I’m going to start by sharing some thoughts on some apparent ironies and paradoxes of evolution on our planet. I’m going to focus specifically on the Darwinian theory of natural selection, also commonly known as ‘survival of the fittest’, and how this may apply to humankind in particular.
We humans are so much further down the evolutionary path than every other species aren’t we? We have amazing technologies, we are self-aware, we have governments to organise things, and we seem to continually be making great strides in improving our living standards, as well as our average life spans, especially in the developed (part of the) world of course. There also seems to be a continuing and growing desire to move towards humankind sharing its resources more, and looking out for those who are in need, especially within national borders.
Some call this socialism, which I believe means being friendly and caring to your fellow humans, and sharing with them (unless they’re very rich or foreign of course), ideally via a government agency, as opposed to getting one’s own hands dirty. The desire to see a fair society and a fair world, where everything is shared via central planning is perhaps not a good fit with the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle. Also, the internet seems to be enabling people from around the world to join together in a way never seen before, sharing information and views. In many ways it is a whole new world these past 20 years.
Compared to the other species that share our planet we are in a league of our own, and there is no other species that even comes close to threatening our dominance, although as an arachnaphobic, I am sometimes personally dominated by large spiders.
I have been pondering some of the similarities between humankind and its fellow animals on the planet. In particular, how does the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle affect humans and other animals in their evolution?
Let’s look at some animal examples first.
Did you know that it is very common for animal species to kill (and attempt to kill) others of their own species? Scientists have certainly noticed and postulated on the reasons why, with most conclusions suggesting the killing and violence is driven by an animal’s drive to survive (competing for scarce resources) and also to ensure an animal’s genes survive within its tribe. By killing rivals (and their offspring) in order to gain food or access to mates, an animal is giving itself and its kin the best possible chances for survival.
That seems a sensible approach to take in the jungle, or out on the plains, where every day no doubt presents serious risks to an animal’s existence. Have a look at the video at this link, which shows an adult male monkey attacking the baby of another male, causing its death (warning: a baby monkey appears to die in this clip).
Apparently the female monkey will mate with the dominant male, and is driven by her natural desires in doing so to ensure the survival of the species.
The same behaviour (infanticide) has been seen in many species, including sloths, lions and chimpanzees. All apparently with the same motivation: to ensure the survival of the fittest within the species, and therefore the species itself. A few dead infants is just part of the great fight to survive.
There is also plenty of evidence of inter-species group battles to the death, with a study on chimpanzees providing plenty of evidence:
‘a large team of primatologists led by Michael Wilson of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, analyzed data from 18 chimpanzee communities, along with four bonobo communities, from well-studied sites across Africa. The sites included famous chimp and bonobo hangouts such as the Gombe and Mahale national parks in Tanzania, Kibale in Uganda, Fongoli in Senegal, and Lomako in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The data covered a total of 426 researcher years spent watching chimps and 96 years of bonobo observation. All told, the scientists tallied 152 chimp killings, of which 58 were directly observed, 41 inferred from evidence such as mutilated bodies on the ground, and 53 suspected either because the animals had disappeared or had injuries consistent with fighting.
The researchers created a series of computer models to test whether the observed killings could be better explained by adaptive strategies or human impacts. The models incorporated variables such as whether the animals had been fed by humans, the size of their territory (smaller territories presumably corresponding to greater human encroachment), and other indicators of human disturbance, all of which were assumed to be related to human impacts; and variables such as the geographic location of the animals, the number of adult males, and the population density of the animals, which the team considered more likely to be related to adaptive strategies.
Online today in Nature, the team reports that the models that best explained the data were those that assumed the killings were related to adaptive strategies, which in statistical terms were nearly seven times as strongly supported as models that assumed human impacts were mostly responsible. For example, 63% of the fallen warriors were attacked by animals from outside their own in-group, supporting, the authors say, previous evidence that chimps in particular band together to fight other groups for territory, food, and mates. Moreover, males were responsible for 92% of all attacks, confirming earlier hypotheses that warfare is a way for males to spread their genes. In contrast, the team concludes, none of the factors related to human impacts correlated with the amount of warfare observed.’
Another comment I read in another article on the same study concluded the following:
‘But rather than having deep implications for human nature, the authors of the new study suggest that chimpanzee homicide - which previous research has estimated to occur at a similar rate to that seen in hunter-gatherer human societies - goes up and down as a simple consequence of competition for resources.’
Also, ants are well known for killing each other in wars:
‘Ants are the only animal besides humans which wage war in organized batallions, against other organized opponents. Like humans, ants wage war to capture territory and food resources from other ant colonies. Sometimes ant wars lead to the total defeat of an opponent and the survivors are captured and held as slaves.
Of course, war in itself may not be a great example of intelligence. But the organization, planning and coordination required to wage war is the product of intelligence.
In contrast to the war waging behaviour of many ant colonies, some ant species settle their difference in single combat between champions chosen by each colony. Bert Holldobler, in an article entitled Tournaments and Slavery in a Desert Ant, noted that a species of desert ant conducts tournaments "in which hundreds of ants perform highly stereotyped display fights". The losing ant colony is then enslaved.’
These animals are doing what comes naturally, and doing it to ensure the survival of their progeny, their ‘tribe’ and/or their species, and it is inevitable that the fittest and strongest will survive and prosper, whilst the weak will perish, slowly but surely.
Are any of the animal behaviours we see inherently evil? We assume that animals are incapable of moral judgements, so I think it is fair to say there is no malicious intent involved, just self-interest as individual animals, which collectively equals self-interest as a species. It could also be argued that these animals are in competition daily with other animal species, all of them battling for survival in the wilderness, with no guarantees that extinction can be avoided. Really sounds like tough lives these animals have to live, I’m glad I’m a human.
It seems the prosimians have had a struggle which continues to this day:
‘Over 90 species of lemurs still exist, but many are listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Threatened, and all are gravely imperiled due to the near-total and ongoing destruction of their rainforest habitat.’ Good luck to the prosimians, judging by this little fellow, they’re going to need it:
Let’s compare humankind’s behaviour with that of the animals now. Remember, we’re far more highly evolved, with those in power the most highly evolved amongst us (the likes of Lagarde, Yellen, Clinton and Putin all examples of powerful highly-evolved leaders). Also, those up in the top 1% of the wealthiest would generally be more highly evolved than those in the bottom 99%, as they have somehow managed to secure a disproportionate share of wealth and power, to their own advantage and that of their family and their ‘tribes’.
As a species though, we are quite prolific killers of our own kind aren’t we? An irony of our evolution over time has been the resources that powerful leaders have been able to direct towards developing weapons, in order to further their power and help to ensure their survival and prosperity.
Just looking at the numbers of deaths caused by wars through the ages reveals that hundreds of millions have perished.
Then we could consider deaths caused by one’s own rulers.
The totals here appear to come to well over a hundred million people. Our species has indeed become very efficient at killing each other over the years. Despite this level of killing, there are still currently over 7 billion humans on this small planet, with more arriving every day, and of course many departing.
In both examples of war and democide, it would appear that the more recent examples (within the past 200 years) have accounted for many more lives than in earlier times, although the growth of the global population and technological advances have certainly played a part in the figures. As we progress as a species, our technology enables more proficient killing; another example of the fittest surviving, whilst the weakest are killed. I don’t see any evidence to date that mankind is moving away from killing its fellow humans across the planet in battles for power and survival, although we’ve had a relative lull since the 1960s.
If we consider why these millions of people have died, we could come up with dozens of explanations, but I posit that ultimately every death was caused by one of two factors: powerful factions looking to expand their power base/territory via conquest; and powerful leaders looking to consolidate internal power by exterminating potential enemies. Were any of the powerful leaders psychopathic or evil in nature, or were they merely driven by the same desire to survive and prosper as we saw in the chimpanzees? (Oh dear).
Ultimately it would appear that humankind is driven by exactly the same ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘survival of the species’ evolutionary motivations as the animals mentioned above. Each leader knows that there are scarce resources on the planet, and so seeks an advantage within his own territory first (often via mass democide), to ensure his own ‘tribe’ has the better chance of long-term survival. Many leaders (especially of very large territories) then seek further scarce resources by waging wars against others. In every case, the strongest and fittest (and the most intelligent/advanced) will generally gain a victory, often at the expense of millions of lives. Is this pattern just an example of human animals behaving as evolutionary theory would dictate?
I have pondered whether the behaviour of powerful leaders is inherently evil, or simply a manifestation of evolutionary forces within our species. After all, we are merely the most advanced animal species on our planet, nothing more. I’ll reserve my opinion on that matter, but we all can see how the powerful prosper through the ages (and today), and their progeny too. Humankind seems to have prospered overall too I think, although we have yet to see the whole planet reach the living standards of the developed part of the world.
Does that lie ahead I wonder, or will the powerful continue to use force to capture scarce resources, ensuring an imbalanced world continues, where only the fittest survive and prosper?
I wonder if evolution will one day become ultimately self-defeating, given that humankind now possesses the capability to destroy all life on earth via nuclear war (perhaps a few cockroaches would survive).
Given the evolutionary imperative, an expanding global population, and finite resources, it is clear we face an uncertain future as a species, but perhaps humankind will realise that nuclear war is futile, as it does run the risk of extinction for the species. There is no guarantee of course that powerful leaders, sensing weakness on the part of their competitors, will not take a chance and attempt a surprise nuclear strike, which could then escalate into a global nuclear war. We are still in the very early days of the existence of such potentially catastrophic outcomes. This is yet another evolutionary irony: why would we develop the capability to cause our own extinction as a species? Oh well, too late now.
Also interesting is the fact that humankind considers itself to be more evolved than our fellow species because we are self-aware and have developed a sense of morality. The vast majority of humankind is repulsed by the idea of war and democide. A very large proportion of our species has (in recent times) adopted a view that it is far better to share our resources and to help and protect the weak across the planet. Is this an attempt to step in a different evolutionary direction? Is that step backwards or forwards though? Will more highly evolved humans kill these peaceful caring humans if it comes to the crunch?
Survival of the fittest to help the survival of the species does not seem to be a natural fit with a ‘sharing’ philosophy amongst our species. I believe we will see the answer to this particular conundrum reveal itself over the next 30-50 years however. I suspect that Mother Nature (yet again) has a major part to play in our evolution, and many of us do not realise how the past 200 years or so have been a period of relative natural calm on our planet, resulting in relative abundance of supplies. Solar cycles seem to be pointing towards lower temperatures, and perhaps another mini ice age. Such periods in our past have resulted in increased competition for scarce resources, so I wonder whether we will once again see a long period of suffering, wars and deaths, with the fittest (best prepared, most innovative, most aggressive) surviving and flourishing?
The period ahead perhaps presents an opportunity for humankind to evolve without the need for hundreds of millions of deaths in a fight for survival. Will we find a way to move forward collaboratively as a species, or will evolution force us to compete via bloody wars once again. We will see in due course.
Is the ultimate paradox of evolution the fact that the survival of the fittest would need to be cast aside once and for all to demonstrate any real difference between humans and our fellow species. Paradoxically, that would then disprove the theory of natural selection, as we would have moved beyond our inbred instinct for personal survival, and that of our own tribe. We would become one giant tribe, all willing to share rather than fight. In theory it seems possible, but I’ve yet to see much evidence in its favour.
It does make one ponder the vagaries of national borders, as opposed to a new world order where we are all in the same boat together. Perhaps this is what the Eurozone is aiming for, a step forward by coming together rather than waging war after war?
Certainly worth a try in my opinion.
I just read this comment:
'Yet in his essay “The White Revolutionary,” Kissinger argued that Bismarck, with his essentially Darwinian view of international relations as an amoral struggle for survival'
It seems others have considered these matters over the centuries.