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Subjectivity and evolution

danYell's picture

Danielle Joseph
February 16, 2007
Evo-Lit : Dalke Section

Humans have a desire to create order both in their physical settings and in their intellectual ones. If something is disordered we create boxes and shelve everything nicely away, cleaning up the mess of nature. This is a difficult task as our environment is constantly changing, so we have to constantly change in order to keep up with it. When we look at the natural world we are confronted with a huge amount of diversity and struggle with a way to categorize and qualify objects. This man-made order is how we make sense of our world; it is a coping mechanism in an environment of chaos. It is also a means of survival. The evenly spaced apple trees in the orchard, or the rows of field corn used to feed our domesticated animals, not only ensure our food supply but also impose order on an unruly landscape. In addition to creating order, as humans, we have always questioned our origins, and the purpose of our existence. The stories that we tell are a way of sharing our observations about our place in the world.

The order of organisms and their placement in the natural world has long been a topic of thought. The scientific revolution began with the Copernican view of the Earth revolving around the sun in the 17 century. This conception challenged the way people viewed their position in the universe. Our stories were changing, and at stake was the existence of a divine being whose infinite wisdom conceived of the universe. Darwin’s theory of evolution highlighted the uniqueness of all life, with individuals capable of adapting to the changing conditions of their environment, and the use of natural selection as a method of refining and allowing the progression of populations. Darwin’s Evolutionary theory has been contested and debated since, and investigations into its truth have prompted numerous discoveries in other areas of thought. Stories must be interpreted by their readers, as such, the story of evolution is complicated by individuals’ subjective interpretations of it.

A species is the smallest unit of classification that we have when talking about biodiversity, though there is some debate about what the actual definition of the term species is. There are many different ways to think about what a species is, and which animals belong in which groups. Ernst Mayr, author of What Evolution Is supports the biological species concept in which “species are groups of actually or potentially inbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups” (Chung, 413). This is the definition of species that I am most familiar with, though there are up to 22 other definitions that make it difficult to pin down what it is evolution is doing. The evolutionary species concept says that species are marked by decent from a common ancestor, when they diverge due to evolution’s processes they become distinct species. (Chung, 414)

J. Philippe Rushton uses evolutionary theory to promote his idea that humans have evolved, and are evolving into three races that can be distinguished by their physical features, geographical location, mating habits, fertility rates, and brain size. His book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior, misuses the theory of evolution in its’ subjective interpretation and application of Darwin’s principles. Rushton also has questionable research to back up his claims, and I think in educated circles he is seen as a quack, but it’s the crack of subjectivity that interests me here.

Rushton’s main argument is that of head size. He found that the head size of Asian persons was larger than that of white persons, with the size of African or black persons heads being the smallest. This is supposed to be furthering the research on the idea that human’s evolved larger brains as a means of thinking their way out of dangerous situations. His logic is that the further humans moved away from Africa, the larger their brains became as an adaptation to colder climates and more severe environments. I feel that Rushton is bending the concept of speciation to fall in line with his perception of racial differences.

Mayr tells a similar story, though without a racial breakdown, in his book What Evolution Is. He says that in the shift from Australopithecus to Homo, brain size more than tripled, facilitating a cultural revolution (Mayr, 251). He goes on to say “the human brain has not changed one single bit since the first appearance of Homo Sapiens, some 150,000 years ago; …the evolutionary increase of brain size ended when selection for further increase was no longer rewarded by a reproductive advantage” (Mayr, 252,256). Mayr speaks about race in a very brief and politically correct way, saying that we must view distinct groups with prejudicially, or typologically, but realize that all 6 billion humans are unique (Mayr, 262).

So which one gets it less wrong? What I’ve realized is that I do not have enough background in the sciences to come to a conclusion. This plays into my own subjective interpretation of Rushton’s work. I was shocked and appalled by many of Rushton’s arguments and I was particularly pleased to have Mayr’s book on hand to refute them. Looked at separately though they are both somewhat fanatical in their viewpoints. I tend to agree with Mayr’s notion of species and speciation, but I don’t think that there is only one story to tell. Rushton’s story, though disturbing, and quite possibly the ranting of a lunatic, is equally valid as a story, though less valid scientifically. There have been numerous questions regarding his research methods and design. In addition to its more fact-based method of drawing conclusions, I realize that I prefer Mayr’s story because of my background, and all the things I bring to the work as a reader. Being an individual of more than one race plays into how I interpret Rushton’s work. Quite simply, I can’t stomach it, though I am sure that there are many individuals who would identify whole heartedly with his work, and create new stories based on his evidence.

Despite the misapplication of Darwin’s theories to promote social and political agendas I still find that it is useful. The quantity of thoughtful research that has resulted from this, “the most important concept in biology” according to Mayr, is tremendous. Clearly, we need to come together and decide what this whole species thing is about. Until this issue is resolved I think that the interpretation of evolutionary speciation will remain muddled and uncertain. Knowledge can become dangerous when used inappropriately, as when it is bent and twisted to fit to one’s personal agenda. At the same time, as readers we can’t get away from the tendency to interpret what we are reading through our own experience. Scientists like Rushton and Mayr also only have access to knowledge through their subjective interpretations.

Chung, Carl. The Species Problem & the Value of Teaching the Complexities of Species. The American Biology Teacher. Washington: Aug 2004.Vol.66, Iss. 6; pg. 413, 5 pgs

Rushton, Philippe. Race, Evolution and Behavior: a Life History Perspective.. Univ of Western Ontario : 2000.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. Basic Books : New York. 2001.


Anne Dalke's picture

science and politics



I see this paper as just beginning to begin a conversation about the intersection of science and politics, particularly the politics of race.

Your opening paragraph is about us as pattern-making and category-shaping creatures; you don’t come back to or really work that idea (it’s one that fascinates me; I even designed a whole course around it! See Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender).

Your second paragraph describes the way in which the scientific revolution challenged our perception of our place in the universe. The third paragraph turns to the matter of species definition, but it’s not til the fourth that you introduce J. Philippe Rushton. Which is to say: I don’t know where he came from; he just drops into the paper like a meteor. Who is he? Why are you reading him?

The remainder of the paper then settles into your topic, the crack of subjectivity. You certainly show that Rushton is using “science” to advance his political agenda; what you don’t begin to explore, though, is –-once you realize that all claims are subjective and politically motivated--how to sort through competing arguments. If Mayr is as “fanatical in his viewpoints” as Rushton is in his, if Rushton’s story is “equally valid” as Mayr’s…

Well, you’ve identified a problem without gesturing toward any sort of solution. You end with a call to “come together and decide.” But if our political points of view separate us so radically….

How can science help? What role can science play?

Do you know about Stephen Jay Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man? Look @ the account of it on wikipedia (where you’ll see that Gould updated a later edition to include a response to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve). Looking @ both those books might begin to fill in some of the “background in the sciences” you say you lack. Gould’s book is a thorough account of how “scientific” knowledge has been misused in the past, for precisely the reason you trace in your paper: Rushton’s “bending the concept of speciation to fall in line with his perception of racial differences.”

Good, important questions you raise here; I hope you’ll go on talking and thinking about them.