The Evolutionary Conundrum of Human Behaviour

Prior to the development of the Theory of Evolution, it was generally believed that human beings, along with all other living creatures, were created by God in their present form. Naturally, the claim that this long-held belief was false, and that, instead, we evolved from other primates, or rather from common primate ancestors, by gradual changes over millions of years into our present form caused great controversy. Even today, there are many people who adamantly refuse to believe in the Theory of Evolution.

Even in our lifetimes, and much more so during the period of recorded history, we can see the significant changes that have occurred in different species of plants and animals, sometimes as a result of deliberate human selection of specific organisms that possess certain characteristics, such as docility in animals, large edible seeds in annual plants, and sweetness in fruits. That such evolutionary changes occur, and have occurred, during the very long history of life on Earth is undoubtedly true. But many people, both scientists and non-scientists, have made the leap to generalizing from these observations a global scientific principle that they believe is valid for all time. Considering how short is the period of recorded history in relation to the much longer period of unrecorded history, this is an extremely presumptuous claim based on a hazardous procedure of assuming that one can generalize from specific instances to a globally-valid law of nature that has no exceptions. Of course, you will say, we have discovered fossils that show conclusively that certain creatures, such as birds, evolved from other creatures, such as dinosaurs.

This is all very well and may be true. There is, however, one case that cannot be explained by evolution, and in fact contradicts the fundamental evolutionary principle of all species’ gradual development by natural selection. I am referring to our own case, which I shall call “the evolutionary puzzle or conundrum of human behaviour.”

According to Darwin’s theory, in order for a characteristic, whether it is physical or behavioural, to be selected, it must first be manifested. Obviously, if an organism does not manifest or possess that characteristic, then it cannot be selected by Nature, as Darwin anthropomorphically phrased it. So, for example, if the male peacock did not possess and manifest his gaudy tail feathers, then female peacocks could not have selected the male cocks with the gaudiest feathers and mated with them in order to produce the present specimens that exist today. The same is true of behaviours. If the lion did not manifest the sorts of territorial, hunting, mating, and other behaviours that it does, then these behaviours could not have been selected by Nature and passed on to its progeny.

Human beings today do a great many things that no human did even a few hundred years ago. Some examples are driving a car or flying an airplane, using and programming computers, building skyscrapers and cell phones, making movies, composing symphonies and operas, and cooking elaborate dinners for many people. All of these are complex behaviours that often take years and years of training to learn to perform. Moreover, there is probably no other species of creatures in the history of the Earth that has been capable of performing them.

If we consider the activities of reading and writing, both of which are difficult skills that take many years to learn and master, what is true is that these were things that no one did a mere 10,000 or 15,000 years ago; and yet today, almost everyone is capable of learning these extremely complex skills. Since there have probably been no significant evolutionary changes in our species during that intervening period, what this means is that, while nearly all of our ancestors were capable of performing these complex skills, not a single one of them actually performed them. Considered from an evolutionary perspective, these two facts make absolutely no sense, for they mean that our ancestors possessed latent abilities to perform highly complex skills that not a single one of them actually performed. If we are not able to recognize the anomalous nature of these facts, it is because we have grown up in a period of more or less global literacy, and therefore we regard these skills as commonplace. However, the mere unrealized or unmanifested capacity to do something cannot be selected by Nature. To assert such a thing is tantamount to asserting the existence of evolutionary ghosts or phantoms that are also selected by Nature.[1]

Or to consider another more recent historical example, prior to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, no human being was able to solve a differential equation, since the branch of mathematics known as calculus was developed independently by these two men in the seventeenth century. This means that this complex ability, which presupposes the ability to perform many other complex abilities, such as the ability to multiply and divide, solve algebraic equations, and so forth, was never manifested and therefore could not have been selected by natural selection. Moreover, since neither Newton nor Leibniz had children, this ability was not transmitted to succeeding generations through their genes, which is also demonstrated by the fact that there are many people today, who are not the genetic descendents of either of these two men, in Asia, Africa, and South America, who are nevertheless able to solve differential equations. Another significant fact is that this ability is not possessed by the members of any other species. Although we humans have figured out how to solve differential equations, there exists no other species whose members are capable of learning this complex ability, including our primate relatives like chimpanzees and gorillas.

As is true of many of our other uniquely human abilities, what is probably true is that many or most people living in the time prior to Newton’s and Leibniz’s discovery, which occurred a mere 350 years ago, possessed the ability to solve differential equations, and yet, not a single one of them manifested this ability. To claim, then, that evolution by natural selection can account for this and all of our other extraordinary abilities is tantamount to declaring that natural selection is capable of performing evolutionary miracles.

But, you will say, it is not the particular ability – to read and write, hunt, prepare elaborate dinners, speak a certain language, solve complex mathematical formulas, invent, make, use, and repair complicated devices such as cars and computers, fashion shoes and clothes, and so on – that was selected by natural selection but rather the ability to imitate the things we see other people doing. This too I readily admit, since I am fairly well-versed in all things imitative.

When the transformation of the human species occurred from one, like nearly every other species that has existed on the Earth, whose behaviours were genetically determined to one whose behaviours are determined by its traditions, it allowed the sort of evolutionary change that was believed to occur by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that the individual’s genome, or hereditable part, is modified by its interaction with the environment, and that these beneficial changes, such as the ability to run faster or keener vision or hearing, could be passed on to its progeny. Instead, what our species has developed, and on which all our cultural achievements depend, is the transmission of acquired behaviours through imitation, with our very strong innate tendency to imitate serving the role that is played in other animals by the reliable, or uncorrupted, transmission of their genes, which in turn determine most or all of their behaviours.

There are many writers who, failing to recognize the fact that many of our behaviours have not the slightest survival value, because they did not evolve in the sense of being selected in order to increase our species’ chances of survival, have wasted both their and their readers’ time in pointless attempts to provide evolutionary explanations to account for why we perform certain actions. But many of our modern behaviours, such as creating and appreciating art, watching and participating in sporting events or concerts, wearing fashionable clothes, going on vacations, lying in the sun to become tanned, using computers, drinking intoxicating liquids, and eating in fancy restaurants, have no survival value whatsoever, and therefore it is a waste of time to try to account for them from an evolutionary perspective. These silly speculators about human behaviour have made the mistake of assuming that everything we humans do must conform to the Theory of Evolution, and specifically to the Law of Natural Selection. After all, to give another example, while this recently fairly widespread activity of trying to account for our behaviours by using the Law of Natural Selection is easily explained by the Theory of Imitation, I very much doubt that even these silly imitators would claim that this activity has any survival value whatsoever.

Anyone who has studied plants and animals in detail knows that Nature is extremely efficient in its designs. There are very few extraneous or unnecessary features in Nature because the survival of the individual and the species to which it belongs depends on attaining the greatest possible biological efficiency, both morphologically and behaviourally. Hence, it makes no evolutionary sense that we should have all these extraneous and, viewed from the narrow perspective of survival, wholly superfluous capabilities.

If we consider the behaviour of other animals that imitate, animals such as birds, mammals, fish, and primates, we will find that the range of behaviours they are capable of learning and performing is extremely limited. Even chimpanzees are not capable of doing the vast multitude of things that we humans are capable of doing, despite the efforts of some researchers to make them imitate our many different human behaviours. This is what one would expect from an evolutionarily developed ability to imitate: a limited and narrowly-fixed range of behaviours that have some value in increasing the individual organism’s ability to survive and procreate. But what one would not expect the random and haphazard processes of evolution to produce is a species that is capable of doing all the many extremely complicated things that modern humans actually do. For in addition to our ability to imitate is coupled our ability to innovate, create, and transform the world to our liking, an ability that is not possessed to the same degree by the members of any other species in existence.

To give an example, one would expect evolution to be capable of producing a species – songbirds – whose members are able to imitate the simple sequence of sounds that are made by other members of the species as a mating call, and repeat this sequence of sounds over and over during certain periods of the year. But one would not expect evolution to be capable of producing a species that can create the extremely complicated, varied, highly ordered, and constantly changing behavioural structure known as spoken language.

This is what I mean when I speak of the evolutionary conundrum of human behaviour. For the belief that evolution can account for all human behaviours – the fact that we are capable of performing so many different complex behaviours that were not performed by any of our ancestors even just a few centuries ago – is an absurdity that results from naively assuming that scientific principles must be universally – or, in this case, globally – applicable in order to be considered valid. In essence, the defenders of the belief in the global validity of the Theory of Evolution are saying that, because evolution by natural selection has happened some of the time, it necessarily follows that it must have happened all of the time – a truly audacious extrapolation when we consider how vast is the difference between the very brief period of time that humans have observed evolution in action compared to the much longer period that we have not observed it. Since we have not the slightest evidence for it, the belief that our unique human behaviours – or, more specifically, our unique and unrivalled human capabilities – arose by chance and the operations of natural selection is simply an article of scientific faith. In this regard, it is no different from the religious belief that human beings, as well as all other creatures, were created in their present form by God.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that our human abilities did not result from evolution as a result of natural selection,[2] since Nature could not have selected abilities that were never manifested by our ancestors until only a very short time ago, when considered from an evolutionary time frame. That evolution occurs is undeniable. But what is equally undeniable is that there have also been numerous instances of divine intervention during the course of our planet’s history. It is only if we imitate logicians and philosophers by insisting on rigorous consistency in this matter, and, in doing so, make the very common intellectual mistake of trying to impose a human system or belief onto the real world – or, in other words, we try to make the real world fit our limited and frequently mistaken conceptions about it – that we become blind to this possibility, and deny the evidence of our senses about the true nature of the world and the development of Life on Earth.

[1] I suppose that some of you will think of recessive genes as a counter-argument to what I am saying. However, recessive genes are sometimes manifested; they are just not manifested all the time. What I am talking about are abilities that were never manifested by our ancestors until recently in our species’ history. Moreover, there are some recessive genes that cause diseases and other problems that clearly do not enhance one’s chances of survival; but most human behaviours do improve one’s chances of survival in some way – at least this was the case until fairly recently in our history.

[2] Although some readers of this essay will conclude that it proves, or at least illustrates, God’s special favour towards our kind, let us not forget that God may also have intervened in the evolution of a great many other species. Unless we study these species’ development in detail, we are not at all justified in making such a presumptuous, and arrogantly humanistic, claim.

One comment

  1. Edward O Wilson introduced the concept of Sociobiology 30+ years ago that presented a larger context and framework for human evolution. In it he said altruism sometime opposed individual biological success but instead promoted the survival of relatives genes. Much of what you are referring to only appears to be chaotic because Darwin’s model was too simplistic.


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