Nov 01 2013

Evolution question


Hello, I am from Dallas and I go to a southern baptist school. Recently I had a project in my Logic and World Views class were I had to debate with another classmate on a controversial topic in today’s society, I choose the existence of god because I am an atheist and I wanted to try to convince my classmates that there is not supernatural being. After my debate my schools head master asked me “since evolution proposes that the fittest will survive and the week will die off, is it a good thing if a bigger boy was beating up a small boy?” I responded with no and said that his question was not relevant. But what is the right answer to this question or is there one?  Thought you could help,  Thanks!

Reply below.

Evolution is about observed facts, not about moral judgments. Asking if it’s “a good thing” when something happens is like saying “Since gravity proposes that things fall towards the earth, isn’t it a good thing that some guy fell off a cliff and died?” It’s not a good thing. It just happens. Denying that it’s true doesn’t stop it from happening.
Having said that… part of the experience of being human is that we aren’t necessarily content to leave things the way they are in nature. Evolution does not care about human suffering; people do. (Evolution cannot care about anything, just like gravity cannot care about anything. It is simply a description of a trend that we’ve noticed in the natural world.) In nature, animals generally can’t lift very far off the ground without wings because of gravity. We made hang gliders, elevators and airplanes. In nature, suffering and death are alarmingly common. We made farms and shelters and medicine.
So you see, we’re not bound by what happens naturally as the source of our value judgments. We think human suffering is a bad thing. We also think bullying and murder are a bad thing, which is why we make societies and laws to keep that in check too.
Also, your opponent headmaster doesn’t really understand what “fitness” means in evolutionary terms. Something that is bigger and tougher isn’t necessarily “more fit” if it’s also slower, dumber, requires so much energy consumption that it has a hard time eating enough to live, or is somehow unable to reproduce. There’s a lot more to fitness than just “beating things up.”
Finally, if your opponent headmaster thinks we get all our morality from the Bible, you might ask if it’s “a good thing” for the parents of a disobedient child to stone their child to death.


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  1. 1
    Mark Massingill

    The correct answer would be that the bigger boy beating up a smaller boy is wrong because as man we developed morals and that the survival of the fittest is about speciation survival, not interspecies survival. Since both boys are homosapians, this situation doesn’t apply except in determining alpha male status among primates. It has nothing to do with the survival of the human race, but is more a question of how our species should treat with one another since we have achieved reason. If your teacher can’t understand that point he’s being willfully ignorant. With a statement such as he has already made I’d wonder about his qualifications and I wouldn’t allow him to continue teaching my children.

    1. 1.1
      Matt Gerrans

      Ah but luckily we have biblical morals, so we know that as long as the smaller boy used a deadly weapon from a distance (and he was a follower of the One True God), then it would not only be moral for him to kill the bigger boy, he would be considered a great hero and God would give him immunity from obeying His laws (eg. adultery, murder). Makes a load of sense.

    2. 1.2

      No, Mark, that is incorrect what you’re saying. You are talking about “species selection” which is a long-debunked concept in evolutionary science (or highly controversial and unsupported at best). Natural Selection will always primarily act between individuals. If it’s between individuals of the same species this will lead to evolutionary changes of this species, because the fittest individuals will prevail. If it is between individuals of different species, it will lead to the ‘less fit’ species either adapting or going extinct.

      However, there is more than just competition at play here. The human species has excelled at cooperation between individuals and that is really what has brought us so far. Bullying and worse is detrimental to this process thus it should be opposed alone from a purely rational point-of-view. On an emotional level, humans also have a fair share of empathy that generally cause them to be unhappy with others’ suffering. Another reason why bullying and other harmful behaviour is unwanted.

      I think Russel phrased it well.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Your correspondent didn’t describe what happened with “his opponent” during the debate, just the school headmaster’s questions afterward.

    It must have taken guts to step forward as the face and voice of atheism in a school run by such an uneducated man. I’d be curious to find out how the debate itself went, and what kind of treatment your correspondent has received from his peers afterward.

    Also: what’s a hang elevator?

    1. 2.1
      Russell Glasser

      Yes, I read that carelessly, so I edited the message to reflect that.

  3. 3

    I find it a little disturbing that this student’s headmaster asked him this question. I hope it was a rhetorical question to help the student extend his understanding and not the headmaster’s misunderstanding of evolution.

  4. 4

    …hang gliders, elevators, and airplanes, maybe? Yes, how is it to debate this topic in that school? How much support does this student have?

  5. 5

    If bigger and stronger was the only criteria for “fittest” then there’d still be dinosaurs. The primates from that time were quite small. It helped them survive whatever killed off the dinosaurs. There are all kinds of ways to be fit. Smaller, faster, more efficient, better able to hide from predators. Pretty much anything that allows you to survive and reproduce makes you fitter. That has nothing to do with the morality of inflicting violence on others. No it’s not okay for the bigger boy to beat up the smaller boy. If you have to have that explained to you, you should be fired from any job involving supervising children.

    1. 5.1
      Scott Trimble

      or just being able to reproduce quickly and/or in large quantities (e.g. rabbits or mice)…

  6. 6

    He should tell the headmaster to visit Oz and see if he can get a brain for that strawman.

    Evolutionary theory doesn’t propose that “the fittest will survive and the week [sic] will die off”, it proposes that “those best able to survive will tend to have more offspring and those less able to survive will tend to have fewer offspring”. Depending on conditions, smaller and nimbler may very well be better for survival than bigger and stronger. It is survival of those that are best adapted to the current conditions and best able to change as conditions change.

    The misrepresentation of ‘survival of the fittest’ to mean ‘survival of the strongest’ is a pervasive one. I’ll never forget the first time a theist told me that if I accepted evolution then the logical extension was that I should be trying to kill everyone I see so I can take their resources because that’s what evolution demands.

    1. 6.1
      Pierce R. Butler

      Did you (I doubt I could have) resist the temptation to say, “Hey, that’s right!” and grab his throat?

      1. unfogged

        I can’t say that the thought didn’t cross my mind but I resisted the urge. Good thing thought crimes really can’t be controlled.

        1. Pierce R. Butler

          Speaking of thought crimes, shame on me twice for describing both your interlocutor, and the brave young atheist who started this thread by writing to AXP, using masculine pronouns without any evidence to support that lazy presupposition.

    2. 6.2
      Jasper of Maine

      I think a good example is the extinction of the dinosaurs ~65MYa. When that even happened, the “fittest” were the small, efficient and mobile creatures, like rodents and bird-like creatures.

      At that point, “fittest” swapped from large, lumbering giants, to small and efficient. It depends on context and environment that can vary wildly.

  7. 7

    @1 – “survival of the fittest” is Spencer’s attempt to describe Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection. Modern ideas of natural selection are most definitely not about “speciation survival”. Rather, they’re about how various versions of a gene increase or decrease within a population. So a better answer, if you’re going to invoke selection as a solution to his question, would be that we developed a moral sense because we are a social species, and in a social species that is capable of remembering past events, being immoral is likely to reduce the sort of cooperation necessary for an individual to thrive in a group. Such behavior still exists in humans because a) we’re pretty flexible about defining that group (and cooperation is much less important outside the group), and b) there are multiple ways of achieving that cooperation — as with many evolutionary strategies, the bullying one can work as long as the proportions in the population are small enough.

    While that may explain the existence of a moral sense, I’m perfectly happy simply going with the empirical “we know that humans have a moral sense, we can see that it includes a number of universals shared by most societies, and bullying behavior violates several of those universals.”

  8. 8
    Jasper of Maine

    I’d point the “opponent” to a definition of “Naturalistic Fallacy”

    1. 8.1
      Jasper of Maine

      I’d also recommend (if writer is reading) reading about the Is/Ought problem.


  9. 9

    Actually, I think the student had the correct answer in the first place, to wit, the question is not relevant, first, because the Headmaster’s question is a misrepresentation of the theory of evolution, and second because he then draws a false analogy between this misrepresentation and the circumstance of a stronger boy beating up a weaker boy. In short, the question is nonsensical and as such, it is irrelevant.

  10. 10

    “Survival of the fittest” refers to “fit for purpose”, not brute strength or some other headmaster-imposed belief system. This is a typical strawman trotted out by creationists when they get cornered and thus can be dismissed as irrelevant. Take a non-biological illustration, motor vehicles: Americans like using SUVs, but in European cities such as London where there are many small narrow roads, an SUV is less fit for purpose than a small narrow car. Is the SUV a “better car’ that will “survive better” simply because it’s bigger? Of course not. Same with evolution: stronger/bigger/faster is irrelevant if those attributes do not produce an actual improvement in the survivability of the species. That’s why you won’t find many blue whales in the middle of the desert… despite how big and strong they are.

    Also, evolution occurs at reproduction. This is an important point because it’s the mechanism involved: offspring are the result of the DNA of each parent which is why we are not clones. Each offspring is slightly different and have slightly different characteristics. These slightly different characteristics may be totally irrelevant to survivability (such a green, blue, or brown eye color) or may create an advantage over others (such as height in some animals). This advantage may be of any type that results in more offspring, such as threat avoidance, strength, or attractiveness. (so the pretty feathers of birds may make it harder to avoid predators but if they end up having more offspring, the feature survives even if it results in the animal living a shorter life). The animals with the slight advantage in evolutionary terms have more offspring, passing that characteristic to their offspring. If the difference is disadvantageous, they die younger having less or no offspring, and thus do not pass that characteristic on. If that characteristic is particularly useful in that particular environment (such as the long bony middle finger of the Aye-Aye of Madagascar) then it results in a survival advantage which results in longer life, more offspring, and more extreme examples of that feature over time.

    Regardless, if evolution were disproven tomorrow, that provides zero support to the Biblical concept. This is the biggest problem with ‘debates’: a debate begins with presuming both ‘sides’ have a level of justification for argument’s sake. If it were not for the style of ‘debates’ the level of evidence required for Biblical claims would be illustrated with this question: “Let’s say there’s zero evidence for a single scientific theory, that there is no evidence of anything we think we understand. Now, try to prove the existence of your deity. Produce evidence”. No amount of “but evolution means X” or “but you can’t prove the Big Bang”-type arguments gets anywhere because they are not evidence of a deity (e.g. let’s say the world is 6,000 years old. That does not extend to “… and therefore it was made by Yahweh”. You would need to show “made by Yahweh” separately, which involves showing that “Yahweh exists”, “Yahweh can make a planet”, and “Yahweh made this planet”). This is why theists constantly want to debate: it’s the last bastion of where they get their ideas given any level of credence, even if that acceptance is to ‘humor’ the idea for the benefit of actually getting a debate started.

    This final point: survival of the fittest is about survival of the species, not the individual. The death of an individual is irrelevant to the survival of the species. The reproduction by an individual is irrelevant to the survival of the species. In fact, some species have mountains of offspring on the basis that a few will survive, and that’s all it takes. Your opponent’s attempt at emotional manipulation is wholly irrelevant to the facts. It is not only a strawman, it is relying on the logical fallacy of making an argument from consequences. It has nothing going for it.

  11. 11

    That was a sad question. I hope your headmaster was being rhetorical.

    Humans are a social species. We evolved that way. Another way to look at this is that the society in which we live IS SYNONYMOUS with our environment. Any creature that harms the environment it depends upon for survival will have a less likely survival rate.

    I, as an individual, need a healthy human environment if I am to flourish. This requires stability and sufficient resources. Therefore, cooperation and trust ARE FAVORABLE EVOLUTIONARY TRAITS in humans.

    A society in which conflict and strife determine the distribution of resources is poorly optimized and practically devoid of cooperation. A “bully” degrades the human environment.

  12. 12
    Ernest Valdemar (@ErnestValdemar)

    As long as the smaller boy survives his beating to reproduce, he will pass along his genes to his offspring.

    The stronger boy has shown himself to be violent and reckless, and those behaviors are likely to increase the chance of dying before reproducing, for example, by getting in a fatal car accident or getting shot in a bar fight.

    Evolutionarily, it’s a wash. Risk-takers tend to find more mating opportunities, earlier. But the trade-off is that some of them won’t survive to reproduce. Risk-averse individuals may have fewer mating opportunities, but they’re much more likely to survive, and if they do reproduce, are more likely to be invested in the survival of their offspring.

  13. 13

    You might also want to point out that atheism has very little to do with evolution, it is only a statement on belief.

  14. 14

    Religion has its benefits and harms. One of the major harms that it does is to teach a false theory of ethics.

    Religious folk misunderstand morality at its roots. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent”. Just as religious faith is believing what you are told, so religious morality is doing what you are told. Religious morality consists of obeying the alleged will of God, an invisible “Cosmic Parent”, as reported by your chosen authority. But obedience is not morality, and morality is not obedience. We can all think of famous people who did good things while rebelling against authority, and others who did evil things while obeying authority.

    Religious folk may be Good Samaritans or suicide bombers, it depends entirely on what their chosen authority orders them to do. If a believer, or a community of same, wishes to make war or keep slaves or oppress women, all they have to do is persuade themselves that their god approves. This seems not to be hard, and no god has ever popped up to tell believers that they were wrong. They do not have a code of morality except by the convenience of the priesthood. What they have is a code of obedience, which is not the same thing.

    Adult morality is a means of maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors. If you want peaceful relations, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare wrote: “It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this.”

    Living beings evolved by natural selection are going to value the health of their families, “inclusive fitness”, where “health” is the ABILITY to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes.” Their desires are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.

    Social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups, have a “natural” standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, The Right is that which leads to peace. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, from the point of view of people who seek to live in peace and raise families.

  15. 15
    Monocle Smile

    I don’t think I’m okay with calling a place where the HEADMASTER commits the naturalistic fallacy and seems to reject evolution a “school.” I’m glad they have this “Logic and Worldviews” class and that the emailer was allowed to choose that topic.

    1. 15.1

      “logic AND worldviews” sounds like a purposeful attempt to have someone choose this topic, and be shot down (by the headmaster if necessary). ‘Logic; is a formal discipline of mathematics. ‘Worldviews’ is theist-speak for the equivalence between faith based ideologies and scientific understanding of reality.

      Were they taught the logical forms in this class? The fallacies? Symbolic logic?

  16. 16

    If this comment was made in the hearing of his opponents, I would predict a few things 1) The OP was on the smaller side of the bell curve with respect to his classmates. 2) The some sort of aggression will be perpetrated upon him subsequent to this, by a *group* of those on the larger side of said curve. 3) The headmaster will *not* be called out for instigating it.

  17. 17
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    A bigger boy beating up a smaller boy only demonstrates a severely limited fitness for doing something that is unlikely to increase the survival of the larger boy until he can reproduce. The question is irrelevant. Being larger and more muscular may have certain advantages in certain environments, but also it comes at greater costs. Being smaller also has advantages, depending on environment. But this is also irrelevant here, as the question is clearly about contrived social hierarchies and interactions with have zip to do with evolutionary questions.

  18. 18

    I would ask the headmaster why he asks the dumbest question ever. Unless Mr. headmaster is some type of cynical evolutionist who thinks that creationism is a necessary evil for the good of society. In that case it would be the most brilliant question ever. Either the dumbest question ever, or the most brilliant question of all time. Yes I’ve had too much booze today lol.

    1. 18.1

      In the parlance of today, the headmaster’s question was “full of fail” and he should be embarrassed for asking such a stupid question. There is no excuse for someone in that position to misrepresent/strawman in that manner.

  19. 19

    A little off topic but I thought you might enjoy this on religion and our weather http://theoccasionalpigeonuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/southern-england-storms-probably-caused.html

  20. 20
    Reginald Selkirk

    The short form:
    1) Fittest != strongest. Ability to cooperate is a useful attribute in a social species.
    2) Evolution, as a science, is about describing the natural world, not about defining what is moral or good.
    3) The head master is apparently ignorant.

  21. 21
    Sir Real

    I would have asked is it necessary for the big boys’ survival to beat up the little boy? If not then it has nothing to do with evolution and is irrelevant.

    A good book to read about evolution is; The Top 10 Myths about Evolution, by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan.

  22. 22

    Selection is a tricky thing, the teacher was displaying a common misconception about fitness. Evolution only works on succeeding generation after generation so the little person getting beat up by the bigger person might generate sympathy from a mating partner for the little one and loathing for the big one so the little one ends up procreating.

  23. 23
    James Kujawa

    Survival of the fittest has nothing to do with the bigger, stronger, smarter of said species. A fit, smart, humanist who decides that the species must work together for the species to survive will be around much longer than a selfish, lazy, non working human of the same species. That person will be a burden to the species, and ultimately may die sooner. Religion is a perfect example of this scenario. A person that believes there is an afterlife will not attempt as hard to prolong this one, and may not even care about the species, only their immediate family and friends. (“See church; 33,000 subsets of Christianity, or ” The Muslim loves death more than the infidels love life- there’s a cerebral gem of reason)” . Why not have a “My god is stronger than your god” doomsday battle. We can have it inside the Large Hadron Collider like an MMA fest. The judges could be from North Korea, where sanity and rational thought is so dominant! There can never be “eternal” or “infinitely extended” life until the elimination of religion. Only then can global unity be attained and interstellar exploration (for example ) begin. We should not be worrying about other “intelligent” life, we as a species must survive long enough to live Star Trek, not watch it on TV, or we will cease to exist. We have subjectively gotten to the point that we can observe the Universe, and realize it is nothing but our back yard. Our heroes should be astronauts and astrophysicists, not someone that can play a sport and make 25+ million a year. I’m an RN.I save and extend peoples’ lives. A rap star can make more money in one night than I can in my entire career. P. S. The outdated saying “Do unto others, etc.” is a failure. The world is full of suicidal, homicidal. maniacs who love power. So you are saying the survival of the fittest and your misconception at the beginning of this article, or the “assertion the kick ass existence” is the way “Darwin” works is just as dumb as invisible being/creator belief systems. A god did not create the Universe ,but the man made concept of god will destroy mankind. What is the reason /purpose for life? TO KEEP IT ALIVE! Then we can answer the deeper philosophical questions like “if a tree falls in the woods will anyone hear it”? (Only at the Universal level).

  24. 24
    Ingdigo Jump

    I’d also point out social strategies for reproduction such as social insects.

  25. 25

    Help Spread the TRUTH! Copy and Paste this Link to your web/blog/video pages.

    1. 25.1

      Uhhhhhhhh, care to tell us what is at the link?

    2. 25.2

      If you don’t mind some constructive criticism, huge walls of centered text are not easy to read. Whatever points may be in there are likely lost because of the formatting.

      You initially make the claim that parts of the original bible were removed and then repeat it later. I don’t see anything that backs up that claim.

  26. 26

    (1) The headmaster talked of a “good” outcome. Evolution is neither good nor bad, it just is. We don’t talk of a good or bad earthquake or storm, they just are.

    (2) We no longer have “Evolution by natural selection” with regard to humans, where the strongest kill off the weakest or the bully beats up the weakling. It is more like “Evovution by human selection”, where we choose to have children or not and try to prevent murder and death of strong and weak alike. We choose to try and prevent bulling.

    (3) The question does not really have much to do with the existence of God.

  27. 27
    David Munson

    Since fitness could very well include being more intelligent, the headmaster should be more concerned about a smart person beating him up.

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