Were Cave Men (Our Ancestors) All Trying to Kill Each Other? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In part 1, we looked at agnostic philosopher David Stove’s explanation of “Darwinism’s Dilemma” in his book Darwinian Fairytales:

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.

Stove introduced the Cave Man way out of the dilemma whereby Darwinists claim that even though humans are not in a constant and ruthless competition for survival today, they were in the past. It is crucial to remember that Darwin claimed that within each species, conspecifics are at war with each other for survival. That struggle for survival is what drives natural selection.

Where we left off, Stove argued that “if Darwin’s theory of evolution is true, no species can ever escape from the process of natural selection.” Let’s pick up from there.

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.

If we accept that cave men were all killing each other, how did our species escape this dire situation? Stove continues:

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 improbable 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.

Stove then calls to the stand Darwin’s most able defender, T. H. Huxley, as the foremost proponent of the Cave Man theory. We will look at what Huxley argued in part 3.

  • “Such a tribe could not even raise a second generation: the helplessness of the human young is too extreme and prolonged”

    Again, why assume that ‘looking after the young’ would have developed among our species in the caves when ‘lower primates’ and many other mammals do exactly the same? Would Stove argue that birds sitting on their eggs ‘goes against Darwinism’?

    At any rate, Stove answers his own question – a tribe that neglected its young could not survive a generation and would be removed from the gene pool. Rather than this being a problem for biology, it is in fact exactly what one would expect – Darwinism would PREDICT that parents would give resources to their offspring, as by doing so they are protecting their genes. This is in fact ‘Evolution 101’. And the more successful that parents were in protecting their offspring, the more the ‘protective parent’ behaviour would survive (whether through tradition, culture or genetics). To give a specific example, mothers with greater amounts of serotonin would be more successful at passing on their genes.

    “If we accept that cave men were all killing each other, how did our species escape this dire situation?”

    Who has shown or argued that cave men WERE all killing each other, and particularly were killing children and babies? Stove has set up a straw man.

  • rericsawyer

    Well, in acknowlegement of my ignorance in the field, I have suspended judgement, and will continueto do so; but so far, I am not terribly impressed -even should the final outcome be one with which I agree.
    I know, in the interest of economy of space, you must summarize longer works, and in reducing a book to a couple of paragraphs, much possibility for misunderstanding arises. Before criticizing Stove, I should read his full work. I can’t justify that time, so I will just confine my remarks to the view of evolution as presented in these selection.

    Those of us who engage in discussions about the Christian understanding of reality seem to be practically bombarded with accusations which arise from partial understandings, even childhood understandings of Christianity. No harm there, in this and every subject, our educations starts from where we are, encountering problems, and refining our understanding until we arrive at the current state of the question.

    But in these conversations, it seems like we are continually
    returning to old ground –that the disputant has an emotional investment in the undeveloped, adolescent view of Christianity, and will not let it go.

    The whole line of criticism presented here presents to me
    the exact same flavor. The “Nature, red in tooth and claw” line from Alfred Lord Tennyson itself comes from a wrestling with the idea of Natural Selection then in its infancy; Huxley, as defender, is a defender of an evolutionary understanding scarcely into its childhood. It is not at all surprising that some of these early ideas, especially when processed through hostile critics, produce results which are internally inconsistent. Christian Sunday School lessons for children on “God is good” produce similar results when confronted by Isaiah 45:7 “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”

    It has been 35 years since I read Darwin. I claim no expertise
    and haven’t closely followed the argument. But it seems a preposterous, or more likely, just nearsighted claim to suggest that the only form of competition envisioned by Darwin was an eat-or-be-eaten battle to the death between individuals. A tendency to cooperative communal behavior can be observed in
    many species, both predator and prey. I understand the paleontologists hypothesize such for several dinosaur species, although that may be begging the creationist question a bit. Again, it is easy to see why a group of wolves which hunt as a
    pack may secure more food and survive more breeding seasons, and better feed offspring than do lone predators, gaining a competative advantage. Groups which live cooperatively may be better able to defend their young, allowing a higher percentage to mature to reproductive age. This presents no dilemma; nor does the idea that early humans may have had these traits inherited. Other primates exhibit them.

    I can’t put my finger on all the ways the presented argument
    rings false, but it may suffice to note that the whole seems to suffer from the same malady as the title. The whole notion of “cave-man” seems so anachronisticaly from an ealier time (and a less well-understood evolutionary and antropological vision) that it seems to shed more light on the arguer than on the argument.

  • Yes, I didn’t even go into the outdatedness of the caveman references. Using the picture of Ringo Star from the Caveman movie is even less helpful!

    “even should the final outcome be one with which I agree”

    Kudos to you on that. It’s good skill to identify bad arguments for positions you may actually agree with.

  • Eric,
    The reality is that natural selection and survival of the fittest is still taught, by and large, the same way it’s always been taught. Just go pick up a standard high school biology textbook and read it for yourself.

    You are correct that I am only quoting a small portion of Stove’s book, and he does deal with more modern efforts to solve Darwinism’s Dilemma, but honestly the modern attempts are no better at solving the dilemma. The explanations have become more sophisticated, but they fail just as badly.

    Human beings are not struggling against each other to survive. Natural selection cannot explain the vast majority of human traits.

    And for the record, I asked Andrew to provide a list of human traits that would be evidence against natural selection being the dominant mechanism for human evolution, and he declined to do so. Why? Probably because he knows that the theory is unfalsifiable. Any human trait can be explained with a Darwinian fairytale about long-ago, pre-hsitorical times.

  • “honestly the modern attempts are no better at solving the dilemma”

    You’ve not shown that there’s a dilemma to solve. You and Stove appear to thing that Darwinism would predict all birds would crack open their eggs and eat their young. You further seem to think Eric’s example of wolves joining forces to increase their chances of getting food is a ‘fairy tale’ or ‘just so-story’ from ‘prehistoric times’, whereas it’s not just common sense but actual observable reality.

    ” I asked Andrew to provide a list of human traits that would be evidence against natural selection being the dominant mechanism for human evolution, and he declined to do so. Why?”

    I thought you asked me what would falsify ‘survival of the fittest’, as opposed to natural selection. And I already answered ‘why’.

  • Andrew Ryan

    ” 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.”

    This is also simply not true. How can Stove argue that cooperation is incompatible with survival when it self-evidently improves your survival prospects?

    Bill, you’re not addressing any of these points, instead asking me to defend ‘Survival of the Fittest’ which, as Eric has pointed out, even 150 years ago was never more than a reductionist and incomplete metaphor for natural selection.

    Even if I claimed myself completely agnostic on the veracity of natural selection, or even hostile to the idea, it would have no bearing on the validity of my critiques of Stoves arguments. I could hold that natural selection was bunk, but still point out that it’s not an argument against the theory that we see cooperation among many species including man. Therefore your demand that I offer ways of falsifying ‘survival of the fittest’ is utterly beside the point, even if it wasn’t a reductive simplification of natural selection in the first place.

  • Andrew,
    I asked you to name human traits that would falsify the theory that natural selection is the dominant mechanism of human evolution. You can forget “survival of the fittest” if you’d like.

  • Andrew,
    You continue to prove the point I’m making. Every single trait that human beings possess, you say is “exactly what evolutionary theory would lead one to expect.” I am asking you, in principle, what human traits would not be what evolutionary theory predicts. How would evolutionary theory, natural selection in particular, ever be falsified as the explanation of all human traits? Aren’t scientific theories supposed to be falsifiable?

    You can concoct story after story about the prehistoric past, stories which have no empirical evidence, but they are simply stories, myths that can never be proven true or false.

  • Stove’s book is about human evolution and only human evolution. I don’t know why you keep bringing up evolutionary theory as applied to other animals. I never mentioned other animals and neither did Stove.

  • “Every single trait that human beings possess, you say is “exactly what evolutionary theory would lead one to expect.””

    But the traits you’re saying we would NOT expect are just bizarre. You’re saying you’re surprised that natural selection would select for mothers who care for their young? You can’t see ANY evolutionary advantage in looking for the offspring who carry your genes?

    ” I am asking you, in principle, what human traits would not be what evolutionary theory predicts”

    How’s about these then:

    If having a baby DECREASED serotonin in the mother rather than increased it. Or having a baby INCREASED aggression in the parents rather than decreased it. Or perhaps if passing the menopause made women more attractive rather than less. Or going through puberty coincided with losing sexual physical characteristics rather than gaining them. Or when a woman is ovulating she gave off a pungent smell that men found unpleasant. Or if infanticide rates were higher for birth children than for adopted children, rather than the other way round. Or if food intolerances correlated for how much that food was eaten among that genetic group, rather than negatively correlated. Or if people tended to find powerless unconfident people attractive rather than the powerful and the confident.

    Those would all be things I would NOT expect, things that would obviously harm a species reproductive success.

  • I already explained why Bill. Biologists say we evolved from other species, right? Given that other species already care for their young (to take a single example), including ‘lower primates’, there’s no need to conjecture that we starting caring for our young as cavemen, when it’s much more likely that it was something we already did long before we evolved into homosapiens.

    Stove seems to be asking how humans uniquely escaped from this ‘red in tooth and claw’ conflict we see in animals; I’m pointing out that this is reductive even in other animals – most other mammals still care for their helpless young. In fact I believe suckling their young is by definition common to ALL mammals.

    You talk about lack of empirical evidence, but we can measure the chemicals that breast feeding releases in the mother’s brain, and measure the effects this has on her behaviour.

  • I’ve now given you several examples on a separate post. However, your insistence that biologists will insist ‘that must somehow benefit survival’ for any trait does not ring true with me. For a start, examples of ‘maladaptive evolution’ are well known in biology, examples where it is accepted that a trait has evolved that hinders the individual.

    That’s why biologists don’t claim evolution only has a single driver, and don’t continue to insist that a trait must have a benefit regardless. You use the word ‘dominant’ mechanism yourself, suggesting you accept there are other drivers. Biologists don’t claim that sexual selection must lead to beneficial traits. And while we understand how susceptibility to sickle-cell anaemia has ‘piggy backed’ on to resistance to malaria, no-one claims that the susceptibility itself is beneficial.

    Here’s a passage on sexual selection:

    “We are used to thinking of the process of natural selection as leading to better and better adapted individuals in the population owing to the continued refinement of natural selection. Female choice is a striking example of maladaptive evolution. What is meant by maladaptive evolution? In the case of female choice and male ornaments, the average fitness of individuals in the population can decline as the frequency and intensity of the bizarre male ornaments increases in the population.

    Consider the average fitness of individuals in a population that has not yet evolved elaborate sexual ornaments compared to the population, which is derived from the original stock, but males have now evolved elaborate ornaments. In the derived population, many males die selective deaths owing to their ornaments.

    The average fitness of individuals in the inital population is higher because fewer males die selective deaths compared to the number of males that die selective deaths in the sexually-selected population. It is in this sense that runaway selection leads to maladaptive evolution. The average fitness of the population declines over time.”

  • Thank you for providing your list. I see a problem with the list.

    First, there most likely are instances of almost every thing you mentioned in select human populations. They may be small populations, but still exist. If natural selection is the dominant mechanism of human evolution, then we have a problem for the theory, as there are exceptions. We have to admit that other things are going on.

    Something else that strikes me in everything you’re writing is that you don’t seem to believe that natural selection is a dominant mechanism. You keep bringing up things like sex selection, genetic drift, symbiotic relationships, etc. In other words, there is a veritable grab-bag of mechanisms causing evolution.

    But this definition of evolution is hardly controversial if you want to defend it. It basically is saying, “Organisms change over time due to a large number of factors.” I don’t have any issue with that statement, and I don’t suspect Stove would either.

    Stove is attacking natural selection as the be-all-end-all driver for human evolution.

  • Human beings differ from other mammals in numerous important ways, as I’ve chronicled on this blog. The way we care for our young, middle-aged, and old is profoundly unique among animals, so there clearly had to be massive evolutionary changes from the first humans who came from primates to the modern-day version of humans.

    So kicking the can back to our primate ancestors does not negate Stove’s argument. If you could point to a primate species that displays the same level of cooperation, altruism, and self-sacrifice that humans typically display, then your point would stand.

  • “you don’t seem to believe that natural selection is a dominant mechanism”

    I need have no idea how big or small a part it plays in order to point out the problem in Stove’s position as you present it here – that natural selection would predict behaviour that would ‘end a species by the second generation’. Not only has Stove done nothing to show natural selection would predict any such thing, but common sense would say the opposite – that it would select for parents that look after their young rather than parents that neglect or murder their young at birth.

    “Stove is attacking natural selection as the be-all-end-all driver for human evolution”

    Who claims it is?

    “If natural selection is the dominant mechanism of human evolution, then we have a problem for the theory, as there are exceptions.”

    Well, dominant doesn’t mean only. And there is variance within any species. Not every member of a population reproduces, but no-one thinks that’s a problem for the theory.

  • The point is that the behaviour Stove appears to think we shouldn’t see – co-operation, caring for young, not constantly fighting for every resource – is behaviour we see now in other higher primates, so yes, my point stands that we shouldn’t assume it’s behaviour that had to develop during the ‘cave men’ phase.

    “The way we care for our young, middle-aged, and old is profoundly unique among animals”

    We look after our young roughly till they reach child-rearing age (give or take a few years), same as many other species. Other primates reach that stage younger, so require less looking from parents. However, the tribe system still benefits all, so they all still stick together. Humans take longer to reach that age, therefore we look after them longer. I’m still close to my mother, who helps look after her grandchildren. I’d like to see you argue this is somehow a detrimental trait.

    “If you could point to a primate species that displays the same level of cooperation, altruism, and self-sacrifice that humans typically display, then your point would stand”

    Don’t bonobos display all those traits? I don’t don’t see why it has to be to EXACTLY the same level as humans for the point to stand – no-one denies that human brains have evolved far beyond the other primates, but the change in the traits you list seems to be one of degree, not kind, and of less of a startling level than changes in abilities such as communication.

    Our levels of co-operation and tit-for-tat interactions have grown more complex as our brains have grown more complex – why would this be surprising? But back to my point, this began way before the cave man stage.

  • Who claims that natural selection is the be-all-end-all driver for human evolution? Why, lots of people, including Mr. Dawkins. He has consistently taught that natural selection is the dominant mechanism for evolution.

    In fact, as I told Eric, go check out any high school biology textbook and see what it says about natural selection. There are evolutionary biologists who downplay natural selection and point to other possible mechanisms, but that continues to be a minority voice at present.

    Face it. Evolution, in the public mind, is still virtually synonymous with natural selection, and people like Richard Dawkins are doing their level best to keep it that way.

    I believe that natural selection occurs, but that it is responsible for minor changes in organisms. In fact, Micael Behe effectively proved that in his book The Edge of Evolution, which you should definitely read if you have not.

  • “Why, lots of people, including Mr. Dawkins. He has consistently taught that natural selection is the dominant mechanism for evolution.”

    Dawkins explains in his books how ‘runaway sexual selection’ will create ‘maladaptions’ that decrease the ability to survive of a species.

    It is because biologists (including Dawkins) do the exact opposite of what you claim they do – claim that every trait must a priori be advantages to survival – that our understanding of evolution has advanced. Dawkins also explains in his books (eg Climbing Mount Improbable and The Greatest Show on Earth) how species can reach plateaus or into cul-de-sacs where sub-par ‘design’ is irreversible. For example, Dawkins points to the positioning of the laryngeal nerve and instead of saying ‘that must aid survival’ he specifically flags up that it does NOT aid survival.

    So, no – I reject your characterisation of Dawkins’ position, and the ‘Oh, it must aid survival’ reaction you claim all biologists offer.

  • We are getting ourselves all crossed up, as usual.

    First, I don’t believe that all biologists say “Oh, it must aid survival.” It is primarily socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists who make those kinds of claims. I specifically said that biologists tend to be more careful in their language.

    Second, just because Dawkins recognizes that a few traits are maladaptive does absolutely nothing to prove that Dawkins denies the primary and dominant role of natural selection in human evolution.

    Are you seriously saying that Dawkins believes that natural selection is a secondary or tertiary mechanism which has little to do with how humans have evolved? If so, you should let Dawkins know what his real position is, because I’m sure he would like to know.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, like you say, we’re getting crossed up between what the other is saying. I’ll make it simple, or try to.

    You started by quoting Stove talking about what behaviour he thinks natural selection would predict (murdering cavemen). When I queried whether nat sel predicts such a thing, rather than defend the claim, you responded that some biologists will claim that nat sel can explain ANY trait.

    This is a red herring from you. It was yours and Stove’s claim that nat sel would predict a specific behaviour. This despite Stove pretty much contradicting that claim himself when he admits that behaviour would end a tribe within a couple of generations.

  • The confusion is that you’re switching between two different points. You start talking about the general behaviour of a species (we co-operate, don’t try to kill each other all the time) and claim that is unlikely to be the result of natural selection.

    Then when I gave you examples of behaviour I would not expect nat sel to produce, you say we MIGHT find isolated examples of those among a population.

    Then you get into whether ‘standard natural selection’ is the main driver of evolution over the other influences I mentioned (genetic drift, runaway sexual selection etc).

    But accepting that not every behavioural train is explained by natural selection is not the same as saying it isn’t still the main driver. You admitted yourself the counter examples you might find are in ISOLATED examples.

    Finally, the two of us are sometimes here at cross purposes when one is talking about something being the ONLY driver and the other replying to whether it is merely the MAIN driver.

    In fact you switch over yourself in the same paragraph here: “Who claims that natural selection is the be-all-end-all driver for human evolution? Why, lots of people, including Mr. Dawkins. He has consistently taught that natural selection is the dominant mechanism for evolution”

    Right – but ‘be-all-end-all’ isn’t the same as ‘dominant’ is it?

  • “If you could point to a primate species that displays the same level of cooperation….”

    We have primates displaying at least some level of cooperation, caring for young through the vulnerable period, not killing each other all the time.

    Then we have humans now, doing all these things to a much greater degree. Regardless of whether YOU think there is a near-unbridgable gap between the two, which of the following seems more reasonable:

    1) We start with primates as described above, then there’s an interim period when the primates evolve into us, and the existing co-operative traits etc is worked on by natural selection because it benefits the group, until we end up with humans.

    2) We start with the above primates, and then there’s an interim period where they turn into cave man and start killing each other all the time, and stop caring for the young, and then suddenly stop all that and turn into us.

    Stove seems to hold that natural selection would predict the second option, creating a problem for biologists. I would say not only is this nonsensical, it needlessly introduces an extra variable into the interim caveman stage, a behaviour that isn’t present before and isn’t present after. Why would natural selection predict that? I’ve asked several times, and all you’ve replied is to question natural selection’s ability to predict anything. If that’s the case, where is Stove getting the ‘natural selection predicts killing each other’ in the first place?

  • Both options you offer are ludicrous. Stove has not offered the Cave Man way out because he believes it is true. Stove is claiming that this was one of the most popular explanations given by Darwin’s defenders. You should be attacking Darwin’s defenders, not Stove. They obviously did believe that the Cave Man theory was necessary to salvage Darwin’s ideas about human evolution.

    If you’ll wait for the next post, you’ll see what Huxley, Darwin’s greatest defender, says about the Cave Man theory.

  • John Corbitt

    Cooperation among individuals of the same species and protection/provision for their young is not an argument that holds any weight against God’s word that says He created animals including their instinctual ability to work together as a species to improve their survival.

    Andrew suggests wolves to prove his point of a species that works together and therefore demonstrates Darwinian’s claim that that is what we see further evolved in man today. My opening graph explains the Bible believer’s explanation of species cooperation.

    The flaw in Andrew’s suggestion is that if the alpha male in a species is strong enough, he will kill another individual in that species to take what the AM wants. That, btw, is the product of a sin-effected creation. According to God’s word, death did not exist before Adam and Eve’s fall, so animals did not behave that way before that dreadful day.

  • Ken

    You base modern evolutionary theory on Darwin??? That is like basing modern jet fighter design on the Wright brothers knowledge.