September 22, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Darwinians Accept Murder as an Evolutionary Strategy

Chimps do what comes naturally: murder each other. Who’s to argue if natural selection found it to be an effective strategy?

The media are abuzz with the latest “finding” of evolutionary biologists: humans don’t cause chimpanzees to act violently toward each other; it’s their natural evolved behavior.  A paper announcing the conclusion in Nature (Wilson et al., “Lethal aggresion in Pan is better explained as adaptive strategies than human impacts”) was discussed in the same issue by Joan B. Silk (Arizona State).  She draws the logical conclusion: if aggression is an adaptive strategy in our nearest evolutionary ancestors, then it must be for humans as well:

In 2013, there were 33 armed state-level conflicts around the world.  Many of these had persisted for decades, killed thousands of people and thwarted international peacekeeping efforts. War is certainly a contemporary fixture, but has it always been one? There is vigorous disagreement over the answer to this question. Some argue that warfare has been a pervasive feature throughout human history and has had important effects on human nature, whereas others contend that war is rare in foraging groups, the kinds of societies that we lived in for most of our evolutionary history. Debates about the origins and prevalence of human warfare are echoed in the question of whether lethal coalitionary aggression in chimpanzees has evolved through natural selection or whether it is a non-adaptive consequence of human disturbance. In this issue, Wilson et al. (page 414) argue persuasively on the side of adaptation.

With the phrase “natural selection,” Silk points directly to Darwin, who believed the same thing (see 1881 letter, last paragraph).  It’s all part of the old “struggle for existence,” he believed; the higher races of man exterminating the lower ones (like the Europeans over the Turks, the illustration he used).  He writes as if this is a necessary factor for evolutionary progress.  It cannot be considered immoral; what “convictions” could there be in a monkey’s mind, anyway?

The conclusion that ape murder is natural comes from years of observations.  There’s enough evidence, the authors say, to show that human imposition did not lead to this behavior.  It is only observed in chimpanzees, apparently, although violence toward outsiders is common in other species.  How, then, can inter-group violence be explained in evolutionary terms?  The authors end their paper, “killing is a means to eliminate rivals when the costs of killing are low.”  Silk summarizes:

One point of view is that natural selection has favoured the evolution of lethal coalitionary intergroup aggression in chimpanzees as a means to enhance access to valuable resources, such as food and mates. Intergroup aggression might be more deadly in chimpanzees than in most other species because chimpanzees can exploit the imbalances of power that arise from ‘fission–fusion’ social organization. Chimpanzees often fragment into temporary parties that travel and forage independently within their community’s home range. When parties of males encounter single individuals from other communities, they sometimes launch brutal assaults that leave victims gravely wounded or dead (Fig. 1).

Humans can relate to this, can’t they?  Imbalances of power, political parties… war follows, with consequent mayhem and death.  We’re just like them.  It’s scientific fact: “These results should finally put an end to the idea that lethal aggression in chimpanzees is a non-adaptive by-product of anthropogenic influences,” Silk says, followed by a caveat: “but they will probably not be enough to convince everyone.”  Silk points to a number of vexing questions the interpretation raises that will require further research.  Meanwhile, can she convince her readers that human war is not determined by natural selection?

Perceptions of the behaviour of non-human primates, particularly chimpanzees, are often distorted by ideology and anthropomorphism, which produce a predisposition to believe that morally desirable features, such as empathy and altruism, have deep evolutionary roots, whereas undesirable features, such as group-level violence and sexual coercion, do not. This reflects a naive form of biological determinism. Selective pressures alter traits as organisms move into new environments and confront new challenges and opportunities. The data tell us that there are some ecological and demographic circumstances in which the benefits of lethal aggression exceed the costs for chimpanzees, nothing more. Humans are not destined to be warlike because chimpanzees sometimes kill their neighbours.

Convinced?  Her claim apparently didn’t reach some reporters, who accepted the comparison between chimps and humans unconditionally.  PhysOrg‘s headline, for instance, announces “Natural born killers: Chimpanzee violence is an evolutionary strategy.”  On Live Science, Laura Geggel pointed out that bonobos (another chimp relative) are not as violent, implying that natural selection does not always determine warfare as an adaptive strategy; nevertheless, the study does indicate that “chimps can shed light on the evolution of people,” she said.  Jonathan Webb acknowledged some criticisms of the paper for the BBC News, quoting one anthropologist who warned against the comparison of humans and chimps with the argument: “We have the ability to shape and alter our behaviour in ways that they can’t.

None of the reporters, though, questioned the authors’ contention that chimpanzee violence is an adaptive strategy wrought by natural selection.  In Science Magazine, lead author Michael Wilson (U of Minnesota) had the last word: “if chimpanzees kill for adaptive reasons, then perhaps other species do, too, including humans.

How can the Darwinians escape the logical conclusion that if war is adaptive for chimps, it must be for humans?  They can’t appeal to logic or reason, or to some moral standard.  Everything in their worldview is a consequence of natural selection.  Silk cannot simply assert that “Humans are not destined to be warlike because chimpanzees sometimes kill their neighbours,” slap her hands and say that’s that.  She needs to be consistent.  If the data tell her that there are circumstances for which the benefits of lethal aggression exceed the costs for chimpanzees, the data from human experience should lead to the same evolutionary interpretation.  Humans go to war because of natural selection.

If that is the theory, it completely undermines any moral accountability for countries and their leaders.  Whenever the benefit exceeds the cost, a warlord is justified on evolutionary grounds for murdering fellow human beings.  Who is to say, “Thou shalt not”?  Who can question the actions of an impersonal, blind process like natural selection?  Look what Darwin wrote to his friend in that 1881 letter: “Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.”  He speaks it with utter moral coldness, as if that is the inevitable result of the mindless process he conceived.

The Western world is currently in an uproar over the barbaric actions of Muslim terrorists who post videos on social media of beheadings of innocent victims—and that’s just the tip of a huge iceberg of atrocities committed by their fellow Islamic radical groups: enslavement of girls, genocide of Christians, rockets attacks on peaceful cities.  You know how we could quickly shame the Darwin Party out of their undeserved popularity?  Have Wilson, Silk or the other Darwin apologists go on TV and tell the world that Muslim terrorism is an adaptive strategy of evolution.  It’s not  morally wrong; it’s just a way that Muslims’ selfish genes have determined a cost-benefit ratio in order to further their reproductive success in the face of limited resources.  Wouldn’t that be fun to watch!  We could put it on YouTube and Fave it all over Facebook.  We could call it our “adaptive strategy” to conquer the Darwin Party.  How could they complain?

Humans are responsible for the violence of apes.  This is a fallen world because of man’s sin.  The harmonious Garden of Eden that God made had no violence or death.  Once man turned his back on God, and asserted to himself the right to be his own lord, the Creator, in effect, said, “Fine: have it your way.”  He immediately judged man with pains and sorrows, and also removed part (not all) of His preserving control, letting the ecology and the land deteriorate.  Animals have “adapted” to new equilibria not from the bottom up, but from the top down: from holiness and harmony to the priority of surviving in a world of death and self-interest.  The “instinct software” embedded in animals was corrupted by Satan.  A world running by self-interest is like a robotic city hacked and run amok.  Thus, chimpanzees can be found at one moment cooperating to remove parasites from each other’s backs, and at another time fighting to the death.  They don’t know what they are doing, because they are not moral beings created in God’s image with the power of reason and moral choice.

Yet the robots still retain the marks of their intelligent design.  What’s amazing is that so many systems work at all; in His mercy, God “did not leave Himself without witness” in this sinful world (Acts 14:16-17).  He has kept alive enough marks of beauty and harmony so that man might long for a return to Eden.  The gateway back now is through the cross of Christ.  In the new creation, violence will be forgotten; there will be no more war, no more tears, no more sorrow—but an eternity of peace, truth and righteousness for those who have loved and trusted in His gracious provision for pardon and reconciliation.

The Christian worldview provides the grounds for condemning aggression and violence as unnatural evils contrary to God’s will.  The Christian worldview can also define just warfare by undergirding the moral responsibility for the righteous to protect the innocent and fight evil in self-defense.  It brings moral clarity.  If you want to maintain the evolutionary adaptationist view of war as described above (including all forms of violence, like premeditated murder, rape, the “knockout game,” bank robbery, carjacking, gang violence, and slavery, in addition to organized warfare and terrorism), have it your way.  Just don’t call it evil, and don’t pretend that your cause is righteous.  Those words are undefined in the Darwin Dictionary.






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  • rockyway says:

    – I don’t think it’s correct to call the killing of one chimp by another chimp murder. I don’t like using the same terms for human behavior and animal behavior, and although it’s often difficult to achieve, try my best to avoid doing so. (I don’t know if the authors of the paper used the word murder…. but various media outlets did.) What makes killing murder is the additional factor of human intelligence, intentionality, consciousness and conscience. Chimps do not possess a human conscience therefore we should not call what they do murder.

    – The fact only chimps engage in ‘murder’ should make us wonder if something anomalous is going on here. (We certainly don’t know if they engaged in this behavior in previous time periods… as the authors merely assume.)

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