Darwin on people Notes for November 6

Main points

We talked about three topics:

  1. The influence of natural selection vs. the influence of culture
  2. Sexual selection vs. natural selection
  3. Culture and observations


One reason to talk about this section has to do with the broad theme of the course. Darwin treats human beings like any other organism. That is at odds with the idea that human beings are special, which they would be if they were created in, you guessed it, the image of God. Pinker, who sees himself as following on Darwin, is even more explicit about this.

A second reason has to do with the content of Darwin’s theory. He offers explanations of traits that we see now by looking at how they were selected in the past. There are at least two mechanisms that do the selecting. One is the competition for survival, which I called natural selection. The other is sexual selection.

A third reason for talking about this has to do with the nature of evolutionary explanations. I wanted to talk a bit about what has to be the case before an evolutionary explanation of something makes sense.

Specifically, I wanted to make a few points about what we have to observe before we should even consider delving into Darwinian theories.

  1. We have to observe a trait accurately.
  2. It has to be universal in a biologically distinct population, such that the trait would have been inherited by members of the group.
  3. We can’t give a cultural or historical explanation of the trait.

I said that Darwin’s remarks about women and the poor often failed to meet any of these conditions.

Why? Well, culture influences observers as well as the observed. The authors of the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Human Rights (1947) put the point too strongly. They said that “the eternal verities only seem so because we have been taught to recognize them as such”.** American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 49, (1947), p. 542. But if they had said that we accept what we have been taught as a universal or natural truth, I would be right there with them.

This page was written by Michael Green for The Image of God, ID-1, Fall 2007. It was posted November 9, 2007.
The Image of God