Science as a Social Construct: Evolutionary Interpretations

I made another of those videos. Script below the fold.

I’ve been trying to explain that many scientific concepts are not the absolutes so many people think they are, and that often what is expressed with such certainty is an interpretation, a model constructed by a social grouping of presumably informed human beings. Last week I talked about how genetics was far more subtle and complicated than the conventional wisdom implies, and today I’m turning to evolution, which is dependent on the rules of heredity and so inherits a deep complexity from that alone, but also has new levels of ideas that open the door to even more misinterpretation.

Worst of all, there are friends of evolutionary theory who are so deeply committed to narrow interpretations of the field that they promote outright errors. I’m not concerned about creationists at all in this video — that’s a political and religious debate that really doesn’t touch on the science — but with the pundits and fringe proponents who promote really bad versions of evolutionary theory, usually to support a bogus idea about human nature, that then have to be disentangled from the discourse.

The classic parable for this problem is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Evolution is the elephant, real and solid and not something thats existence we should waste our time arguing about — the denialists are simply tragically wrong. But in the story, each man encounters a different part of the elephant, and comes up with a metaphor to explain the nature of the elephant. So one touches the flank, and thinks it’s like a wall, another finds a leg and compares it to a tree trunk, and another grabs the trunk and thinks it is a variety of snake. This is the problem of language that Bacon described — that we try to explain the unknown with words used for the familiar and known, and that way lies confusion. Further, Bacon was concerned with the power of our models of the world, and how they mislead further investigation. Picture the blind man who is convinced an elephant is a large kind of snake, and then encounters further details and evidence that contradict that model. But his evidence from the trunk is so strong! There is always the temptation to resist rejecting the model, because prior observations were powerful, and to then try and fit subsequent observations to your hypothesis. So when he finds a leg, well, this must be a vertical snake. When he touches the side, the snake must have an even larger diameter than he thought. And the tail, obviously, is an immature baby snake.

Evolutionary theory has this very same problem, and it had the problem from the day it was published. Darwin staked out the existence of the elephant that is evolution, but there was still a great deal of uncertainty over the details for the first 60 or 70 years after the Origin and beyond. There was all this room for alternative interpretations of the facts, largely driven by the fact that there was no solid theory of inheritance at the time. Darwin himself was promoting Lamarckian theories.

You know, that version of inheritance you saw mocked in your high school textbooks with pictures of giraffes stretching their necks over time — that use and disuse produced heritable change. The textbooks rarely point out that Darwin was a proponent, and that we might justifiably call Lamarckian inheritance Darwinian inheritance, or at least, that he was well known for it.

What Darwin did that has lasted, though, was set the fact of evolution as an indisputable observation. Organisms change over time, there are natural mechanisms, such as natural selection and sexual selection, that drive that change, and that observation and experiment can test those mechanisms. He made evolution a subject for scientific study, an important change, and he also provided volumes of evidence for his models of how evolution occurred.

The key to understanding his vision of evolution can be found in the last paragraph of the Origin. This contains his metaphor for evolution, the tangled bank.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Two points I want to make from this: he emphasized that the biological world, as well as the geological world, was the product of natural laws. Again, this was Darwin’s great triumph, to make the tangled mess of biology a legitimate subject for naturalistic study — his work was a refutation of the prevailing dogma that the best way to study the world was through the lens of natural theology, and we’re still trying to overcome the consequences of that cultural earthquake. Do I need to remind you all that this is an idea shaped by and changing our culture and our understanding of the universe?

The second point is that Darwin emphasized complexity and mutual dependence. He wasn’t announcing that he had The Answer — he was stating that there are multiple answers, multiple paths of interaction, that evolution was not linear. Stephen Jay Gould was right to call him a pluralist, someone who foresaw that there would be more than one specific mechanism, and that historically, life would evolve in many directions. In his notebooks he wrote “never say higher or lower”, because he didn’t see that tangled bank as hierarchical — all the species were unique and filling a role, that the plants and birds and insects and worms were all equal players.

In part, I think the pluralism was a consequence of his own uncertainty. He was a naturalist and empiricist, and had a breadth of knowledge we don’t generally cultivate anymore, and he was acutely aware of what we didn’t know. That led to a kind of open-mindedness about the process, which was admirable. Again, he wasn’t open-minded to the point of pretending that the elephant was nonexistent, but that it’s nature was going to require dedicated study to reveal.

Wait. I have to make a third point. Read the remainder of that concluding paragraph.

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.

He does summarize some of the laws behind evolution, and prominently mentions his signature contribution, the idea of “a struggle for life”, or natural selection. But look at what he considers the outcome of the process: divergence of character. Throughout his book, he clearly considers the generation of diversity just as important as the honing of an individual lineage.

This is an important perspective. As we’ll see, it’s not the only way to look at evolution — how we view a real biological process is shaped by how it’s modeled in our brain. I like this part of the Darwinian lens, while there are other parts, his model for inheritance, for instance, that I reject. But this part, the focus on building diversity, is rejected by some other people. And, unfortunately, that rejection is shared by a painfully large number, including a whole lot of popular pundits on YouTube. They see the most valuable part of evolution as natural selection, a mechanism for taking better and lesser forms and pitting them in an arena where the better can triumph, and that triumph can be interpreted as a moral victory.

That is, it can be socially constructed as a justification for a narrow interpretation of biology — one that supports the righteousness of inequality.

Where did this come from? It’s one interpretation of the consequences of evolution among many, and Darwin himself wouldn’t have said it was wrong — among other things, Darwin was a wealthy upper-middle-class English businessman, definitely bourgeois, and representative of his nation of shopkeepers.

The guy who did the most to promote this selectionist view of evolution was a prominent (at the time) philosopher and natural historian, Herbert Spencer. He’s the fellow who came up with the phrase “survival of the fittest”, which Darwin approved of and used himself in his book on domestication. It has definitely fallen out of favor with modern biologists because it is far too simplistic and leaves out any association with inheritance, and produces a crude picture of evolution that is all about competition. It’s one of those phrases I wish would simply disappear, but unfortunately, it reflects the popular, and terribly limited, understanding of evolution in the court of public opinion.

You will not be surprised to learn that Spencer was a “classical liberal”, and that I personally detest his philosophy, yet it’s probably representative of the dominant view of evolution held by a great many people here on YouTube. If I said that we should stop calling those people Darwinian, and instead refer to them as Spencerian evolutionists, they probably wouldn’t even disagree.

What I find satisfying about that, though, is that Spencer is largely forgotten today, and his work certainly hasn’t held up, except as a miasma that permeates our culture. It’s not a popular view among biologists, at least. I think we can console ourselves with the expectation that, while profitable and popular on YouTube now, just as Spencer was hugely popular in Victorian England, all that will remain of their ideas in the future will be a pungent and persistent stink.

Were there other perspectives on evolution besides Darwin’s and Spencer’s? Of course. There were multitudes, and there still are. Karl Marx also extracted the bits of Darwinian theory he liked — he greatly favored the historical materialism and progressivism — and kind of overlooked the ideas of diversity and anti-determinism. My whole point is that there isn’t a sharp-edged absolute ideal version of the totality of evolution that can be encompassed by a single person. There is a reality of organic change that we all struggle to accept, with very fuzzy and idiosyncratic foci. Some of us grasp the trunk, others are poking at the legs.

Rather than Marx, though, I’d rather look at a scientist who was working at the time of Darwin: Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist — kind of the antithesis of Herbert Spencer, although both agreed that the state was a malignant entity whose influence on society ought to be minimized. In some ways he out tea-partied the modern American tea-party, not only opposing any expansion of the apparatus of the state, but also as a matter of principle rejecting all honors and positions offered to him in the Soviet Union after the revolution. He was a beloved figure among the people of the Soviet Union, but not particularly popular with state leaders, since he hated authoritarianism and the party.

He also shared with Spencer an appreciation of the phrase “survival of the fittest”, but only because he had a radically different interpretation of what “fittest” meant. To Kropotkin, evolution wasn’t about competition, it was about cooperation, and the most fit were those who could work together within their social unit to survive. It wasn’t about who could most readily climb over the failed bodies of their competitors to reach a pinnacle of individual success, but who could form teams and best persevere against a hostile environment. He was strongly anti-capitalist.

Ideologically, I personally most favor Kropotkin over Spencer, but have to admit, both perspectives can be legitimately held within the historical context of evolutionary theory. Neither are totally wrong, neither are totally right. I’m going to stand over there with Darwin and appreciate the complexity of evolutionary theory and say that both make fair points.

Although Kropotkin is better. Smoochies for Peter.

One reason for my bias is the difference in outcomes for these different views. Spencerian evolution was a product of his culture and his times: it encompassed an unquestioning adoration for capitalism, a hierarchical view of humanity, and would lead to both economic horrors and the catastrophic biological agenda of eugenics and the Holocaust. It rationalized colonialism. It justified the status quo that made life for English gentlemen comfortable at the expense of women and Hindus and Africans, among many others.

Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism has the putative virtue that at least it was never actually tested — he repudiated the Marxist/Leninist state, so he can’t be blamed for the horrors of Stalin and Mao, at least, not that I don’t think a truly anarchist “state” wouldn’t have the potential for all kinds of nightmares. It just hasn’t been tried.

But for the moment, let’s pretend that we’re making no judgment on these different modes of thinking — I’d like you to just recognize that there ARE different perspectives on evolution. It’s not simply a naked fact. There is a fact of evolution as an inarguable ongoing event in the history of life, and there are human models to understand how it works, and those models arise out of a cultural context and have effects on culture.

So Spencerian evolution is an outcome of the mentality of the Industrial Revolution and of the British Empire at its height, and led to the atrocities of eugenics. Kropotkinesque evolution is the product of the upheavals of communist Russia and observations of nature in the extreme environments of Siberia. I’d like to imagine that acceptance of the importance of cooperation would lead to an enlightened era of human flourishing, but I’m sure we’d find some way to screw it up if we tried.

Let me take it to a different level, though, because it’s not simply that we have an incomplete understanding of evolutionary theory. It’s that we take our limited understanding and try to stamp additional interpretations on top of what we do know. We play games as symbolic reasoners and start linking concepts in all kinds of surprising ways.

So I’m going to reduce these 3 ways of thinking about evolution to 3 simple symbols. First, Darwinian pluralism.

I’ve chosen to represent this with arrows going in all directions, because Darwin would have argued that evolution produces diversity, that there is no direction to it, and that there is no higher or lower. It’s an engine that promotes variation.

Spencerian evolution is easy. It’s directional, it’s hierarchical, so let’s stack two arrows on top of each other. There is a higher and lower. Evolution is an engine that moves species in a specific direction.

Kropotkinesque evolution is all about codependence and cooperation. Species interact and help each other, as do individuals, usually, and that leads to self-sustaining thriving. To Kropotkin, successful evolution is an engine with multiple parts working smoothly together. So let’s draw those two arrows in a non-hierarchical relationship.

By the way, and I could make a whole video about just this point. There’s a failure of imagination on the part of all those people who insist on seeing nothing but “dominance hierarchies” in nature. There is an under-appreciated alternative: cooperative webs of interaction. This is what I see in the world around me; simple hierarchies are crude and fail to lead to useful emergent properties, while recursive webs are far more interesting.

You don’t have to favor one or another of these interpretations for my next point, and that is that human beings insist on mapping concepts to each other, sometimes inappropriately.

For instance, notice how I’ve placed these symbols. I’ve consciously placed Kropotkin, the communist, on the left, and Spencer, the “classical liberal”, on the right. I’ve bent this clumsy illustration to fit a political spectrum. I’m reinforcing an independent convention, showing that cooperation is a Leftist ideal, while competition is what the Right claims to admire. Aren’t I cunning?

I should make the left Red and the right Blue while I’m at it (it is so confusing that we’ve switched the color mapping in the US). So maybe I should flip the colors? I don’t know. It does make the point that these are arbitrary decisions, and have nothing to do with the reality of the mechanisms of evolution. But sure, let’s pretend that biology is an endorsement of one political position or the other.

It isn’t.

Or, heck, let’s associate these perspectives on evolution with gender. Cooperative and interactive? Clearly feminine. Linear, rigid, and hierarchical? Must be masculine.

Let me be crystal clear here: any attempt to declare an endorsement by biology on any of these mappings of one social construct to another social construct is illegitimate. It’s an unsupportable claim.

And if they go a step further and try to map an additional layer, like that one position represents chaos and the other represents order, while simultaneously arguing that they also correlate with feminine and masculine, you’re dealing with a Grade A prime pattern-seeking loon.

If they take it even deeper into subjective lunacy and try to tell you that their delusional, multi-layered compounding of constructed interpretations is absolute crystalline scientific truth, and that you, who recognizes the constructed properties of all human theories, is a “post-modernist cultural Marxist”, just walk away. You’re not going to be able to have a sensible conversation with someone who is that far gone.

By the way, I didn’t give you the full paragraph from Darwin’s conclusion to The Origin of Species. Do I need to? You should know it all by heart.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

All right, last week I said I’d address evolutionary psychology, and I didn’t — I had those other fundamental misconceptions about evolution I wanted to bring up. Next week, I’m out of town — I get to visit my newborn grand-daughter, so I may not get a chance to do anything but maybe make a video of me cooing over a baby. But the week after…then I’ll try to get back to it. Until then, don’t fall for dogmatic caricatures of evolution by either creationists or naive panadaptationists.


  1. Jonathan Dresner says

    I know the “blind men and the elephant” homily is very popular, but it’s also clearly #ableist and false. People with visual impairments know that their information is limited and conclusions tentative. It’s a classic case of the “we think people with disabilities are just like us when we’re blindfolded/in wheelchairs/wearing earplugs/etc” and not thinking through any of the implications.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I should make the left Red and the right Blue while I’m at it (it is so confusing that we’ve switched the color mapping in the US).
    It drives me crazy. I have to stop and carefully think what US colours mean whenever I read about a blue state or a red state

    BTW, we expect some good photos from Denver.

  3. joebiohorn says

    I fear you read your own tendency to see all of science in light off political convictions into everyone else. Some of us just want to do good science without thinking about politics.

  4. says

    You can’t do science at all without thinking about politics. They’re all entangled. The real problem are people who think they are politics- and ideology-free.

    You’re not.

  5. KG says


    I’m sure that as a “classical liberal” you hanker for the days when science was performed by wealthy enthusiasts who paid for their own equipment and relied on their wives and servants to free up their time – but even they depended on physical security and a postal system, the existence of which depended in turn on political decisions.

  6. says

    “pattern-seeking loon[s]”
    Forget about all that ‘sapiens’ rubbish, this would be a great name for our species (not to mention my new favourite band name).

  7. hemidactylus says

    Pure rant mode on:

    That evolution happens as a matter of allelic frequency shifts in a population over generational time is about as brute fact as it comes. Kinda hard to read social construction into that unless you go with the banal linguistic reduction “humans using words”.

    For actual social constructions the unfettered dog eat dog world of charity toward none capitalism where the invisible hand picks winners and losers is a quite different beast from the progressive value system that gave us trust busting AND eugenics and was enshrined by Buck v Bell.

    Besides corporations themselves are cooperative ventures not unlike cells banding together to form an organism and they so very much hate pure competition and utilize propaganda to eliminate the perfect information element market fundies hold so dear.

    Pure rant mode off. Kinda.

  8. pacal says

    [quote]Prisoners in caves don’t think shadows are real either. It’s a metaphor[/quote]

    True and it is what Plato used instead of an argument.

  9. hemidactylus says


    There’s a huge difference between what was taking place in populations long before the advent of humans…via drift, flow (including lateral transfer), and selection…and what Nazis did using a malignant conception of Aryan superiority, racial hygiene and warped artificial selection. The latter monstrosity of Nazi racism and eugenics was indeed itself a socially constructed endeavor. Again that should be separated from the natural process that took place long before humans recognized it and warped it with malignant baggage.

    From what I recall of Darwin coming up with natural selection as a factor in evolution the ideas of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith played a role so there is some cultural input into how people theorize and Alfred Wallace tapped into the same well. But at some point we get to bedrock fact and social construction melts away.

    Your use of the Indic religious elephant metaphor (from Jainism?) does capture the partial view aspect quite well and selection a la Darwin was just part of the evolutionary process and there are social factors at play in the way competing ideas operate (eg- neutralism vs. selectionism). But even there don’t we hit bedrock at some point? We should take to not lean into epistemic relativism.

    The same apt elephant metaphor works to help appreciate cultural relativism where social facts and reflexivity are more relevant. It is unfortunate that it comes across as ableist in retrospect. Jains being respectful of others as they are probably didn’t intend it so.

  10. joebiohorn says

    Second thought: can you point to single MODERN evolutionary biologist who favors the linear progress model? I can’t. And should we read any significance into the fact that you do not include a branching tree among the possible images. That is, after all, the only figure Darwin included in the “Origen”, and the image held by every evolutionary biologist I know. Oh, the most important thing about evolution by natural selection is not that it generates diversity but that it generates the APPEARANCE of purposeful design. Your political ideology is showing.

  11. DanDare says

    That’s an outstanding piece of metaphor PZ. Bravo.
    Strangely it makes me think of Jordan P. Can’t think why.

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