By Michael Ruse
...who directs the program in history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. His forthcoming book is Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.
feel a little bit like I am on one of those overnight flights from
Atlanta to Gatwick. It is seven in the morning, you have a bit of a
headache, and you want to stretch your legs. You can see the English
countryside below. Above all you want to get down and get on with your
life. And then the captain tells you that traffic is stacked up and you
spend the next hour flying in circles until you can land. I have a pile
of things stacked up—pieces I want to write—and no matter how much I
write, they seem to multiply and I cannot get on. I am flying in
I really do want to write about Brighton Pavilion, but before that I
must turn to some of the things said after my column on Muslim girls.
And before that, there is evolutionary ethics to bring to a conclusion.
And before that—and really pressing—are those riots in England.
So let's start with the last, and first let me thank David Barash for
his column written in response to my request. Like David, I don't think a
theory, however good, can or should speak to everything. That is the
problem with Freud, not to mention Jesus. But since what is going on in
England is so animal, it would be surprising if Darwinian evolutionary
theory had nothing to say, and as David shows it does—about alienated
That is a good start towards understanding, even though obviously it
isn't everything. One reason why it isn't everything is that, although
the news is only coming through in bits and pieces, it is clear that a
lot of the troublemakers are not in fact unemployed, alienated people
from non-English originating races (if I may so put it), but perfectly
respectable white kids, with jobs, who have been caught up in things.
There are years of work for sociologists here, but one factor does seem
to have been modern technology, where people text each other and so
forth spreading the news about where action is taking place. A bored or
thrill-seeking young person in Kensington can get right on public
transport and head for Brixton or wherever. So, as David Barash and
every other evolutionary biologist would agree, biology is important but
so also is culture. The problem is disentangling the two.
I was amazed at some of the unabashed racist comments that my piece
occasioned. Along the lines of "Why don't those savages go back to where
they came from and leave decent Brits alone? We didn't ask them to
come." Just so we know what we are talking about, the reference is first
to the huge influx of people of African descent coming after the War
from the West Indies, and then around 1960 or so another huge influx of
people of Asian origin, generally from Pakistan. And there were others.
Lots of Irish for instance, and many Cypriots escaping the troubles on
their fractured island.
I don't think anyone would deny that whatever the ultimate pros and cons
of the influx—and because I left England fifty years ago I am not going
to get into that—it happened in a haphazard way and without planning or
much else. There was no vetting or consideration of the country's needs
and capabilities or whatever (as there certainly was in places like
Canada and Australia, who incidentally in those days didn't take any
such people as those coming to Britain). But remember why it happened.
It was a consequence of the ideology of Empire. The Brits went out and
helped themselves to a third of the world. They justified this in part
by saying that they were civilizing and that everyone had equal rights.
And bulwark of this argument was the right of everyone to move around
the Empire, including going to the Mother Country, freely. So don't
blame people for taking advantage of an opportunity.
I note that the conservative government of David Cameron is getting
right into the "Let's not get soft on these thugs. What they need is not
understanding, but punishment—hard and severe." I have not yet seen a
call to bring back the birch, but I bet it will come. I will simply also
note, that that very same Prime Minister Cameron, when a student at
Oxford, belonged—as did Boris Johnson, the lord mayor of London—to an
institution known as the "Bullingdon Club." This is a group of
high-class, male toffs, who wear a silly uniform making them look like
escapees from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but also who have the
habit of going to a hotel and absolutely trashing it. Daddy's money then
pays for the repairs. "Whited sepulchers" is the phrase that comes to
mind. The very Platonic form of hypocrisy.
On a final, more uplifting note. I mentioned that when in Croydon, my
friend and I visited the Victorian church designed by George Gilbert
Scott. Sitting in the back pews, around four o'clock, we noticed a
little girl of about 10, dressed in a school uniform—white shirt, maroon
sweater, grey skirt and knee socks—bustling about in a knowing way,
carrying bits and pieces here and there. Seeing that it was choral
evensong shortly, I asked her if she was in the choir, to which she
replied that she was indeed. She was someone whose grandparents or even
great grandparents had come to England from the West Indies, probably in
the 1950s. She, it seems to me, is the irrefutable counter to my racist
Evolution and Other Riots
By David Barash
...is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
August 9, 2011-- chronicle.com
In an earlier post, Michael Ruse asked me how evolution might help explain the British riots.
In this regard, I'm sympathetic with one reader's comment that maybe it
isn't incumbent upon evolution to have anything to say in this regard.
On the other hand, it seems to me that any perspective that claims to
provide deep and wide insight into human behavior— including but not
limited to Freudian, Marxist, feminist, post-modernist, pre- or
post-apocalyptic, millenarian and theoprotonucleohermeneutic—should have
something to contribute when it comes to events that are themselves
widespread, oft-encountered, important, and, in all probability, deeply
implanted in the human repertoire. Violent riots and trouble-making
would certainly appear to qualify. So thank you, Michael, for asking.
My immediate response is to think of those irascible, violence-prone
subordinate elephant seals (all of them male), who find themselves
socially excluded from polite and successful elephant seal society,
since breeding opportunities have been monopolized by a small number of
highly successful harem-masters. It's a problem faced especially by
males in nearly all polygynous species: Kept out of the social (and
biological) fast lane, they have very little to lose and much to gain by
shaking things up, making trouble, attempting to disrupt the status
quo, even at the risk of serious injury or their own death. In other
species, such individuals account for most of the violence, simply
because having little or no stake in the existing "system," they make
the best of their bad situation by recourse to violence.
Here I can certainly be accused (not for the first or last time) of
allowing my political inclinations to color my scientific analysis, but
it seems to me that insofar as the foregoing is valid, an evolutionary
perspective suggests that there is deep wisdom in structuring things in a
way that minimizes the sense of helplessness and hopelessness on the
part of those at the "bottom" of the socioeconomic ladder. I'm not about
to advocate social (i.e., socialistic) policies of equal opportunity,
income equity, enhanced availability of medical care, education, job
opportunities with the prospect of advancement, etc. … for elephant
But for people? Hell, yes!---------------------------------------
s. e. anderson is author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
Social Activism is not a hobby: it's a Lifelong Commitment.