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Rose on 'Alas, poor Darwin'

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  • Ian Pitchford
    Rose, S.P.R. (2001). Alas, poor Darwin. Biologist, 48(2), 100. Alas, poor Darwin Steven Rose No, not a reflection on the environmental threat to the Galapagos.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 3 5:20 AM
      Rose, S.P.R. (2001). Alas, poor Darwin. Biologist, 48(2), 100.

      Alas, poor Darwin

      Steven Rose

      No, not a reflection on the environmental threat to the Galapagos. Rather, it
      is a reference to Darwin’s own complaint, towards the end of his life,
      concerning those who misunderstood and misrepresented his theories.

      I suspect that Charles Darwin would be less than happy if he were able to see
      the way in which these days his name is being bandied about by Op-Ed writers in
      the broadsheets, or the number of books proposing ‘new sciences’ of Darwinian
      economics, Darwinian medicine, Darwinian psychiatry and psychology. At the
      beginning of the 21st century, pseudo-Darwinian theories are running rife.
      Natural selection is supposed to explain why, apparently, men prefer sex with
      younger women with optimal hip-waist ratios, whilst women prefer older men, and
      have more orgasms if their partners are ‘symmetrical’. We are told that if
      step-fathers kill or abuse their non-genetic offspring, if otherwise sexually
      unsuccessful men rape, if we distrust strangers and fear cheats, if we enjoy
      gardening and our children dislike spinach, then this is all the result of
      natural selection.

      Such claims show a funny view of natural selection. ‘Human nature is fixed and
      unchanging,’ claims Helena Cronin, that St Joan the Baptist of Evolutionary
      Psychology. Some time 100–600 000 years ago, when humanoids climbed down from
      the trees to the African savannah, evolutionary pressures generated the
      division of labour and mentality between men and women – determining the
      optimum group size for our ancestors’ tribal life and fixing the strengths and
      limits of the forms of society we can create. Evolutionary biologists might be
      astonished to learn that, according to such so-called ‘evolutionary
      psychologists,’ natural selection then ceased to function, that there hasn’t
      been time since the Pleistocene to alter what the psychologist Steven Pinker
      calls ‘the architecture of the human mind’. But by definition evolution – which
      means change over time – never ceases. The method used could be natural
      selection or any of the other multitude of processes which the pluralist Darwin
      hinted at, and are these days becoming steadily better understood. All that
      happens is that the environmental context which helps determine ‘fitness’
      changes, so that what is adaptive in one context ceases to be in another. Even
      100 000 years – perhaps 5000 human generations – is plenty of time for
      significant change. Hans-Peter Lipp of the University of Zurich has just
      published results showing that, under strong selection pressure, anatomical
      changes can occur in the brains of laboratory mice released into the wild
      within three generations. The massive migratory movements of humans out of
      Africa, the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural and now industrial
      economies certainly generated such strong pressures, and some of the consequent
      genetic changes have been well documented by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza in his recent
      book Genes, Peoples and Languages (Penguin, 2000).

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