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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

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars