Evolution is good

Smear campaign

Evolution gets a lot of bad press from both lay people and biologists.

Biologists don't tend to blame evolution for the holocaust - but they do often claim that evolution is cruel, or indifferent to suffering.

Darwin was quick to express this view:

What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.

Dawkins provides some examples:

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous--indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.

Treating evolution as though it were a good thing is a point of view advanced by English biologist Julian Huxley in the 1920s and 1930s. Huxley tried to make evolution into a kind of religion. In contrast, his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, thought that evolution was a thoroughly bad thing, and I agree with him. I would hold it up as an awful warning.

The shark may outswim you, the cheetah outrun you, the swift outfly you, the capuchin outclimb you, the elephant outpower you, the redwood outlast you. But you have the biggest gifts of all: the gift of understanding the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence [and the] gift of revulsion against its implications.

If, as my wife suggests to me, selfish genes are Frankensteins and all life their monster, it is only we that can complete the fable by turning against our creators. Yes, man can be vile too, but we are the only potential island of refuge from the implications of the Devil's Chaplain: from the cruelty, and the clumsy, blundering waste.

Unjustified slander

It does not seem to be true that nature is indifferent to suffering.

Nature is interested in the efficient utilisation of resources - while suffering organisms are usually not acting effectively at performing their ecological tasks - simply because they are distracted by pain.

It follows that nature will often work to eliminate pain and suffering. Rather than being indifferent to pain and suffering nature actively works towards eliminating them.

Consider an example: human back pain. Back pain is mostly a result of our relatively recent switch to an upright posture. This is evidently a problem for humans - and because it causes unnecessary debilitation, nature is working on fixing it.

What about all the other supposed horrors of nature? Lets look at some of them in turn:

  • Parasitism; nobody likes being eaten from the inside. However parasites are very important to the dynamics of evolution. For example, it is thought that parasites may be largely responsible for the maintenance of sexual reproduction. Also, in most cases, it benefits parasites to keep their hosts in relatively good shape. A poorly host often cannot do an effective job of infecting others.

  • Predators; standard footage for nature being "red in tooth and claw" involves big cats bringing down gazelles. Yet how is nature supposed to work? Should it not have a food chain - where creatures eat each other? It seems to me that that's been responsible for much evolutionary progress.

  • Sexual combat; what about fights over mates? Actually nature goes to considerable lengths to prevent such fights. There are all kinds of strength displays, and roaring rituals - intended to reduce the costs to species of male combat.

  • Aging; senescence is a favourite illustration of evolutionary indifference to suffering. Yet in the wild, very few creatures die or even suffer much as a result of it. Most organisms die before they senesce. Of those that do not, nature tries its best to make sure that death is catastrophic - and that the organisms systems all break down on roughly the same timescale.

Red in tooth and claw

The image of nature as a violent, bloody struggle is mostly an inaccurate one. Cooperation is ubiquitous in nature. Many relationships are symbiotic ones. If you look at nature, you simply don't see that much in the way of avoidable suffering. Death when it comes is usually swift.

Motives for mischaracterisation

So, why do biologists so frequently describe nature - the subject of their study - in such unpleasant terms?

One reason is to snub the god enthusiasts. The idea that nature is horrible has been used as an argument against a benevolent god - e.g. by Charles Darwin:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

Another reason appears to me to involve signalling altruism.

Biologists are often blamed for appearing to endorse the horrors of nature, and so they sometimes feel the need to distance themselves from them.

By condemning the natural atrocities which evolutionary theory is sometimes blamed for, one can be seen as adopting moral high ground.

One possible reply to "wasn't the holocaust just natural selection in action?" is "yes, but we can do better than that".

Remaining problems are being worked on

Evolution, as we see it today, is not perfect. However, it is a work in progress. An alternative to the proposed solution of ditching natural selection is reforming the existing system.

Consider aging, for example. Rapid aging of the dominant lifeform is one of the things nature is currently working on fixing. To cover a large search space and come up with new designs you inevitably need to discard old ones. However, there's no good engineering reason for the designs of the brain and that of the body to be linked. In computer science, there are the concepts of universal computers and the software/hardware divide - which allows frequent software upgrades to be made without discarding the hardware it runs on. That is an important piece of survival-tech which nature will deploy throughout the higher animals. This adaptation will contribute to a faster and more resource-efficient search of design space by evolution. Already most of our important survival technology has leaped out of humans and now transmits itself down the generations in the new digital inheritance media - via computers. Already your knowledge of the world no longer dies with you - it potentially lives forever - provided you can get it onto the internet.

These developments required human engineers for their development, and those have only just been evolved. Nature needs a chance to deploy this recent technology more widely.

Nature is good

It is curious that humans so often characterise the process responsible for their own construction as being horrible.

By contrast, I tend to think nature is beautiful and good. My own moral nature seems to me to be a reflection of the deep drive towards cooperation in nature.

Nature loves building cooperative systems. Globalisation is merely the most recent example of this. Every one of us is a huge cooperative colony of tiny microscopic organisms.

Cooperation is a deep, constructive principle of nature - and the human moral drive towards cooperative behaviour is a manifestation of it. We saw the same thing happen with the social insects - they are cooperative colonies of cooperative colonies of organisms constructed via mutaully-beneficial symbiosis, of genes that learned to live together - four layers of nested heirarchical cooperation.

Let us not forget that evolution built us, including the moral sensibilites with which some people so love to turn and damn it with.

Let us celebrate nature's achievements and moral progress so far - even if we also castigate it for not yet having reached perfection.


  1. Gary Wolf - Julian Huxley And The Idolatry Of Evolution;

Tim Tyler | Contact | http://alife.co.uk/