Over the years, I have heard a lot of silly things said about Darwinian evolutionary theory and why people don’t accept it – that it’s a tautology, that it’s unfalsifiable, that it contradicts all religion, that it leads straight to Hitler, and so forth – but I think the prize for the barmiest has to be the claim that it just doesn’t tell a good story!
This seems to me to be such a daft idea that I had to double-check, although given what I have seen coming from my side of the campus in the past 20 years, I had a nasty suspicion that it had indeed been made. There it was, reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education no less. Apparently some chap who is into something called “narrative psychology” is moaning that “you can’t really feel anything” for natural selection. The Genesis story of creation, however, has everything – God, man, woman, nudity, and so forth – not to mention serpents and angels with flaming swords.
Someone else, in “literary Darwinism” – Do they have competitions to make this sort of stuff up, like the “10 titles from 2012 that you absolutely don’t want to pick up”? – agrees that, as a story, Darwinism is a non-starter.
“If evolution is a story, it is a story without agency,” he writes in an e-mail. “It lacks the universal grammar of storytelling.” Stories are about a character finding a solution to a problem. Evolution has problems and solutions but no character. As a result, according to [Jonathan] Gottschall, “it doesn’t connect as well—especially at the emotional level.”
As it happens, these people could not be more wrong. Evolution does indeed have a story, and there are those who worry about precisely this! Too much science is – certainly has been – guided by this story, something that is precisely what it is, namely fiction.
Although there is a creation story in Plato’s Timaeus, basically the Greeks did not have a historical sense about the universe. It was something eternal. Moreover, although we humans may be important, we are not necessarily the purpose for which the universe was created. Aristotle’s Unmoved Movers spent their time contemplating their own perfection. They were not even aware of our existence! (As I like to say, a bit like some of my ex-girlfriends.)
It was the Jews who brought in history with a purpose, and to this the Christians added their own story. The Creation, the drama of the Fall, the story up to the Incarnation and the Atonement, and the future awaiting us. All firmly centered on one being, namely humankind.
In the 18th century, this picture making Providence the central theme – we can do nothing save through the Blood of the Lamb – was challenged by a rival ideology, Progress – we humans unaided have the ability and obligation to improve things here on Earth for ourselves and our fellows. At once, Progress was translated into biology, and evolution was off and running. There is an upward progress from the blob to the human, from the monad to the man, as they used to say. Like Christianity, a historical story about origins, with humans as the apotheosis and the meaning behind it all.
Thus Erasmus Darwin at the end of the 18th century:
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!
His grandson Charles Darwin was no less committed to biological (as well as social) progress.
If we look at the differentiation and specialisation of the several organs of each being when adult (and this will include the advancement of the brain for intellectual purposes) as the best standard of highness of organisation, natural selection clearly leads towards highness; for all physiologists admit that the specialisation of organs, inasmuch as they perform in this state their functions better, is an advantage to each being; and hence the accumulation of variations tending towards specialisation is within the scope of natural selection. (This is from the third edition of the Origin, 1861)
And we still find biological progress (inevitably linked to social progress) alive and well today. Listen to today’s most distinguished evolutionist, Edward O. Wilson:
The overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous. During the past billion years, animals as a whole evolved upward in body size, feeding and defensive techniques, brain and behavioral complexity, social organization, and precision of environmental control — in each case farther from the nonliving state than their simpler antecedents did.
Adding: “Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals.” No prizes given for guessing who won.
This is the picture that you get of evolution always in the popular literature and media (TV, film) and almost always in natural science museums. Although as the late Stephen Jay Gould was always pointing out, it is something we read into the story and do not find there. There was no inevitable rise up to humans and certainly no guarantee that we will stay at the top.
For myself, I am not sure that we ever will get rid of progress from our thinking about evolution – after all, we are humans and we are doing the thinking – but silly claims about evolution not having a story are not true and not very helpful when it comes to articulating and defending evolutionary thinking.