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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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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

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