Darwin 200: humanity's roots | University of Oxford
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Darwin 200: humanity's roots

Pete Wilton

All this week we're celebrating Darwin and the advances in evolutionary theory that have built upon his work.

Darwin famously delayed his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, over concerns about how it would be received.

He was right to be worried. The implications of his theory of evolution by natural selection undermined established beliefs about humanity's special place in the world and turned man into just another animal - with apes for cousins and worms for ancestors.

It provoked hostility at the time and has been used since to justify everything from colonialism and class warfare to the holocaust. So how should we think about human evolution now?

'These negative associations are not really valid as evolution is not a political vehicle facilitating forms of cultural over-lordship but rather an unconscious force applicable to the entirety of our species,' Oxford's Timothy Clack, who studies archaeology and biological anthropology, told me. ' We are all Homo sapiens and all share the same evolutionary history.'

Driven to destruction?
Timothy believes that our evolutionary drives are at odds with our modern way of life and this conflict is having a dire effect on our physical and mental health, as well as the environment:

'Rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure soar because our bodies are unfit for purpose in environments where we consume vast amounts of fat and carbohydrate and levels of physical activity are in decline. We have insatiable appetites for high-calorie foods because in the evolutionary past they were rare and on those infrequent occasions when they were encountered, for example on finding a honey-rich beehive or a clutch of bird eggs, it made sense to gorge oneself. Unfortunately there is no off-switch and the availability and low-cost of these food items nowadays results in their over-consumption.'

The other problem is that we no longer behave like the hunter gatherers we evolved to be and burn off any excess calories: stamina and an athletic frame are hardly necessary to hunt down food in your local supermarket. 

It's not just physical, according to Timothy humans also miss out on the rich and long-lasting social bonds fostered in tight-knit hunting bands of up to 100 members. He comments: 'Real friendships are in shorter supply than ever before because our geographic mobility, frequent relocations, endless commitments and levels of exhaustion deny us the time necessary to develop them. '

Under the influence
Yet despite this mismatch our inherited evolutionary drives remain very powerful and are used by everyone from advertisers to politicians to influence us.

Timothy explains: 'Models are used to promote things because we respond positively to attractive people. By playing on our evolutionary disposition good advertising helps us accept that any particular product is sexier, newer and better than the competition. We learn that status is enhanced with possession. At the same time consumerism is linked to our compulsion for territorial marking and resource acquisition; both of which are important for attracting mates.'

'Both the sexes have voyeuristic predispositions and these evolved on the savannah at a time when sex was a public enterprise. We may have placed intercourse modestly behind the bedroom door but flirting and other performances of attraction still take place in the open. Sex appeal has taken on greater significance in the modern media culture where the image has replaced the word as the primary means of communication. Politicians are getting younger and more attractive because these qualities correlate with sex appeal. We generally afford the good-looking more trust and confidence.'

Going against Nature
So is the battle against our evolved instincts hopeless?

'The good news is that not all of our evolutionary heritage is harmful. Certain qualities like innovation, emotion, empathy, sociality and language can be embraced. The bad news is that the more negative traits will be difficult if not impossible to shake. There is a little room for optimism, however, for in recognising negative traits we can strive to mitigate their impact.'

'Natural selection may have been the human architect but thanks to the many adaptations it implanted we find ourselves in pretty exceptional territory. Our self-awareness and ability to comprehend the evolution and future of our species uniquely places us to resist impulses and drives. Culture bestows on us the means to refrain from antisocial behaviours, even those that may have some fashion of evolutionary basis. In certain locations over the course of three generations we have seen major steps in the fight against racial segregation, sexual inequality and religious persecution. Therefore we must not deploy evolution as an excuse for in doing so we legitimise the worst of our character.'

Dr Timothy Clack is the author of Ancestral Roots a book exploring the links between modern day problems and our evolutionary past.

Read more of our Darwin special: worms & vertebrates