posted 9 February 2003


William H. Calvin, Darwin Day sermon for Marysville Unitarian-Universalists See also

William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington



Imagine a world without Darwin.  Imagine a world in which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had not transformed our understanding of living things.  What . . . would become baffling and puzzling . . . , in urgent need of explanation?  The answer is: practically everything about living things. . . .

-- HELENA CRONIN, The Ant and the Peacock, (Cambridge University Press 1992


We celebrate Darwin because he had one of the greatest ideas of all time.  He isn’t just a founder of modern biology, but you cannot imagine modern anthropology, infectious disease & public health, economics, or even sociology with their insights from Darwin. 

So what did Darwin really discover when he was 29 years old, fresh back from 5 years sailing around the world?  It probably isn't what you always thought.

       It wasn't evolution per se.  There had been an active public discussion of biological coming-into-being since before Darwin was born (his grandfather Erasmus even wrote poems on the subject).

       It wasn't adaptations to fit the environment, as the religious philosophers had already seized on that idea as suggesting design from on high.

       Nor was it "survival of the fittest."  That idea had been floated by Empedocles 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, long before Herbert Spencer, in the wake of Darwin, invented the phrase we now use.

       It certainly wasn't the basic biological and geological facts that Darwin discovered, although during his voyage around the world, and after discovering natural selection, Darwin did add quite a bit in the factual line.

       What Darwin contributed was an idea, a way of making various disconnected pieces of the overall puzzle fit together, something like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without a picture for a model.  He imagined the picture.

       It wasn't, however, the idea of descent from a common ancestor.  Diderot, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin had all speculated on that subject two generations earlier.  And there were trees of descent around to serve as examples, given how by 1816 the linguists were claiming that most European languages had descended from the same Indo-European root language.

       By 1837 Darwin had concluded that nature was always in the process of becoming something else, though again there had been other attempts like Lamarck's along this line.  Darwin just looked at the biological facts in a different way than his predecessors and contemporaries, not forcing them to fit the usual stories about how things had come about.  Fitting facts to an idea is a primary way in which progress is made in science, but a fit in one aspect has often blinded scientists to more overarching explanations.

       But even that wasn't his main contribution.  Charles Darwin had an idea that supplied a mechanism, something to turn the crank that transformed one thing into another.  He solved the 2500-year-old conundrum of the philosophers about chance versus necessity, randomness vs cause.  He saw that it was a combination of the two, chance providing minor variations and the environment causing some variants to do better than the others.  And that it operated over and over to slowly change one species into a new one.  People who don’t understand evolution very well still use this old opposition of chance and necessity to play debaters games with a lay audience, demonstrating their profound ignorance of how the combination of chance and necessity can work wonders – or their profound cynicism in trying to win points by confusing their audience.

BASICALLY, CHARLES DARWIN (in 1838 and, independently, Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858) had a good idea about the process of evolution, how one thing could turn into another without an intelligent designer supervising.  Out of all the variation thrown up with each generation (even children of the same two parents can be quite unlike one another), some variants fit the present environment better.  And so, in conditions where only a few offspring manage to reach adulthood (both Wallace and Darwin got that insight from Malthus and his emphasis on biological overproduction), there is a tendency for the environment to affect which variants get their genes into the next generation.

       Many are called, few are chosen by the hidden hand of what Darwin labeled "natural selection."  The name comes from the contrast to animal breeding, so-called "artificial selection."  It is, as Ernst Mayr noted, an unfortunate term, as it suggests an agent doing the natural selecting.

       As Thomas Huxley said, when reading Darwin's book manuscript before its publication in 1859, "How stupid not to have thought of it before."  Two and a half millennia of very smart philosophers trying to solve the problem, and then the answer turns out to be so simple. 

       A few years later, Darwin realized that he needed to add an "inheritance principle," to emphasize that the variations of the next generation were preferentially done from the more successful of the current generation (the individuals better suited to surviving the environment or finding mates).  This means, of course, that the new variations were not just at random, but were centered around the currently-successful model.

       In other words, they were little jumps from a mobile starting place, variations on a theme, not big jumps where the starting place becomes irrelevant because the jump carries so far.  (Warning:  Except for the pros, half of the people who write about evolution, whether pro or con, may be confused about this important short-distance randomness aspect.)

       Many variations, of course, are not as good as the parents - nature appears not to worry about this waste, to our distress - but a few variants are even better than their parents.  And so, with passing generations, there is a chance for drift to occur towards the better solutions to environmental and mate-finding challenges.  Perfection you don't get, but occasionally you do get something that, locally, could be called "progress" - that ill-defined something that makes us so impressed by the Darwinian process.  Nature can be seen to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, amidst a huge waste in variations that go nowhere.

The six essentials turn the crank.

Speciation can occasionally provide a ratchet to prevent


         Grand themes in evolution are iffy.

         Progress is only locally defined.

         Worse, evolution may not continuously emphasize a theme like “intelligence.”

         Instead, one sees multiple-use structures paid for via one use, but having free secondary uses.

         These sidesteps may provide the fast tracks to “intelligence” and such.


Human evolution background and what drives it


         Reciprocal altruism is a fancy name for doing
favors for friends.

         Beyond grooming, sharing has a long growth curve.

         You can double your payoffs by sharing
more things, with more people, over longer
periods of time, onwards and upwards
to volunteer fire departments and even
third-party peacekeeping forces.

         Even if you kill a big animal yourself, it’s too much to eat by yourself. 

         Better to give away most of it and count on reciprocity from others tomorrow.

         Even chimps share meat, when they catch small monkeys or pigs.  They don’t share anything else with other adults, but they do share fresh meat.

         In prolonged sharing, there is the problem of freeloaders — everyone loves a freebie, so you need some abstract mental categories for who owes what to whom, so as to avoid or break off alliances that are unequal.


Who owes what to whom as a setup for language

         Abstract mental categories for giver, recipient, and value are just like the other major way of understanding a long sentence about “Who did what to whom” where you identify which actors go with which verbs, and so on to understand the little play conveyed by the long sentence.

         Many aspects of meat-eating cannot be intensified. Besides ever more sharing, another long growth curve is throwing.

         Twice as far, twice as fast, twice as accurate — they’re all good for an additional payoff in terms of days per month when your family can eat high-quality food in hard times.

         And no matter how good you are, getting better
has an additional payoff, even more immediate
than improved sharing.

         The parts of the frontal lobe involved with planning novel hand and arm movements also work pretty well at planning mouth and face movements.

         They also have a lot of overlap with brain regions used during language tasks.

         This is consistent with the notion that planning and structured language may be sharing multipurpose facilities, something like a skateboard using a curb cut paid for by “wheelchair uses.”


Mind’s Big Bang at 50kyr

         Creativity (difficult)

         Symbolic stuff



         Planning in depth

         Add to all the qualifier,
with structure.” [WHC]

         Syntax, those phrases and clauses (often
nested) that make long sentences possible.

         Planning that is multistage and contingent.

         Chain/web of logic that, when they all hang
together, we say “understood” or “explained.”

         Games with arbitrary, changeable rules (gambling, too)

         Music that goes beyond rhythm and melody to use multiple voices, as in part singing and symphonies.

         Coherence-finding, as when we discover hidden patterns amidst seeming chaos.

         Complex thought, as in figurative speech, house-of-cards analogies, parables, and narrative frameworks.

Oliver Sacks’ description of an eleven-year-old deaf boy, reared without sign language for his first ten years, nicely shows what mental life is like, when lacking syntax:


Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with perceptual categorization or generalization, but he could not, it seemed, go much beyond this, hold abstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan.  He seemed completely literal — unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities, unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm.... He seemed, like an animal, or an infant, to be stuck in the present, to be confined to literal and immediate perception….


Similar cases also illustrate that any intrinsic aptitude for language must be developed by exposure during early childhood.  Joseph didn't have the opportunity to observe syntax in operation during his critical years of early childhood.


         As Desmond Morris once said, we prefer to think of ourselves as fallen angels, not risen apes.  At least, we hope, evolution is still improving us. 

         Alas, biological evolution doesn’t perfect things, it just moves on to new “products” with a different set of bugs.  (Sound familiar?  Imagine a beta version of Windows 1.0, a big step up from earlier, but not yet ready for prime time.  We might be like that.) 

         Even when we avoid hanging up from obsessions or crashing from epileptic seizures, we stumble over numerous cognitive pitfalls.

         Once you also recognize that we’re recently risen apes, you realize that there simply hasn’t been much time in which to evolve a less buggy version 2.0.

         The faster you go (without shortening
reaction times), the more easily a
pothole can spin you out of control.

         When innovation operates in one area faster than related ones, when one is nimble and the other ponderous, things can bend and break.

         Takes a half-century for politicians to peacefully create better institutions like the EU and the € Euro.

         Took less than a decade to invent atomic bomb.

         Took about four years to get a billion web pages.

   “We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements… profoundly depend on science and technology.  We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.

          This is a prescription for disaster.  We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

– Carl Sagan, 1996


        As Stewart Brand said, we may not be gods but it is as if we were, in our impact on the world and our own evolution – so maybe we'd better get good at the god business.

       Get the bugs out of the beta version,

       expand the time span over which responsibility is expected.

        Certainly it is juvenile to assume that someone else will clean up after us.  Or pick us up after we fall.



To order a copy of one of my more recent books, click on a cover for the link to 

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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