On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin has radically altered the way we think about ourselves and the world in which we live. There are very few events in the history of ideas that can be compared in terms of power, reach and impact with the emergence of the Darwinian analysis of progress through evolution. There are, however, several distinct components in the Darwinian understanding of evolutionary progress, and it is possible that the profundity of some of the elements may make us less conscious of the dubious nature of others. In particular, Darwin’s general idea of progress – on which his notion of evolutionary progress is dependent – can have the effect of misdirecting our attention, in ways that are crucial in the contemporary world.

It can be argued that there are three distinct components in the Darwinian analysis of evolutionary progress: an explanation of how evolution works; an idea of what constitutes progress; and a substantiation of the way evolution brings about progress. Of these three, the first is thoroughly profound both in interpreting what is going on in the world and in opening up a powerful general line of reasoning, viewing change and transformation in terms of evolution and natural selection. Exacting questions can, of course, be raised about the aptness of the particular processes on which Darwin himself concentrated, and there are other divisive questions as well. For example, an important issue concerns whether the analysis should be conducted in terms of selection of species (as combinations of phenomenal characteristics) or of genotypes (as combinations of genetic features). It is often more convenient to talk in terms of species (as Darwin did), but natural selection is transmitted through inherited characteristics and that relates to genotypes. Though species and genotypes are closely related, they are not congruent. But these are secondary differences within a shared approach, and the power and far-reaching relevance of evolutionary analysis in general are hard to dispute.

Similarly, it is possible to have reasonable disagreements on the extent to which these evolutionary ideas can be used in other, particularly ‘social’, areas, such as the selection and survival of institutions and behaviour norms – fields of application which Darwin himself had not identified. But there is little doubt about the general usefulness of adding evolutionary lines of reasoning to other methods of social investigation (even though the more extreme applications have attracted some not entirely undeserved criticism). These issues have been much discussed already, and I shall not take them up here. In the threefold classification of elements in Darwinian analyses of evolutionary progress, I shall not grumble at all about the explanation of how evolution works. My focus is on the idea of progress underlying Darwinian lines of analysis.

Our Characteristics and Our Lives

Darwin had a clear conception of what he saw as progress, and he judged the achievements of evolution in that light. ‘And as natural selection,’ he wrote in the concluding section of On the Origin of Species, ‘works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’ Progress was seen in terms of the production of ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’. Darwin took ‘the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving’ to be ‘the production of the higher animals’.

It is easy to agree with Darwin that ‘there is grandeur in this view of life,’ as he put it in the concluding sentence of The Origin. The question is whether this way of seeing progress points us in the right direction. One distinguishing characteristic of this approach is its concentration on our characteristics and features, what we are, rather than on what we can do or be. An alternative would be to judge progress by the quality of lives we can lead. That – somewhat Aristotelian – shift of focus would not only be more in line with what we have reason to value, it could also draw our attention to issues that a concentration on the ‘highness’ of the species (or on genetic excellence) would tend to hide.

Our capability to lead one kind of life rather than another does not depend only on what we are, but also on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can exert all sorts of influence on the nature of the world in which we live. How we view progress can, therefore, make a real difference to our decisions and resolve.

Anthropocentrism and Human Values

I shall try to examine the contrast between these two approaches, which – at the cost of some oversimplification – I shall call respectively ‘the quality of species’ view and ‘the quality of life’ view. The former – Darwinian – perspective in its modern form might well have been better described as ‘the quality of genotypes’ view, since the characteristics that are naturally selected and inherited would be the genetic ones. While 1 shall continue to use the Darwinian term ‘species’, ‘genotypes’ would often be a better description, but the distinction is not central to the main theses of this essay.

It is not easy for the quality-of-life view to escape some anthropocentrism. This is not only because the quality of lives of other animals cannot be judged in the way that the quality of human lives can be, but also because that act of judging is a specifically human exercise. These are genuine problems, and initially it might appear that they work strongly in the direction of endorsing the quality-of-species approach over the quality-of-life view. The picture, however, is more complex than that. A human evaluative framework is, in fact, difficult to avoid in both of these approaches. Even in assessing the quality of species or of genotypes (for example, in judging what forms are ‘most beautiful and most wonderful’), our own judgments are inevitably involved. It is, of course, possible to replace such judgments by the apparently ‘neutral’ criterion of purely reproductive success – the ability to outnumber and outlive competing groups. The evolutionary perspective has often been combined with implicit use of this apparently no-nonsense criterion.

Species, Conservation and Animal Lives

It could be argued that since the Darwinian view takes explicit note of widely different species and genotypes, it has the advantage of broadness over the quality-of-life view, which would tend to be more closely focused on the type of life that human beings lead. For example, it might be tempting to think that the species-oriented Darwinian perspective would be more helpful than the quality-of-life view in understanding the environmentalist’s concern with preserving different species that are threatened with extinction.

This, however, is not at all so. Natural selection is, in fact, choice through selective extinction, and the environmental interest in preserving threatened species must, in this sense, be entirely ‘non-Darwinian’ in spirit. One of the most interesting and forceful theses of The Origin is that ‘it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes.’ Surviving beings, Darwin proceeded to claim, are ‘ennobled’ when viewed in the light of this process. Extinction is part and parcel of the process of evolutionary selection, and any anti-extinction view must seek its support elsewhere.

In contrast, the environmentalist is likely to get some help in this field from the rival quality-of-life approach. The presence of a variety of species in the world which we inhabit can be seen as enhancing the quality of life that we ourselves can lead. More important, if human beings can and do reasonably value the survival of all the species that happen currently to be here (even the ones that are rather ‘unfit’ and ‘unselected’), then that environmental concern is better understood in terms of human reasoning (and the values we live by) than by invoking the Darwinian view of progress through ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Furthermore, a general interest in the quality of life is more likely than the Darwinian perspective to direct attention to such matters as cruelty to animals. Some sensitivity to the quality of lives that living beings can lead can make a real difference to the way we evaluate alternatives in our otherwise callous world.

Criterion and Comparison

How does the Darwinian approach to progress work? What characterises the general procedure of judging progress by the excellence of the species? What is the evaluative basis of Darwin’s claim about the achievements of evolutionary progress in the world in which we live? It is not hard to see some plausibility in the claim that there has been progress over time in the history of living beings, or to Find some merit in the way we have evolved from more primitive forms. For one thing, the intellectual or cultural sophistication and creativity of modern human beings contrast sharply with the world of primitive animals and vegetables, not to mention the earlier world of single cell protozoa. It is not wildly eccentric to see some glory in our world compared with a mute earth circling the sun with a specialised cargo of trillions of trillions of amoeba, or Cambrian mollusca and trilobites.

However, the immediacy of that recognition has to be tempered by asking two questions about the nature of the alleged progress through evolution: by what criterion? And compared with what? The Darwinian choice of criterion proceeds effectively in two steps – one more explicit than the other. The first step is to judge progress by the excellence of the species produced. This is the basic Darwinian view of progress. It relates, as I said earlier, to Darwin’s sense of ‘the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving’ – to wit, ‘the production of the higher animals’.

The second step, which is much more specific, is implicit rather than explicit in Darwin’s own writings, though firmly stated and defended by many Darwinians. The excellence of the species (or of genotypes) is to be judged by reproductive success – the power to survive and multiply, and thus collectively, to outnumber and outlive the competing groups (other species, other genotypes). That complex set of achievements goes under the name of ‘fitness’, taking fitness to be reflected by survival and reproductive success. The thesis of ‘the survival of the fittest’ is indeed central to Darwinism, though the phrase itself was originally proposed by Herbert Spencer (and adopted – with some enthusiasm – by Charles Darwin). And the claim of progress, on that ground, has been developed and much extended by modern exponents of evolutionary optimality.

The recognition that fitness, thus defined, must have much to do with success in natural selection is obvious enough. The question is whether it makes sense to assess progress in terms of increases in the fitness of the selected species. It looks like a neat criterion, but is it cogent and persuasive? Also, is it really so neat?

Fitness: Coherence and Cogency

The criterion of fitness is widely used in the evolutionary literature in quite ambitious forms. Notions of ‘optimality’ are frequently derived from judgments of comparative fitness. In terms of fitness, a species or genotype is ‘optimum’ if and only if it can outmatch all its rivals. One difficulty in using this criterion arises from the fact that the comparative fitness of a given pair of alternative species would depend on the environment in which they compete for survival. There is no particular reason to think that if genotype x were fitter than genotype y in environment A, then it would be fitter also in some other environment B. It could, thus, frequently be the case that there would be no dominance of one alternative over another (independently of the actual environment). Of course, one alternative might well be worse than another in all the different relevant environments, and such an alternative could be eliminated from the set of ‘efficient’ possibilities to be considered. But it is not unreasonable to expect that there would be many non-comparabilities among the ‘efficient’ alternatives: better in some circumstances and worse in others and therefore not generally rankable vis-à-vis each other.

There is scope here for using some broader mathematical notions of maximality that permit such incompleteness (as has been systematically done in applications of mathematical reasoning in other ‘unruly’ fields, such as social choice theory) rather than the more full-blooded version – simple optimality – that seems to be currently favoured in the evolutionary literature. Note may also have to be taken of possible intransitivities, alternative x may outmatch y, and y may outmatch z, but x may not be able to outmatch z. This type of possibility can arise from the plurality and heterogeneity of favourable conditions that the different alternatives may have. The process is not altogether different from the way tennis player x may be able to defeat player y, and y may be able to defeat z, without it being altogether clear that x can in fact vanquish z. Intransitivity and incompleteness may be particularly liable to occur when there are inter-dependences in the competition for survival, related particularly to the simultaneous presence of different competing groups of genotypes or species.

The criterion of fitness can be made coherent and congruous by dropping some of the deceptive neatness. The view of progress that would emerge from such a criterion would have ‘holes’ and ‘gaps’, but it would not, then, be based on such arbitrary assumptions as the environment-independence of fitness rankings, or the presumed adequacy of simple pair-wise comparisons. Given the enormity of the task of finding adequate criteria for progress, that price might be well worth paying. But whatever virtues there might be in the claim that increasing fitness is a good way of judging progress, neatness and simplicity are unlikely to be among them.

The deeper difficulties with the use of fitness as a criterion of progress lie elsewhere, however. The most basic question is of course: why? Why should success in reproduction and survival be the yardstick of achievement? But before I pursue this question further, I should say something on the second question related to the claim of evolutionary progress, viz. compared with what?’

Fitter than what?

There are two rather different ways of identifying rival species or genotypes for comparison of reproductive triumph. One is over time, and the other across alternative possibilities. The first involves assessing the species or genotypes of each period compared with what obtained earlier. But since the respective environments in the different periods were also dissimilar, the historical success of victorious species need not tell us very much about their general superiority in fitness. Presumably a species flourishing in one period would have had some specific advantages in the then environment, but this line of reasoning does not lead to any conclusion about general progress over time, going beyond advantage in the local and proximate environment. Darwin’s thesis about ‘all corporeal and mental endowments’ tending ‘to progress towards perfection’ through ‘natural selection’ is hard to sustain even when progress is seen entirely in terms of fitness.

More can, however, be said in Darwin’s direction if we are ready to accept as our criterion, not fitness in general, but certain straightforward physical characteristics such as efficiency of mechanical design. Indeed, in his Evolution in Action (1953), Julian Huxley used just such a criterion of mechanical efficiency to identify progress over time. For example, he noted the secular improvement in the running speed of horses and in the grinding ability of their teeth. More recently, extending this type of argument further and much more ambitiously, Geerat Vermeij has proposed, in his Evolution and Escalation (1987), that there have been sweeping improvements over time in some generally favourable features for survival, so that modern organisms are better able to deal with a variety of environments going well beyond the particular one in which they happen to live. Vermeij has sought a causal explanation for this in his finding that ‘the biological surroundings have themselves become more rigorous within a given habitat’ over long spreads of time – a phenomenon which he calls ‘escalation’.

These empirical findings are illuminating and the related analyses are also significant, but the conclusions about evolutionary progress over time cannot but be tentative and relatively modest. A species that survives and reproduces relatively better than another in a more ‘rigorous’ environment need not invariably perform better in less rigorous surroundings (or in an even more rigorous environment). In establishing evolutionary progress over time, the problem of variability of fitness with surroundings cannot be adequately eliminated by the postulate of increasing environmental rigorousness over time.

There is another basic problem in drawing conclusions about evolutionary progress from these over-time comparisons: the problem of what can or cannot be ascribed to evolution as such. It is obviously arbitrary to attribute all the developments that occur over time to the process of evolution. In particular, some changes may be brought about by transitory natural events. Evolution, on its own, need not have resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs opening up a different line of development which eventually produced human beings. We clearly owe a vote of thanks to the impacting asteroid – if that is what it was – which, some sixty-five million years ago, exterminated the dinosaurs, but helped us, at long last, to evolve. Even if we argue from our point of view (eschewing that of the dinosaurs) that there has been progress over time, we cannot conclude that evolution itself has brought about this progressive change.

All this gives us reason to look not over time but across sets of alternative possibilities: in particular, to judge the species that have emerged in comparison with others that did not emerge or were eliminated. How reasonable is the claim that the ones which made it were ‘optimal’ in that environment?

Things are not all that easy here either. The ‘fittest’ to which Darwin or Spencer referred could be the top of a local class only – of the alternatives that happen to come up to compete with the particular species in question. There are many factors – systemic as well as accidental – which could have prevented the emergence of other competitors. ‘Development constraints’ – a topic in evolutionary biology – both scale down and complicate the optimality claims that can be made.

The problem becomes even more complex when we consider not just variations of existing organisms, but altogether different organisms that could have emerged in some alternative scenario of world history with different development constraints and different draws on the lottery of nature. The epic heroes with superhuman powers like Gilgamesh or Arjuna or Achilles, who did make the fictitious world more exciting (if not altogether peaceful), may well have been unfeasible creatures, but it is hard to rule out of consideration every counterfactual possibility that could have made us fitter even in the environment in which we find ourselves today. Depending on circumstances and chance, many other alternatives could have come up. The evolutionary analogue of ‘all is for the best in the best of possible worlds’ badly needs a clearer identification of what can be taken as ‘possible’.

Thus the across-alternatives version of the thesis of evolutionary progression, when scrutinised, can at most claim some kind of local optimality – success with respect to a limited class of alternatives. And even this small success depends on the acceptability of evolutionary fitness as the primary criterion of judging progress.

Why fitness?

It is clear enough that fitness is good for the survival and multiplication of a species – indeed that is exactly how fitness is defined. But why should it be, in itself, the criterion of progress? Survival advantages may come from very different types of characteristic, and there is no particular guarantee that they make lives pleasanter or richer or nicer.

Consider, for example, Patrick Bateson’s pointer to the fact that ‘male polygynous primates that fight with other males for females have much larger canines than male primates that are characteristically monogamous’.[*] While the reproductive and survival advantages for those with better fighting teeth may be clear enough (I do not wish to venture an opinion on this delicate subject), one wouldn’t take it for granted that enormous canines were intrinsically wonderful – that monogamous primates which lacked them would necessarily be envious of their giant-toothed cousins.

It is not hard to think that Charles Darwin had a rather inadequate basis for taking natural selection to be the unambiguous promoter of what he called ‘the good of each being’, and for seeing it as the way to ‘perfection’. We recognise many virtues and achievements that do not help survival but which we have reason to value, and on the other side, there are many correlates of successful survival that we find deeply objectionable. For example, if a species of vassals – some variant of homo sapiens – is kept in inhuman conditions by some tribe of tyrants and that species adapts and evolves into being not only very useful slaves but also dogged survivors and super-rapid reproducers, must we accept that development as a sign of progress? An exact analogue of this is, of course, imposed on those animals on which we feed. But such an arrangement would hardly seem acceptable for human beings, and it is not at all clear that it should be acceptable in the case of animals either.

Valuing and Reasoning

There is need for reasoned evaluation in choosing our criterion of progress, and the job can hardly be handed over to natural selection. But how sound and reliable is our ability to judge? It can be pointed out that whatever values we may espouse and whatever ability to reason we may have developed are themselves results of evolution. Some argue from this that our reasoning ability has been specifically selected to give us survival and reproductive advantage, and its use for any other purpose cannot be justified. Others argue that the selection of our reasoning abilities stacks the odds in favour of our endorsing the criterion of evolutionary success, since we ourselves are the product of that process. Do these arguments undermine the relevance of our evaluative reasoning? I believe they don’t.

It is a non sequitur to argue that since our ability to reason may have evolved through survival advantage, it can be used only for that purpose. Our faculties are not, in general, specifically tied to a single purpose. Our sense of colour may have helped us to survive better (in locating a prey or avoiding a predator), but that is no reason why we should fail to see the beauty of Cézanne’s or Picasso’s colours. No matter how and why our ability to reason may have developed, we can use it as we like, and scrutinising the criterion of reproductive success or survival advantage as a yardstick of progress is among its possible uses.

The other objection is not particularly telling éither. There might well be good reason to think that we are more likely to be favourable to the world as it is than other creatures, resulting from other scenarios and living in other possible worlds, would be. But that fact in itself need not undermine the relevance of our values. The more interesting issue is whether this interdependence makes us approve of everything we find and endorse the products of natural selection in an uncritical way. There is nothing to indicate that this is the case. For example, pain can have great survival advantage in acting as a signal to which we might respond, but that does not make us think that pain is a good thing to have. Indeed, we may abhor pain, even in a context in which we readily accept its incentive role. Any incentive system can operate on the basis of the carrot or the stick, and while the two may be comparable in terms of signalling and inducement, we often have very good reasons for favouring a system of carrots over one that relies on sticks.

When some twenty-five hundred years ago, Gautama Buddha left his princely home to seek enlightenment, he was driven by dismay at the misery of human existence, at the sufferings of disease, old age and death, and there certainly was no inability there to disapprove of the way we have emerged. Nor is there any incongruity in Buddha’s judgment that killing animals and eating their flesh is a terrible way to live even though nature has tended to favour the devouring of one species by another.

Individuals and the Type

Aside from the general difficulty of there being many things which we value other than survival, there are also some more specific problems. One of the most important relates to the fact that evolution is not much concerned with individual survival at all, whereas we, as individuals, tend to take some interest in that subject. Tennyson got it right, when – about a decade before the publication of On the Origin of Species – he complained against nature:

So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.

For one thing, natural selection shows little interest in our well-being or survival once we are past the reproductive age. For another, in the scale of selectional advantage, a lowering of the death rate even among the younger ages could easily get less priority than reproductive vigour, if the latter on balance contributes more to the proliferation of the species or the genotypes.

There are, thus, two quite different ways in which natural selection is ‘careless of the single life’. It cares little about the length of the individual life, and it cares even less about the quality of that life. Indeed, natural selection does not promote anything which we may have reason to value, except to the extent that this coincides – or correlates – with propagational advantage.

Genetic Improvement and Eugenics

It is not unfair to say that the Darwinian perspective, seen as a general view of progress, suggests concentration on adapting the species rather than adjusting the environment in which the species lead their lives. It is therefore not surprising that this view of progress had the effect of directly encouraging one type of conscious planning, viz. that for genetic improvement. The eugenics movement, which flourished around the turn of the century, was influenced by Darwinian arguments about the survival of the fittest. It championed the idea of lendliing a ‘helping hand’ to nature in breeding better genetic types, mainly by limiting the propagation of the ‘less fit’ variants. The policies advocated ranged from intellectual persuasion to forced sterilisation.

The movement had many well-known advocates, from Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) to Elisabeth Nietzsche (the philosopher’s sister). The advocacy of this type of genetic manipulation had much respectability for a while, but it ultimately came into disrepute, particularly with the chilling patronage of Hitler (who, incidentally, had wept at the funeral of Elisabeth Nietzsche in 1935). While Darwin never advocated genetic planning, the eugenics approach can co-exist comfortably with the view that progress should be judged primarily by the characteristics of the species. Those who see the Darwinian view of progress as providing an adequate understanding of progress in general must address the question of the acceptability and the limits of genetic manipulation through selective breeding. As a worldview, this perspective on progress must come to terms with the contrary demands of values to which we give great importance, including autonomy and freedom.

Design and Resolve

Even though the eugenics movement derived its inspiration and some intellectual support from Darwinism, it is fair to say that Darwin’s own focus was on progress as spontaneous and undesigned. In the context of religious belief, the most radical aspect of Darwinism was its denial of the designed creation of all species simultaneously. But the general issue of spontaneous progress goes well beyond the question of the intentionality of an outside divine being. If evolution guarantees progress, then the need for intentional effort on the part of insiders – us human beings – may be to that extent reduced. Furthermore, it could be argued that by trying to bring about progress deliberately, through changing the world in which we live, we could endanger the spontaneous working of evolutionary processes. If we take the quality-of-species view of progress, and if we do accept that genetic selection makes us wonderfully adapted, then – it could be asked – why encourage unfit genes? Faith in spontaneous progress denies more than the labour of a creation-minded Christian God.

There are, thus, two rather different directions in which we may be pushed by the Darwinian view of progress. One suggests genetic manipulation, and the other indicates inactive reliance on spontaneity. The common element is, of course, silence on the case for adjusting the world to suit our needs. That gap in attention is the direct result of judging progress by the nature of the species, rather than by the kind of lives they can lead – which would have immediately drawn attention to the need to adjust the external world. From that common Darwinian point, the activist view proceeds towards genetic manipulation, whereas the more passive view suggests trusting nature. Neither directs us towards reforming the external world.

Darwin and Malthus

This issue links with a bigger one: the vast attitudinal difference between trusting nature in general and deliberately trying to counter its unacceptable effects. That dichotomy can be illustrated by the contrast between Malthus’s invocation of nature to recommend social inaction, in contrast with, say, William Godwin’s active interventionism. In fact, Malthus was a true guru of evolutionary theory. Darwin explains in The Origin that, in part, his theory ‘is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole of animal and vegetable kingdoms’.

In his famous Essay on Population, published in 1798, Malthus laid the foundations for a theory of natural selection by linking the issue of survival with population growth and competition for natural resources. While the work’s larger philosophical ambition was to dispute the radical progressivism of Godwin and Condorcet (as was stated in the original title of the monograph), its immediate aim was to oppose legislation to change the Poor Laws in Great Britain to make welfare payments proportional to family size. Such tampering with a process of nature appeared to Malthus to be a way of compounding the problem; it would be much better to abandon these deliberate endeavours to help those who could not be helped.

Malthus did advocate – but without much optimism – voluntary restraint as a method of cutting down population growth, and here again (as in the case of eugenics) the emphasis is on adjusting ourselves rather than adapting the world outside us. Malthus was consistently and thoroughly hostile to public action that would assist the poor, and to such public amenities as lying in hospitals for unmarried mothers and foundling hospitals for abandoned babies.

The dichotomy between leaving the deprived and the miserable to nature, and using public action to try to help them, remains important in the contemporary world. Indeed, the significance of the contrast may well have increased in recent years, with the growing tendency to let impersonal forces – the market mechanism, for example – have their way. The bankruptcy of the Second World has often been interpreted not simply as the failure of a particular system of intervention, but as the impossibility of designed improvement of all kinds.

Extinction and the Environment

The question of intervention relates most closely to social matters (of the kind illustrated by the Malthus-Godwin differences), but there are environmental issues as well. Consider the problem of the possible depletion of the ozone layer. It is quite likely that left to itself, the ozone layer depletion would eventually lead to some genetic response through evolution. For example, genotypes with less vulnerable genes may survive the radiational changes better than others and become relatively more numerous. (I have heard that we coloured people would go more slowly than you whites would, but I am not taking bets on it.)

Natural selection may replace us with ‘ fitter’ people, and that is part of the progressiveness of evolution. But if we value our lives and condemn disease and extinction, we would wish to consider a course of action which would vigorously resist the unfavourable change in the environment. From the point of view of human beings, as we are constituted, genetic natural selection may be a chilling prospect rather than a heartwarming one.

I don’t wish to press the contrast too sharply, but a significant difference in attitude lies behind these two dissimilar ways of viewing nature, and more generally, viewing the surroundings in which we find ourselves. The dilemma was famously articulated by the Prince of Denmark: whether to put up with outrageous fortune or take up arms against a sea of troubles. This formulation might not have appealed to Darwin, if only because in his later life Darwin had come to find the Bard rather sickening. ‘I have tried lately to read Shakespeare,’ Darwin says in his Autobiography, ‘and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.’ So I won’t insist on Shakespeare, but there is a point here on which, I would suggest, a Darwinian evolutionist could fruitfully reflect.

Darwinism and Our Lives

Darwin’s analysis of evolutionary progress was related to his attempt at explaining the process of evolution through natural selection and assessing its role in the genesis of species, including ‘the higher animals’. This explanatory purpose was extremely well served by Darwin’s analysis of evolution, even though, as I have tried to show, the idea of fitness underlying ‘the survival of the fittest’ may require more scrutiny.

Darwin also presented a view of progress in terms of the quality of the species, and more specifically the fitness of the surviving beings. This approach concentrates on the characteristics of living beings rather than on the actual lives they can lead. This aspect of Darwin’s work and influence is much more open to question. It tends to ignore the quality of life of human beings and other animals; it under mines the importance of rationally evaluating our priorities and trying to live according to them; and it draws our attention away from the need to adjust the world in which we live. This, in turn, tends to encourage activism in genetic manipulation (as in the eugenics movements), or a passive reliance on spontaneous progress (more in line with Darwin’s own pronouncements). But in neither case is much attention paid to the dependence of the quality of our lives on the nature of the adjustable external world.

Ernst Mayr, the distinguished zoologist and Darwinian theorist, claimed in One Long Argument that the worldview formed by any thinking person in the Western world after 1859, when On the Origin of Species was published, could not but be thoroughly different from any worldview formed prior to Darwin.[†] That is indeed so, and it’s an important fact which deserves full recognition. But a worldview based on the Darwinian vision of progress can also be deeply limiting, because it concentrates on our characteristics rather than our lives, and focuses on adjusting ourselves rather than the world in which we live.

These limitations are particularly telling in the contemporary world given the prevalence of remediable deprivations, such as poverty, unemployment, destitution, famine and epidemics, as well as environmental decay, threatened extinction of species and persistent brutality towards animals. We do need Darwin, but only in moderation.

[*] In Trust, edited by Diego Gambetta (Blackwell, 1988).

[†] Viking, 224 pp., £17.99, 30 January, 0 713 99079 1.