So You Think You Are a Darwinian?
"Philosophy" 1994 vol. 69, s. 267-277.
Most educated people nowadays, I believe, think of themselves
If they do, however, it can only be from ignorance: from not knowing enough
about what Darwinism says. For Darwinism says many things, especially
about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any
educated person; or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity
at all for critical thought on the subject of Darwinism.
Of course most educated people now are Darwinians, in the sense that
believe our species to have originated, not in a creative act of the
Divine Will, but by evolution from other animals. But believing
that proposition is not enough to make someone a Darwinian. It had been
believed, as may be learnt from any history of biology, by very many
people long before Darwinism, or Darwin, was born.
What is needed to make someone an adherent of a certain school of thought
belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to that
school, and are believed either by all of its adherents, or at least
by the more thoroughgoing ones. In any large school of thought, there
is always a minority who adhere more exclusively than most to the characteristic
beliefs of the school: they are the purists or ultras of that school.
What is needed and sufficient, then, to make a person a Darwinian, is
belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to Darwinians,
and believed either by all of them, or at least by ultra-Darwinians.
I give below ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs in the
just specified. Each of them is obviously false: either a direct falsity
about our species or, where the proposition is a general one, obviously
false in the case of our species, at least. Some of the ten propositions
are quotations; all the others are paraphrases. The quotations are all
from authors who are so well-known, at least in Darwinian circles, as
spokesmen for Darwinism or ultra-Darwinism, that their names al one will
be sufficient evidence that the proposition is a Darwinian one. Where
the proposition is a paraphrase, I give quotations or other information
which will, I think, suffice to establish its Darwinian credentials.
My ten propositions are nearly in reverse historical order. Thus, I
start from the present day, and from the inferno-scene - like something
by Hieronymus Bosch - which the 'selfish gene theory makes o f all life.
Then I go back a bit to some of the falsities which, beginning in the
1960's, were contributed to Darwinism by the theory of inclusive fitness.
And finally I get back to some of the falsities, more pedestrian though
no less obvious, of the Darwinism of the 19th or early-20th century.
1. The truth is, the total prostitution of all animal life, including
and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute
virus-like substances, genes.
This is a thumbnail-sketch, and an accurate one, of the contents of
Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins. It was not written by Dawkins, but
he quoted it with manifest enthusiasm in a defence of The Selfish
Gene which he wrote in this journal in 1981. Dawkins status, as
a widely admired spokesman for ultra-Darwinism, is too well-known to
need evidence of it adduced here. His admirers even include some philosophers
who have carried their airs and graces to the length of writing
good books on such rarefied subjects as universals, or induction, or
the mind. Dawkins can scarcely have gratified these admirers by telling
them that, even when engaged in writing those books, they were totally
prostituted to the blind purposiveness of their genes Still, you have
to hand it to genes which can write, even if only through their slaves,
a good book on subjects like universals or induction. Those genes must
have brains all right, as well as purposes. At least, they must , if
genes can have brains and purposes. But in fact, of course, DNA
molecules no more have such things than H20 molecules do.
2.it is, after all, to [a mother's] advantage that her child should
by another woman.
This quotation is from Dawkins The Selfish Gene, p. 110.
Obviously false though this proposition is, from the point of view of
it is well-founded, for the reason which Dawkins gives on the same page:
that another woman's adopting her baby releases a rival female from
the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more
quickly. This, you will say, is a grotesque way of looking at human
life; and so, of course, it is. But it is impossible to deny that it
is the Darwinian way.
3. All communication is manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-s ender.
This profound communication, though it might easily have come from any
reflecting on life, was actually sent by Dawkins, (in The Extended
Phenotype, (1982), p. 57), to the readers whom he was at that point
engaged in manipulating. Much as the devil, in many medieval plays,
advises the audience not to take his advice.
4. Homosexuality in social animals is a form of sibling-altruism: that
is, your homosexuality
is a way of helping your brothers and sisters to raise more children.
This very-believable proposition is maintained by Robert Trivers in
his book Social Evolution,
(1985), pp. 198-9. Professor Trivers is a leading light among ultra-Darwinians,
(who are nowadays usually called sociobiologists). Whether he also
believes that suicide, for example, and self-castration, are forms of
sibling-altruism, I do not know; but I do not see what there is to stop
him. What is there to stop anyone believing such propositions? Only
common sense: a thing entirely out of the question among sociobiologists.
5. In all social mammals, the altruism (or apparent altruism) of siblings
towards one another is about as strong and common as the altruism (or
apparent altruism) of parents towards their offspring.
This proposition is an immediate consequence, and an admitted one, of
the theory of inclusive
fitness, which says that the degree of altruism depends on the proportion
of genes shared. This theory was first put forward by W. D. Hamilton
in The Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1964. Since then it
has been accepted by Darwinians almost as one man and has revolutionized
evolutionary theory. This acceptance has made Professor Hamilton the
most influential Darwinian author of the last thirty years.
6. no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but
will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring] , or
four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins.'
This is a quotation from the epoch-making article by Professor Hamilton
I referred a moment ago. The italics are not in the text. Nor are the
two words which I have put in square brackets; but their insertion is
certainly authorized by the theory of inclusive fitness.
7. Every organism has as many descendants as it can.
Compare Darwin, in The Origin of Species, p. 66: every single organic
being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase
in numbers; and again, pp. 78-9, each organic being is striving to
increase at a geometrical ratio. These page references are to the first
edition of the Origin, (1859), but both of the passages just
quoted are repeated in all of the five later editions of the book which
were published in Darwin's lifetime. He also says the same thing in
But it would not have mattered if he had not happened to say in print
such things as I have just quoted. For it was always obvious, to everyone
who understood his theory, that a universal striving-to-the-utmost-to-increase
is an essential part of that theory: in fact it is the very motor
of evolution, according to the theory. It is the thing which, by creating
pressure of population on the supply of food, is supposed to bring about
the struggle for life among con-specifics, hence natural selection,
and hence evolution. As is well known, and as Darwin himself stated,
he had got the idea of population permanently pressing on food, because
of the constant tendency to increase, from T. R. Malthus's Essay
on Population (1798).
Still, that every organism has as many descendants as it can, while
it is or
may be true of most species of organisms, is obviously not true of ours.
Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descen dants
as he or she could have had? And yet Darwinism says that every single
one of us does. For there can clearly be no question of Darwinism making
an exception of man, without openly contradicting itself. Every
single organic being, or each organic being: this means you.
8. In every species, child-mortality - that is, the proportion of live
which die before reproductive age - is extremely high.
Compare Darwin in the Origin, p. 61: of the many individuals of any
species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive;
or p. 5, many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly
survive. Again, these passages, from the first edition, are both repeated
unchanged in all the later editions of the Origin.
Proposition 8 is not a peripheral or negotiable part of Darwinism. On
it is, like proposition 7, a central part, and one which Darwinians
are logically locked-into. For in order to explain evolution, Darwin
had adopted (as I have said) Malthus's principle of population: that
population always presses on the supply of food, and tends to increase
beyond it. And this principle does require child-mortality to
be extremely high in all species.
Because of the strength and universality of the sexual impulse, animals
have an exuberant tendency to increase in numbers. This much is obvious,
but what Malthus's principle says is something far more definite. It
says that the tendency to increase is so strong that every population,
of any species, is at all times already as large as its food-supply
permits, or else is rapidly approaching that impassable limit. Which
means of course that, (as Malthus once put it), the young are always
born into a world already possessed. In any average year, (assuming
that the food-supply does not increase), there is simply not enough
food to support any greater number of the newborn than is needed to
replace the adults which die. But such is the strength of the tendency
to increase that, in any average year, the number of births will greatly
exceed the number of adult deaths. Which is to say, the great majority
of those born must soon die.
Consider a schematic example. Suppose there is a population, with a
food-supply, of 1000 human beings. Suppose - a very realistic supposition,
in fact a conservative one - that 700 of them are of reproductive age.
Suppose that this population is already at equilibrium, (as Darwinians
say): that is, is already as large as its food can support. According
to Malthus's principle, people (or flies or fish or whatever) will
reproduce if they can. So, since there are 350 females of reproductive
age, there will be 350 births this year. But there is no food to support
more of these than are needed to replace the adults who die this year;
while the highest adult death-rate which we can suppose with any approximation
to realism is about 10%. So 100 adults will die this year, but to fill
their places, there are 350 applicants. That is, there will this year
be a child-mortality of 250 out of 350, or more than 70%.
It was undoubtedly reasoning of this kind from Malthus's principle which
Darwin to believe that in every species but a small number of those
born can survive, or that many more are born than can survive. What
did Darwin mean by these phrases, in percentage, or at least minimum-percentage,
terms? Well, we have just seen that Malthus's principle, in a typical
case, delivers a child-mortality of at least 70%. And no one, either
in 1859 or now, would dream of calling 30 or more, surviving out of
100, 'but a small number surviving. It would be already stretching
language violently, to call even 23 (say), surviving out of 100, but
a small number surviving. To use this phrase of 30-or-more surviving,
would be absolutely out of the question. So Darwin must have meant,
by the statements I quoted above, that child-mortality in all species
is more than 70%.
Which is obviously false in the case of our species. No doubt human
has often enough been as high as 70%, and often enough higher still.
But I do not think that, at any rate within historical times, this can
ever have been usual. For under a child-mortality of 70%, a woman would
have to give birth 10 times, on the average, to get 3 of her children
to puberty, and 30 times to get 9 of them there. Yet a woman's getting
9 of her children to puberty has never at any time been anything to
write home about; whereas a woman who gives birth 30 times has always
been a demographic prodigy. The absolute record is about 32 births.
(I neglect multiple births, which make up only 1% of all births.) As
for the last 100 years, in any advanced country, to suppose child-mortality
70% or anywhere near it, would be nothing but an outlandish joke.
It is important to remember that no one - not even Darwinians - knows
at all about human demography, except what has been learnt in the
last 350 years, principally concerning certain European countries or
their colonies. A Darwinian may be tempted, indeed is sure to be tempted,
to set all of this knowledge aside, as being of no biological validity,
because it concerns only an exceptional time and place. But
if we agreed to set all this knowledge aside, the only result would
be that no one knew anything whatever about human demography.
And Darwinians would then be no more entitled than anyone else to tell
us what the real, or the natural, rate of human child-mortality is.
In any case, as I said earlier, Darwinians cannot without contradicting
themselves make an exception of man, or of any particular part of human
history. Their theory, like Malthus's principle, is one which generalizes
about all species, and all places and times, indifferently; while man
is a species, the last 350 years are times, and European countries are
places. And Darwin's assertion, that child-mortality is extremely high,
is quite explicitly universal. For he said (as we saw) that of
the many individuals of any species which are periodically born,
but a small number can survive, and that many more individuals of
each species are born than can possibly survive. Again, this means us.
9. The more privileged people are the more prolific: if one class in
is less exposed than another to the misery due to food-shortage, disease,
and war, then the members of the more fortunate class will have (on
the average) more children than the members of the other class.
That this proposition is false, or rather, is the exact reverse of the
is not just obvious. It is notorious, and even proverbial. Everyone
knows that, as a popular song of the I 930s had it,
The rich get rich, and
The poor get children.
Not that the song is exactly right, because privilege does not quite
require superior wealth, and superior wealth does not quite always confer
privilege. The rule should be stated, not in terms of wealth, but in
terms of privilege, thus: that the more privileged class is the less
prolific. To this rule, as far as I know, there is not a single exception.
And yet the exact inverse of it, proposition 9, is an inevitable consequence
of Darwinism all right. Malthus had said that the main check's to human
population are misery - principally due to famine, war, and pestilence
- and vice: by which he meant contraception, foeticide, homosexuality,
etc. But he also said that famine - that is, deficiency of food - usually
outweighs all the other checks put together, and that population-size
depends, near enough, only on the supply of food. Darwin agreed.
He wrote (in The Descent of Man, second edition, 1874), that
the primary or fundamental check to the continued increase of man is
the difficulty of gaining subsistence, and that if food were doubled
in Britain, for example, population would quickly be doubled. But now,
a more-privileged class always suffers less from deficiency of food
than a less-privileged class does. Therefore, if food-supply is indeed
the fundamental determinant of population-size, a more-privileged class
would always be a more prolific one; just as proposition says.
William Godwin, as early as 1820, pointed out that Malthus had managed
the relationship between privilege and fertility exactly upside-down.
In the 1860s and 70s W. R. Greg, Alfred Russel Wallace, and others,
pointed out that Darwin, by depending on Malthus for his explanation
of evolution, had saddled himself with Malthus's mistake about population
and privilege. It is perfectly obvious that all these critics were right.
But Darwin never took any notice of the criticism. Well, trying to get
Darwin to respond to criticism was always exactly like punching a feather-mattress:
suddenly absolutely nothing happened.
The eugenics movement, which was founded a little later by Darwin's
cousin Francis Galton, was an indirect admission that those critics
were right. For what galvanized the eugenists into action was, of course,
their realisation that the middle and upper classes in Britain were
being out-reproduced by the lowest classes. Such a thing simply could
not happen, obviously, if Darwin and Malthus, and proposition 9,
had been right. But the eugenists never drew the obvious conclusion,
that Darwin and Malthus were wrong, and consequently they never turned
their indirect criticism into a direct one. Well, they were fervent
Darwinians to the last man and woman, and could not bring themselves
to say, or even think, that Darwinism is false.
A later Darwinian and eugenist, R. A. Fisher, discussed the relation
privilege and fertility at length, in his important book, The Genetical
Theory of Natural Selection, (1930). But he can hardly be said to
have made the falsity of proposition 9 any less of an embarrassment
for Darwinism. Fisher acknowledges the fact that there has always
been, in all civilized countries an inversion (as he calls it) of fertility-rates:
that is, that the more privileged have always and everywhere been the
less fertile. His explanation of this fact is that civilized countries
have always practised what he calls the social promotion of infertility.
That is, people are enabled to succeed better in civilized life, the
fewer children they have.
But this is evidently just a re-phrasing of the problem, rather than
of it. The question, for a Darwinian such as Fisher, is how there can
be, consistently with Darwinism, such a thing as the social promotion
of infertility? In every other species of organisms, after all, comparative
infertility is a sure sign, or even the very criterion, of comparative
failure. So how can there be if Darwinism is true, a species
of organisms in which comparative infertility is a regular and nearly-necessary
aid to success?
Fisher's constant description of the fertility-rates in civilized countries
inverted, deserves a word to itself. It is a perfect example of an
amazingly-arrogant habit of Darwinians, (of which I have collected many
examples in my forthcoming book Darwinian Fairytales). This is
the habit, when some biological fact inconsistent with Darwinism comes
to light, of blaming the fact, instead of blaming their theory.
Any such fact Darwinians call a biological error' an error of heredity,
a misfire, or some thing of that kind: as though the organism in
question had gone wrong, when all that has actually happened, of
course, is that Darwinism has gone wrong. When Fisher called the birth-rates
in civilized countries inverted, all he meant was that, exactly contrary
to Darwinian theory, the more privileged people are the less fertile.
From this fact, of course, the only rational conclusion to be drawn
is, that Darwinism has got things upside-down. But instead of that Fisher,
with typical Darwinian effrontery, concludes that civilised people
have got things upside-down!
Fisher, who died in 1962, is nowadays the idol of ultra-Darwinians,
and he deserves
to be so: he was in fact a sociobiologist born out of due time. And
the old problem for Darwinism, to which he had at least given some publicity,
even if he did nothing to solve it, remains to this day the central
problem for sociobiologists. The problem (to put it vulgarly) of why
the rich and famous are such pitiful reproducers as they are.
Of course this problem is no problem at all, for anyone except ultra-Darwinians.
It is an entirely self-inflicted injury, and as such deserves no sympathy.
Who, except an ultra-Darwinian, would expect the highly-privileged
to be great breeders? No one; just as no one but an ultra-Darwinian
would expect women to adopt-out their babies with maximum expedition.
For ultra-Darwinians, on the other hand, the infertility of the
privileged is a good deal more than a problem. It is a refutation.
But they react to it in accordance with a well-tried rule of present-day
research. The rule is: When your theory meets with a refutation, call
it instead "a problem", and demand additional money in order
to enable you to solve it. Experience has shown that this rule is just
the thing for keeping a research program afloat, even if it leaks
like a sieve. Indeed, the more of these challenging problems you can
mention, the more money you are plainly entitled to demand.
10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle
life do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals
are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage,
however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving
and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that
any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.
This is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81. Exactly the same words
occur in all the editions.
Since this passage expresses the essential idea of natural selection,
no further evidence is needed to show that proposition 10 is a Darwinian one. But
is it true? In particular, may we really feel sure that every
attribute in the least degree injurious to its possessors
would be rigidly destroyed by natural selection?
On the contrary, the proposition is (saving Darwin's reverence) ridiculous.
Any educated person can easily think of a hundred characteristics, commonly
occurring in our species, which are not only in the least degree injurious
to their possessors, but seriously or even extremely injurious to them,
which have not been rigidly destroyed, and concerning which there
is not the smallest evidence that they are in the process of being destroyed.
Here are ten such characteristics, without even going past the first
letter of the alphabet. Abortion; adoption; fondness for alcohol; altruism;
anal intercourse; respect for ancestors; susceptibility to aneurism;
the love of animals; the importance attached to art; asceticism, whether
sexual, dietary, or whatever.
Each of these characteristics tends, more or less strongly, to shorten
or to lessen the number of children we have, or both. All of them are
of extreme antiquity. Some of them are probably older than our species
itself. Adoption, for example is practised by some species of chimpanzees:
another adult female taking over the care of a baby whose mother has
died. Why has not this ancient and gross biological error been rigidly
There has not been enough time, replies the Darwinian. Well, that could
be so: perhaps there has not been enough time. And then again, perhaps
there has been enough time: perhaps even twenty times over. How long
does it take for natural selection to destroy an injurious attribute,
such as adoption or fondness for alcohol? I have not the faintest idea,
of course. I therefore have no positive ground whatever for believing
either that there has been enough time for adoption to be destroyed,
or that there has not. But then, on this matter, everyone else is in
the same state of total ignorance as I am. So how come the Darwinian
is so confident that there has not been enough time? What evidence can
he point to, for thinking that there has not? Why, nothing but this,
that adoption has not been destroyed, despite its being an injurious
attribute! But this is palpably arguing in a circle, and taking for
granted the very point which is in dispute. The Darwinian has no positive
evidence whatever, that there has not been enough time.
Mercifully, Darwinians nowadays are much more reluctant than they formerly
to rely heavily on the not-enough-time defence of their theory against
critics. They have benefited from the strictures of philosophers, who
have pointed out that it is not good scientific method, to defend Darwinism
by a tactic which would always be equally available whatever the
state of the evidence, and which will still be equally available to
Darwinians a million years hence, if adoption (for example) is still
The cream of the jest, concerning proposition 10, is that Darwinians
do not really believe it. Ask a Darwinian whether he actually believes
that the fondness for alcoholic drinks is being destroyed now, or
that abortion is, or adoption - and watch his face. Well, of course
he does not believe it! Why would he? There is not a particle of evidence
in its favour, and there is a great mountain of evidence against it.
Absolutely the only thing it has in its favour is that Darwinism says
it must be so. But (as Descartes said in another connection) this reasoning
cannot be presented to infidels, who might consider that it proceeded
in a circle.
What becomes, then, of the terrifying giant named Natural Selection,
which can never
sleep, can never fail to detect an attribute which is, even in the least
degree, injurious to its possessors in the struggle for life, and can
never fail to punish such an attribute with rigid destruction? Why,
just that, like so much else in Darwinism, it is an obvious fairytale,
at least as far as our species is concerned.
It would not be difficult to compile another list of ten obvious Darwinian
or another one after that, either. But on that scale, the thing would
be tiresome both to read and to write. Anyway it ought not to be necessary:
ten obvious Darwinian falsities should be enough to make the point.
The point, namely, that if most educated people now think they are Darwinians,
it is only because they have no idea of the multiplied absurdities which
belief in Darwinism requires.