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Darwinian Evolution: To What Extent Does it Apply to Man?

Jenn Dodwell's picture

 As the theory of evolution was being developed, scientists had to work a lot of things out in order to generate a “story” that was plausible and convincing. This called for especially rigorous attention to detail, since they were competing with the theory of creationism which said that variation of living things over time is not a result of interactions with their environment, but rather is a reflection of the Divine Plan; a plan that is fixed, and that foresees and governs every change we see in the living world.  Some of the various problems that scientists had to work out to make a credible case for evolution included: How could they find proof for a process that had taken place over thousands of years, and for which the evidence was extremely scattered?  What were the basic units of change; were they whole species, individual organisms, or individual genes?  Finally, the biggest question they had to attempt to answer was: Why does evolution happen?  Why don’t living things just stay the same?

Thanks to Darwin, evolution became a widespread and accepted theory.  Not only did Darwin make significant contributions to our understanding of the role that genetics plays in evolution, but he also presented a powerful reason why evolution takes place.  That reason was natural selection.  As Ernst Mayr says in his book, What Evolution Is, “the theory of natural selection proposed by Darwin and Wallace became the cornerstone of the modern interpretation of evolution” (Mayr 115). 

What were the governing principles of natural selection, and why did they provide such a convincing case for the constant changes we see in the living world?  The theory of natural selection says that, on a planet that has limited resources (food, water, shelter, etc.) there can only be so many members of each species living on it at any one time.  This results in intense competition among the members of each species for these resources so that they can stay alive and pass down their genes-- the genes that made them able to survive the current conditions of their environment.  As a result of this competition, some members of a species live, and others die, and the ones that live pass down their genes to their offspring.  Over time, due to many factors that produce genetic variety, such as sexual reproduction (in which there is a lot of gene variety), gene mutation, gene flow, etc., the phenotypes of populations change, and sometimes so much so that they become an entirely different species. 

As we can see, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is quite convincing; yet, there are still many observations that scientists have made about living creatures that are not explainable by Darwinian evolution and his proposition of natural selection.  One such aspect is altruism.  Altruism is defined as the tendency of living creatures of all kinds to perform acts that serve other creatures, but that do not have any benefit for themselves.  When Darwin first observed this tendency in nature, based upon his theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, he concluded that although some acts may appear to be altruistic, they ultimately are for the benefit of the giver whether this payoff is immediate or not.  For example, according to Darwin, while may initially appear that parents performing acts of “kindness” towards their children is altruistic, in actuality it is not because the parents know that caring for their child ensures the child's survival.  If the child survives until reproductive age, then he/she will reproduce and will carry on the parent’s lineage.    

Later, in the 1830’s, Darwin revised his thinking about altruism after James Mackintosh, the brother-in-law of Darwin’s uncle, insisted that "the moral sense for right conduct, or our our immediate perception of what we ought to do in a situation, would not depend on any rational calculation of pleasures and pains utilities and disutilities.  We would simply recognize innately what behaviors would be morally required in a situation” (Richards 138).  This is especially true with human beings.  At this challenge Darwin came to recognize the validity of altruism for its own sake, but ultimately argued that there is still some intrinsic biological basis for this mode of thought and behavior.  Altruistic tendencies are somehow a necessary component to biological life.

Perhaps, however, we should not accept Darwin’s proposition that everything every species does is for a strict biological purpose so easily, particularly with regards to man.  Why?  As Mayr mentions in What Evolution Is, man is capable of producing many things (language, art, music, literature, etc.) which are purely cultural; that is, in order to understand these things, in order to process them, relate to them, and use them, we do not rely on our genes.  We rely on skills that have been acquired during our lives. Furthermore, our culture is not something that contributes to our survival.  It is merely for pleasure and enrichment.

How then, do we make sense of the transmission of culture from a Darwinian perspective? It is very difficult to find any parallels.  Let’s think about literature, for example.  In J. Hillis Miller’s Book, On Literature, one of Miller’s central arguments is that literature creates a kind of virtual reality.  Says Miller, referring to literary works, “each is the fictive actualization of one alternative possibility not realized in the ‘real world’” (Miller 33).  Granted, sometimes this virtual reality can mimic the real world, but the fact is that as humans, we are able to create something that is entirely disconnected from the physical world in which we live.  Therefore, going back to Darwin, it would be hard to argue that our creation and transmission of literature benefits our bodily survival.  Many people agree that it benefits our intellectual survival, but again, this deviates from Darwin’s theory that everything living things do is motivated by stimuli they receive from their environment. 

This same kind of alternate or parallel world can also be created through other cultural products.  A painting or a sculpture, for example, can represent something in the real world, but it is not that actual thing that is in the real world.  Or, art can be completely abstract, and have nothing to do with the real world.  There are many abstract pieces of art that affect us just as deeply as those which represent something realistic.  Music is yet another cultural phenomenon that has the quality of creating an alternate universe.  Immersed in the world of sound, we isolate our consciousness from the phyisical world--the world in which Darwinian evolution takes place.

What else in our world are we as humans able to “think our way past?”  Perhaps an even more convincing example of the limitations of Darwin’s theory is how far we have come as a species in terms of technological advancement, especially those advances which enable us to have control over the very environments which Darwin claimed controlled us!  Such advancements include things like medicine, genetic engineering, and so on.  We have also mapped our entire genome, found ways to manipulate the results of birth, and are even currently working on drugs that will prolong the natural life span.  Whether all these advances are “good” or not is a highly controversial topic, but the fact is that we have discovered them and applied them, and probably will continue to discover and apply more technological advances to our lives.

That having been said, there are aspects of our environment that we have absolutely no way to control.  We cannot stop a tornado, or make a person live past his natural life span, or proclaim that we are above such basic instincts as needing to eat, sleep, etc. 

However, given that we have proven time and time again that we as humans have in many ways risen above the constraints of Darwinian evolution, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the place of Darwinian theory in such times. What lies ahead for us as a human race?  Given the astounding power of our brains, is it possible that one day we could evolve into a species that is more sophisticated and complex than what we currently understand as “human?”  It is not likely that Darwin would think so, but then again there seem to be a lot of characteristics of the human species that Darwin was not able to account for, as we have seen in this paper.  Therefore, maybe it is time to create a new discourse through which we come to understand the basis of human life—specifically, the workings of the human mind.  

Works  Cited 

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


Miller, J. Hillis.  On Literature.  New York: Routeledge, 2002.

Richards, Robert J.  “Darwin’s Romantic Biology: The Foundation of his Evolutionary

            Ethics.”  Biology and the Foundation of Ethics.  Ed. by Jane Maienschien

            and Michael Ruse.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


michelle fowler's picture

If this is Jean that

If this is Jean that attended Harwood........ Please contact me at I have been looking for you for years : )

Jenn Dodwell's picture

On the Parallels between Biological and Linguistic Evolution


       We are all familiar with Darwinian evolution, understand its significance as one of the cornerstones of modern science, and are aware that there are volumes upon volumes of scholarship on this topic.  That is, evolution as it relates to biological organisms and species existing in the physical world, that have “physical boundaries, or molecular permanence.”  (Mufwene 5).  But what if the word evolution was applied to other academic disciplines, such as linguistics?  Is such a parallel plausible? Unlike biological species, language is merely a system of signs; the product of the human mind, which certainly does not exist in a tangible or visceral sense.  Can we claim, therefore that linguistic and biological evolution are analogous?  As it turns out, many scholars assert that linguistic evolution does indeed have many parallels to biological evolution.   In this paper, by drawing upon the scholarship of linguists Salikoko Mufwene and Jean Aitchison, I will explore the many similarities between biological evolution and linguistic evolution.  I will then propose some ways in which the study of linguistic evolution might help us to better understand biological evolution, specifically with respect to the theory that the long-term course of biological evolution is random. 

      In her paper entitled, “Language Evolution: The Population Genetics Way,” Salikoko Mufwene draws many connections between biological and linguistic evolution. One such similarity, Mufwene argues, is that biological species and languages each interact with their respective environments.  That a species interacts with its environment is a key concept in evolution, because according to Darwin, it was the changes in a species’ environment that provided the stimuli for that species to change and adapt accordingly. 

      What is a linguistic versus a biological environment? The environment of a biological species encompasses its ecological surroundings as well as all the other organisms and species with which it shares these surroundings.  The environment of a language encompasses the population of people in a certain region who use that language to communicate. In order to stay alive, both species and languages must interact with their environments.  A species finds sources of food and shelter within its environment.  It also must learn how to either cooperate with or effectively compete with the other species and organisms with which it shares this space.  I will later elaborate upon this idea of competition.

      A language’s survival also depends upon its environment—the people who use it to communicate.  A language cannot stay alive if it is not used.  Additionally, the people of a population depend upon their language to keep their community intact.  If a group of people cannot communicate, they cannot remain a community because there would be no means by which they could exchange thoughts to build relationships with each other. 

      Another similarity between linguistic and biological evolution is that both languages and species are born and die.  As Mufwene says, “A language is dead when it has no more speakers left, just like a species is dead when no more specimen is left that can instantiate it” (Mufwene 8). The languages of Greek, Latin, and Aramaic are examples of dead languages, which died because the people who spoke them died out.  They are no longer spoken and interchanged by communities of people other than those of scholars, whose purpose for the languages is academic rather than for socializing or building functional relationships.  Languages can also be born and can have common ancestors.  English, Spanish, French, Italian, and many other languages are all Romance languages, which were born from the common ancestors of Latin and Greek. 

      This idea that languages can be born from other languages also proves that languages, like biological species, undergo speciation.  In addition to the example of the speciation of Greek and Latin into the Romance languages, Mufwene also notes the “role of Celtic languages in the evolution of British English dialects other than Irish” (Mufwene 6).  Furthermore, if enough time elapses, it is possible for a dialect of one language to turn into an entirely separate language, in the same way that given enough time and the right conditions, it is possible for a subset of a biological species to turn into an entirely separate species.  A linguistic example of this phenomenon is the language of Mandarin. At first it was considered just a dialect of Chinese, but with time it continued to differentiate from Chinese, until it eventually came to be considered a separate language.  A biological example is human evolution--over the course of many years, humans evolved into a new species, from a subset of the ape population. 

      Yet another major parallel between biological and linguistic evolution is the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest.  Here, I will elaborate on competition. In some respects, languages compete with each other for the attention and usage of a population of people.  Mufwene gives the example in her essay that “the same evolution by selection, under the influence of substrate languages, is also true of creoles in former European plantation settlements of the New World and the Indian Ocean, viz., a European vernacular was selected over African and other European vernaculars…” (Mufwene 20). 

      An additional example of how natural selection favors certain languages over others in populations is the example of Ebonics.  Ebonics is considered by linguists to be a variation of English that emerged out of African American culture.  Although classified by linguists as a legitimate language, Ebonics is often mistaken for “street slang,” or “bad English,” due to social prejudice.  As a result, in many parts of the country Ebonics is not a language that is favored by English-speaking peoples.  It has been banned in many schools by those who feel that speakers of Ebonics sound uneducated, or of a lower class. (Rubba).  

      In her book The Seeds of Speech, linguist Jean Atchison offers some additional perspectives on the way that biological and linguistic evolution parallel each other and even converge.  In the first section of her book, “Puzzles,” one of the things Aitchison discusses is how widely scholars’ hypotheses differ as to how language originated.  Although most scholars agree that language originated somewhere between 50,000 and 100,1000 years ago (Aitchison 4), there has been considerable controversy as to how language emerged.  Explains Aitchison, some contend that “language emerged fairly suddenly, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat.”  Yet others contend that language evolved over many, many millennia.  It is a debate that has been, in Aitchison’s words, “rumbling on for over a century” (Aitchison 14). 

      Most interestingly, this debate over whether language evolved over time, or appeared just simply and suddenly bears a striking resemblance to the age-old debate between intelligent design and evolution of species.  That linguistic and biological evolution share this philosophical dilemma brings them even closer together. 

      Another striking idea about evolution that emerges from Aitchison’s book is that, in addition to having many parallels, linguistic and biological evolution actually coincide.  Aitchison points out that humans and language were evolving at the same time and as humans became more complex, so did their language. This suggests that humans and languages might actually have helped each other to evolve.   The possibility of reciprocal dependence between human evolution and linguistic evolution makes the already convincing case for the similarities between biological and linguistic evolution even more convincing.

       Up to this point in this paper, I have analyzed linguistic evolution by using biological evolution as my point of comparison.  In other words, I have written this paper on the premise that the idea of biological evolution was established before that of linguistic evolution, and therefore I have treated linguistic evolution as an experimental concept to be tested against biological evolution.   

Is there a chance, however, that a continuing study of linguistic evolution could shed some additional insight into biological evolution?  I am wiling to speculate that this is certainly possible.  I especially believe that by considering where linguistic evolution might be heading in the long term, that we can also better understand where evolution might be heading in the long term.   

      With language, it is hard to imagine that it will ever stop evolving.  People will always be changing their tastes, interests, and goals due to a combination of both cultural and biological factors, which probably means that language will always be changing as well.  Proof of this hypothesis can be seen already when we look at the timeline of language births over the years.  First there was Greek and Latin, then out of Greek and Latin emerged the newer Romance languages, and then around the seventeenth century came Ebonics, and so forth.  Given this pattern of new language births that has already been established, there is no reason to believe that such a pattern would not continue.   

      However, when we apply this hypothesis that evolution is ultimately headed nowhere in particular to biological evolution, it somehow becomes harder for some people to accept, because they cannot let go of the theological ideal that all life is ultimately headed for perfection, because this is God’s plan.  It seems difficult to view living things through the same objective lens through which we view language. When thinking about living things, all of a sudden it seems that there are “strings” attached.   

      Nevertheless, despite the difficulty of viewing biological evolution objectively, there is something to be gained by trying as hard as possible to do so.  Given that linguistic evolution and biological evolution have proven to be so intricately similar in so many other ways, and given that there is already considerable evidence that biological evolution is random, scientists would be doing a disservice to themselves if they did not at least consider that the apparent randomness of linguistic evolution just might provide a model for the course of biological evolution.    

       Whatever the “answer” to this query may be, I think it is fair to say that given how fruitful searches have been to date to find connections between linguistic evolution and biological evolution, future research into the similarities between biological and linguistic evolution will be just as fruitful.  In fact, the efforts to connect biological evolution to other disciplines need not stop with linguistic evolution.  It is also very interesting and worthwhile to study how scholars have thus far linked biological evolution to disciplines such as art, literature, music, and mathematics.  It seems like it could be an exhilarating endeavor to keep searching for threads between biological evolution and other ways of understanding the world.


                                                 Works Cited 

Aichison, Jean.  The seeds of Speech: Language Origin and Evolution.   

      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Dudycha, George J.  “What is Evolution?”  The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 29,

      No. 4 (Oct. 1929), 317-332.  JSTOR, March 18, 2007.


Mufwene, Salikoko.  “Language Evolution: The Population Genetics Way.”  Research


            March 18, 2007.   


Rubba, Johanna.  “Ebonics: Q & A.” March 18,



Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution and culture

The issue of the relation between biological evolution and culture is a quite serious one, one we'll certainly be continuing to explore for the rest of this course. And you've set up a useful notion for doing so, the idea that our brains give us the capacity to conceive of "alternate universes", which may "affect us as deeply as .... something realistic". I suspect something like this is indeed going on, and is very much worth paying attention to (cf /sci_cult/pragmatism.html). Moreover, I fully agree that humans in their current state are unlikely to be the final word on either human or biological evolution. What I'm less persuaded of is that either idea would have surprised Darwin or that "we as humans have ... risen above the constraints of Darwinian evolution".

As Priyardishini points out, humans clearly continue to reproduce with variance and to be subject to a variety of (changing) selection forces. Moreover the brain itself is a product of evolution and so too then is the capacity to create "alternate universes". And these and associated "cultural products" are in turn not so irrelevant for biological evolution as you seem to suggest. My guess is that "our creation and transmission of literature" (to take one example) does in fact impact our "bodily survival" or, at the very least, plays a role in the relative reproductive success of different human variants (that of others if not our own). And that phenomena like altruism are similarly both rooted in our biological evolution and impact on it. We can certainly "think our way past" things that we couldn't do without having the capacity to conceive "alternate universes" but that ability is, I think, both a product of evolution and a further influence on it rather than something that has eliminated its constraints. Perhaps it is better thought of as something that alters the constraints of evolution (as life forms have in fact again and again in the past)?