Natural Selection as ‘Survival of the Grandkids’

Darwin and the Phenomenon of Mum

by Gwydion M. Williams

An ‘audit of grandchildren’ is the actual way in which natural selection shapes species. Just having offspring is not enough: they in turn must have children for the genes to survive long-term. More abstractly, you’d hope that the gene-line would carry on for ever. But in human terms, a lot of humans will see their own grandchildren but few see beyond that. Likewise many of us will remember their grandparents, or at least a grandmother, but not often the generation before that.

I noticed also the interestingly large number of cases in which a fierce dominant ruler will sire a large brood of children, but also create such chaos and bitterness that the next generation tear each other apart. In these cases, the number of surviving grandchildren will be small. One notable case was England’s King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine: they had a large brood of children but most died childless with ‘Bad King John’ carrying on the line. Likewise Phillip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great and several others. Alexander’s own son died at 13, almost certainly poisoned. The succession struggle was vicious and though the cultural legacy was vast, in genetic terms both Phillip and Alexander were failures.

Discussions of Darwinism tend to hype just the other sort of case, a dominant monarch who becomes a successful breeder. Both sides should be looked at to get the real picture. Biological science should not be a hymn of praise to the big and dominant. Science gives no reason to distinguish between the tapeworm, the tiger and the daffodil as examples of Natural Selection in action.

Among the three, the tiger is definitely the weakest link, and not just because of human pressure. The rule for mammals since the death of the dinosaurs has been that any species larger than a fox has no long-term future. Successive waves of fierce carnivores and robust herbivores get bigger and bigger and then go extinct. It is from the lesser animals, fox-size or smaller, that the future winners will emerge. Big fierce animals are losers, from a long-term perspective. Biological history is a ‘triumph of the mediocre’.

But surely life is not just about survival? Human life isn’t, I’d agree. But natural selection is just that. It is not about being a big fierce and triumphant winner, or only incidentally. In human terms, genetic success is measures in how many grandchildren an individual leaves behind.

Human life includes other options. Newton left behind no children or grandchildren, but his actual legacy is immense. He was also highly religious. The same was true of pioneering chemist Robert Boyle, and also Blaise Pascal who was a mathematician, physicist and builder of an early mechanical calculator. All three were religious and childless. Newton and Pascal were unorthodox in their religious beliefs. Newton believed that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was wrong and had included a forged passage inserted into the Bible, which was an unacceptable notion to most Christians. Pascal was a Jansenist, a branch of Roman Catholic belief that was condemned by the Pope. Pascal cleverly ridiculed the dishonest logic-chopping of ‘casuistry’ in his Provincial Letters. He called it ‘Jesuitry’, a name which has stuck. But can you ridicule casuistry without putting yourself outside conventional Christian thinking?

Conventional Christian thinking has lost its grip on most of the more intelligent and original minds in the West. Among the general public there has been a revival of sorts. Religion rises when secular society fails to meet human needs: that is what people like Professor Dawkins fail to understand

The doctrine of the ‘Selfish Gene’ fitted very well with the broader New Right outlook of the 1980s. It is an emotionally-loaded term that is not justified even by Dawkins’s own views on how genes work. You can’t be selfish without a sense of self and some ability to plan. You’d be very surprised if your television weather-person said “today we’ve got some very bad-tempered thunderstorms sweeping in from the west”. But to think of thunderstorms as bad-tempered is a better predictor of actual behaviour than to think of genes as selfish. The behaviour of actual genes in actual animals shows no sign of the kind of shrewd cold calculation that the typical selfish person can manage. Natural selection has led successive waves of land animals into an evolutionary dead-end, enormous size which brings short-term gains, but guarantees extinction in the longer run.

Dawkins doesn’t ponder such things, he is supremely confident that he alone is a tough-minded rationalist. ‘There is no God and I’m his prophet‘, one might say.

A large part of wisdom is knowing where you are ignorant, and Dawkins has never known when to stop. His doctrine of ‘memes’ is a half-arsed theory of culture – some of our ideas drift in as if they were mindless replicators, but not many. The idea of mental replicators is also much older than Dawkins:

“Historically, the notion of a unit of social evolution, and a similar term (from Greek mneme, meaning “memory”), first appeared in 1904 in a work by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon… According to the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], the word mneme appears in English in 1921 in L. Simon’s translation of Semon’s book: The Mneme.” [A]

Dawkins’s view of religion is that it is a collection of ‘memes’ with an uncanny ability to propagate. These get in the way of ‘rational thought’, understood as current Western ideas of the world. He fails to notice that Western ideas of the world are almost totally built upon Latin-Christian historic foundations. The first scientists in Europe were Christians, often quite devout – Galileo was a serious believer and he got into trouble precisely because he wanted to convince the Catholic Church to accept the truths he had discovered about the universe. And Galileo did not stand alone: Europe produced a network of scientists communicating in Latin and initially accepting the Latin-Christian framework of thought. Other cultures had inventors and some individual scientists, but no comparable social network.

The Latin-Christian tradition also had three clear merits, three key ideas:

a) All knowledge should be available to the educated class, those who knew Latin.

b) There is dignity in manual work. (St Paul was a tent-maker, St Peter a fisherman and Jesus a carpenter. The religious tradition never scorned manual labour, as happened in most other times and places.)

c) Theology allowed for novelties, the upsetting of traditions.

Europeans from a Latin-Christian background had inherited these ideas, along with several centuries of speculative theology that had been begun in mediaeval times in an effort to make sense of the creed. Some significant advances were made – Thomas Aquinas made the key distinction between natural and supernatural, allowing God to be exulted but also walled off from the ordinary world. I don’t think any such split ever existed in Islamic thought or Chinese thought, and definitely not in Hindu thought. Theology within the Latin-Christian creed provided a basis on which other non-religious systems of thought could be built.

Science was part of the Latin-Christian intellectual world in the 17th century. In the 18th century the link broke, with most scientists sharing the ex-Christian viewpoint of the Enlightenment. By the 19th century it had become detached enough to draw large numbers of European Jews into the culture of science. In the 20th century it became truly global, in part because it was very hard for anyone to avoid a strong dose of Westernisation.

That’s science, a novel offshoot of our basic human behaviour-pattern. But just what are our basics? In discussing evolution, Dawkins and others get baffled by the existence of homosexuality. ‘Gay genes’ seem to exist, but how could Natural Selection permits behaviour that diminished or blocked the chances of producing children and grand-children? No one seem to have the same problem with the existence of celibacy, or married couples who choose not to have children, or married couples who would like children but are unable to have any. Since Latin-Christian culture does not define these last three options as wrong or sinful, geneticists who’ve grown up within the culture may fail to notice the problem. Darwinism has become a substitute for religion, and a rather weak substitute. It is much less rational than it supposes itself to be.

Dawkins and similar characters – let’s call them the Dawkindred to be short – think in too narrow and individual a sense. Consider the case of the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, musical genius and committed homosexual. Interestingly, his brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky was also homosexual and also a talented musician, suggesting a genetic element. Now imagine similar individuals born among the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic, the time when ape-people were becoming modern humans. Humans then lived as relatively small bands, and freely moved between them. And they must have liked music, since all modern humans like it. So a gifted musician who happens also to be homosexual will father no children but will raise the status of their kin-group, attracting more fertile females and maybe also gifted hunters who can keep more people alive in bad times. A gene that favours both homosexuality and musical talent would have been favoured within the kin-groups that led to modern populations.

Of course it’s also not true that people of a homosexual disposition will fail to reproduce. Oscar Wilde ruined himself by flaunting his homosexual passions at a time when England was definitely not ready to accept it. Interestingly, he also had a lesbian niece, Dorothy Wilde, who was regarded as gifted but achieved nothing and died of drug abuse. But he also fathered two sons, the classic ‘heir and a spare’. One son was killed in World War One, but the other had a son who in turn had a son, so his genetic legacy is still potentially part of the mix.[B] The same is true of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, who was formerly married and had two daughters: he currently has two granddaughters and there could well be more.  [Gene’s genes are still part of the gene-pool.]

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are a disproportionate number of bisexuals and homosexuals among people with musical talent, and also among those with talents for science and literature. Hard evidence on this and many other individual characteristics could obtained if one of the current crop of high-tech billionaires were to fund a ‘Human Genius Project’.   Maybe hire the Nobel Foundation to organise it – they have the prestige and a reputation for secrecy. It should be possible to check a few thousand individuals with genius-level prizes or qualifications against a few hundred thousand more with intellectual interests but no signs of anything out of the ordinary. Would there be any visible differences?

One thing I’m sure you’d find is that an interest in music correlate strongly with creativity and high achievement. We are the only land mammal that sings and maybe the only animal that dances, that translates music into movement and vice versa:

“So natural is our capacity for rhythm that most of us take it for granted: when we hear music, we tap our feet to the beat or rock and sway, often unaware that we are even moving. But this instinct is, for all intents and purposes, an evolutionary novelty among humans. Nothing comparable occurs in other mammals nor probably elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Our talent for unconscious entrainment lies at the core of dance, a confluence of movement, rhythm and gestural representation. By far the most synchronized group practice, dance demands a type of interpersonal coordination in space and time that is almost nonexistent in other social contexts.

“Even though dance is a fundamental form of human expression, neuroscientists have given it relatively little consideration.” (Neuroscience of Dance, Scientific American July 2008. [C])

A ‘Dancing Darwinism’ would be a serious competitor in modern society, but most scientists prefer a cold pomposity that puts people off. And atheism without a positive vision easily becomes a shallow admiration of violence and money. Shaw in his play Major Barbara has a man who espouses a creed of ‘money and gunpowder’. Updates as money and gun-power, it is very much the modern creed of the USA. The less educated portion of the population also garnishes this creed with a version of Christianity. But though it claims to be Fundamentalist, it finds ways to bend the Bible to suit the dominant creed of money and gun-power. Guns and God if you don’t have money to make you happy: Obama had that sort of person summed up, though since he needs their votes he had to back off from calling them what they were.

To get back to biology, Bat Feathers and Bird’s Milk are just two out of the many things that evolution might have usefully produced, but happened to miss. Bats would fly better if they had feathers, but actually creating feathers from a hairy body must have been too great a leap. Likewise birds could feed their offspring better if they had the mammalian trick of producing a nutritious secretion instead of (or as well as) regurgitating half-digested food. Natural selection is fallible and you could write a large book about what didn’t get developed.

There are also many common themes – jaws got invented several times, the jointy-legged creatures (arthropods) adapting some small front-limbs whereas our ancestral fishes modified what were originally gill-arches. Likewise limbs, we walk upon modified fins whereas squids etc. invented boneless limbs and the jointy-legged creatures refined their primitive multiple limbs to just six (insects) or eight (spiders and similar). Insects also invented wings, perhaps out of modified gills, this is disputed. It happened just once among the jointy-legged creatures, whereas creatures with bones have managed it several times, most notably the birds and bats but also the extinct Pterosaurs (which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs but are a separate group).

The most interesting themes from a human point of view are parental care and social living. Birds and mammals have both evolved it, and it seems the dinosaurs also had nests and looked after their eggs. Some quite primitive creatures also have parental care, but the turtle is about as complex and large-brained as you find without having parents looking after their young. Biologically it should be possible, but no actual cases are known.

Interestingly, humans have long enough lives that it’s normal for grandparents to be around to care for grandchildren and add an extra cultural dimension. Modern societies with their greater mobility have weakened or broken such ties, and it may be a reason why modern societies are failing to properly socialise the next generation.

Mammals and birds separately evolved a pattern of ‘warm-bloodedness’, Endothermy, a souped-up version of the land-quadruped that is more sophisticated but also needs a lot more food. Along with this, they both developed enlarged brains and extended parental care, with offspring fed for some time after they hatch. Mammals other than monotremes took this one stage further, dispensing with eggs. The vast majority of mammals are placental, feeding the developing offspring within the mother’s body and allowing it to be born with a complex body-plan. Humans are the extreme of all of these trends. The largest brains for our body-size, and the longest childhoods – compare a 4-year-old human to a 4-year-old horse. Human females also have an unusually thin and specialised placenta, which brings some medical risks but also makes for a closer mother-foetus connection. I don’t think that any of this is an accident.

It might well be pointless for a creature to have a large brain unless it had at least one parent to teach it survival tricks. That’s the pattern among all mammals and birds, young creatures learning from their mothers. Sometimes there is also a wider society, meaning that it is useful to have a brain large enough to keep track of who’s who and whether you should approach them, ignore them or avoid them. Studies of apes and monkeys suggest that the larger the social group, the bigger the brain. There are exception, gorillas have decent-sized brains but live in small family bands. But it’s a general trend.

There’s a fascinating book called Love at Goon Park that tells how a scientist working with monkeys discovered accidentally that a baby monkey raised with adequate food and shelter but without a mother grows up very abnormally.[D] They could not socialise with other monkeys, and when females raised this way were made pregnant (via a device that the scientist in question unblushingly called a ‘rape rack’), they were hopeless at being mothers.

A creature that had a big brain but a solitary life would be an anomaly. It might be efficient as an individual organism, but Natural Selection is not about handing down prizes to individual organisms. What counts is how many grandchildren the organism leaves behind. The bias of biologists, from Darwin down to Dawkins, is to interpret Natural Selection as if it were the handing-down of prizes to the best pupils at some harsh but efficient school. In the real world of biology, unworthy creatures like rats, cockroaches and tapeworms are much more likely to be survivors.

I’m aware of thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin, who tried to reconcile Darwinism with Catholic theology in Le Phenomene Humain, translated as The Phenomenon of Man, though I’d have thought The Human Phenomenon would have been better. In any case, the ‘Phenomenon of Mum’ happened first. It explains how we could emerge as a very untypical product of natural selection. Why we can shrewdly calculate our selfish self-interest but also feel the need for something bigger and grander, a need that religion can partly meet.

We humans are the most recent product of several million years spent enlarging the brain. Our immediate ancestors were rare creatures compared to other large mammals. They were not flourishing or dominant despite having the largest brain / body ratio on the planet. My belief is that just enlarging the brain would be pointless unless there was already cultural ‘software’ that could set it useful tasks. That would explain why pre-humans remained much the same across hundreds of thousands of years.

Experts now think there was a dramatic take-off among our own ancestors some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, a process that began in Africa. We find lots of evidence of cultural / religious activities, and every known tribe of hunter-gatherers has a dense network of superstitions. If you investigate them, you often find that the pattern of behaviour makes sense, even if the explanations do not. The Hindu caste system means that the people most likely to catch an infection from sewage or dead bodies are rigorously isolated from the rest of society. A taboo on beef makes sense when cattle are essential work-animals, and also cattle are less efficient than other meat animals at turning vegetable matter into meat. The Jewish and Islamic ban on pork makes sense in the arid or semi-desert lands where those faiths originated, where pigs typically eat food that humans could have eaten, yet meat is always more popular than vegetables where the culture or religion allows it. But in many cases meat-eating makes economic sense. If you’re a nomadic herder, then cattle are relatively easy to raise on land where crops would not grow. If you live surrounded by forests, as used to be the case in most of Europe, then pigs can be left to scavenge and their meat is pure profit.

Religion is part of the package that makes us human. Philosophical creeds are an alternative, but often fail to meet the full range of human needs. Especially if they get hung up on competition and think that ruthless struggle will produce a selection of superior individuals.

Natural selection typically rewards the small and stupid – mostly quite brainless. Individually they are inferior, but vast number of inferior organisms can survive and reproduce better than a small number of more complex creatures. Interestingly, the success of the Internet comes from borrowing this trick from nature – probably without noticing the connection, I have never seen it put like that. The standard idea of a network was to have messages that were carefully monitored and protected against loss. The internet works by splitting the message into small chunks and sending multiple copies of each small chunk in roughly the right direction. At the other end the chunks are put together again, on the assumption that at least one copy of each chunk will arrive. Oddly, this system works better, because the costs of copying and sending are less than the cost of monitoring and ensuring an error-free system.

All life on Earth has a common origin, a shared history of more than three thousand million years. Most gene-lines from the original life have not gone anywhere near intelligence, have remained small and brainless. Human culture thinks of lions and tigers and ‘kings of the wilderness’, but you could also think of them as muggers exploiting a much larger population of peaceful grass-eaters and leaf-eaters. And that’s just mammals; the unseen world of insects includes far more species and far more living creatures, and even amounts to a bigger mass of living flesh. Intelligence is not a very useful trick and the natural world can seem hopelessly alien – ‘For bloody nature’s out to get you’. But of course it isn’t; the whole process is unfeeling and uncaring, neither friendly nor hostile. Lots of different niches are open, so there is room for the more complex, though as a minority option.

Pioneering modernist architect Le Corbusier defined a house as ‘a machine for living in’. But people are social and like to live in their own space, that’s why modernism produced cities that no one at all likes, even though all of their obvious material needs are met. That’s why religion is making a come-back, to the bafflement of characters like Dawkins.

If you call a house ‘a machine for living in’, they you might also call a mother a ‘machine for babies’. In fact a mother rat is just that: she has sex with the most suitable male she comes across, gets pregnant and has babies that she instinctively knows how to care for. Take away those babies and she will do something else. Add or subtract baby rats and she seems not to notice.

Creeds like Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology see only some of the essential differences between a human and a rat. We are much cleverer, obviously. But we are also vastly more sympathetic: no other creature is as likely to render help to another creature that is not a close relative. An ant-nest is a gigantic extended family, so is a hive of bees. Packs of wolves and prides of lions are very close to each other, tied by blood or by sex. Humans are unusual in that we commonly take risks to help people we don’t know. Pessimists complain that we don’t do this often enough, and wonder why. Myself, I thought it better to start from scratch and wonder why we do it at all. If we were ‘rational’ in the sense that Modernists typically define it, we would indeed refuse help to strangers without a definite reward. You’re drowning? I’ll rent you this life-belt, but I am in a strong negotiating position and I want proof of your credit-worthiness.

Very few people are actually that cold and greedy, and ever fewer would admit to it. Characters like Dawkins or the New Right economists ought to conclude that negotiating prices with a drowning man is eminently fair and rational. I’ve not found any who will actually do this: these characters typically stop where their own logic ceased to be ‘daring’ and would actually be risky, at least to their reputation. They do not accept the unwelcome results of their own logic, but insist that it is ‘infallible’ when the answer suits them.

We are apes that walked tall, but we are also sympathetic apes. If we’re not as sympathetic as we might wish, that might be because we are still evolving to fit our enlarged brains. A low death-rate among infants is not a disaster for our evolutionary future: all that is necessary for us to progress is that the better sort of humans leave behind more grandchildren, on average. I rather suspect that this is happening quite naturally, through people’s own love and wish for children. Supposing that it were not, there are a lot of humane and non-coercive ways to boost the process. Free child-care for couples with above-average intelligence, for instance. Or a ‘collection’ of eggs and sperm from those with superior qualities, plus the option for any women who wanted to have a superior embryo implanted in her womb and raised as her own. I’ve no idea how many would want it, but it wouldn’t need to be all that popular to make a big difference over the evolutionary time-scale.


[A] []

[B] []

[C] []

[D] Blum, Deborah. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection



First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2009

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