Skip to comments.Darwinism's Dilemma (part I: Cave Man)
Posted on 02/07/2003 8:18:03 PM PST by Ethan Clive Osgoode
Darwinism's Dilemma (part I: Cave Man)
"... in the state of nature... [human] life was a continual free fight."
T.H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics.
IF DARWIN'S THEORY of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that, however it may be with other species.
This inconsistency, between Darwin's theory and the facts of human life, is what I mean by "Darwinism's Dilemma." The inconsistency is so very obvious that no Darwinian has ever been altogether unconscious of it. There have been, accordingly, very many attempts by Darwinians to wriggle out of the dilemma. But the attempts are conspicuously unsuccessful. They are not uninstructive, though, or unamusing.
The attempts to escape from Darwinism's dilemma all fall into one or other of three types. These can be usefully labelled "the Cave Man way out," "the Hard Man," and "the Soft Man." All three types are hardy perennials, and have been with us, in one version or another, ever since Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859.
What I call the Cave Man way out is this: you admit that human life is not now what it would be if Darwin's theory were true, but also insist that it used to be like that.
In the olden days (the story goes), human populations always did press relentlessly on their supply of food, and thereby brought about constant competition for survival among the too-numerous competitors, and hence natural selection of those organisms which were best fitted to succeed in the struggle for life. But our species (the story goes on) escaped long ago from the brutal regime of natural selection. We developed a thousand forms of attachment, loyalty, cooperation, and unforced subordination, every one of them quite incompatible with a constant and merciless competition to survive. We have now had for a very long time, at least locally, religions, moralities, laws or customs, respect for life and property, rules of inheritance, specialized social orders, distinctions of rank, and standing provisions for external defense, internal police, education, and health. Even at out lowest ebb we still have ties of blood, and ties of marriage: two things which are quite as incompatible with a universal competition to survive as are, for example, a medical profession, a priesthood, or a state.
THIS CAVE MAN story, however implausible, is at any rate not inconsistent with itself. But the combination of it with Darwin's theory of evolution is inconsistent. That theory is a universal generalization about all terrestrial species at any time. Hence, if the theory says something which is not true now of our species (or another), then it is not true--finish. In short, the Cave man way out of Darwinism's dilemma is in reality no way out at all: it is self-contradictory.
If Darwin's theory of evolution is true, no species can ever excape from the process of natural selection. His theory is that two universal and permanent tendencies of all species of organisms--the tendancey to increase in numbers up to the limit that the food supply allows, and the tendency to vary in a heritable way--are together sufficient for survival, and therefore universal and permanent natural selection among the competitors.
So the "modern" part of this way out of Darwin's dilemma is inconsistent with Darwinism. But the Cave Man part of it is also utterly incredible in itself. It may be possible, for all I know, that a population of pines or cod should exist with no cooperative as distinct from competitive relations among its members. But no tribe of humans could possibly exist on those terms. Such a tribe could not even raise a second generation: the helplessness of the human young is too extreme and prolonged. So if you ever read a report (as one sometimes does) of the existence of an on-going tribe of just this kind, you should confidently conclude that the reporter is mistaken or lying or both.
Even if such a tribe could somehow continue in existence, it is extremely difficult to imagine how our species, as we now know it to be, could ever have graduated from so very hard a school. We need to remember how severe the rule of natural selection is, and what it means to say that a species is subject to it. It means, among other things, that of all the rabbits, flies, cod, pines, etc., that are born, the enormous majority must suffer early death; and it means no less of our species. How could we have escaped from this set up, supposing we once were in it? Please don't say that a god came down, and pointed out to Darwinian Cave Men a better way, or that the Cave Men themselves got together and adopted a Social Contract (with a Department of Family Planning). Either of those explanations is logically possible, of course, but they are just too improbably to be worth talking about. Yet some explanation, of the same order of improbability, seems to be required, if we once allow ourselves to believe that though we are not subject now to natural selection, we used to be.
The Cave Man way out, despite its absurdity, is easily the most popular of the three ways of trying to get out of Darwinism's dilemma. It has been progressively permeating popular thought for nearly one hundred and fifty years. By now it is enshrined in a thousand cartoons and comic-strips, and it is as immovable as Christmas. But we should not infer from this that it lacks high scientific authorities in its favor. Quite the contrary, Cave man has been all along, and still is, the preferred way out of Darwinism's dilemma among the learned, as well as among the vulgar.
Darwinism in its early decades had an urgent need for an able and energetic PR man. Darwin himself had little talent for that kind of work, and even less taste for it. But he found in T. H. Huxley someone who had both the talent and the taste in plenty. Huxley came to be known as "Darwin's bulldog," and by thirty years of invaluable service as a defender of Darwinism against all comers, he deserved it. And he provides an unusually explicit example of a high scientific authority who takes the Cave Man way out.
Huxley knew perfectly well, of course, since he was not a madman, that human life in England in his own time did not bear any resemblance to a constant and ruthless struggle to survive. Why, life was not like that even among the savages of New Guinea--nay, even in Sydney--as be found when he was in these parts in the late 1840s, as a surgeon on board H.M.S Rattlesnake. Did these facts make him doubt, when he became a Darwinian about ten years later, the reality of Darwin's "struggle for life," at least in the case of humans? Of course not. They only made him think that, while of course there must have been a stage of Darwinian competition in human history, it must also have ended long ago.
BUT IN THOSE distant times, Huxley informs us, human beings lived in "nature," or "in the state of nature," or in "the savage state." Each man "appropriated whatever took his fancy and killed whomsoever opposed him, if he could." "Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence."
It is hard to believe one's eyes when reading these words. Thomas Hobbes, forsooth! He was a philosopher who had published, two hundred years earlier, some sufficiently silly a priori anthropology. But Huxley is a great Darwinian scientist, and is writing in about 1890. Yet what he says is even sillier than anything Hobbes dreamed up about the pre-history of our species.
What, for example, is a Hobbesian savage, presumably an adult male, doing with a family at all, however "limited and temporary"? In a "continual free fight," any man who had on his mind, not only his own survival, but that of a wife and child, would be no match for a man not so encumbered. Huxley's man, if he wanted to maximize his own chances of survival, and had even half a brain, would simply eat his wife and child before some other man did. They are first class protein, after all, and intraspecific Darwinian competition is principally the competition for the means of subsistence, isn't it. Besides, wives and children are "easy meat," compared with most of the protein that goes around even at the best of times.
Huxley has even managed to burden Darwin with an absurdity which, though it was stronly suggested by Darwin's insistence on words like "struggle" and "battle", is by no means inherent in Darwinism itself. I mean, by his reference to "continual fighting." Fighting between conspecifics, even fighting over food, is not at all a necessary element in competition for survival as Darwin conceives it, whether it be humans, flies, cod or whatever that is in question. If you and I are competing for survival, and for ten days in a row you are able to get food while I cannot, then I starve to death and you win this competition, whatever may have been the difference between us which enabled you to win. Of course it may have been your greater fighting ability. But it might equally have been your superior speed, intelligence, eyesight, camouflage, or any one or more of a hundred other things. Fighting need never have come into the matter at all, as far as Darwinian theory is concerned. Which is just as well for that theory, since pines, most flies, and countless other species, cannot fight.
Huxley naturally realized that, as examples of Darwinian competition for life among humans, hypothetical ancient fights between Hobbesian bachelors were not nearly good enough. What was desperately needed was some real examples, drawn from contemporary or at least recent history. Nothing less would be sufficient to reconcile Darwinism with the obvious facts of human life. Accordingly, Huxley made several attempts to supply such an example. But the result in every case was merely embarrassing.
One attempt was as follows. Huxley draws attention to the fierce competition for colonies and markets which was going on, at the time he wrote, among the major Western nations. He says, in effect, "There! That's pretty Darwinian, you must admit." The reader, for his part, scarcely knows where to look, and wonders, very excusably, what species of organism it can possibly be, of which Britain, France, and Germany are members.
A second attempt at a real and contemporary example was the following. Huxley says that there is, after all, still a little bit of Darwinian struggle for life in Britain around 1890. It exists among the poorest 5 percent of the nation. And the reason, he says (remembering Darwin and Malthus), is that in those depths of British society, the pressure of population on the food supply is still maximal.
Yet Huxley knew perfectly well (and in other writings showed that he knew) that the denizens of "darkest England" were absorbed around 1890, not in a competition for life, but (whatever they may have thought) in a competition for early death through alcohol. Was that Darwinian? But even supposing he had been right, what a pitiable harvest of examples, to support a theory about the whole species Homo Sapiens. Five percent of Britons around 1890, indeed! Such a "confirmation" is more likeley to strengthen doubts about Darwinism than to weaken them.
A third attempt is this. Huxley implies that there have been "one or two short intervals" of the Darwinian "struggle for existence between man and man" in England in quite recent centuries: for example, the civil war of the seventeenth-century! You probably think, and you certainly ought to think, that I am making this up; but I am not. He actually writes that, since "the reign of Elizabeth..., the stuggle for existence between man and man has been so largely restrained among the great mass of the population (except for one or two short intervals of civil war), that it can have little, or no selective operation."
You probably also think that the English civil war of the seventeenth century grew out of tensions between parliament and the court, dissent and the established church, republic and the monarchy. Nothing of the sort, you see: it was a resumption of "the struggle for existence between man and man." Cromwell and King Charles were competing with each other, and each of them with everyone else too, a la Darwin and Malthus, for means of subsistence. So no doubt Cromwell, when he had had the king's head cut off, ate it. Uncooked, I shouldn't wonder, the beast. And probably selfishly refused to let his secretary John Milton have even one nibble.
Huxley should not have needed Darwinism to tell him--since any intelligent child of about eight could have told him--that in a "continual free figh of each other against all" there would soon be no children, no women and hence, no men. In other words, that the human race could not possibly exist now, unless cooperation had always been stronger than competition, both between women and their children, and between men and the children and women whom they protect and provide for.
And why was it that Huxley himself swallowed, and expected the rest of us to swallow, this ocean of biological absurdity and historical illiteracy? Why, just because he could not imagine Darwinism's being false, while if it is true then a struggle for life must always be going on in every species. Indeed, the kind of examples for which Huxley searched would have to be as common as air among us, surrounding us everywhere and at all times. But anyone who tries to point out such an example will find himself obliged to reenact T. H. Huxley's ludicrous performance.
There is (as I said earlier) a contradiction at the very heart of the Cave Man way out of Darwinism's dilemma: the contradiction between holding that Darwinism is true and admitting that it is not true of our species now. But I should perhaps emphasize that the absurdities which we have just witnessed in Huxley, though they no doubt were generated by that initial contradiction, are additional to it.
 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, pg. 204-205.
 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, pg. 210-212.
 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, pg. 40-41.
 Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, pg. 38.
The author should crawl back into his cave.
"IF DARWIN'S THEORY of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners."
Does he mean organisms within a species or organisms of different species? Each organism is in a constant competition with its peers for fitness, not survival. The competition of fitness is not winner-take-all. The functional unit of evolution is the population, not the individual.
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called Affirmative Action (( govt science // evolution )) --
which makes ignorant people (( think // believe they )) smell educated (( tyrannical superiority complex )) ** ."
** . . . my additions !
It seems as if some people here are denying that Huxley made the above statement. Otherwise, they are implying that Darwin's bulldog is wrong about Darwin's theory.
The evolutionary purpose for these traits is success at war. Darwin knew that humans were a special case, that the discovery of war is what caused humans to develop intelligence far in excess of what is needed to find food. If two tribes go to battle, usually the smarter tribe wins, and the genetically inferior tribe dies off. And it isn't just intelligence, but group loyalty, self-sacrifice, cooperation, morality, even lifespan, are all genetically honed for success at war. War is in effect very high speed evolution, and is the only reason humans have become the most genetically advanced animal to ever live.
Darwin wrote about all this. I don't know why this key discovery about who we are and where we come from is never taught.
Wow, in two posts you've made your central arguments ad hominem and ad verecundiam.
Darwin has been used to push one political ideology or another.
I'm generally skeptical of Darwin's ideas, but this article is deserving of the criticisms on this thread.
You'll have to look at real evidence, such as the fossil record, DNA research, species data, etc. These "philosophy" pieces prove nothing except the ability of the writer to engage in circular logic.
This should have little bearing on the validity of his work though. He was a brilliant man, and also by definition a deadly warmaker. He was the genetic product of many thousands of years of brutal war, as are you and me.
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