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Evolution on hold

Darwin Day tends to get lost in the pink clouds of sentimentality that surround Valentine’s Day. But Darwin, in his way, was just as important as the Roman Goddess Venus whose special talents we will celebrate on Wednesday. I would even argue that she and Darwin had the same idea, that natural selection makes the world go round.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, just before Valentine’s Day when birds and young people are traditionally supposed to select their mates. His theory, in a nutshell, was that this process of natural selection repeated in all species over millions of years, resulted in a steady process of change and improvement. So, in theory, we should be able to use Darwin Day as a teachable moment, an opportunity to learn about natural selection and human progress. Unfortunately, we seem to have stalled out on progress and even slipped backward.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is not self-evidently correct. In fact, it is one of the most fantastically improbable theories that anyone could imagine. If you study an ordinary garden bird, a Nuthatch for example, it stuns the imagination to accept that such a beautiful and complex creature could be created by a series of small adaptations, even over millions of years. There is evidence in the fossil record, and more from modern research, that the theory of evolution could be true, but it’s not always easy to believe it.

One of the hardest things to believe is that evolution means a steady improvement of a species. But cats have scarcely improved in a million years, and we humans have not done much better. Take as a benchmark the year 31 BC when the Roman Republic collapsed into a dictatorship. Two thousand more years of evolution should surely have produced a better result by this time.

If Darwin was right, we should expect, as the most highly evolved creatures, to live in a peaceful society democratically governed by people with superior intellectual and moral qualities and based on the principles of science and rationalism. Instead, we have a world obsessed with insane politics and mindless and brutal conflicts reminiscent of the 14th century. A species so constantly at war with itself can scarcely be counted a success.

We know what to do on Valentine’s Day, but what should we do on Darwin Day? Should we try to evolve a little, to become better versions of what we were? History suggests that we might be wasting our time. The reason may be found in a book called Good Enough: the Tolerance of Mediocrity by Daniel S. Milo. His argument, in brief, was that the evidence shows that species don’t necessarily improve but just muddle along, sometimes progressing, sometimes slipping back, and sometimes simply vanishing. A species may not be particularly successful but it might be, in Milo’s terms, just “good enough” to survive.

If this is, in fact, the case, it may be that we have reached our level of evolutionary incompetence. Like cows or cats, we are as evolved as we will ever be. We are just good enough to hold the delicate balance between civilization and barbarism, and we are not evolving towards any higher destiny.

This suggests that the safest thing to do on Darwin Day is — nothing at all.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.