I recently had the privilege of attending a series of lectures by Professor Richard Dawkins. For anyone not familiar with his genius he deserves an introduction. Dawkins is a world renowned and leading evolutionary biologist from Oxford who has played a vital role all around the world in promoting secular values and views. He is also a prolific author with bestsellers that include but are not limited to The God Delusion, The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. Needles to say, if you have not come across his work I suggest you do.
Due to the nature of the lectures involving so much content I am bound to miss out information that I should have put in so apologies in advance.
The first lecture was titled “The Purpose of Purpose” and the second was called “Evolution’s Arms Race.” I particularly enjoyed the first one more because it delved into the philosophical side of evolution by asking the why type questions of existence. The second lecture was still wonderfully informative but it was much more science based than the first by answering the how questions rather than the why.
“The Purpose of Purpose” started by briefly outlining evolutionary theory. Which is that all of life and the history of life is about making sure that genes inside me can continue on to the next generation, survival is the key. The way we have evolved to be as we are is because our ancestors were able to find a mating partner to continue these genes – if past generations did not find a mating partner than their gene died out simply because it wasn’t good enough, but we survived because the successful genes are the ones that continued hence the term survival of the fittest (which was never actually coined by Darwin – it wasn’t until much later this term began to be used.) But anyway, this is basic evolutionary theory and thankfully it is starting to become common sense within society, albeit slowly.
Once past the basics is where the lecture really got interesting for me. This was when Dawkins started to apply evolutionary theory specifically to humans by asking the question: are humans an exception to the rule? What he means by that is why do we seem to do things that are not purely for the survival of the species? Things like living a hedonistic lifestyle – why do we pursue pleasure (seemingly) for the sake of pleasure? Why do we play sport? Music? Read? Write? Engineer? Drink alcohol? Do these pursuits mean that we are an exception to nature? The answer of course is no but the question still stands of why we seem to have goals other than just the prolongation of our genes.
This is where Dawkins introduced the theory of subversion (which I think needs a different name due to its negative connotations to Freudian theory.) Basically, throughout evolution for an organism to be able to achieve specific goals is not only impressive but vitally important in order to get food, to have sex, to protect your young etc. A vital part in achieving your goals is to be able to adapt these goals to different scenarios. Whether that be a change in climate or a new predator after your skin we need to be able to adapt goals and targets to the specific situation at hand. Now, when human brains started to get much bigger and we became better thinkers as a form of survival we inadvertently also became great goal adaptors – that is we learnt to become flexible in our goals. If we were not able to be flexible than we would die out. Well, we became so good at this flexibility that we have been able to change our goals and adapt them almost from one minute to the next. This brought in a whole new range of possibilities in the way humans can live a life. With this newfound capacity to live according to whatever we damn well please we created a neo-purpose – that is purpose created by the specific animal as opposed archeo-purpose which is the innate quest for survival. (Arguably humans have created an even further hyperneo-purpose by making computer and artificial intelligence particularly in military drones that can change their targets and desired outcomes through computation of the external environment.)
To exemplify subversion theory Dawkins used a great analogy as follows. There once was a British man in WWII who was captured by the Japanese. When he was a prisoner of war in Thailand he was ordered by the Japanese to build a bridge over a river, now this man saw this as the perfect opportunity to showcase the might of Britain, to prove to the Japanese that Britain has the best engineers, the best architects and knows how to build infrastructure better than anyone in the world. He worked so hard on this bridge, it gave him meaning. He organised and lead people in the building of this magnificent structure, he was proud of the work he did. But then the British came and liberated these prisoners of war, they beat off the Japanese and ordered the destruction of their campsites – this included the said bridge that was only commissioned in the first place to help Japanese communications. The man who built it was distraught, he argued vehemently with the British officers to allow the bridge to stay standing even though it was helping the Japanese. He argued for this because he became so attached to it and wanted to keep it for its own sake. He lost sight of his original goal in building it to prove Britain’s power- the goal ended up becoming to build it and love it – he lost sight of the original goal. This works the same way in subversion theory – our original goal is to pass on our genes but then we can get sidetracked into other goals due to how good we are at changing these goals and this other goal then becomes our meaning of life and we pursue that instead. Neo-purpose is the next level of purpose. According to Dawkins this explains why humans act the way we do, we have evolved so far that we can become somewhat liberated from certain aspects of our evolution. Humans have the ability now to not want kids if they so choose – to use contraception methods that seem to go against our innate archeo-purpose.
As a result of our (too?) rapid liberation which is in the grand scheme of things still extremely new in our evolution, we have had cultural evolution as well. All of this has been happening so quickly that it poses an interesting question about the future. Will our ability to be flexible destroy us as we get so far away from our original archeo-purpose? Or is our ability to be flexible exactly what can save us (from ourselves?) I think the answer is currently in a precarious position.
Keep subversion theory in mind as we will be returning to it later. I will only briefly touch over the second lecture now.
As previously mentioned “Evolution’s Arms Race” was more about the how question of evolution. Research into evolution has proved time and time again that the survival to be the fittest is a brutal quest. In order to survive we need to continually out smart or out play the opposition for our genes to continue. We can see so many of the fantastic innovative ways nature has evolved its defence mechanisms, starting with insects and going right through to tigers and whales. It can be seen as an arms race because if you don’t adapt quick enough the rival species will quickly outmanoeuvre you with its superior “military” technology. However, in adapting new technology each organism – plant and animal – has had to also maximise a certain level of economic utility. Evolving has to be viable, the energy spent has to be worth the progress in technology otherwise the lack of functionalism could destroy you. This may help explain why the evolution of intelligence in homo sapiens is such a rare situation in nature for the brain takes up and needs so much energy to function let alone survive that to keep feeding this brain through the ages may not have maximised utility for other animals. It was just not economically viable for them to do such a thing.
The case study Dawkins used was one of a cuckoo bird who to maximise its utility was able to adapt its egg to that of other birds and put its own egg which looks almost identical to say a robin’s egg into the robin’s nest. In the meantime it gets rid of one of the robin’s eggs and leaves its own as a like for like replacement tricking the robin into rearing the cuckoo. If they do not adapt quick enough to the cuckoo’s deception then they will constantly be tricked which in turn hurts their utility. Thus in lies the arms race of the robin needing to become better at identifying deception and the cuckoo needing to get better at replicating eggs.
Both of the lectures were thoroughly thought provoking. It got me thinking particularly about subversion theory and after much discussion with my lecture comrade, we came up with a few questions and potential flaws Dawkins’ theory. Essentially we thought that subversion theory does explain a lot but not everything. The answer for human behaviour, I think, lies somewhere in between. I believe that we do exhibit subversion theory but are not fully liberated from our goal to pass on our genes.
For example, could we be something similar to the male peacock? The male peacock needs the most beautiful tails to attract females. Perhaps art and so forth can be seen as something similar? What if somewhere in human evolution we had to become good at art and language, philosophy and creating. We had to in a sense show off to the other sex, prove our worth through our exploits into different aspects of life (which coincidentally these aspects make up most of the disciplines at modern day universities.) Through having to show off our peacock tails we inadvertently created culture, dance and music too. This hints at a diversion rather than a subversion.
And what about the drive to earn money? Is this a sign of diversion as the more money I have the more powerful I am which in turn provides for my offspring and the subsequent generations. Or is it a subversion where the original goal of passing on my genes has been thrown away for the new goal of making money, after all no where in evolution do we need our offspring it be as well off as possible, no – we simply need them to reproduce.
Furthermore, when thinking about our day to day actions what are our motivations? For example what about me originally writing this as a letter to my girlfriend before turning it into a blog? Is it a diversion of a deeper seeded part of my brain making sure I prove my worth to her as a good partner that can write and think about hard things in an ultimate bid to show that I am fit enough to be able to further both her genes and mine? Or is it simply a subversion where I just want to spread knowledge for the sake of knowledge as a value in itself?
The diagram I have in my head of the situation works a bit like this: imagine a tree trunk which represents the archeo-purpose of life – simply the passing on of genes. Then think of branches that go off this trunk as diversions but are really still part of the trunk and in practice are elaborate ways of proving ourselves as compatible mating partners to the other sex. Now imagine that due to how good we are at being flexible goal setters and achievers some of the outlying twigs on these branches have managed to break off from the trunk and its diversions all together to become ends in themselves and thus culminating in a subversion or a neo-purpose from the original Darwinian evolutionary process.
Lastly, my final problem with subversion theory is that it doesn’t seem to be able to be falsified. It goes back to 20th Century philosopher Karl Popper’s philosophy of science – if a theory cannot be falsified is it a theory at all? Does it actually tell us anything? For example, if someone says there is a god and then attributes all the wind and the waves to a god what does that tell us? Absolutely nothing because I could just as easily say that it is guided by invisible fairies and no one could disprove that either. Whereas evolutionary theory has the capacity to be falsified (but has stood up to every test) I’m not sure at the moment how subversion theory could be. Because for every human behavioural situation that is given it can be applied as a subversion in some sort of abstract way without really being able to refute it – the statement: modern humans now have sex first and foremost because it is pleasurable and not to pass on genes – I don’t think I can disprove or prove it in any way. The way to disprove would be to come up with behaviour that completely negates it, but what would this be? (if you propose couples who choose to have sex one night specifically for a baby I could still argue that this is only a result/by-product of first enjoying sex.) I’m interested if anyone has any ideas – I may have missed something glaringly obvious.
All in all though an absolute fantastic lecture series that I was thrilled to be a part of. Whilst evolutionary psychology undoubtedly can explain all of human behaviour I think there still needs to be a lot of work to go into nutting out the details and figuring the why of the how – which is exciting. It has all got me thinking to no end and is a topic that I want to study a lot more of in the future as evolution really is the greatest show on Earth.