We do, or have, plenty of things that don't appear to benefit our genes in any way. We grow beyond reproductive age, as though there were a point in doing so. We choose not to have children, as though we have license to. We die for our country. We become celibate. We waste our energy collecting useless things such as stamps, instead of useful things such as nuts and fruit. We waste our time migrating to the Caribbean, not to survive the northern winter but to turn our skins brown.
Admittedly, some of these things may benefit some genes in as-yet unimaginable ways - indeed, this is the last remaining hope of a whole cohort of Darwin's children, the evolutionary psychologists - but it does appear that at least parts of our lifestyles are not just weird but "illegal" according to the rules of life.
This inability of natural selection to explain both our evolution and our lifestyles keeps scientists up at night. You have to remember that since its inception, science has been busying itself with the project of humbling humankind. We humans once thought we were God images living at the center of a divine universe. Since then, we've been consistently stripped down a peg or two. First Copernicus taught us that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. Then Galileo added that the Sun was in the armpit of a minor galaxy hidden in a vast universe of galaxies. Then Darwin worked out that Life was not some divine plan, but instead a mindless automated process of Life form making and that, yes, our fears were justified: those new animals in the zoo, the apes, look like us for a reason.
However, just as this dethroning was approaching its climax, Darwin's goggles misted up. The failure of natural selection to explain how our minds were made and how our lives were lived halted the philosophical advance of science in its tracks and enabled a line to be drawn in the sand. To many if not most of us, it still appears that "human nature" is apart from the rest of the living world, a product not of Darwinian selection but of divine intervention. Our weirdness itself gives the idea of God something to hold on to.
So, is that how we leave it? While all the other living things around us, and even most parts of our own bodies, can be explained by Darwinism, built by natural selection, the odd bits that make us human must remain non-Darwinian, built by supernatural selection. True fans of Darwin's goggles would never allow such a thing. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests, it would be like explaining the construction of a skyscraper by saying that the bottom two thirds were built by cranes and the last one third by "skyhooks": construction arms dangling down supernaturally from the clouds. If you believe in the supernatural, if you're religious, then that's fine; skyhooks work. But many don't believe in the supernatural. Many, like me, believe that "natural" is all there is. Surely we can't rest until we've found those missing cranes, the ones that built the last third of our species. But how do we do this?
By trying on a new pair of goggles. A pair that will enable us to look at, from a new angle, the only thing we know of that manufactures cranes: natural selection. A pair of goggles that will present our evolution and our lifestyles in such a way that Darwinism will regain its foothold on our species. A pair that can spotlight the strange driving force that ballooned our brains, stripped our skin of its hair, stood us upright, and dropped our throats. A pair through which the human being does not appear over-equipped for its environment, but instead perfectly fit for purpose. A pair that can help us to see the adaptive value of "dual income, no kids."
Excerpted from On the Origin of Tepees by Jonnie Hughes. Copyright © 2011 by Jonnie Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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