July 19, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Roots of a Dangerous Darwinian Doctrine Live On

Tie “survival of the fittest” to “larger brains are more fit” and what do you get?

The horrors of 20th century social Darwinism are well documented.  Ideas have consequences.  Giving power-hungry leaders two principles that, when mixed together, justify their wildest ambitions in the name of science, is like giving bomb ingredients to a terrorist – only on a much more massive scale.  Those two ideas are: (1) might makes right, because nature has determined that only the fittest survive, and (2) some brains are more fit than other brains.  Need we detail the racial atrocities, genocides and wars that exploded from that toxic blend?

A recent article in Nature News, had a title that should raise eyebrows: “Mostly the big-brained survive.”  It suggests that the toxic ideas themselves survive, even if under the surface in an innocent article about conservation.  Emma Marris wrote like a caring conservationist concerned about the welfare of endangered species.  But she expressed social Darwinian ideas as if oblivious to what happened in the 20th century: “Large-brained animals may be less likely to go extinct in a changing world, perhaps because they can use their greater intelligence to adapt their behaviour to new conditions,” she wrote; “….a bigger brain-to-body-size ratio usually means a smarter animal.”

Although Marris did not use the word fitness or the phrase “survival of the fittest,” the idea was implicit in the notion that smarter animals are less likely to go extinct.  A corollary is that nature favors the smarter animal.

Marris and Eric Abelson (Stanford U), whose research she highlighted, were discussing brain size of mammals in general.  A picture of a cute tarsier adorns the article.  To their credit, they included several points that could exonerate them from any allegations of social Darwinism.  For one, they were not talking about humans specifically at all.  Secondly, they pointed out the disadvantages of the big-brained:

For species larger than about 10 kilograms, the advantage of having a large brain seems to be swamped by the disadvantage of being big. Large species tend to reproduce later in life, have fewer offspring, require more resources and larger territories, and catch the attention of humans, either as food or as predators. Hunting pressure or reductions in available space can hit them particularly hard.

Third, Marris ended with a list of other factors (besides brain size) that could affect extinction risk, like “variations in body size, diet, population density, home range, lifespan and growth rate.”   She quoted Walter Jetz of Yale who argued that “analyses of extinction risk using many traits will probably be more powerful and accurate than predictions based on single traits.”  Then she ended by pointing out that even Abelson waffles about the meaning of his own analysis:

Abelson is agnostic on how the extinction-brain size relationship should inform conservation efforts. One could argue for expending more resources on the smaller-brained species that are at high risk. Or one could decide to spend more energy smoothing the way for the smarter, more adaptable species, since they might have a higher likelihood of surviving. “All I can say is that I hope it is useful for whoever is making those decisions,” he says.

Having diluted the ingredients of the social Darwinism bomb, Marris went on her way with a clear conscience.  Scientific American reprinted the article without any disclaimers or edits.

Is the reference to social Darwinism inappropriate for an innocent little article like this about species conservation?  They didn’t even mention Darwin or evolution, for crying out loud.  Is it not a fact of nature that animals differ in brain-to-body size ratios and basic intelligence?  Didn’t Marris and Abelson adequately distance themselves from the really bad ideas of social Darwinism and their implications?  Didn’t they give both sides, and remain agnostic on whether brain size matters at all to extinction?  Isn’t this much ado about nothing?  Isn’t it profoundly unfair to suggest a connection with 20th century atrocities of social Darwinism?

We certainly don’t want to be unfair to Marris or Abelson, but they should have known better.  They could have done more to ensure safety precautions before playing with fire like this topic.  They could have explicitly stated that their work has nothing to say about human intelligence or brain size.  They could have specifically mentioned the harm that overemphasis on this trait in humans has done.

Those were the sins of omission.  The sins of commission are: (1) using an incendiary title, “Mostly the big-brained survive”; (2) engaging in useless speculations that are impossible to prove: (3) assuming that brain size correlates with intelligence (perhaps not: quality might matter more than quantity); (4) linking intelligence to survival; (5) assuming that the smart are worth saving more than the stupid; (6) shuffling off the responsibility for the decision to others.  Abelson said he hoped his information might be “useful” to “whoever is making those decisions” – i.e., what species deserve saving from extinction, the smart or the dumb.  Can you imagine a scientist using that excuse in Nazi Germany?

The Darwinist mindset is that nature favors the fit, and the fit are the smart and the strong.  Says who?  Jesus Christ taught to honor the weak and reach out to the feeble-minded.  He took the children in his arms and said that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  We’re all weak and stupid compared to our Creator.  We should each individually try to develop the gifts and talents God has given us to their fullest extent, to improve our intelligence, wisdom and strength, so that we can help our neighbor in time of need.  A society that cares for its weaker members while maintaining individual responsibility is a healthy society.  The social Darwinist societies viewed the weak as parasites and burdens that nature itself sought to eliminate.

Some readers may dislike the previous paragraph because it mentions God and Jesus.  OK then, stick to the science.  Are you not embarrassed by the sloppy science Abelson did, Marris promoted, and Nature printed?  It’s useless and illogical.  The basic hypothesis is that smarts help you avoid extinction.  That idea is more full of holes than Swiss cheese.  They know it: Marris said that being smart has just as many disadvantages to fitness as advantages.   Later, she aired Jetz’s list of factors that could matter just as much to survival: “variations in body size, diet, population density, home range, lifespan and growth rate.”   That’s probably not an exhaustive list.  It’s illogical, too: if nature favored the smart, then why are the dumb still around?  Even if you restrict the category to just mammals, or just rodents, you would expect all the dumb ones to have gone extinct long before now, and natural selection to have brought the survivors to a high level of intelligence.  Clearly that hasn’t happened or Abelson would have a flat curve, and nothing to measure.

Finally, animal intelligence should have nothing to do with decision-making about conservation.  We don’t let turkeys go extinct just because they are dumber than crows.  Even if Darwinists do not want to believe that our Creator has entrusted humans with a stewardship over the creatures of this world, they cannot get away from ethics.  Someone needs to decide how to spend limited resources on conserving what species we can.  Did you notice that conservation implies helping the weak?  We are the smartest animals on the planet, right?  All the others are dumber than us.  We’re fit; we’ve survived so far.  If they were consistent Darwinists, why should they care?  Even with our intelligence, there are questions whether we will be smart enough to avoid destroying ourselves and everything else.

In short, for these reasons and more, we do not exonerate Marris, Abelson, Nature and Scientific American for posting this pseudoscientific poison.  It is empirically unsound, practically useless, and dangerous.  Let them all re-read the history of the 20th century and be reminded that such thinking can be used to justify unspeakable horrors.  Time to shed these notions and stop blessing them with the name of science.



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  • Jon Saboe says:

    Back to the connections between Darwinian phrenology and the horrors of the Rwandan civil war. A direct connection between measuring skulls to identify hutus and tutsis — and then declaring one group mentally superior.
    Brain size — a myth similar to Haeckel Hoaxes — and just a stubborn.

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