Science confronts the beast within

Today's fashion for Darwinism has its darker side - an attempt to draw moral and social conclusions from what biology tells us is the true nature of the human animal.

Human life in its natural state, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes remarked, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", and, unrestrained, human nature would break out into an anarchic "war of every man against every man". Over the three centuries since the publication of Leviathan in 1651, this prospect has come to seem so dreadful that government has been given the role of inhibiting these basic human tendencies, and social contracts have been devised to ensure everyone gains enough from participating in society to prevent the strong from taking what they want for themselves.

Not any more. A new orthodoxy is becoming fashionable in our time which praises as a virtue, rather than decrying as a vice, the aggressive and competitive instincts of human beings. Politically, the fashion is manifest in the rise of the New Right Republican Party of Newt Gingrich in the US. Intellectually, however, this movement draws its wellspring from an unlikely source: science.

The past couple of years have seen a flood of popular books on evolutionary biology and on the application of Darwinian principles to human beings and to society. Since May this year alone, at least five evocative titles have been published: Evolution and Healing, Reinventing Darwin, River out of Eden - A Darwinian View of Life, The End of Evolution, and The Moral Animal - The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.

In Britain, the London School of Economics is running a series of "Darwin Seminars" to explore topics ranging from "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating" through "Female Body Shape: Attractiveness, Health, and Fecundity at a Glance" to "War as an Institution". So popular have these seminars become that they have had to move into the largest lecture halls at the LSE.

In the main, this interest in evolutionary biology reflects the ferment of excitement within the subject itself, as professional biologists realise that they can make comprehensive sense of the bewildering variety and diversity of the natural world. By applying powerful mathematical techniques taken from the theory of games, they can explain, for example, why it is in some animals' interest to display "altruism" towards kin or even unrelated animals, although it might be at the cost of their own lives. Not just the anatomy but the behaviour of animals can now be explained in evolutionary terms. As Richard Dawkins writes in River out of Eden: "Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions."

There is professional controversy, too. Niles Eldredge's Reinventing Darwin, to be published later this week, is a passionate polemic against the "ultra-Darwinists" - the most prominent of whom is, of course, Richard Dawkins - whom he accuses of "physics envy" as they try to reduce everything in the living world to one element: competition to pass one's genes on to the next generation. The ultras are usually theorists and geneticists, and against them Eldredge pitches the "naturalists" - those who actually go out and observe animals and plants in their natural state and who regard it as "mere empty rhetoric" to claim that complex biological systems can be interpreted simply in terms of selfish genes struggling to survive into the next generation.

A good academic spat offers harmless enjoyment to the rest of us, and as Richard Dawkins is no mean polemicist himself, this one promises fair entertainment. But the contemporary fashion for Darwinism has its darker side. The very reductionism Eldredge decries within the profession is being applied, mainly by popularisers and those on the fringes of the subject, in psychology and the social sciences, for example, to human behaviour and society. There is an attempt to derive a new ethics from evolution, an attempt to derive what is right and what is wrong by looking at what biology tells us is the true inner nature of the human animal and at our innate programming, which, allegedly, drives us to struggle to pass on our genes.

Some of the answers have been seized for political ends. The trend has been most marked in the US, with the publication of The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argues that the members of the "underclass" in American cities (predominantly blacks) are genetically pre-ordained to be stupid and to be failures in complicated Western industrial societies. It was followed by Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, which, although it explicitly disclaims a right-wing political agenda, nevertheless finds justification for Victorian values from evolutionary biology.

Robert Wright concedes that the new Darwinism "lends itself to morally conservative use". His vision of human nature is, if anything, more apocalyptic even than Hobbes's: fathers kill their step-children allegedly because there is no genetic relationship between them, and "natural" fathers kill theirs because they have come to doubt, consciously or unconsciously, their genetic connection; "it is 'natural' in the sense of being 'approved' by natural selection, for a man to kill someone he finds sleeping with his wife," he writes. "Rape may, in the same sense, be 'natural'."

Similar ideas were briefly fashionable as "sociobiology" 20 years ago. Steven Rose, Professor of Biology at the Open University, says: "Clearly, there is a new round of this going on." He cites a recent scientific paper that argued for sexual selection in mathematical skills: girls are worse at maths than boys because, in our evolutionary history, males needed to navigate more effectively in three dimensions as they hunted for food. This sort of thing is "vulgar neo-Darwinism", says Professor Rose. Males and females do - self-evidently - differ, and some of that difference may be expressed in intellectual as well as physiological terms, but anyone trying to account for the massive present-day differences in mathematical attainment would do well to look for a social explanation, in terms of the inferiority of maths teaching in girls' schools in Britain over the past century, as detailed exhaustively in the Cockcroft report Mathematics Counts in 1982.

Patrick Bateson, professor of ethology (the biological study of behaviour) and Provost of King's College Cambridge, says: "When evolution is applied to social problems, it's fraught with difficulties." The proponents of the new sociobiology tend to ignore one of humanity's most distinctive features: culture. Behaviour learnt by one individual can be transmitted down the generations in a manner that is neither Darwinian nor genetic. Professor Bateson has studied the relationship between the avoidance of inbreeding (biological) and the development of taboos against incest (social). There is no direct link, he says.

The superficially plausible idea that the social mechanism evolved to fulfil the biological imperative of avoiding weakened children from inbreeding does not hold up under close examination, he maintains. The prohibitions on marriage contained in the Kindred and Affinity table of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, for example, are against the marriage of people who - given the social conditions of the time when the table was drawn up - would have been likely to grow up together from an early age, not just those who are genetically close.

The biological link, according to Professor Bateson, is that "People who are familiar with members of the opposite sex from early life are not much attracted to those individuals, and when they spot others who are, they disapprove." The incest taboo is "all about the supression of disharmonising abnormal behaviour" - it is about the promotion of social cohesion rather than the rejection by society of inbreeding. The taboo remains because "once there is verbal transmission of culture, you get the transmission of people disapproving of things which they wouldn't do themselves". Similarly for the prohibition on eating pork, characteristic of both Judaism and Islam: "To look for a Darwinian explanation, in terms of people dying from tapeworm parasites, would be dotty," says Professor Bateson.

Although some of today's sociobiology is better than that of 20 years ago, Professor Bateson believes "there is the taint of unwittingly projecting ideology on to biological material and then coming back to society and saying 'There it is'."

For Professor Roy Porter, the social historian of science and medicine, that the new social Darwinism should end in ultra-conservative politics is no surprise. "Marx's interpretation of Darwinism was that it was political economy applied to the natural world, and historically speaking, Darwin applied to nature what Adam Smith and Malthus had applied to economics and society. The new sociobiology grudgingly incorporates elements of altruism but the overall model is still competition."

Both Rose and Porter see the multi-billion-dollar international project to tease out and analyse all human genes - the Human Genome Project - as one of the vehicles propelling the new sociobiology. "It's easy publicity for scientists to say 'we have identified a gay gene or a violence gene'," Professor Rose points out. "That's not journalists mis-speaking science, it's what the scientists say. For people at the cutting edge of genetics, complexity has already set in. But one stage removed, the sociobiologists and psychologists are still in simple mode."

"The genome project is the highest spending and biggest one going," Professor Porter says. "But if we believe that by understanding the genetic alphabet we'll understand better how society should be organised, we're deluding ourselves." Referring to the recent spate of car burning in Luton, he continues: "The unemployment figures tell us more than genetics about social behaviour. It's the cultural differences that are more interesting determinants than the basic genetic background. We have the same genes as people had 30 years ago but our society is more violent."

But the policies that follow from social explanations require money and political will. The new Darwinism instead promotes individualism and selfishness - "the greedy gene", Professor Porter notes. "I can't get beyond the idea that all this is a form of politics rather than science."

Darwin's heirs: how the species evolved

Richard Herrnstein, the co-author of The Bell Curve with the right- wing political theorist Charles Murray (left), was professor of psychology at Harvard University until his death in September last year. In the late 1960s, he was an energetic propagandist for the Californian psychologist, Arthur Jensen, who claimed his IQ tests had shown that blacks were less intelligent than whites and that this difference was genetic and therefore ineradicable by "affirmative action" programmes. The Bell Curve argues that there is now a "cognitive elite" in American society composed of people clever enough to work by manipulating ideas and abstractions. They are the leaders and beneficiaries of society and the (stupid) underclass is doomed to manual labour. Again, the agenda is that cognitive ability is somehow fixed and that the social environment cannot alter it.

Dean Hamer, a genetics researcher at the US National Cancer Institute, is the man behind the claim that homosexual orientation is influenced by the genes. The alleged discovery of the so-called "gay gene" provoked widely different reactions: gay pressure groups in the USA welcomed the announcement on the grounds that if being gay was in the genes then it was "natural". The alternative interpretation was summed up in the newspaper headline: "Gay genes finding offers abortion hope". Recently, Hamer's data has been questioned as other researchers have failed to replicate his findings.

Robert Wright, an American journalist, has tried to derive a new morality on the basis of recent developments in evolutionary biology and genetics. His book, The Moral Animal, argues that our moral sentiments are themselves the product of evolution. After spending most of the book explaining how selfishness is "natural" (and that even altruism is selfishness in disguise), however, there is a leap of logic to the conclusion that morality consists in fighting the beast within and in trying not to be selfish.

Niles Eldredge, curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, and Stephen Jay Gould (below) of Harvard University are among the world's leading theorists about Darwinian evolution. But they reject the reductionist notion that genes are just about the only things that need to be considered in evolution. Instead, they believe that social economics and environment fundamentally influence evolutionary change.

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