20-26 April 2009
My Darwin Week
This year is two hundred years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and one hundred and fifty years since the publication of his great book “The origin of species”. Since Darwin changed forever our views on human nature, I want to make this a Darwin week on Pause for Thought.
One of the enduring mysteries of human nature is our capacity for love, for empathy, for kindness and for compassion. Before Darwin, many people assumed that these virtues must be God-given or must come from an eternal soul or spirit and so they were terrified of the idea that humans might have evolved from apes, and rejected it out of hand. Some still do. But part of Darwin’s genius was to show us how altruism and love can thrive amidst the “struggle for life”.
It’s really very simple – aggression and nastiness sometimes win, but often they don’t. In many species cooperation overcomes nastiness, and those who support each other do better than individuals who just want a fight.
Darwin learned much of this on his famous voyage as naturalist on the tiny Naval vessel, the Beagle, that sailed from Plymouth harbour in 1831. An English gentleman, brought up to believe in his own and his country’s superiority, he expected to meet terrifying “savages” on the islands and coasts of South America. He thought they would be base, low, dirty, cannibals devoid of love, affection or kindness. But instead he found people whose lives – though utterly different from his – were suffused with love for their children, and caring for each other. They did not need the education and values he had had drummed into him to be capable of love and kindness.
I like to remember this when I worry about human wickedness and long for us to be kinder to each other. As Darwin showed, both cruelty and kindness are entirely natural. Life is not a fight between good and evil, but a matter of encouraging one side of our evolved human nature as opposed to the other.
Charles Darwin is said to have had “The best idea anybody ever had”. Isn’t that a wonderful thought, that there could be such a thing as the “best idea anybody ever had”. If there is, I agree, the prize should go to Darwin for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
I find this idea endlessly delightful and amazing – as all the best scientific ideas should be – and I like to share that delight. What makes Darwin’s idea so great is that it is beautifully simple and yet – amazingly – it explains the existence of all living things. It explains how slugs and snails, and dogs and quails, and ferns and oak trees all exist without the need of any designer or any plan at all.
What Darwin saw, was that if some simple creature makes lots of copies of itself that are all slightly different, and if there isn’t enough food or space for all those many offspring to survive and so most of them die, then the few that are best adapted to the environment around them will pull through and go on to make more copies with those adaptations. And so, very gradually, new capacities appear – arms, legs, wings, eyes, leaves and trunks get gradually better because the feebler versions are weeded out – by natural selection. You could say it’s “design by death” which sounds rather awful, and even seems a bit scary. Yet that is how we all got here.
The inspiring thing about this is that we can see – so clearly – how we are intimately related to every other living thing around us. We not only share common ancestors with peoples who live on the other side of the earth, but with every other plant and animal around us. Darwin’s beautiful theory showed us how we are all made and why we all depend completely upon one another.
How the world has changed since the young Charles Darwin set off from Plymouth harbour in 1831. Plymouth was expanding fast, new streets of expensive houses pushing aside the desperately poor and filthy slums, where people lived without sanitation, decent food or reliable work. The docks too were growing and had recently been given their own name – Devonport.
The ship Darwin was to join, the Beagle, was small, ungainly and crowded. His cabin was 5 foot 6 by 5 foot 6 by 5 foot 6 and shared with two other people and a chart table, sleeping in a hammock whenever there was room. The crew had far worse conditions. Men, and boys as young as 10 or 11 worked long hours, in great danger, and misdemeanours were punished by flogging. The sailors’ screams appalled the young Darwin. Even more appalling was the sight of slaves on the distant plantations he visited. There he saw human degradation and cruelty such as he had never imagined possible.
On board the Beagle were three natives from Tierra del Fuego – “savages” who’d been captured on a previous expedition and brought back to England to learn to speak English, behave correctly and, above all, to become good Christians. They were now being shipped back to their homeland as missionaries.
It’s hard now to put ourselves into that nineteenth century mentality, in which life was so hard and yet the educated Englishman was considered the pinnacle of creation. Many of Darwin’s readers were terrified that if his theories were true then civilised morality would collapse. One bishop’s wife declared ‘Descended from the apes? My dear, let us hope that it’s not true. But if it is, let us hope that it does not become generally known to the public.’”
Of course it did become generally known, and since then I think we’ve become less arrogant, less cruel, and more willing to respect the lives of others. If so, I believe that Darwin’s great ideas have helped, not hindered, that change.
Why are we here? This is one of those big questions that we’ve probably all asked ourselves at one time or another. Back in the nineteenth century people were taught that men were made in God’s image, and that all the plants and animals were put here just for us to enjoy.
Charles Darwin was certainly brought up to believe this way, and as a young “natural philosopher” he saw his task as describing and cataloguing the wonders of God’s creation. Darwin was ship’s naturalist aboard a small Naval vessel, the Beagle, sent out from Plymouth on a two year expedition to map the dangerous and barely known coast of South America. On the way he collected water from the ship’s wake, far from any land or human eyes, and was astounded to find it teeming with life – full of strange and colourful fish and plankton. Why were all these extraordinary creatures there when there was no one to see them?
Over the years, as his theory of evolution developed, Darwin had to change his view of the meaning and purpose of life – and the rest of us have followed. No longer can we take the arrogant view that humans alone were perfectly designed in God’s image. Instead we accept that our oddly designed bodies, with their weak backs, unnecessary tonsils and fallible senses are the result of aeons of gradual evolution.
No longer can we take the arrogant view that all of creation is here for us. Instead we have come to accept that we humans are just one species in a world full of billions of other species, and that we have no more right to be here than frogs, snails, elephants or blackbirds.
It’s scary in a way, but it’s beautiful too. And I think that understanding Darwin’s great idea can lead to us rein back the harm we are doing to the rest of our ecosystem and to want to tread a little more lightly on this earth.
One of the reasons I so admire Charles Darwin, and am happily celebrating this “Darwin Year”, is that he was just my kind of scientist. He not only asked the great questions – how and why are we here, why is the world the way it is? but he set about answering them with such down to earth enthusiasm.
Tending his garden he became fascinated by earth worms – lowly creatures that most Victorians would have despised. He wrote “As I was led to keep in my study (though he doesn’t say what led him!) during many months worms in pots filled with earth, I became interested in them, and wished to learn how far they acted consciously, and how much mental power they displayed. … few observations of this kind have been made, as far as I know, on animals so low in the scale of organization and so poorly provided with sense-organs, as are earth-worms.”
To find out about their sense organs he employed his many children to play musical instruments to them – piano, flute or violin. The earthworms did not react, and he concluded that they were deaf. But presented with triangles of paper which he cut specially, he found that they could detect the shape and pull the triangles down by the sharpest point into their holes.
Out in the garden he placed rocks on the ground and measured how quickly they sank, realising that earthworms continually throw up fine particles on top of the ground, eventually burying anything on top. He concluded “that all the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms.” Any gardener nowadays knows the value of earthworms, but without such simple homely experiments we would never have known how our fertile soil is made.
I admire Darwin as much for his simple, homely experiments as for his great discovery of natural selection.
Charles Darwin waited nearly twenty years before he finally dared publish his theory of evolution by natural selection. He was afraid. He was worried what people would think, and he specially feared upsetting his deeply religious wife, Emma.
The reason was clear. His elegantly simple theory in one stroke explained how life can – indeed must – evolve. If plants and animals all produce too many offspring and not all of them can survive, then the winners in this fight for life pass on whatever helped them survive. In this way– gradually – new designs appear. Creation was no longer a mystery. Creation no longer required a designer or a plan.
Although Darwin said little about human evolution – the most dangerous topic of all – the implication was clear. We humans were no longer the deliberate pinnacle of a planned design, in which every other creature was put there for our delight and exploitation; rather we evolved from other apes and had no more right to be here than earthworms, willows or the great white shark.
He knew that some people would take his theory as belittling to human life, as destroying our morality, or as giving a vile and depressing outlook on the wonders of life itself. I hope that in my Darwin week on “Pause for Thought” I have given ample reason for finding his theory uplifting and inspiring, but I really can do no better than end this week as Darwin ended his great book “The Origin of Species”.
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Thank you Darwin.
This week’s theme – Desire, Pleasure and Happiness
Isn’t it funny how the things you think will make you the happiest don’t – or at least they don’t do it in the way you intend and when you want it. Happiness is a strange and elusive beast – in fact it’s a bit like my cat – go hunting for it and it will evade you; ignore it and get on with your life and it creeps up and sits on your lap.
Early this summer I moved here to south Devon. This has been a long dream for me. I spent all my childhood holidays here, my grandparents lived here, my parents recently died here, and my brother and sister are here too. We found a wonderful house with space to grow vegetables, trees for firewood, and a river running straight down off the moor. The move went well and we got on with unpacking.
Yet I was edgy. I found myself very up and down, not quite myself. I woke in the morning feeling unsettled instead of bright and cheerful. And then I began to get cross with myself. Why am I not gloriously happy now I’m here where I always wanted to be?
It took me a long time to work out something so obvious that I feel silly about it now. That is, that happy events can also be stressful ones. Think of holidays, or Christmas. These are right up there in the list of most stressful life events, along with illness, divorce – and moving house. So it wasn’t surprising that I felt so uneasy. The real trouble, I realised, was that I was making everything worse by criticising myself for not being happy. How silly!
Much better, I finally worked out, to accept the way I feel – not to reject the “bad” feelings and chase after the “good” ones. Then, curiously, that elusive feline happiness did come creeping up on me. I know it won’t last. But I also know it will come again.
Our society seems a bit obsessed with happiness and I’m not sure this is doing us much good. I don’t mean that there’s something wrong with being happy – far from it – just that we might be making it harder on ourselves by wanting it too much. A recent poll suggested that people in Britain are less happy now than they were 50 years ago, in spite of us being three times wealthier and living a lot longer.
It’s a well worn truth that seeking wealth doesn’t bring happiness, but perhaps seeking happiness doesn’t bring happiness either. All this talk about happiness and how to “achieve” it implies that we need to be happy, have a right to be happy, or – worse still – that there is something wrong with us if we’re not happy. Yet no one is happy all the time. The human condition is one of change, and natural ups and downs.
One of my pet hates is that jolly little children’s song (I’ll try to sing!) “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. If …” Am I a kill-joy in not liking it? It seems to me that from a young age it teaches children that there’s something wrong with them, or they are an outsider, or inadequate in some way, if they aren’t happy. But it’s simply not true. No one is happy all the time, even if everything is going well – even if, like me, you’ve just moved to Devon, are living in a place you love, have work you enjoy and family near by.
So how about “If you’re miserable and you know it clap your hands …” or “If you’re gloomy and you know it stamp your feet.” No, I don’t think it’ll catch on. But it makes me laugh to sing it, and that cheers me up. And it would be more realistic. Perhaps accepting that we can’t be happy all the time, and accepting the low bits, will, paradoxically, make us happier.
Wednesday – Plastic Bags
What a pleasure it was, when I moved to Devon, to find that I’m living near Modbury – the plastic bag free zone. Since last April no shop in Modbury gives out plastic bags, and Church Street is full of people carrying colourful cloth bags, trolleys and rucksacks.
We all know how hard it is to make even small environmental changes. It is an effort to do the recycling properly, it’s a pain to remember to turn off all those stand-by thingies, and it’s just so easy to forget my cloth bags. Hovering there in the back of my mind is always the thought “But it won’t make any difference – so why bother?”.
It’s true, my little actions alone won’t make a difference to climate change. The forces are so great, and have gone so far, that no one’s individual efforts make a difference – yet lots of people’s actions together do, and if we start with plastic bags we might find it easier to go on to harder things.
Something I realised about plastic bags is that they’re visible. Every person who carries a cloth bag is an advertisement for not wasting plastic, and gradually that visible sign spreads.
And now I’ve noticed that I am enjoying being one of the clothy ones, and finding it much easier to remember my bags. Instead of thinking “Shall I bother? Nah it won’t make any difference.” I want to make the effort.
One of my reasons for moving here was to reduce my carbon footprint and live a greener life. I assumed that the effort would be entirely up to me and my family. But instead I’ve found real pleasure in this local communal effort. I don’t even know or speak to all the other clothies around me but I can see we are all making this small change together. I’ve found a simple source of pleasure where I least expected it.
Desire leads to pleasure leads to happiness. That’s the usual way we think about it, and so we spend our days trying to satisfy our desires and assuming that will make us happy – even if we aren’t ever quite succeeding. But I’ve been reading a fascinating new book called Sex, Drugs and Chocolate that suggests that while pleasure can bring happiness, fulfilling desires often does not.
As a scientist I find the evidence compelling. For example, studies of both human and animal brains show that desire and pleasure use different brain systems, so it really is possible to have a desire satisfied by something that doesn’t actually give you pleasure. Chocolate’s an interesting example. Lots of people love it, possibly because of the pleasure-enhancing chemicals it contains, but then they get trapped into eating too much, feeling guilty, wishing they hadn’t and then wanting more – the opposite of being happy. It turns out that most British chocolate (unlike more exotic dark, bitter types) is very sweet, and sugar can be addictive. So people may be craving the sugar, which doesn’t really give them pleasure, rather than chocolate itself which does.
If you don’t think sugar can be addictive think about some poor experimental rats who were given unlimited amounts of sweet drinks for 12 hours and then none for 12 hours. After many days they became hooked and in deprived periods their whiskers would tremble, their little paws shake and they looked thoroughly miserable. They got their fix soon enough – and had their desire satisfied again – but these were not happy rats. Like so many of us, they were trapped in a cycle of desire – but gaining no real pleasure.
The book’s author suggests switching to “real chocolate” – the unsweet stuff with lots of those pleasure-bringing chocolaty ingredients.
Thinking about all this set me wondering what my own trap is. Certainly I feel driven a lot of the time, which is no good for me or anyone else. So I’m thinking about those poor rats and their sugar and wondering whether I’m just as trapped by desire as they are.
Yesterday I talked about desire and pleasure, and how recent brain science shows that satisfying one doesn’t always lead to the other. I realised that I am rather like a sugar addict, only my trouble is not chocolate but work. I am constantly driven by the desire to do more – to do that email, finish that article, do more email, answer those letters, write that proposal, yet more email, get it all done … But it can never all be done. Worse than that, my stress and hurry impact on others, making me impatient and irritable with them. How stupid!
Part of my reason for moving to Devon was to work less frantically, and find time for other things, but I didn’t know how – or what other things or why..
Reading about the science of pleasure has helped me examine what drives me – the desire for fame, for money, for feeling important, for being admired, or just the desire to reduce the anxiety caused by those huge piles of work on my desk. Am I trapped by desires, whose fulfilment is pointless both for me and for others?
Once I asked the question, the answer was obvious. Some of my work pays the bills, some (I hope) helps other people, and some, like writing books, I enjoy. So those can stay. But the rest? I could do less. Much less.
The prospect seems terrifying, but surely it’s true. I could do less work and more of what I came here for – tending my vegetables, stacking the firewood, learning how to use an axe properly. …. These things won’t make me famous, or important, or rich, but now I realise that they do actually give me pleasure. And what’s the point of that? Is it legitimate to seek pleasure for myself? Ah – here’s the real nitty gritty. Why do we do anything at all? I’ll come to that one tomorrow.
This week I’ve explored the relationships between desire, pleasure and happiness. The science shows that satisfying our desires doesn’t always bring pleasure, but pleasure can bring both health and happiness. For example, mothers who enjoy chocolate during pregnancy are more relaxed and happier with their babies, people who have more recreational sex live longer, healthier lives. In other words, pleasure is good for you. So how do we find it?
On the one hand, chasing after extremes seems not to work. Indulging to excess in sex, drugs and excitement doesn’t bring lasting pleasure. On the other hand rejecting them is no good either because genuinely pleasurable experiences – whether of sex, drugs or anything else do indeed increase contentment.
So the trick seems to be to find out which of our activities we really enjoy, and do more of those – rather than relying on our cravings and desires.
Seeking pleasurable activities can lead to quite unexpected results, like the enjoyment I’ve found from joining the anti-plastic brigade. Another source of deep pleasure is what psychologists call “flow”. This is a state in which the activity seems to happen of its own accord, without a sense of “me” doing it, or for any purpose. This “optimal experience” can happen to an artist engrossed in painting, a mountain climber, a singer, a runner, or anyone concentrating deeply on their task. In such a state the outcome seems unimportant, people work hard for the sake of doing what they are doing, and become happier as a result.
I am still worried. Am I just promoting selfishness? Shouldn’t we be thinking of some higher principle? Some transcendent purpose to our lives? I think not. The bottom line is that happy and contented people are nicer to be with, kinder to others, and less obsessed with themselves. That seems purpose enough to me.