Tag Archives: evolution

Thomas Nagel

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford, 2012, p. 51

Barbara Smuts

Although an evolutionary analysis assumes that male aggression against women reflects selection pressures operating during our species’ evolutionary history, it in no way implies that male domination of women is genetically determined, or that frequent male aggression toward women is an immutable feature of human nature. In some societies male aggressive coercion of women is very rare, and even in societies with frequent male aggression toward women, some men do not show these behaviors. Thus, the challenge is to identify the situational factors that predispose members of a particular society toward or away from the use of sexual aggression. [A]n evolutionary frame- work can be very useful in this regard.

Barbara Smuts, ‘Male Aggression Against Women. An Evolutionary Perspective’, Human Nature, vol. 3, no. 1 (March, 1992), pp. 2-3

Ole Martin Moen

If we take for granted that consciousness evolved, consciousness would somehow have to promote survival and reproduction in order to be selected for. If consciousness did not promote survival and preproduction, it would not be selected for, and to the extent that it were biologically costly, it would be selected against. The only way consciousness could promote survival and reproduction, moreover, is by virtue of guiding an organism’s actions, prompting it to perform survival and reproduction enhancing actions – and the only way in which consciousness could prompt an organism towards survival and reproduction seems to be by imbuing experiences with a certain valence or a pro/con attitude. Without a valence or a pro/con attitude, it is unclear how an experience would be able to guide an organism’s actions. Evolution, moreover, cares for action, not for experiences as an end in itself. It therefore seems that if consciousness were to ever get going, valence would have to be present from the very start. Otherwise, consciousness would disappear as fast as it occurred. This suggests that hedonic valence phylogentically is as old as consciousness itself, which in turn lends support to the view that hedonic valence lies at the heart of consciousness. This supports dimensionalism, moreover, since according to dimensionalism, pleasure and pain—rather than being two things out of the many things we can experience—imbues all […] our experiences. Indeed, one might, from a dimensionalist approach to consciousness, argue that the first experience any organism ever had was an experience of either pleasure or pain, and that consciousness of the kind our species has today is a more fine-grained version of something that is most fundamentally a pleasure/pain mechanism.

Ole Martin Moen, ‘The Unity and Commensurability of Pleasures and Pains’, Philosophia, vol. 41, no. 2 (June, 2013), pp. 540-541

Nick Bostrom

Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization—a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2014, p. 53

Richard Dawkins

To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them. Natural selection favours genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford, 1976, p. 67

Fred Hapgood

All species reproduce in excess, way past the carrying capacity of their niche. In her lifetime a lioness might have 20 cubs; a pigeon, 150 chicks; a mouse, 1,000 kits; a trout, 20,000 fry, a tuna or cod, a million fry or more; an elm tree, several million seeds; and an oyster, perhaps a hundred million spat. If one assumes that the population of each of these species is, from generation to generation, roughly equal, then on the average only one offspring will survive to replace each parent. All the other thousands and millions will die, one way or another.

Fred Hapgood, Why Males Exist: An Inquiry into the Evolution of Sex, New York, 1979, pp. 44-45

Marc Sagoff

The principle of natural selection is not obviously a humanitarian principle; the predator-prey relation does not depend on moral empathy. Nature ruthlessly limits animal populations by doing violence to virtually every individual before it reaches maturity[.]

Marc Sagoff, ‘Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Bad Marriage, Quick Divorce’, Osgoode Law Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (Summer, 1984), p. 299

Matt Ridley

[N]o moral conclusions of any kind can be drawn from evolution. The asymmetry in prenatal sexual investment between the genders is a fact of life, not a moral outrage. It is “natural.” It is terribly tempting, as human beings, to embrace such an evolutionary scenario because it “justifies” a prejudice in favor of male philandering, or to reject it because it “undermines” the pressure for sexual equality. But it does neither. It says absolutely nothing about what is right and wrong. I am trying to describe the nature of humans, not prescribe their morality. That something is natural does not make it right. […] Evolution does not lead to Utopia. It leads to a land in which what is best for one man may be the worst for another man, or what is the best for a woman may be the worst for a man. One or the other will be condemned to an “unnatural” fate.

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, New York, 1993, pp. 180-181

Richard Dawkins

[M]aximization of DNA survival is not a recipe for happiness. So long as DNA is passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything.

Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s Utility Function’, Scientific American, vol. 274, no. 6 (November, 1995), p. 85

Greg Egan

Sex is like a diamond forged in a slaughterhouse. Three billion years of unconscious reproduction. Half a billion more stumbling towards animals that weren’t just compelled to mate, but were happy to do it–and finally knew that they were happy. Millions of years spent honing that feeling, making it the most perfect thing in the world. And all just because it worked. All just because it churned out more of the same. […] Anyone can take the diamond. It’s there for the asking. But it’s not a lure for us. It’s not a bribe. We’ve stolen the prize, we’ve torn it free. It’s ours to do what we like with.

Greg Egan, Teranesia, London, 1995, p. 95

Geoffrey Landis

It has been a hundred years since I have edited my brain. I like the brain I have, but now I have no choice but to prune.

First, to make sure that there can be no errors, I make a backup of myself and set it into inactive storage.

Then I call out and examine my pride, my independent, my sense of self. A lot of it, I can see, is old biological programming, left over from when I had long ago been human. I like the core of biological programming, but “like” is itself a brain function, which I turn off.

Geoffrey A. Landis, ‘The Long Chase’, Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2002

Randolph Nesse

Most people like to imagine that normal life is happy and that other states are abnormalities that need explanation. This is a pre-Darwinian view of psychology. We were not designed for happiness. Neither were we designed for unhappiness. Happiness is not a goal left unaccomplished by some bungling designer, it is an aspect of a behavioural regulation mechanism shaped by natural selection. The utter mindlessness of natural selection is terribly hard to grasp and even harder to accept. Natural selection gradually sifts variations in DNA sequences. Sequences that create phenotypes with a less-than-average reproductive success are displaced in the gene pool by those that give increased success. This process results in organisms that tend to want to stay alive, get resources, have sex, and take care of children. But these are not the goals of natural selection. Natural selection has no goals: it just mindlessly shapes mechanisms, including our capacities for happiness and unhappiness, that tend to lead to behavior that maximizes fitness. Happiness and unhappiness are not ends; they are means. They are aspects of mechanisms that influence us to act in the interests of our genes.

Randolph Nesse, ‘Natural Selection and the Elusiveness of Happiness’, in Felicia A. Huppert, Nick Baylis and Barry Keverne (eds.), The Science of Well-Being, Oxford, 2005, p. 10

Geoffrey Miller

In recent years much nonsense has been written by post-modern theorists such as Michel Foucault about the “social construction of the body,” as if human bodies were the incarnation of cultural norms rather than ancestral sexual preferences. These theorists should go to the zoo more often. What they consider a “radical reshaping” of the human body through social pressure is trivial compared to evolution’s power. Evolution can transform a dinosaur into an albatross, a four-legged mammal into a sperm whale, and a tiny, bulgy-eyed, tree-hugging, insect-crunching proto-primate into Julia Roberts—or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Selection is vastly more powerful than any cosmetic surgeon or cultural norm. Minds may be sponges for soaking up culture, but bodies are not.

Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, New York, 2000, p. 255

Leonard Katz

Nature, by whatever mixture of chance and natural necessity, of natural selection and other less predictable evolutionary processes, has given us capacities for theoretical understanding in fundamental physics and higher mathematics that were of no conceivable use (as such) in the adaptive environments in which our hominid line evolved. For similarly unknown reasons it has made us phenomenally conscious experiencers of affective happiness and suffering.

Leonard Katz, ‘Hedonic Reasons as Ultimately Justifying and the Relevance of Neuroscience’, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008, p. 416

Thomas Henry Huxley

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is referable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Evolution and Ethics’, in Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, London, 1884, p. 80

Peter Richerson & Robert Boyd

We thus have an interesting historical paradox: Darwin’s theory was a better starting point for humans than any other species, and required a major pruning to adjust to the rise of genetics. Nevertheless, the Descent had no lasting influence on the social sciences that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Darwin was pigeonholed as a biologist, and sociology, economics, and history all eventually wrote biology out of their disciplines. Anthropology relegated his theory to a subdiscipline, biological anthropology, behind the superorganic firewall. Since the midtwentieth century, many social scientists have treated Darwinian initiatives as politically tainted threats. If anything, the gulf between the social and natural sciences continues to widen as some anthropologists, sociologists, and historians adopt methods and philosophical commitments that seem to natural scientists to abandon the basic norms of science entirely.

Peter Richerson & Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago, 2005, p. 17

Everett Mattlin

According to this theory, sleep was probably “invented” some two hundred million years ago when sea creatures crawled up on the shore. Land dwellers developed the habit of sleeping as a safety measure. During the day they had to be alert and ready to run away from danger. At night they couldn’t be seen, but they could be heard, so the best thing to do was to stay still and quiet and out of the way. The rest would help them to run faster and farther the next day, and while they were resting they also ensured their inconspicuousness by staying asleep.

Everett Mattlin, Sleep Less, Live More, New York, 1979, p. 67-68

Richard Dawkins

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1989, p. 1

Julian Huxley

It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution—appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job. Whether he wants it or not, whether he is conscious of what he is doing or not, he is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth. This is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it, the better for all concerned.

Julian Huxley, ‘Transhumanism’, in New Bottles for New Wine, London, 1957, pp. 13-14