Were Cave Men (Our Ancestors) All Trying to Kill Each Other? Part 5

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In part 4, Darwin’s bulldog, T. H. Huxley, offered a couple of examples of natural selection at work in England. Philosopher David Stove, in his book Darwinian Fairytales, provides yet another example of Huxley’s attempt to show that men are competing  to survive.

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 struggle 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 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 little nibble.

So where do all of Huxley’s failed attempts leave us?

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 fight 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 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.

And there it is. “Ocean of biological absurdity and historical illiteracy” indeed. Huxley and the Cave Man way out fail to resolve the dilemma. Stove’s key point is that Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” just does not reflect what we actually see among human beings, and surely this is a massive problem for the theory.

Instead of stretching the limits of ridiculousness by re-casting human behavior in terms of nature red in tooth and claw, why can’t we admit what is obvious? Natural selection, taken as the primary mechanism, cannot explain much of what we see today in the human species. In fact, much of what human beings do every day in helping the genetically weaker goes directly against natural selection. It’s time we let this mechanism for human evolution go.

  • rericsawyer

    So what we are talking about is a simply another refutation of “social Darwinism” ?? which has been out of favor for over
    half a century even among the social science types (which is my own academic background, limited as it is)??

    The effect of genetic selection as a pressure on behavior is very slight in comparison to forces from economics, socialization, etc., even operant conditioning. Even though genetic characteristics may potentially underlie these more locally potent forces, they are very hard to observe directly through the clutter. When those of Huxley’s generation attempted to apply natural selection to psycho-social behavior, they were simply incapable of controlling for those variables, they applied as a direct example something that could only work as an analogy, if at all, and were intellectually ill equipped to escape the starting assumptions of their era. The social Darwinists theories ultimately tell us more about the social Darwinists than about anything else.

    So does that mean a “massive problem for (natural selection)”? to the extent that we should let it go as a mechanism for human evolution?

    Well, as a possible parallel, in the area of the observable behavior of inanimate objects: we, at least we laymen, find it almost impossible to attribute any behavior at all to either the “strong force” or the “weak force.” On our scale, they are so overpowered by gravity and electromagnetism that they seem to offer no predictive value at all. Is it therefore time that we abandon those concepts as mechanisms for the behavior of
    physical particles?

  • You’re still quoting from Huxley in Part Five? Cove is bashing the words of a man from over a century ago. What has this to do with modern biology?

    And even Huxley allows for looking after mate and family:

    “Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary RELATIONS OF THE FAMILYy, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.”

    So when Cove responds “Why even look after the family?” he’s attacking a position that not even Huxley holds.

    And Cove gives himself away here: “any man who had on his mind, not only his own survival, but that of a wife and child, would he no match for a man not so encumbered”

    Having a wife is only an ‘encumberment’ is it? Who says? He cannot envisage any situation where she might be an advantage? Let’s take this savage strawman cave man of Cove’s devising who goes round trying to eat other cave men. Say he tries to attack a family and ends up in a fight with the Dad of the family. What’s the rest of the family doing during this fight? Most likely poking the cannibal with sticks or throwing rocks at his head. The solid family unit is going to be an advantage, not a disadvantage. (And that’s even not considering that the man fighting for his life and his family would arguably be fighting harder than the one who just fancied some meat.)

    But let’s even say the cannibal still succeeds – great, he’s got meat for a couple of weeks perhaps. Then he’s got to repeat the process. Then he dies, without offspring, and all his success was for nothing (biologically speaking). Those ‘cannibal genes’ don’t get passed on. The next generation will be the offspring of the dads who fought hardest to protect their kids.

    Alternatively, if we’re purely talking about reasoned out behaviour (rather than instinctive, or ‘cannibal genes’), then why is this savage cave man risking attacking other cave men anyway? Far better to catch wild boar or wooly mammoths than another humans who not only, likely as not will be your equal in a fight, but may have relatives who’ll avenge his death even if you win.

    And all of that is without going into the fact that cannibalism has pretty strong reasons for being selected against in a species anyway, both genetically and culturally.

  • Eric,
    My point is that those people who, even today, invoke natural selection and the concept of survival of the fittest to explain every little bit of human behavior (they are out there – just listen and pay attention to the media), are wasting our time. They are not doing science; they are telling fairytales. They are inappropriately applying a mechanism (natural selection) outside of its useful explanatory scope.

    Instead of trying to explain human behavior in terms of how it maximizes survival, we should be talking instead of how religion, economics, morality, politics, etc. drive human behavior. Those things actually have some explanatory power. Natural selection simply fails as an explanation of anything but the most trivial and banal facts of human life.

    I am not denying that natural selection occurs, but it is such a trivial mechanism that to invoke it to explain anything important is silly and insulting to any thinking person’s intelligence.

  • rericsawyer

    Then we are in ALMOST total agreement. I do think natural selection can be considered for many altruistic traits. As Andrew has shown, they can be quite adaptive, in Darwin’s sense of increasing the chances of one’s genetic fingerprint surviving into future generations.

    My quibble would be with the point does one draw the line signifying God’s care. You have not stated it in this series, but I think it likely that you may be with those who see natural selection as being somewhat outside what “Creation by a divine Creator” would mean; thus, an idea which has a certain repugnance. Whether this reflects your opinion and feelings or not, it is totally foreign to mine. I rather like the idea that “adaptive” traits are the ones simply in fact that work better – are more successful – as contrasted with traits such as augmenting ones diet with ones own weak and available offspring. That since of “That which works” fits well with my understanding of the Torah as, not a code of law such as we humans make, but simply a word from the designer as to “that which works” The Tao, to mix groups.
    I am completely happy with this view of natural selection as a tool by which (even in humans) a transcendent God accomplishes certain, but not all, of His purposes.

  • “but it is such a trivial mechanism that to invoke it to explain anything important is silly ”

    This seems an odd argument, if an argument it even is. How are you determining it is trivial? That’s like saying erosion cannot have caused the Grand Canyon simply because you consider it too trivial. It either caused it or it didn’t, irrespective of whether the process strikes you as having sufficient gravitas.

  • Check out this article which demonstrates my point that natural selection is being vastly oversold as THE mechanism for evolution. It’s a short article, and well worth reading.

  • It’s trivial because the vast majority of human traits were probably not caused by natural selection at all. Please read the short article I linked to above.

  • Bill, thanks for the link. The case the author makes has nothing to do with the argument that Stove makes above. I’m addressing Stove’s argument here. If you don’t want to defend Stove’s argument, just say so.

  • “So no doubt Cromwell, when he had the king’s head cut off, ate it.”

    I guess Stove is trying to be amusing, but this makes no sense. If you come into conflict with someone who is preventing you getting sufficient food, then it doesn’t follow that you eat that person, any more than you’d burn someone who was preventing you accessing fuel. You’re still in conflict with them for basic resources though.

    “any intelligent child of about eight could have told him-that in a “continual free fight of each other against all” there would soon be no children”

    It depends what you mean by ‘continual’, doesn’t it? I guess when I tell my daughter that I’m ‘continually telling you not eat standing up’, then she could reply that if that’s literally all I ever did then I’d soon die of exhaustion, but it would be somewhat pedantic of her, no?

    Notwithstanding that we’ve already pointed out the limitations of quoting a man who died in the 19th Century on this issue, Huxley clearly stated that he wouldn’t expect men to be in such life/death conflict with their immediate family, and ‘any intelligent child of about eight’ would understand the evolutionary benefit of supporting your own offspring.

    “In fact, much of what human beings do every day in helping the genetically weaker goes directly against natural selection.”

    In the West we’re not generally struggling day-to-day for food and water, so have the luxury of helping out others. We all gain from living in a society with a safety net that we know won’t let us starve to death.

    Go to the third world and you’ll see the disabled don’t enjoy the status they do here. In India the streets are full of crippled children depending on the charity of Westerners (they’re pretty much ignored by their able-bodied countrymen).

    And where do we see the most conflict in the world? Where natural resources are short.

    When the last century saw hundreds of millions killed in wars – most in two individually conflicts – I’m not so quick to pat our species on the back for ‘escaping savagery’.

  • “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.”

    So to summarise, essentially Stove is arguing that cooperation and protecting children and women would be favoured by natural selection. Which is what modern biologists also believe.