TCS Daily

The Darwinists Are Back

By Haydn Shaughnessy - November 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Reaching back forty thousand years for policy advice is not on the average politician's agenda; nor would it necessarily strike even the born controversialists among us as a necessary timeframe for policy consultation. But evolutionary theory, the idea that we are what we became 40,000 years ago, is about to make an overdue impact on political theory, and on practical issues like childcare, gender equality and health care.

At least that's the view of Helena Cronin, convenor of the Darwin Public Lectures at the London School of Economics. When Cronin began organising small staff seminars on Darwinism a decade ago, the line of students who also wanted to attend became so long that the good doctor had to call in the fire marshals to find a room suitably large enough to accommodate the curious. Eventually over 400 people attended the seminars, regularly. The public lecture series saw people lining the streets to get in.

For the past five years, several prominent evolutionists have focused on research and writing projects but in the new year they step back into the public arena. The Darwin Lectures are back.

According to evolutionary thinking when our genetic structure was finally composed 40,000 years ago it embedded a number of behavioural imperatives in our psyche and coded the mechanisms through which we respond to basic life necessities. Those impulses and mechanisms can operate against the interests and mores of a highly developed civilisation with its more transient and dispensable political ideas.

That proposition anyway seems to lie behind evolutionism's popularity.

So what, then, areas of policy are susceptible to influence from Darwinian insights?

Consider childcare. It is almost a decade now since the Darwinists demonstrated that non-genetic parents are a hundred times more likely to kill or seriously injure the children in their care.


Yes, says Cronin, but there are stepparents and casual spouses out there who feel aggressive impulses without knowing why. The difficulty of a non-genetic parent making an adequate investment in a non-genetically linked child could require policy responses in areas of adoption and marital and divorce laws.

Mothers at work? Likewise.

Men have an innate need to rise to power and use their success as a way of accessing sex. Industrial policy and sexual equality policy needs, at a minimum, an awareness of sexual psychological differences rather than simply blindly adopting gender equality policies.

Or consider public health concerns over obesity. Researcher Loren Cordain has provided suggestive evidence that current diet and exercise advice is wholly inadequate for our health.

Current dietary advice is based on research from the past fifty years. The time-frame is myopic. Based on a review of evidence from early examples of the human species, he concludes that our bodies are structured for high fat consumption as well as substantially more exercise than Government guidelines currently recommend.

Our wandering ancestors would have prized not the lean meat but the fat on an animal carcass. And about an extra 12 miles walking a day would just about satisfy our evolutionary needs. Our civilised lifestyles operate against our currently evolved nature. Any changes needed to bring the two into line, should that be necessary, are substantial, ranging from revising how families and organisations function to how we each spend our days.

These ideas raise crucial questions about the relationship between science and policy. Science is not supposed to furnish policy makers with "ought to" advice. But just how much weight should policy makers give to scientific research?

Whatever the answers, evolutionary ideas offer a source of some inspiration for rethinking public policies. Indeed, it's not a bad source of ideas for male politicians who want to differentiate themselves from the competition or female politicians who want to create a world that serves feminine aspirations.

The author is a freelance writer whose work appears frequently in the Irish Times.


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