Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Pet peeve

It being the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth (and the 150th since the publication of Origin), there's a lot in the press about him this year. Today's piece is by Steve Jones and appears in the Guardian, and while it's perfectly acceptable, it makes a point that always annoys me.

Jones notes that "men do not descend from chimps, although the two share a common ancestor". This is, of course, completely correct. Both species are descended from a common third species which (almost certainly) no longer exists. This observation is one that frequently comes up whenever evolution is presented for public consumption, usually to counter the evolution-hostile counter-refrain.

That people often react to evolutionary biology with the jibe that "men are descended from chimps" is indicative of the discomfort that many feel when it comes to the facts of biology. The underlying implication is that evolution can't be true since it means humans are "just" animals, with all of the attendant consequences for society, morality, etc. This may not be a logical argument against evolution, but it articulates deep-seated "fears" about how cherished notions are undercut by science.

Responding to these sentiments with the correct-but-fatuous point that, no, we're not descended from chimps does nothing to diffuse the underlying concerns that people have. In fact, it's completely missing the point, and is simply liable to have you branded a smartarse. What's more, while we aren't descended from chimps, we're almost certainly descended from something that, to the untrained eye, looked just like a chimp (or monkey or ape). This is the more important point that's being missed by glib, zoologically-correct ripostes.

In fact, how one deals with the deeper point that sets human society and morality against the hard lessons of biology is far from clear. Hence the ongoing research on topics such as the evolution of altruism. While much progress has been made (which can be crudely summarised as "tit for tat"), definitive answers are still outside our reach.

Anyway, this is just me ranting against a pet peeve in biology that I've seen come up time and time again. Almost always answered in the clever-clogs manner that today's article illustrates [*]. The most helpful response is to think about what's really being targeted by anti-science "arguments", and to respond to that properly instead of being an antagonising pedant.

[*] To be fair to Jones, it's only a passing remark in his article, and has no real bearing on its substance (which has actually more to do with Darwin's family, and his concerns about inbreeding). Still, it was the straw that broke this camel's back.

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