The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008
The posters outside the Natural History museum’s Darwin exhibition have a wary feel. They show the old boy shushing at the passers-by with a forefinger over his lips and a worried look in his eyes. Inside, the curators explain how he sat on his theory of evolution for fear of its social consequences with the help of a letter he wrote to his friend, Joseph Hooker. In 1844, 15 years before he found the courage to publish On the Origin of Species, he said: ‘I am almost convinced that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.’
Henry Kissinger is meant to have come up with the witticism that ‘academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low’. Many contest his claim on the line, but if it was his he was as wrong about intellectual life as about so much else. The stakes in the academic politics of evolution have always been high, and Darwin was right to think of murder.
Rapacious capitalists used Darwinism to justify extremes of wealth. Fascists and racists used it to justify mass murder. In the Sixties the understandable backlash against ‘scientific’ racism went to the opposite extreme, creating a biology riddled with taboos and no-go areas. To say that humans were as much the product of evolution as any other animal was like announcing you had joined the Nazis. In 1975, the colleagues of EO Wilson shamefully abused the Harvard scientist for daring to argue that biology influenced human behaviour. The American Anthropological Association claimed he had attempted ‘to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society’ (an act of intellectual thuggery Time magazine likened to the Catholic church’s denunciation of Galileo).
But Wilson won in the end. Academic policemen could not rule scientific arguments out of bounds indefinitely because they did not like the political consequences. The exercise was pointless as well as unprincipled, because the political uses and abuses of science are so varied. Sociobiology did not necessarily lead to ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘elitism’ or any other ‘ism’. It could just as easily prompt the liberal thought that because we had evolved a universal human nature we were all entitled to universal human rights. If the Natural History museum had opened its exhibition at the turn of this century, its staff would have been at one with intellectuals enjoying their freedom to argue without being shouted down. With Marx and Freud discredited, Darwin was the last of the big thinkers whose reputation was undiminished. He had settled the question of how life developed. The sociobiologists of the late Nineties dreamt they could go further and settle just about everything else.
In Philosophers’ magazine, Jeremy Stangroom described a euphoric debate on the boundless possibilities for scientific advance. Ian McEwan told the audience: ‘I have stood back amazed, as things that were once the preserve of poets, philosophers and fiction writers, have been drawn into the great maws of experimental science: reputation, gratitude, cheating, and on a grander level, human beauty and beyond that, mind, consciousness and human nature. These were once not respectable subjects for scientific enquiry, but in 20 years this has all changed.’
Almost a decade on, and McEwan and the poets have been reprieved. The millennial hopes of finding the biological causes for everything from gratitude to the appreciation of beauty have faded. The trouble with sociobiology was always that you could invent apparently convincing explanations for contradictory forms of human behaviour. Take sex. If men were solely monogamous or serially monogamous, occasionally adulterous or incessantly treacherous, bigamous, polygamous or merely libidinous, there was a superficially plausible account of how their behaviour evolved in pre-history. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, can make up pseudo-scientific theories off the top of his head. He told me the best thing about playing Darwinian party tricks was that no one could falsify your conclusions in a controlled experiment because no one could travel back in time to study our African ancestors.
Jones and other sceptical biologists dismiss conjectures about the evolution of human behaviour as Just So Stories … Kipling told us ‘How the Camel Got His Hump’; socio-biologists tell the tale of ‘Why Humans Get the Hump’. The first is fiction, the second may as well be.
Along with Just So … I think we need also say: ‘So what?’ After the freethinkers had faced down the intimidation of the Sixties generation of academics, the results of their research were trite, even when true. For all his doubts about sociobiology, Jones accepts there is an evolutionary explanation for why old men desire beautiful young women and why rich old men are more successful in bedding beautiful young women than poor old men – but, well, the reason is no mystery.
I remember an evolutionary psychologist telling a meeting in the Nineties that step-parents were more likely to murder children than natural parents who shared a child’s DNA. One over-wrought speaker bellowed that those who denied the truth of his findings had ‘blood on their hands’. Clearly, what he said about comparative murder rates was right. Equally clearly, the overwhelming majority of step-parents do not murder their stepchildren. His sociobiological truth is thus no help to social workers trying to save the life of the next Baby P.
Niall Ferguson ends the book of his TV series The Ascent of Money saying we should see finance as a product of evolution. He explains the boom-and-bust cycle by tapping into research that we are hard-wired not to think logically. It is fascinating, but sceptical economists provide better explanations than biologists for why crowds go mad in a bubble market. Financial and political leaders led us to ruin because they did not understand Keynes, not Darwin.
The cautious old man with the flowing beard outside the Natural History museum is a realistic Darwin for our grim times: rightly nervous and well aware of the dangers of going too far too fast.