Saturday, 7 March 2009

Evolutionary Angst

As I chewed frenziedly at the edge of my pencil in a science lab at my elitist public school, I felt all my youthful energy and enthusiasm ebbing away. At the time I could scarcely conceive of a more boring subject than Biology. The Uppingham science block did nothing to fire the imagination and everything to convince you that architects in the 50s and 60s were Stalinist maniacs on hallucinogenic drugs. It used to be so different. An old engraving I have of the Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe shows the great man at work in his laboratory. As he reclines back in his chair beside his mural quadrant, surrounded by arcane looking pieces of equipment and dusty old tomes, he raises his hand raised towards the heavens and contemplates the wonders of the natural world around him. By contrast the science facilities at my school were a labyrinthian maze of uninspiring laboratories populated by rank after rank of the eponymous Bunsen burner and always smelling faintly of gas and teenage body odour. The only hypothesis I ever tested was whether it was possible to lose consciousness from sheer boredom.

As I recall, my GCSE exam paper consisted of a short essay extolling the virtues of fish farming and a diagram demonstrating an ecological food chain; the process whereby the inter-related inhabitants of the natural world contrive to cannibalise one other. As one gets older and escape the stifling clutches of the national curriculum one realises that a study of nature might enlighten our understanding of human nature. One book which aims to do this is ‘The Selfish Gene’ a book written in the seventies by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to the author the purpose of this popular work was to convey ‘a truth which still fills me with astonishment’. I eagerly thumbed through the pages to find out what it was. The ‘truth’ is, as it happens, that we are all ‘lumbering’ sex robots, ‘blindly programmed’ to ‘preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Of course one natural inclination is to reject this interpretation, dependent as it is on the open question of whether the universe has any overarching purpose. The mind wanders to incredulity; is everything reducible to gene survival?; did P.G Wodehouse write his Castle Blandings series in a subtle attempt to smuggle his genes into the next generation?; when John Constable painted ‘The Hay Wain’ in 1821, was he merely expressing his gene’s deep seated desire for a suitable environment in which they could flourish and propagate?.

And yet, as anyone who has been to a British high street on a Saturday night can testify, there is a great degree of plausibility to Dawkins’s thesis. There we see the inhabitants of merry England, un-inhibited by societal pretences and possessed by the kind of demonic lust which would have made St Augustine retire solemnly to his study to write his confessions. Kicking out time at the UK pub is where we see the kind of behaviour that socio-biologists love; the human animal unmasked, a slave to its underlying programming.

‘But that can’t be what its really all about can it?’, I wondered to myself as I settled down to read an improving book. As I flicked through it pages in search of enlightenment I stopped in horror at one particular passage, a quote by the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker. It read:

‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options is I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father and took his position and married my mother?’.

Great. So Hamlet is nothing more than a survival guide. The Sharpe novel I finished a couple of days ago is presumably nothing more than a strategy manual for the unlikely scenario of being somehow transported back in time to the Napoleonic Wars. If this were to happen by the way I would be well prepared. In a fit of evolutionary angst I searched in vain for a hobby which no socio-biologist would be able to link to genetic survival. I turned to scribbling landscapes in a pad, only to find that Denis Dutton has written in ‘The Art Instinct’ that:

'The universal preference for a particular type of landscape painting taps into universal innate inclinations formed during the Pleistocene period, ‘the 1.6million years during which modern human beings evolved’. Featuring, amongst other things, water, open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of trees, evidence of animal or bird life, and an opening up to an unimpeded view of the horizon, this predilection for a particular landscape testifies to a primordial memory of the African Savanna'

At last I hit upon line dancing and have begun a class on Monday evenings. The rationale for this decision was my belief that even the most ingenious feat of pseudo - scientific trickery would not be able to link my synchronised dancing to country music to any attempt by my crafty genes to squirm their way into the narrative. And yet, as I struggled to match my movements to those of the elderly Londoners around me amidst the beats of ‘County Line’, a surge of unease came over me. It was as if I heard the voice of Stephen Pinker in my head saying:

Line dancing supplies us with an opportunity to rehearse formations which will prove useful in hunting strategies. By practicing our body movements, attuning them to those of others and following a rhythm, humans are fostering the techniques which would enhance survival. It is as if we are channelling the memory of the African Savannah upon which we evolved.

Could it be that this dance hall, this line dance, even this country music record are all the product of the selfish replicators struggle for existence?. After weighing this up for a moment I decided to reflect on something else. As Dawkins says ‘DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ Sometimes the music just happens to be Country and Western.


Denis Dutton said...

Lovely post -- er, I think. The arts involve an awful lot more than just responding to your genes, though your selected quotes make Pinker and me look like simple-minded aesthetic ideologues.

On the subject of marching and dancing, take a look at Keeping Together in Time by Wm. McNeill. A fascinating historian's account of the subject.

Enjoy the classes!

Denis Dutton

Humphrey said...


That's a very kind observation, but I think if you saw the kind of art I produced at school you would think there was nothing more to it than the fumbling, self-preserving activities of my genes.

Assuming this is the real Denis Dutton I am honoured to have you here. You would be the first, and only famous person on here; apart from Lord Kitchener of course, but he is only here because he drowned in 1916 and cannot therefore sue me for copyright infringement.

Ben said...

Yes, about Lord Kitchener - what's his significance? It's been puzzling me for a while.


Humphrey said...

Ah, nothing sinister. Just liked the picture of him in the Fez.

Roger Pearse said...

The funny thing about Dawkins and his dull acolytes is that their ambition is negative; not to make the most of themselves, but to do the opposite. Not to lift man to the stars, but to reduce him to idiot bestiality.

Quite a price to pay to stifle a bad conscience (which seems to be the only genuine reason for all this hand-waving).

Humphrey said...

Commiserations to Denis Dutton who is now sadly deceased.

His comment on this blog post will live on as a small memorial to his contributions to culture.