Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Society and Evolution

On Page 230 of his book, Jerry Coyne discusses how humans have introduced choice to how they live their lives, driven by individual perceptions that are shaped by social mores rather than only being guided by the evolutionary goals of survival and reproduction. Notably, he describes the gradual decline of social activities that may be seen as ‘barbaric’ as one aspect in which human individuals have elevated themselves beyond solely evolution. However, in class we have also discussed the existence of altruistic behavior among species that may encourage ‘kindness’ extended to other individuals even at the cost of one’s own chances of survival and reproduction. Taking these factors into account, to what extent can human society today be seen as a result of evolution? (Hint: consider the evolution of nonaggressive, communal social behavior among bonobos vs. the aggressive, individualistic behavior among the common chimp, two species closely related to humans)


  1. According to Jerry Coyne, "There may be elements of both behaviors [kindness and altruism] that come from our evolutionary heritage, but these acts are largely matters of choice, not of genes" (230). I really like how he explains this because although we may have evolved genetically, our genes are not choosing the way we act, but society is. Over thousands of generations during human existence, the way we act has changed and overtime, we have developed a general understanding among all cultures as what is deemed as "barbaric" and acceptable. Coyne summarizes how these changes in behavior are occurring to fast to be considered evolution, but instead is driven by meeting the norm of today's social behavior.

    Jerry explains this complex issue fantastically when he says, "Evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go" (231). Two species that are closely related to humans, the bonobo and the common chimp, varied drastically in their behavior, but Jerry Coyne and common sense highlight, "We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe" (233). Kindness and altruisms that may not be beneficial to us are the results of having a complex brain allowing us to process a situation and follow our respective morals. For instance, if I see a little girl riding her bike in the middle of the street and a car driving by it may not be the best choice to ensure my own survival, but having a complex brain from many generations of evolution, allows me to have feelings about making sure the girl is saved from the present danger.

  2. Gerald M. Edelman, author of The Brain, analyzes how unbelievable the brain is: "Four pounds and several thousand miles of interconnected nerve cells (about 100 billion) control every movement, thought, sensation, and emotion that comprise the human experience. Within the brain and spinal cord there are ten thousand distinct varieties of neurons, trillions of supportive cells, a few more trillion synaptic connections, a hundred known chemical regulating agents, miles of minuscule blood vessels, axons ranging from a few microns to well over a foot and a half in length, and untold mysteries of how, almost flawlessly, all these components work together." Genes may make us who we are in relation to our behavior and phylogeny, but genes do not make our decisions and consult the consequences. Moreover, according to professor Jacob Palme, evolution for humans in the future will not be easy to follow because of the usage of new technologies such as glasses, microscopes, and vaccines. He also goes on to talk about the fact that the complexity of the human race is what separates us from the rest of species to come as far as evolution goes in the future. Our evolved brains have lead us to learn how to use controlled energy (oil, light bulb) and develop advanced languages and social organizations. It's not that we are done evolving as our genes will continue to evolve (microevolution), but the way we carry ourselves as people will be a direct result from our amazing brains that we possess.