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Accidents of life

Darwinian theory was the best idea of all time, but why did it take so long to evolve? And what if w

If you have overdosed on Darwin this anniversary year, the great man himself is partly to blame: he was inconsiderate enough to publish On the Origin of Species when he was exactly 50. The resulting coincidence of sesquicen­tennial with bicentennial was bound to excite the anniversary-tuned antennae of journalists and publishers. Anniversaries are arbitrary, of course, dependent on the accident of our having ten fingers. If we had evolved with eight instead, we would have to suffer centenaries after only 64 (decimal) years, and style gurus would prate about the changing fashions of octaves instead of decades.

Incidentally, it is not far-fetched that we might have evolved a different number of fingers. The pentadactyl limb (five digits on each) has become a shibboleth of vertebrate zoology, and even animals such as horses (which walk on their middle fingers and toes) or cows (two digits per limb) have lost the extra digits from a five-fingered ancestor. But the lungfish-like group of Devonian fishes from which all land vertebrates are descended included species with seven (Ichthyostega) or eight (Acanthos­tega) digits per limb. If we were descended from Acanthostega, instead of from an unsung five-fingered cousin of the same fish, who knows what feats of virtuosity pianists might now perform with 16 fingers? And would computers have been invented earlier, because hexadecimal arithmetic translates more readily than decimal into binary?

Historical accidents of this sort are rife, contrasting with the illusion of good design to provide some of our most convincing evidence that evolution happened. Sometimes the legacy of history goes beyond arbitrary accidents, and spills over into downright poor design. The vertebrate retina is installed backwards, facing away from the light, which perforce has to pass through a carpet of nerves on their way to the "blind spot" where they dive through the retina, bound for the brain. In spite of this we see tolerably well, because natural selection is good at cleaning up after its bodges. But an engineer who produced such a travesty of design would be fired instantly. The retina is a legacy of remote history.

For whatever reason lost in some Devonian swamp, our ancestors evolved with ten fingers. And that is why Darwin was exactly half a century old when he published the book that set us on the path to understanding the whole of life - its diversity, complexity, beauty, compelling illusion of design, and every detail such as why we have the eyes, fingers and toes that we do.

Mysterious gap

But why did Darwin wait until he was 50 before publishing his great idea (the best idea anyone has ever had, according to the distinguished philosopher Daniel Dennett)? The idea of natural selection came to Darwin more than two decades earlier, in 1838. He wrote out a pencil sketch of it in 1842, then a fuller version in 1844, which he asked his wife Emma to publish if he should die. Then nothing: the mysterious gap. If you were a young man of 30, in possession of the best idea anyone had ever had, would you sit on it until you were 50?

When Darwin eventually did write On the Origin of Species, he was jolted into it by another travelling naturalist, Alfred Wallace, who had the same brilliant idea in 1858. Again in an accident of history, Wallace, who was recovering from a malarial fever on the Indonesian island of Ternate, chose to send his manuscript to - of all people - Charles Darwin.

A potential priority dispute was averted by the gentlemanly behaviour of both protagonists and the smooth diplomacy of Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. These elder statesmen of science arranged for Wallace's and Darwin's papers to be read, in their absence, at the Linnean Society in London in 1858, where the great idea fell completely flat and was ignored by all. We remember Darwin more than Wallace because he wrote the book, published in 1859, which fell anything but flat and revolutionised our world for ever.

Hypotheses to explain Darwin's delay range from "He didn't want to upset his pious wife" to "He wanted to get all his ducks in a row before the shooting began", and there may be truth in both. But I remain mystified by the larger question of why humanity as a whole waited until the 19th century. On the face of it, any one of Newton's achievements - optics, gravity, the laws of motion, the differential and integral calculus - seem more difficult, yet Newton's annus mirabilis pre-dated Darwin by nearly two centuries. The proof of Pythagoras's Theorem, and others of Euclid's elegant compendium, pre-date Darwin by more than two millennia.

Once again, Darwin's achievement doesn't seem all that difficult. Why did it elude Aristotle? And everybody else - great philosophers, mathematicians, anatomists, thinkers and achievers of all kinds down the centuries? Why did this simple but staggeringly powerful idea have to wait until the middle of the 19th century before bursting into our consciousness through the medium of two Victorian naturalists? And why, even today, do so many people have difficulty grasping it?

So, what is this best of all ideas, the idea of evolution by natural selection? It is really the principle of the sieve, multiplied a billionfold and applied cumulatively over billions of years. Every generation is a gene sieve (Darwin didn't put it this way, because he didn't know about genes). The genes that fall through the sieve are the minority that drop through from the current generation to the next. In order to do so, the individuals possessing them have to reproduce. And in order to reproduce, they have to survive. Surviving is difficult. There are predators waiting to pounce, diseases waiting to strike. Incompetence takes its toll in missed footfalls or unheeded signals of danger.

Reproduction, too, is an obstacle course. The individual has to find a mate, woo her with alluring feathers or smells, fight off rivals with talons or antlers, feed the young and protect them from marauders. In any generation, only a minority of individuals will become long-term ancestors. The vast majority of animals that ever lived have no surviving descendants. And the genes that jostle and jockey for position in every generation are the genes that, without a single, solitary exception, have passed through the bodies of an ancestral elite, the tiny minority who managed to become ancestors.

The genes that exist are the genes that made it through a million sieves in cumulative cascade. And what was it that made them do so well? They co-operated, through the intricate processes of embryology, with other successful genes to build an unbroken succession of elite individuals, equipped by them to become ancestors. That is why the qualities of the elite are the qualities inherited by every animal and plant: because existence is tough, and competition sorted out the ancestors from the failures

An arms race

The exact equipment for survival varies from species to species, for there are many ways to survive: streamlined wings, in the case of swallows; powerful flukes in whales and spades in moles; bewildering camouflage and mimicry in insects; shimmering tail feathers in birds of paradise. All these are the outward and visible levers that propel the genes that made them through the sieves of the generations. And, to complicate matters, the survival techniques of each species open windows of opportunity for others to exploit, as Darwin recognised.

Wherever you see elaborate and complicated machinery in a living body, it is usually the end product of an arms race, run in evolutionary time, each side accumulating improved equipment to outdo the other - an arms race between predators and prey, between parasites and hosts, even between males and females of the same species.

The modern theory of evolution by natural selection can be expressed mathematically, in a calculus of changing gene frequencies. Darwin was no mathematician and he knew nothing of genetics, but he had the essence of this great and simple idea, and he expressed it with the luminous clarity of one of the greatest minds ever to emerge from the process of evolution that he discovered.

Richard Dawkins FRS was the first Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. His latest book is “The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution" (Bantam Press, £20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But it is still a question worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was the first person to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.