As promised, this is my summary of the latest episode of Richard Dawkins’s new Channel 4 series on Charles Darwin, for the benefit of those overseas who do not have access to YouTube. These are in effect little more than notes I made whilst watching and whilst I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, there may be a few errors — though I would hope not!
Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.
The Genius of Charles Darwin Part Two Summary.
Humans don’t have Dominion over animals. We are animals. We are the fifth ape. This raises questions about our morals and manners. Are they just a veneer? If survival drives evolution, why don’t we live in a purely dog eat dog world?
Is genocide etc a survival method?
This episode deals with the questions that Darwin himself skirted around — questions concerning the evolution of human beings, what it means for us to be evolved. The question is more urgent than ever. Darwinism is increasingly being attacked by religious groups and others for excusing selfishness and barbarism.
Dawkins takes us into the Darwinian heart of darkness to look for answers and hope.
Natural selection is the driving force of our evolution but that doesn’t mean that society should be run on Darwinian lines. Dawkins abhors it as a principal for organising society.
A brief summary of evolution by natural selection then follows.
At London Zoo back in the 1830s the arrival of the first apes outraged polite society. The young Charles Darwin saw the truth staring back at him, however. All life related, Darwin realises.
East Africa — the birthplace of Dawkins and more importantly the birthplace of the human species. Between five and six million years ago there lived in Africa an ape that had two children. One of those children gave rise to us, the other was destined to give rise to the chimpanzees.
Richard Leakey and his family have uncovered the hard evidence in the Rift Valley. Charts the evolution of our human ancestors. A brief examination of fossilised human skull development. Leakey talks about the way we react to the fact that we are the fifth ape. He tells a story about watching people at a zoo who in turn were watching apes. He says that you can see that as an individual looks at an ape he/she will be unconvinced that the ape is like them but as they look around at the other people with them they think, Yeah, there is a similarity between those people and the ape… (I’ve paraphrased this to make it clearer.)
We are so closely related to chimps that it isn’t entirely ridiculous to ask if we might breed with them.
We are the human animal. Dawkins has often wondered what it tells us about human society now. Half the world is still horrified by the reality of our origins. As we go into the break, Dawkins asks a black guy, “I’m an ape — are you an ape?”
“No,” he answers. “I’m a human being.”
Why should the fifth ape “love thy neighbour”? Darwin shied away from the evolution of man.
In Kenya, religious groups are trying to ban the National Museum exhibit of human fossils.
Turkana Boy. Homo erectus. More precious than the Crown Jewels to Dawkins (and me!)
The Evangelical movement in Kenya is running a “hide the bones” campaign. A minister shows a complete unwillingness/inability to understand evolution. He asks, “What is evolution’s goal?” Dawkins explain that it has none. It has no purpose or morality.
What does that mean for us/society? Struggle. Each working for its own benefit. Explanation of strangler fig.
Next Dawkins addresses the claims that Darwinian ruthlessness/purposelessness damages society. Business likes the dog-eat-dog concept. Summary of robber-barons and social darwinism. Similarities between economic systems and biological systems. A businessman says that there’s a risk to the analogy. Not a straightforward law for financial success. Merely an analogy.
Eugenics overview. A slippery slope to horrific consequences. Eugenics is not Darwinism. Hitler was not a Darwinist.
Darwin argued that evolution was driven by brutal struggle for survival. So why altruistic behaviour — grooming, warning cries etc? Brings on Steven Pinker to explain the brain’s evolution. Guilt and trust operate in much the same we as lust. Moral emotions can be explained in evolutionary terms, just like fear.
Darwin on peacocks tail. Tail wins sexual partners. Peahens perform “selective breeding” much like pigeon fanciers. This Darwin defined as “sexual selection”. Survive and be attractive.
A segment on American single women selectively breeding. Sperm donors. Their criteria for donors include everything imaginable — from shoe-size to pets. Do they want altruism/niceness, though? Yes! Don’t want typical alpha males. Nice guys win!
How did animals evolve “nice”? How can genetics explain altruism? We are vehicles for the genes inside us. They are “immortal” because they are passed on. Summary of the concept of the selfish gene.
If they are selfish, why do they promote altruism in bearer? The first part of the answer is kinship selection. Altruism directed at “family”. Parents protecting their offspring. The other part of the answer is “reciprocal altruism”; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Humans are still “nicer” than this explanation seems to suggest, however. Dawkins explores this problem.
We are introduced to the primatologist Frans De Waal. He is critical of Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, of what he calls “veneer theory” — the idea that morals are a thin veneer on our underlying nastiness. De Waal then moves onto “social Darwinism” (yawn)… Dawkins also hates social Darwinism.
Dawkins believes the urge to help has ancestral roots. Hardwired into us. It benefited us once, we behave as if it still does. (And it does.)
But we also rise above natural selection. Altruism is the pinnacle of human civilization. Dawkins asks a charity worker why she feels the need to help/be good. She was a war child. She knows what it was like to be hungry…
Natural selection gave us big brains. We can empathise, plan and build a society we want to live in. Our evolved brains empower us to rebel against our selfish genes.
[Episode two can be seen here.]