Age of Wonder: Mistaken ideas about Darwinism

Notes and video from the keynote that science writer and paleontologist Richard Fortey gave at the Age of Wonder festival in Eindhoven a few weeks ago.


Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten


The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

The paleontologist’s talk was titled Four billion years of life on earth: what should it teach mankind? It was my favourite moment in a festival that impressed me with the way it mixed disciplines, old technologies and innovation, science fiction and pure science, reflections about the ecological-humans” and artistic experiments. Like most people who had a chance to be there, i do hope we’ll get to live more “ages of wonder.” But i digress. Fortey talked about Darwin and how his theories have been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify the practices of some capitalist business models. It started with his unconventional (that was his word) ideas about the history of life on earth and ended with comments on the soft drink industry.

But here is the official blurb:

Fortey believes that the natural progress of evolution is always towards greater richness, and that this is the way our planet is meant to be when Darwinian evolution is allowed to play out naturally. Mistaken ideas about Darwinism have contributed to a view of human life that diminishes rather than enhances richness, particularly in the Weltanschauung of market capitalism.


Trilobite fossil. Photo by James L. Amos

The video of his talk is below but since i had already typed my notes from Fortey’s presentation before the video was uploaded, i thought i’d just leave them on this page in case you’re interested in checking out some links. Besides, my pictures of dinosaurs are way nicer than his.

Age of Wonder – Keynote Richard Fortey from Baltan Laboratories on Vimeo.

For most of his working life Richard Fortey was employed in the Natural History Museum in London. His research has long focused on trilobites, a fossil group of extinct arthropods (joint legged animals) that were around for at least 250 million years. These marine creatures present the first really well preserved eyes in the fossil record . They evolved into all sorts of ecological niches and are a paradigm in miniature for evolution as a whole. (cf his book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution)

Charles Darwin’s seminal work on evolutionary biology served as a backdrop of Fortey’s presentation.

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On The Origin of Species (Flickr/apsmuseum, via rnw)

The full title of Darwin’s book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life but its meaning and essence has often been replaced in popular imagination by the punchier formula “the survival of the fittest”. That wasn’t Darwin’s phrase. It was introduced in a text book about biology by Herbert Spencer 5 years after the publication of the Origin of Species but it was adopted as an instant description of how evolution works. In some ways this simplification has had some unfortunate consequences. For example, it leads to the idea of progression, with each stage being an advance on and eliminating the previous one.

Referring to the previous evening’s talk about Super Intelligence, Fortey said that if we followed this Survival of the Fittest eationale then the supercomputers, which will soon equal then surpass and eventually make obsolete human intelligence, are the next step in this logical progression.

The first part of his talk took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of life to illustrate progression.

If you want to see a living image of what the pre-Cambrian world looked like towards beginning of the origin of life, you have to go to Shark Bay, Western Australia where stromatolites still live. They look like rocks but are actually living communities of blue green bacteria. They are preserved in this area of Australia thanks to some very peculiar ecological conditions (the place is very hot and not pleasant) which have kept away all the animals that have evolved after the pre-Cambrian.


Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. Photo via all that is interesting

The Stromatolite photos is a snapshot of life 2.5 billion years ago.

Life existed before that. We know that at least by 3.5 billion years ago, living cells were already reproducing. We can find them as fossils but they are very rare and the ones we find from 2.5 billion years ago look very much like these stromatolites. Some of the fossils look like living blue green algae. It’s very hard to tell the differences in some cases between the fossils and the ones still living.

Stromatolites are very simple organisms but they have one important property for the history of the planet: they photosynthesise, they exhale oxygen, making life on earth possible for us. When life first appeared on Earth, the planet was very unwelcoming to life. Its atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide and probably also poisonous gases and nitrogen. It had very little oxygen, if any. It’s the activity over billions of years of these algae, these blue green bacteria that transformed the atmosphere into something that animals could subsequently breathe. Some of the very early organisms that existed before that and would this die in the presence of oxygen are still with us, living in crevices around the world. They never went away but the oxygen-loving organisms took over.

We can fast-forward to when organisms with organized nuclei appeared. And then to about 1.3 billion years ago when the first sexually differentiated organisms are found in the fossil record. Once you differentiate the sexes, you get more possibilities of cross-breeding and more possibilities of variations and inherited variations which obviously ups the whole evolutionary stakes. So far, we’ve been talking about progression, even in quite a simple way.

About 540 million years ago we arrive at the base of the Cambrian period and that’s when trilobites appear in the fossil record. Trilobites are far more complicated organisms that anything we’ve seen before. Trilobites themselves are no more, they died out about 250 000 million years ago. These were animals with hard parts, they had the first toughened exoskeletons. We found trilobites with bite marks on them which brings us to another step in this history of the evolution of complexity as these marks show there were predators around of the time. Most of the earlier organisms were minutes. Trilobites can fit comfortably into the palm of a man’s hand. Which means that at the base of the Cambrian animals got large, they are distinctly animals and some of them got hard parts, skeletons.

Alongside the trilobites were other fossils. For example the Burgess shale in Canada which didn’t have hard parts but was soft-bodied. Soft bodied organisms are harder to preserve. Aysheaia, for example, was one of these soft bodied Cambrian organisms and it is clearly related to the still living velvet worm.


Aysheaia pedunculata (image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History


Velvet Worm. Image Natural History Museum

In fact, most of the living of the largest groups of the animals that we know today had their first representatives in the Cambrian period. Around 542 million years ago, took place the so-called Cambrian explosion which saw evolution work very fast and produce designs which are still with us today.

Life so far was fully marine but it eventually found its way onto land. Of course, each of these evolutions made for a new ecology and that’s progression two.


A thallose liverwort, Lunularia cruciata

The ancestors of nowadays’ Liverworts left water and crawled over the surface of wet mud. Their green pads were photosynthesizing and releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere and as that happened it made it more suitable for animals to follow them onto the land. Now when you go onto land, you open up other possibilities for evolution, which gives way to a new eco-system.

The next stage were organisms moving upwards (to get more light and thus take over your neighbours.)

These animals and plants are not just fossils, they are still with us so the first qualification to the idea of progression is that when organisms evolve to the next stage, they don’t die out, they are still with us, they have a niche that enables them to survive. The simple idea of progression of organism giving rise to another which outcompetes and eventually replaces it and so on is not an adequate description of what is happening in the world. Live moves on but the history is retained.

Fortey further explored this idea in his book Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind.

The next stage is to support that photosynthesizing column and carry it upwards to make a tree.

The animals shortly followed the plants. The first ones were tiny insect relatives and then creatures that eat insects and ultimately our first distant ancestors, the first quadrupeds who came from their fishy relatives and set foot onto land. One of these fishy relatives is still living today: it’s the Australian lungfish.


Australian lungfish, Basle Zoo. Photo via zoochat

This lungfish is recognized by both zoologist and DNA studies as a close relative to our other relative that came out from the sea onto land. Some time during the Devonian period more than 400 million years ago, it came out onto land. Until recently, paleontologists were looking for a ‘missing link’, for the fossil of a fishy type of creature with a fin that looked like a hand.

They eventually found this missing link. It’s the Tiktaalik, a creature with a complex series of bones bones in the feet, half way between a fin and a hand. The early creatures that came to land actually had 6 or 7 digits, not 5.


Tiktaalik Roseae (image guardian liberty voice)

We now have an ecological structure that you might recognize today: prey, predators, low and tall plants, etc. So far, it all sounds rather linear.

Fast forward to the age of the dinosaurs, the terrestrial animals continue to evolve and get larger. The botanical situation at the time was similar to today’s except that there were no flowering plants. Some of those dinosaurs were covered in small feathers, even tyranosaurus rex had fuzzy feathers. One group of these dinosaurs went on to give rise to the birds which evolved together with and from the dinosaurs but didn’t die out with them. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, small insect-eating mammals gave life to large herbivorous & carnivorous mammals that preyed on them. e.g. bison, a survivor from the last Ice Age.


Feathered dinosaurs. Image credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/Dr Brian Choo (via Wired)

The final step is an animal that is a mammal that has consciousness and high intelligence. And so we have a rather linear progression that goes from the first cell to the intelligent human being. Could the next stage be the supercomputer that takes the brain element further into its next stage? Maybe… but that wouldn’t be an adequate description of what evolution really does.

However, it not simply an upward story. The history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions when hundreds, sometimes millions of species became extinct within a short period of time.

The so-called K-T event, for example, brought about the demise of the dinosaurs and many other organisms. But there were other mass extinctions. One of them at least took place at the end of the Permian period, and it was even more extreme.

Survival then might have been lottery or maybe the surviving species had some quality that you didn’t now you possessed but came useful when crisis arose and got you through. There was an element of serendipity in the organism that passed through.

The K-T event took out dinosaurs and other organisms in the sea. It reset life and gave the mammals a chance to evolve into the forms we have today.


Planet Dinosaur. Image BBC

Throughout the history of life, brain power did increase in general. Metabolic rate also increased between the reptiles and the mammals. There is thus a progressive aspect in spite of these interruptions. The biggest interruption was the end of the Permian period (about 250 million years ago) when all the continents were united and the ocean went seriously anoxic. There was a violent eruption of volcanic gas in what is now Siberia. It produced the biggest extinction the world has seen. 90% of species probably disappeared. e.g. the ammonites.

These extinction events reset the clock and give survivors the chance to re-evolve, to regenerate ecologies. Every time a mass extinction has intervened, evolution has filled up the gap afterwards, often with a very rapid period of evolution where the ecology reasserts itself. It is a very neglected fact about the history of life. A couple of examples: the coral reef which is often taken as a paradigm for biologically varied communities. The reef habitat goes back past 4 mass extinctions. At each stage, the reefs died out completely, but shortly afterwards they re-evolved which means that evolution rapidly fills all the niches.

Another example is the woodland found in the south of England (and elsewhere in the world) with trees, plants and ferns. This particular structure has evolved from the coal forests of the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago that ultimately produced coal deposits. The structure of those forest is not so different from the ones we have today and it is extremely species-rich but not as species rich as today’s tropical forest, the richest habitat on earth.

You could replicate his argument with most of the major habitats on earth: they are very rich in species and after an extinction event, they ‘restock’ and become rich in species again. Now how does that not seem to fit in the account of the survival of the fittest? if one species is particularly good, it outcompetes the other so you would expect much more of a one species takes all situation but when natural evolution is allowed to play out, it goes for extremely species rich environment.

Each of these extinction events allows life to replay itself in a sense and it replays itself always towards biodiversity and large numbers of species, not the dominance of one or two. The end product of evolution as it really works is thus a huge, incomparable diversity of organisms on the planet.


Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Scientists tend to avoid imputing human or moral values to their work. Fortey, however, added moral value to his ideas by saying that biodiversity is the way the world is supposed to be and not the dominance of one or two species.

Some people say that we are now in a period when we are decimating the biodiversity of the planet, we are putting species extinct very fast or at least reducing their numbers to almost zoological garden proportions. Fortey’s feeling as a biologist is that this is morally wrong. Extinction does happen naturally but if we can say as a precept that the state of nature as it should be is one that maximizes its richness, then you have a moral ground for saying what we are doing to the planet is wrong. The right state of the world is a rich one and we are going against it.

Geerat J. Vermeij, in his book Evolution and Escalation. An Ecological History of Life pointed out that much of this richness is generated by antagonism between prey species and the predators. The prey evolves by developing new techniques to defend itself.

Summary of richness and its implications. What does richness mean?
– it’s the end result of natural selection operating through geological time
– it’s a combination of biodiversity, ecological specialization and geological sensitivity
– it’s the state to which evolution leads if left to play under natural circumstances
– it’s the way the natural world is and should be
– it’s nothing like the human world produced by unfettered capitalism or by the controlled ‘command economy’ of communism regimes.

We humans are just another species and perhaps our human society should also regard richness as a desirable end.

The misapplication of Darwinism or when the ‘survival of the fittest’ is misapplied in the wrong situation (the ‘winner takes all’ justification):

The Market is just another example of Darwinism in action. These days in the UK we keep hearing statements describing the Market as if it were a Darwinistic phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher talking about market forces said ‘there is no alternative.’ Even the corporate business model for the market uses the language of natural selection. Trawling through the newspapers, Fortey found example of this: we must adapt or die, we mustn’t be dinosaurs, competition is threatening our market niche, it’s a jungle out there, there will be a Starbucks on ever street corner, etc.


The County Butchers in Cornwall has added wild grey squirrel onto its list of game. Photo: Adam Gerrar/ SWNS via The Guardian

How did it get there? The model in the business man’s mind is something like what has happened to our squirrel population. The South of England used to be inhabited by a population of red squirrels. Then came ‘the American invader’, the grey squirrel. It is clever, more aggressive, and brings with it a nasty disease. It is a much more successful animal. This kind of model is “the model takes all” model which lies behind this interpretation of the Darwinian process as applied to a lot of human activity.

For Fortey, this is a violation of the principle of richness. The good state is one of proliferation of many product and places to make life as rich as possible.

The end of product of the capitalism is nearly always very similar to the case of the grey squirrel: you get a reduction in richness. In capitalism, however, you often end up with a duopoly of two companies with very similar products that have eaten up other companies and then have to sell one another on superficial differences.

Coca-cola bottles from around the world present subtle differences that reflect the local brands that the Coca-cola corporation has replaced over the years. If you look at the whole Pepsi vs Coca Cola line of products, you will find that these mega soft drink companies offer some one to one correspondences. For example, sprite and seven up are virtually identical. The main difference is the amount they spend in advertising.

The wine industry is the opposite. It’s the coral reef of the supermarket. There are infinite varieties of wines to choose from. Many were produced by small business. These are species actively evolving, which adds to richness.

Fortey’s idea wasn’t about anti-capitalism but about how capitalism could also result in creativeness, innovation, variety.

Does this have any use?
It is wrong for human beings to make species extinct. The world will become a less rich place if we carry on as we do.

7 billion people on Earth, that’s too many and if we need to feed them with shrinking resources, then how are we going to build super computers to take us to the stars?

Is it too Utopian? Almost certainly yes.


The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Previous posts about the festival: “Volta”, the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.

There are more images on flickr and videos on Vimeo.
Image on the homepage via Earth Times.