Re: Further Evolution beyond the Human?

Gordon S. Little ()
14 Oct 1996 22:33:03 GMT

stgprao@sugarland.unocal.COM (Richard Ottolini) writes:

> In article <>,
> Brian Davison <> wrote:
> > I have an interesting theory on evolution to consider. It seems most
> > likely that the natural process of evolution is finished, and mankind
> > the final product of that evolution. So the question remains, what
> > comes next?

> If you read Stephen Gould's latest book "Full House" he'll explain why
> concept of evolution being "directional" to "higher" or "more complex"
> organisms is a folk fallacy.

Thanks for the pointer to Gould's new book. While I can't agree with the
original poster that "the natural process of evolution is finished" --
so simplistic -- and much as I enjoy reading Gould, I also have a problem
his opinion on this point, so I'll be interested to see how he defends it.

Granted that Gould is the expert and I'm not, we still know that experts
aren't always right, and this idea makes no sense to me. I think it's
in a far broader bias of Gould's, which I call the "humans are special"

First, the opinion. Gould expresses a form of it in his essay *Our Natural
Place*. He criticizes the views of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom he
accuses elsewhere of being a co-conspirator in the Piltdown hoax, with
arguments that are intriguing but less than fully convincing. I suspect
Piltdown is far from irrelevant. Teilhard's ideas were wrapped up in a lot
religious mysticism about "matter and spirit," but essentially he believed
that evolution did follow an upward direction, toward greater consciousness
and intelligence. Gould's paraphrase of Teilhard is that "Related species
should form a set of *multiple, parallel lineages*, each diverging and
adapting to a local environment, but each gaining continually in its
spirit/matter ratio."

Gould tries to refute this by doing something he does elsewhere: burying
head in the sand of details. "Few paleontologists can discern any general,
much less inevitable, trend to increasing braininess in the history of
Most animal species are insects, mites, copepods, nematodes, mollusks, and
their cousins, and I, at least, can see no pervasive trend among them
the domination of matter by spirit. And the evolutionary tree does look
to me like a complexly wandering and ramifying bush than a bundle of
twigs growing upward in a definite direction."

This last point is a nitpick. As far as I know there's no general tendency
for intelligence to increase within species, as there often is for size to
increase within species, though I don't think the same is true of phyla.
Teilhard might have overstated his case by insisting on "multiple, parallel
lineages." But this is not the main issue. Neither is the terminology of
debate. Pointing out that Teilhard talked a lot of mumbo-jumbo about
doesn't in itself destroy the essence of his argument.

Also, we should be careful what we mean if we suggest, using passive voice

a popular device for creating ambiguity and hiding facts -- that evolution
directed." It could mean -- and the Jesuit Teilhard probably had some such
idea -- that some intelligent force (God) is consciously directing and
evolution. For that idea we have no proof at all, and Gould would be right
reject it on the evidence. But if we mean that evolution follows a
in obedience to some natural law that is not only evident, but explainable,
that's entirely different. And that's what Gould rejects, quite

What difference does it make if insects and mollusks and other low
aren't very brainy? Simply being numerous doesn't make them the most
significant features of the evolutionary tree. Some people can't see the
forest for the trees. Gould, literally, can't see the tree for the
He's got his head buried in the foliage, saying "this twig grows up, this
grows down, and this one grows sideways. There's no pattern at all." He's
refusing to stand back and look at the big picture. Whatever direction the
branches grow in, who could possibly deny that the tree as a whole grows
upwards -- and has been doing so since the beginning of life on Earth?

Is there any reason why it should inevitably do so? To me it's obvious.
true that increased intelligence, or complexity of any kind, doesn't
necessarily confer a survival advantage on any given species. If there's
selection pressure to evolve in such a direction, then it won't. It's
that intelligence or complexity can even be disadvantages to many species,
their lifestyle gives them no opportunity to exploit them.

But by the laws of chance, there will eventually arise opportunities --
ecological niches -- in which intelligence or complexity in some form does
confer a decided survival advantage. And, again by the laws of chance,
organisms will eventually evolve to exploit those niches.

Some of those new organisms may not survive in the long term. They may be
wiped out by some later change in the environment, a common event in the
history of life. But if that increase in complexity is of sufficient value
that it confers a general survival advantage -- if it's a quantum leap in
survival capability -- the chances are that it will be retained.

The human brain is just such a quantum leap. So is a pair of legs, or
or anything that enables an organism to move instead of waiting for food to
come to it; or an eye or an ear, or any kind of sense organ that helps it
avoid danger or find food better. No doubt these organs themselves evolved
a series of much smaller steps; not a whole eye at once, but a
patch (as Gould himself points out). Just the same, once these things have
evolved, the chances are they'll stick around. Evolution will have reached
new plateau. It won't go backwards and lose what it's gained. So the next
chance move can only be in an upward direction from there.

Here's another way of looking at it. Evolution, as Gould rightly implies,
doesn't of itself "point" in any particular direction. Species exert a
of pressure "outwards" on their environment through random variation. The
environment exerts a counterpressure, selection pressure, "inwards" on
species, forcing them to conform, to shape themselves to fitness criteria.
It's the interaction of these two forces that produces Darwinian evolution.
But the primary pressure, the force of Life itself, is random variation.
Without that, there would not only be no evolution, there would be no life
all. Life is always pushing the limits and expanding them.

"Pressure" is like the air in a tire. It doesn't push in any favored
direction. It pushes equally in all directions at once. But once we stick
nail in the tire and open up a hole, the air hisses out through it, driven
pressure. The air isn't being "directed" through the hole, any more than
evolution is being "directed." It exploits the hole, because the hole is
there. But once the air is out, there's no putting it back.

The pressure of Life is the same. It isn't directed anywhere special. But
exploits every niche it can find. Once it finds totally new niches, which
call for totally new capabilities, it rarely loses them. Life "breaks
Muscles break out. Legs break out. Eyes break out. Intelligence breaks
Once it's broken out, there's no putting it back, short of a worldwide
catastrophe. It can only go onward and upward. (Note too that if we
out" of the Earth itself, even a "world" wide catastrophe won't stop us.)

It's possible that Gould is only arguing about other details, and wouldn't
deny all this if it were put to him. But he's too often anxious to
to other details, and balks at confronting ideas like this. Ironically,
same balkiness is shown by creationists in denying, not just the fact, but
possibility, of evolution itself. Creationists refuse to encompass the
significance of geological time, even if they admit to its length in the
place, which many of them don't. They argue that an eye or a wing couldn't
possibly have evolved just by chance. Of course it didn't do it all once,
already pointed out. But they won't comprehend how long even a million
is, or how much can happen in that time. So they can't see just how much
laws of chance can do, and almost inevitably will do, given enough time.

Gould proposes that significant evolutionary changes can occur in as little
ten thousand years or less. Yet he refuses to take the next step up and
declare what the laws of chance will inevitably do, given enough time --
hundreds of millions of years -- to drive life upward to higher complexity.

His refusal may seem odd, but while it does reflect a very broad pattern of
thought habits, I don't think it's faulty logic so much as bias, an
turning away when faced with the implications of some particular line of
thought. I see it as characterized by, if not rooted in, the "humans are
special" bias. This bias takes two different and quite opposite forms, but
the motivation behind them is the same: the need for reassurance.

The first or "religious" form is found -- not surprisingly -- in
among others, and tends to be associated with right-wing positions: hence
"religious right." Religion doesn't have to be incompatible with science
objectivity, since religious faith occupies the realm of the
which science, occupied with testing, largely cannot touch. I personally
liked Einstein's opinion on the existence of God. But science has long
encroaching on the traditional territory of religion by falsifying some of
major beliefs, and it's there that we find "irrational" resistance.

It's not enough to explain the persistence of creationism, or the
of Galileo, among other events, by "the influence of religious teaching,"
even people's reluctance to give up our first guesses about how the
works or how we got to be here. These beliefs are tenacious because faith
alone is not enough for many people. They need "proof." If God created
humans separately as a deliberate act, to give them dominion over the earth
(as Genesis puts it) -- or in Galileo's time, if the entire universe
around our planet, like courtiers bowing to a King -- surely this is proof
that "humans are special." It proves that God (or God's laws, anyway) must
looking after us, and all will be well. The "proof" must be defended at
costs against alarming theories like evolution, because the fear that we
be on our own is too frightening.

I wonder if a modern-day Jesus would have derided creationists as "doubting
Thomases," "ye of little faith," who demand "proof" of their faith even if
that "proof" doesn't fit with discovered reality. I'm sure we can find
of examples of this in other religions and cultures, but it's notable that
even in Western culture, when traditional religious faith is undermined,
from yielding to a new "age of reason," all kinds of irrational beliefs
up to replace it. They include everything from the mystic powers of
and pyramids to a risen Elvis to UFOs, von Daniken's "astronauts" in
particular. All these provide pretexts for a hope that someone, or some
at least, "out there" might be looking after us.

Gould, as a celebrated contributor to evolutionary theory, is at the
pole from any of this. But the "humans are special" bias has a second, or
"humanist" form. If we can't prove that God, or the laws of nature, are
to look after us, then many people need reassurance that we're fully
of looking after ourselves. Since individuals can't always do this for
themselves, one corollary is that we have to do it "collectively"; and the
"humanist" form of this bias tends to be associated with left-wing

In evolutionary theory, one consequence of this bias, up to the early
twentieth century anyway, was the persistent idea that if humans evolved
apes, then it must have been our brain that evolved first, or at least in
tandem with physical changes such as upright walking. In reality, the
was true: upright walking came first, and the final enlargement of the
that made us fully "human" in the modern sense was relatively recent.

Not that anyone claimed we woke up one day, looked around, and said "Hey
we're *human*! What are we doing swinging in trees and shuffling around on
our knuckles? Why don't we walk upright like men? Let's get rid of these
hairy ape bodies and grow some proper human faces, with chins. And let's
start using tools and stuff." It was far subtler than that. Yet
it all still lay the hope that if humans did evolve from apes, it was our
wonderful, "special" human brain that somehow drove it all; that in some
we consciously helped to direct our own evolution. If God isn't
things expressly for our benefit, then humans must be in control.

Gould of course believes no such thing about the order of human evolution.
Yet this bias undoubtedly contributed to the too-easy acceptance of the
Piltdown fraud: a large modern cranium with an ape jaw. While Gould
recognizes the role of belief in "brain primacy," he attributes this simply
a "flaw in logic," based on analogy with the role of intelligence in the
modern world. He doesn't see the underlying, more emotional root of the
which lies in human hopes and fears. In another essay, on Lucy, he
(though without denying) the fact that science was ever misled by "brain
primacy." Here he directs our attention to the present instead of the

Yet in other areas Gould never denies that science has suffered from bias,
especially in the past. Far from it. In *The Mismeasure of Man* and many
other writings, he's only too ready to attack any example he can find of
"racist" and "sexist" biases, especially in the measuring of human
intelligence. Here he directs our attention more to the past than to the
present, although science, which has always made some stupid mistakes in
past, progresses overall toward more refined and accurate knowledge.

In recent years it seems increasingly hard for Gould to write an essay
tilting at something connected to this topic. He opposes the "strict
Darwinists" who hold that every feature of an organism must necessarily be
adaptive. I expect he's right about that; but he takes it too far. In one
essay where he ventures into the field of gender, *Male Nipples and
Ripples*, he debunks Freudian misconceptions about female sexuality that
now glaringly obvious, but he bends over so far in the opposite direction
to suggest, absurdly, that female sexuality has no adaptive function at
it just arose as a homologous by-product of male sexuality.

As this issue affects the brain, Gould is anxious to suggest that our brain
development is not necessarily adaptive; that nature may have
endowed us with an overcapacity that we didn't need for survival in
environments, which we're now fully free to use for other purposes.

Gould doesn't want to see our "special" human brain measured and studied in
detail, any more than creationists want to see Homo Erectus fossils dug up,
for fear of what it might prove. The same is true over much of today's
for which Gould has taken up a cudgel. There we find social
run rampant, every human trait attributed to "socialization" and "culture"
static "structures" of various kinds (as if there were no dynamic
differences that built those structures in the first place), outright
that intelligence differences play a role in human society, and even of the
pattern of innate difference between the sexes -- a fact for which there's
just as overwhelming evidence as there is for evolution itself. Truly this
the "religion" of our time, complete with irrational beliefs to bolster

What faith? Faith in humans, naturally. If God or the laws of nature
working consistently in our favor, especially if they seem to be the cause
much ruthless Darwinian competition in a brutal, dog-eat-dog universe, then
it's not good enough to know that humans are able to override much of
law through reason and compassion. Humans must be free of nature's law
entirely. Our wonderful, "special" brains must make us free to be whatever
want to be. And not just some or most humans, but every human. All that's
stopping us is "socialization," or "culture," or a whole slew of "isms," or
whatever. Biology or the differential capabilities and drives nature
in us must have nothing to do with human woes. They can be banished by
a magic wand of "reeducation."

This is all very well, and it's not to say we can't improve our human lot
substantially; but unfortunately any doctrine that refuses to take reality
into account is doomed to hurt many people instead of helping them.

Clues to Gould's belief are abundant throughout his writing, but in that
central essay, *Our Natural Place*, he utters the magic words explicitly:
"Humans are so special." Yes, we are "special," and unique on the Earth;
that doesn't mean we're as free of the influence of nature's laws as Gould
would like to think. Much of the essay is a protest against sociobiology,
about which Gould can't make up his mind whether it's "too zoocentric" or
anthropocentric." That's because he refuses to accept that all of nature,
ourselves included, is subject to the same laws, for all that their
differs. In the end he escapes to another favorite protest: "Perhaps the
problem with all these visions -- zoocentric as well as anthropocentric --
our penchant for building comprehensive and all-encompassing systems in the
first place. Maybe they just don't work." Maybe not for him; but the
they "don't work" is not intellectual, but emotional.

If evolution is not "directional," as Teilhard claimed, then our human
far from being ordained by God, is a fortuitous accident. But this makes
every bit as "special" as if God had ordained it. It's not an inevitable
outcome of the laws of nature. It's unlikely to be challenged or
We're safe; we can do anything we want to. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Gordon S. Little