Podium: Darwinism may hold the key to knowing what it is to be human

"Darwinism" is often associated with a quite narrowly defined scientific picture. Central to this are the view of evolution as change in the frequency of genes; evolution as overwhelmingly driven by competitive natural selection; and the assumption that living things can be arranged on a branching tree, the branches of which are genetically isolated from one another.

I believe that this picture has largely outlived its usefulness, and that evolutionary theory is in the midst of a period of radical rethinking that is shifting the boundaries of how we understand evolution. There is a growing realisation of the importance of cooperation in evolution, an idea that has often been sidelined by an excessive emphasis on competition.

Mutualism and symbiosis, lateral exchange of genes and endosymbiosis, in which one biological entity is integrated into another, and the evolution of many forms of sociality, are among the phenomena that can be included under the concept of cooperation.

Two conclusions follow from the rapid changes that evolutionary ideas are currently undergoing. First, we should adopt a much more open-ended conception of Darwinism. It is hardly a compliment to one of our greatest scientists that we should tie his name to a frozen and dogmatic conception of a scientific theory that we are rapidly leaving behind. I assume that Darwin would have been delighted that evolutionary science had progressed far beyond his first conclusion.

Second, and turning to a different sort of boundary, Darwinism in the narrow sense is widely advertised as providing us insights into human nature and even, consequently, the way we should live. I think particularly of the school of so-called Evolutionary Psychology. Basing our self-conception on increasingly obsolete understandings of science is clearly a bad idea and illustrates where we should draw firm boundaries to Darwinism in the narrow sense even as we expand them in the sense above. However as a young but developing science, and if understood in a properly cautious way, Darwinism may indeed be expected gradually to provide us clearer insight into what it is to be a product of the evolutionary process and, more specifically, what it is to be human.

Professor John Dupre gave the Darwin College Lecture in Cambridge last month