What evolution does not do

Of course evolution does not actually do anything.

Evolution is not causative. It is a label for the effects we see of other factors which effect survival and reproduction. I dislike the description of evolution being as a result of natural selection. Strictly, it is never about selection but always a result of deselection of those not able to survive. The primary “force” which gives evolution is the dying of the unfit. It is not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the good enough. When it is said that some creature is perfectly suited to its environment what is actually meant is that all others not suited to that environment failed to survive. More than 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. We cannot, I think, apply value judgements of “good” or “bad” to the result. It is not correct to even apply the terms “natural” or “unnatural” or “artificial” about the word evolution. The evolution of species in general or any species in particular has always been without direction and without purpose. But it could be that the human species is the first which may be able to introduce an element of purpose and direction to its own future course. Whether this direction can encompass “good” behaviour is still in the realm of fantasy.

It seems to me that the human definition of “good behaviour” has not changed very much in the last 10,000 years. The golden rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) probably became a golden rule whenever it was that our ancestors began cooperating in a serious way and built societies which were larger than the immediate family group. It seems plausible that this value judgement for “good behaviour” begins with the first establishment of clans or tribes. That takes us back at least 50,000 years and maybe even longer. Certainly it goes back to long before the first establishment of permanent settlements and cities (c. 10,000 years ago). But whenever it was that humans developed this value judgement for “good behaviour”, it does not seem to have been much favoured by the forces resulting in evolution.

Clearly some behavioural patterns do impact survival and reproduction and therefore must have some impact on the evolutionary result. Tribes and clans not inclined to cooperate went extinct long ago. Cultures where members did not specialise and cooperate, stagnated and gradually disappeared. The levels of specialisation and cooperation in today’s global society have reached unprecedented levels. If behaviour is to be selected/deselected for then it can only happen to the extent that behaviour is an inherited trait. Moreover, it can only be implemented by the continuous deselection of unwanted behaviour and selection of desired behaviour. That behaviour does have a genetic component is almost certain and that genes are mainly inherited is also certain. Breeding for emotional or behavioural traits is still a very chancy business. Domesticated animals, and even wolves and foxes, have been artificially bred for traits other than the purely physiological. This has involved “deselection” for some emotional traits (aggression for example) or to “select” for others (courage, tolerance of humans, ….). Individuals having desired traits are allowed to breed and those having undesirable traits are not allowed to reproduce. This ensures the passing on of genes. But from genes to behaviour is a very fuzzy step.

“Bad behaviour” is as prevalent today as it was in pre-history. “Bad behaviour” clearly is not deselected by “natural” evolutionary forces. “Good behaviour” is not selected for either. The propensity for violence, aggression and, generally, doing harm to others – albeit by a minority – has not changed much since ancient times. The only possible conclusion is that being “good” or “bad” does not lead to the evolutionary selection – or deselection – of a behavioural trait. What evolution certainly does not do is to choose between “good” and “bad”.

The persistence of bad behaviour through the ages suggests that it may even have some survival value.


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