Life, the universe and everything

Jon Turney

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times, 28 November 1998

It is not just car manufacturers advertising their latest model who have rediscovered evolution. The idea is newly fashionable in a host of academic disciplines as well.

Evolutionary enthusiasts point out that the logic first spelled out properly by Charles Darwin for living things is quite general. Take a population of entities which can reproduce. Find some way of varying them. Tie their prowess in breeding to the variations between them. The characteristics of the population will change over time. Success breeds success.

This general scheme is now being applied to things as diverse as the chemical origins of life, the behaviour of interacting collections of lines of computer code, and the shifting populations of neurons in the developing brain. There are even occasional sightings in more exotic areas like cosmology. The commitment to extending the reach of natural selection is behind this attractively produced quartet of small books, edited from the London School of Economics and offered under the general heading Darwinism Today. There are two shared premises behind all four - that a Darwinian view provides the best available explanation of the subject under discussion, whether it is an embryo, a family or a set of labour statistics; and that the results are really important. The results are mixed, on both counts.

In Shaping Life, the doyen of British evolutionary theory, John Maynard Smith, argues that recent findings in genetics finally show how a bunch of growing cells can turn itself into an adult organism, with limbs, eyes and brain all in their proper places. The wondrous unfolding of embryonic development looks as if it can be accounted for by hierarchies of regulatory genes - and they are the same genes in mice, men and fruit flies -which switch other genes on or off. And, says Maynard Smith, the way these genes act fits perfectly well with other, higher level, ideas about the dynamics of development which tend to find adherents among those unhappy with a gene-centred view of organisms. Time for a reconciliation, he suggests.

Colin Tudge's essay on Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers is less conventional popular science, and is more frankly speculative. He wants to reinterpret the most important break-through in human cultural evolution, the establishment of farming around 10,000 years ago. Contrary to what we were told in school, people have always done some of the things which led to plant cultivation and cattle-rearing, though they only abandoned hunting and gathering and became full-time farmers when they absolutely had to. Not a lot to do with Darwinism, actually, but an intriguing variation on the traditional tale, and well told.

Very Darwinian indeed is Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's investigation of wicked stepmothers (and stepfathers). Yes, they do sometimes kill their stepchildren. It is not in a step-parent's reproductive interest to invest resources raising children who bear none of their genes. In some species, this leads to systematic slaughter. In humans, it seems to weaken some basic restraint on physically harming a child which is behaving in a way which can make any parent feel murderous. The result: having a step parent makes a child around a hundred times more likely to suffer abuse.

This now oft-told story is one of the few really convincing tales to have emerged during the current resurgence of evolutionary psychology. But it seems less significant than the book claims. After all, the vast majority of step-parents don't turn into child-abusers. And the way the numbers fall out means that the majority of abused children still suffer at the hands of their natural parents. So while these findings are worth heeding, they are not going to transform child protection, more's the pity.

One reason Daly and Wilson come on so strong is the resistance they found to their case from those committed to social rather than biological explanations of human behaviour. Kingsley Browne makes the same complaint in his essay on why women don't run large corporations. The trouble is that his case is far less convincing. At first glance, it looks like one of the oldest Darwinian stories - using a reading of human evolution to naturalise the social order. At second glance, it still does.

True, it is a relatively sophisticated version of the story, and he pieces together a superficially plausible account of why it is adaptive for women to value child-rearing over more worldly pursuits. Forget the glass ceiling, says Browne. On average women simply choose to put less time and effort into their careers, so they naturally are under-represented among those who rise to the top.

But his particular evolutionary just-so story depends heavily on the kind of terminological sleight of hand which got a bad name in the first wave of sociobiological writing in the 1970s. We have to believe, for example, that 'risk-taking' and 'achievement' and 'status' mean the same things when we speculate about hunter-gatherers' lives half a million years ago as they do for a desk-bound financier today. Maybe this can be established, but it certainly isn't here. Darwinism is based on a remarkably powerful idea, but it is not a theory of everything, whatever they believe at the LSE.