It’s in Our Genes

April 11, 2009 at 6:45 am | Posted in Book excerpts | Leave a comment

charles_darwin_l1Human beings are scavengers by nature, right down to our DNA, according to this excerpt from The Scavengers’ Manifesto:

Long before there was a theory of evolution, Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers arranged all living creatures into what was later called the scala naturae, or the “ladder of creation,” which categorized animals on a hierarchical scale. Mankind was of course at the top, with other mammals just below, then birds and fish and so forth, with worms and snakes and other creatures that crawled on the ground at the bottom. Inherent in this view was the assumption that some creatures were “better” than others, or more sophisticated, or more advanced. And although the exact details of this worldview slowly shifted over the subsequent centuries, the underlying principle remained: that the various species on Earth weren’t merely different from each other, but possessed inherent inferiority or superiority according to various scales of moral or physical measurement. This basic philosophy persisted pretty much unchallenged until 1859, when Darwin published his epochal On the Origin of Species. To this day, the general populace assumes that Darwin’s main conclusion was simply this: If you go far enough back, all species are related to each other, and humans are therefore descended from the same ancestors as are monkeys and apes. And while this was indeed one of Darwin’s main points, he proved another point which was in some ways even more revolutionary. Darwin provided evidence that evolution was not the same thing as “progress,” that things do not always evolve to become stronger, smarter, faster or bigger. As he explained it, evolution is not about improving as time went on, but rather merely adapting to changing environments. Sometimes that leads to species becoming smaller, or slower and — yes — even dumber. Prehistoric armadillos and sloths in South America were absolutely huge: as big as Volkswagens. But when they encountered predatory felines migrating down from the newly connected North America, the larger, more lumbering species were decimated, and over time they evolved to become the comparatively smaller (and more nimble) creatures we see today. Conversely, the original ancestors of horses stood only eight inches tall and were approximately the size of chihuahuas. Now they’re among the largest mammals. The Archaeopteryx dinosaur species, which later evolved to become birds, started out with fairly large brains and were probably “smarter” than their descendants. But brains are heavy and require a lot of energy to run, and if you want to specialize in flight, a brain is only going to weigh you down. At some crucial evolutionary juncture, it became more advantageous for these “flying lizards” to be able to remain airborne longer than it was was for them to be a little bit smarter but much heavier. And so, over the millennia, birds became “birdbrains”: great at flying, but terrible at thinking. The flip side of that story is of course our own, in which primitive monkeys with brains the size of walnuts evolved to become the huge-brained Homo sapiens. So the notion that evolution was always progressing “forward” toward some eventual goal of physical perfection was tossed out the window. And if that’s the case, there’s no way to legitimately claim that the species alive today are any better (or worse) than the long-extinct species that existed millions of years ago. Furthermore, Darwin also showed the absurdity in trying to claim that any existing species is “more advanced” or “more sophisticated” than any other existing species. Each type has merely adapted to survive in its own environment — nothing more, nothing less. If you haughtily imagine that you’re more evolutionarily advanced than a goldfish because you can solve quadratic equations and it can’t, then try switching places with the goldfish and see how long you can survive underwater in a murky backyard pond. The point is that, yes, the goldfish can’t do what you can do, but neither can you do what the goldfish does. The main result of Darwin’s illusion-shattering masterwork was to smash the ancient Greeks’ ladder of creation. We are not on the top rung, nor are snakes on the bottom rung. In fact, there are no rungs. Life is not a hierarchical system. Darwin displaced humans from their self-defined position as the pinnacle of creation. And it was this that so upset the Victorians along with almost everyone since. It’s not simply that we are descended from apes, and are animals ourselves; it’s that our species is not really any more special than any other species. This idea is pretty hard for humans to handle. We need to feel special. We need to feel superior to other creatures. Even many scientifically minded modern evolutionists, who freely accept that we’re related to monkeys, and that Homo sapiens are merely a type of intelligent ape, still assume deep down inside that although we are animals, we’re the gosh-darned best animals of all. What’s the connection between all this and scavenging? Well, if we can’t make moral judgments about the superiority or inferiority of animal physiognomy, then we can’t make moral judgments about animal behavior either. Predation is no more “advanced,” no “better,” than grazing or scavenging, any more than flying is any more “advanced” or “better” than walking or swimming (or thinking). They’re just different ways of being — nothing more, nothing less. Our social histories, our cultures, and our prejudices tell us that there is a hierarchy of dietary behaviors, with predation at the top and scavenging somewhere near the bottom. But evolutionary theory begs to differ. There is no scientific basis to our low opinion of scavenging. Evolutionary theory says it’s just as silly to scoff at scavenging as it is to scoff at a zebra’s stripes.

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