The evolutionary theory which has come to be known as Darwinism is in many ways an elegantly simple thesis of profound transformative power. Dennett considered evolution to represent a kind of universal acid, an imaginary substance which dissolved anything it came into contact with and so could not be contained. In the same way, he said that Darwinism:
“...eats through every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionised worldview, with most of the old landmarks still visible, but transformed in fundamental ways.”
“...any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving... I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection...”
We might summarise this as 'adaptive advantages in response to selective pressures', the term 'selective pressure' representing any cause exerted upon an individual from the natural, social, biochemical or any other environments that tends to reduce that individual's reproductive success. To mirror Spencer's words, we could say that Darwinism, at heart, represents survival of the most adaptable, except that ‘survival’ denotes all-or-nothing zero sum games that tend to characterise much of contemporary popular thought, whereas ‘adaptive advantages’ refer to minimal increases in fitness which lead to slightly greater statistical chances of passing on one’s genes. This is a subtle formulation with markedly different implications, most notably ones which are politically and socially neutral.
Darwinism is also sometimes castigated as overly deterministic, another summation that is not entirely accurate. While this determinism might seem to be justified on the surface due to underlying processes of natural selection being governed by the immutable rules of genetics, flexibility emerges in the ability of proteins and other signal-bearing chemicals to modify gene expressions, giving rise to a dynamic of probability as to whether a given encoded gene is manifested as an effect in the organism or not. Wider social, and environmental factors also selectively impinge upon whether a particular mutation confers an advantage which should be propagated down through generations. A further level of flexibility is seen in the emerging science of epigenetics, the study of heritable characteristics that are not caused by changes in genetic sequences, one feature of which is the ability of traumatic life experiences to create changes in an individual's offspring.
All of this is far outside the scope of the present essay, but two points we have seen before, probability and emergence, are visible in some form here, liberating Darwinism partially from another popular misapprehension. Indeed, our summation of the theory as ‘survival of the most adaptable’ places focus upon the heuristic and often highly interactive nature of natural selection, and subtly begins to erase alleged notions of Darwinian determinism.
However, this erasure becomes radically effected when one comes to another important field of evolutionary study, and one which will quickly take centre ground in our thesis, the field known as evolutionary psychology. This largely primate-focussed discipline considers the human being not from the perspective of genetics but from our social, cultural, neurological and linguistic realities, and seeks to explore how these realities evolved from creatures who lacked such behavioural and psychological traits using only the flexible but purposeless principles of natural selection. Evolutionary psychology thus takes a view of humanity, as it were, from the outside, and as strange, unique and as magic as ubiquitous human behavioural traits such as ritual, language, art, visionary experience and myth may seem, there are heuristic and emergent pathways from the non-cultural primate to the symbolically cultured human from which these traits may be liberated. This is not always apparent when the view is taken from the inside, where the seeming of magic is sustained.
That Darwinism remains flexible particularly in the human context is highlighted by Kohn who states that “an evolved mind is not a predetermined mind”, and that whether one subscribes to genetic pseudo-determinism or evolutionary psychology, no quantitative measurement of the relative strengths of human instincts can be made. We might consider for example, the popularly-held misconception here that monogamy is the 'natural' state of human sexuality, rather than being merely a particular culture’s only socially-sanctioned instinct among many other possibilities, which include both female and male behaviours of promiscuity as sometimes conferring adaptive advantages, and even systems of infidelity. More subtle are non-reproductive sexual behaviours, whose advantages are sometimes difficult to spot but are present nonetheless.
However, Kohn, following Cosmides & Tooby, considers that evolved instincts can be considered not as deterministic limitations upon behaviour, but as choices, and here is found the source of human flexibility:
“It was... common to think that other animals are ruled by 'instinct' whereas humans lost their instincts and are ruled by 'reason', and this is why we are so much more flexibly intelligent than other animals... [But] human behaviour is more flexibly intelligent than that of other animals because we have more instincts than they do, not fewer... Cosmides and Tooby are describing [instincts as] more akin to a battery of routines which may engage automatically, but also may act in the service of conscious reflection.”
Thus it can be seen that Darwinian viewpoints, contrary to deterministic popular belief, represent useful methods of arriving at new understandings about humanity's behavioural flexibility and help us to come to terms with the strange emergent and evolved properties of the human mind and its propensity for symbolic cognition. That human behaviour does not seem strange from the inside is evidenced by the proliferation of 'magical' explanations for many aspects of our behaviour, ranging from the poetic and the mythical to the ludicrous and misinformed, but when one takes an external view, such as gazing upon humanity as a cultural and cognitively flexible primate, evolutionary psychology in particular allows us to track the emergence of our humanity without the requirements of magical thinking.