It's the 20th anniversary of the birth of Darwin so there is a lot of talk about "The Genius of Evolution" at the moment. Evolution has changed the way we see ourselves and the world. Since Darwin's time we have moved from being divine souls at the center of a world created by God solely for our amusement, to being monkeys on an insignificant rock in an unremarkable galaxy which itself is no more than an insignificant speck in an infinite universe.
It has taken a few generations for us to really get to grips with this new information. At the time of the books publication, people were appalled at the implications that we were monkeys, over the years we have grown up with parents and grandparents who accept this as a fact and we are finally starting to accept the consequences of what it means. We are not separate from nature, but part of it and it's decline is our decline.
But there is one aspect of this shift in our world view that I think has caused us all a lot of problems and only seems to be getting worse. A basic misunderstanding of Darwin's theory has led a lot of people to believe that it's OK to be selfish and to abuse their power, when this kind of behavior really goes against our evolutionary nature as gentle tree dwelling monkeys.
My Dad always used to say that he was "supremely fit", right up until the point when he dropped down dead. He would demonstrate his fitness by kicking his leg into the air like Frank Sinatra and then light another "Number 6" and drive to the pub. We all know better now of course - you should walk to the pub.
The other maxim that he would wheel out time after time was "survival of the fittest". It really summed up his world view, we were living in an evolutionary jungle, it's kill or be killed. Every Sunday evening on "The World About Us" we'd see the slowest, least fit antelope getting eaten by the fastest lion. Meanwhile, another fabulous mane - that of Mrs. Thatcher - was tucking into the podgy bespectacled antelope of the Unions.
But Darwin wasn't talking about fitness in that sense, being healthy is important for survival but Darwin was talking about how mutations create species. In this context, "fittest" really means "the most fitting" if it was just about strength then we would have a world full of big strong animals and not the enormous diversity that we have which includes grace, agility and intelligence. Sloths are not particularly "fit" but they do fit perfectly into their own little niche.
And "survival", in this context means the ability to successfully pass your genes onto the next generation, which depends on a lot more that just being fit!
So, I think we should re-word "survival of the fittest" and turn it into "the ability to pass on your genes successfully depends on how appropriate your genetic defects are to your environment". But it doesn't have quite the same ring to it...
But that's how evolution works, a horse might be born with an unusually long neck, if this is appropriate to his circumstances he will do well and pass this long neck on to the next generation. Over thousands of generations - as long is it continues to be beneficial to have longer and longer necks - you will end up with giraffes.
Sometimes evolution is just a bit weird. The current wisdom on Zebras is that other zebras find stripes sexy. The stripes are nothing to do with camouflage or confusing predators, it's just that given the choice between two zebras to mate with, they will pick the stripier one.
Darwin studied finches in the Galapagos. On different islands with different food sources the finches had developed different shaped beaks. They all started out with small stubby beaks but on the island with a lot of tough seeds for example, birds with strong seed breaking beaks could get more food, they survived better in tough times and passed their strong beaks on to the next generation. On other islands it was long slender beaks that were best at getting the nectar out of flowers. It's not the fittness, it's the fittingness.Their mutations were advantageous in the circumstances.
Unfortunately, people like my Dad and Mrs. Thatcher got hold of the wrong end of the stick and really started beating people about the head with it - and if you got clobbered, well, that was just too bad. It's survival of the fittest, didn't you see that Lion on the World About Us last night?
Survival of the fittest has become an excuse for the strong - or those in a position of power - to bully the weak. You see it all the time, people with money, power and influence get on better in the world than people poverty and isolation, and when they are asked about why they deserve such privlege they say, "well, it's survival of the fittest innit? The weak go to the wall". Have we created a society where the most fitting mutations are those of cruelty and thoughtlessness?
Evolution and Happiness
I believe that happiness is our natural way of being. Just like any other animal, if we are in our natural habitat with adequate resources for our needs then we will be pretty much happy. We still feel the prolems of day to day life, setbacks, illness, grief etc, but these are just part of life. Human beings in their natural habitat, i.e. pre-contact tribes, are generally pretty happy, they do not experience a lot of depression and mental illness. Animals too, in the wild live relatively happy lives, but if you put them in victorian style zoos they display classic signs of depression and mental illness. zoo keepers have learned how to keep the animals in their zoos happy, or at least how to keep them from depression and distress, governments need to learn from this.
Social evolution has outstripped biological evolution and we are having trouble keeping up. As our world changes faster than our bodies, we are in danger of becoming an animal not suited to its environment. Jet-set lifestyles are only making things worse.