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The argument of the book is that humans are sinful because of natural selection: "There is no Eve to blame, no serpent, no dangerous fruit, only natural selection, necessarily blind, mindless, devoid of foresight and responsibility." (p. 149) Selection has favored traits that were advantageous only in the short term. Traits such as selfishness, greed, aggressiveness, competitiveness evolved and became fixed in our genetic soul, while traits such as prudence, sense of responsibility and wisdom were totally bypassed and selected against. The selected traits were useful for our ancestors but have become destructive. This genetic burden is the defect of human nature, the original sin. The consequence is that humans are in a mess because of this genetic legacy. We fight and compete too much, we overexploit natural resources, we pollute the planet, we are a menace to ourselves, fellow species and the planet alike. However, there is still some hope because today we have substantial knowledge about the genetics of original sin. Furthermore, we have the unique faculty of being able to act against natural selection, and we can try to oppose such deleterious genetic traits and surmount our own nature in order to save our species and the planet. But how?
The book is structured in the following way. The first part provides a condensed history of life. The second gives the reader interesting information about biochemistry, genetics and evolutionary theory. The third part contains a condensed history of human evolution, including brain evolution, and the argument of the book (presented in just 5 pages). The fourth part consists in the very tentative illustration of some potential solutions to the problems faced today by humanity and the biosphere.
I found the book equally interesting and frustrating. It is clear that de Duve has many insights to offer, especially when he talks about biological issues. However, the book has major defects: it is over-ambitious; most of its constructive analysis, especially in the last part of the book, is too simplified; the problems to be solved remain unclear.
The adaptationist rendition of the myth of original sin was something to my knowledge missing in the literature. As a matter of fact, de Duve's argument, as illustrated faithfully in the opening paragraph of this review, is not distinguishable from the kind of historical reconstruction a sociobiologist or evolutionary psychologist could provide of the human condition. All the ingredients are there: emphasis on the genetic contribution to the determination of behavior, emphasis on the primary role played by natural selection in shaping evolutionary dynamics, emphasis on the competitive nature of humans. All these ingredients are criticizable and render the main argument flimsy.
The author is a geneticist and clearly shows a strong bias in his analysis. In fact, all the sinful characteristics must be genetically encoded for the argument to make sense. That a geneticist is obsessed with genes is not surprising. But de Duve looks more like a genetic determinist of a new refined breed. For instance, after admitting that the developmental phenomenon of morphogenesis is poorly understood, he nonetheless goes on to claim that the secret of the riddle must be transcription control. This view is eminently contentious. Another clear genetic bias can be illustrated by the author's option 2 to solve humanity's problems: improving our genes. How? By eliminating genes we all have in common, genes that once were adaptive but that now are maladaptive. Even though this would be a new kind of "democratic" eugenics (the author calls it "universalistic"), totally distinguished from the infamous eugenics in favor until the mid of the last century, it is unclear how it can be implemented. Experimenting with genetic manipulation raises major practical and ethical concerns.
Natural selection is just one of the processes that can have evolutionary sequences. The author explores this issue in one chapter of the book. He even takes into account, ecumenically, intelligent design. One wonders why, given that Dembsky and Behe do not propose an alternative process to understand evolution. They just point out that there is a puzzle that cannot be solved by reference to selection. It seems to me that process pluralism is an emergent characteristic of contemporary evolutionary biology. Even though de Duve clearly acknowledges this, he sticks to the safe option of adaptationism in order to make his argument. However, in other parts of the book the author shows that there exist a bunch of molecular mechanisms, such as gene duplication and modular combination, which happen to complement selection in directing evolution. These are tinkering, not adaptive processes. It is clear that, given our deep ignorance of our evolutionary history, tinkering processes could have had a major role in shaping our so-called human nature.
The microbiologist who observes the continuous genetic exchange between different species of bacteria, the botanist who observes the ubiquitous symbiotic relationship between different species of plants and fungi, and even the anthropologist who studies human populations that happen to live in a balanced way with their environment will wonder whether competition is all we get in nature. The anarchist Kropotkin possibly got it all wrong when he said that the first rule of life is mutual aid within species. In fact, mutual aid seems to be a rule even between species. That nature is inherently competitive is just part of the story. Cooperation rules too.
Ultimately, I think that even the biological (indeed genetic) conception of human nature endorsed by the author is dubious. It is essentialistic after all: we all share a kernel of selectively fixed genes that dramatically affect our lives. But there is no good reason to think that we are doomed because of our bad genes. Humans are very different in genetic and phenotypic terms. There is no essence of humanity. This is explicitly admitted by De Duve in chapter 19 ("Give Women a Chance", 3 pages!): "...several unfavorable human traits singled out by natural selection are largely associated with maleness." (p. 200) Ergo, the argument should be reformulated by blaming males rather than human nature.
The biologist Ernst Mayr distinguished between proximate and ultimate explanations, where the latter are evolutionary as well as more fundamental. It is evident, however, that sometimes focusing on proximate issues is more relevant, especially when the phenomenon to be explained is not solely biological. For instance, I happen to live in a country where it is crystal clear where the roots of the disgraceful social injustice and lack of social mobility lie. Clearly the history of Chile is very local, and it would be silly to extrapolate a general conclusion concerning the decadence of the West, the malaise of the entire world or human nature from this particular case. Here it is clear that capitalism, not natural selection, is the more proximate culprit. Blaming human nature and blaming humans can be two very different things.
© 2011 Davide Vecchi
Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. He is now lecturing at the department of philosophy of the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.