams join up to form one main channel. And this is indeed apt, because this is a river that flows in reverse: it flows uphill. Setting out the origin of life in the oceans, the river out of Eden is like a spiralling silver thread, splitting, winding, and endlessly climbing through the wilderness of biology, leading us all the way up to the summit of Mount Improbable.

And there, as one species forever united, we stand.

Robyn Williams:

United, in our integrity as a species, which makes one wonder about missing links. That was Scott Field, who's finishing a PhD in insect behavioural ecology at the University of Adelaide.

Next week we actually tackle the never-ending matter of missing links, when Dr Colin Groves from the Australian National University in Canberra explains how we may have got it wrong.

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