Darwin’s use of “use” and “disuse” (Part 3)

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 8-Jan-2017, was originally published by the author, Tom Clark, on Science Dialogues on 14-Mar-2015.

DARWIN IS CREDITED with dethroning humans from their special place between animals and angels. As Copernicus had done astronomically, so had Darwin biologically.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Montana. http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/blm_programs/whb.Par.0228.Image.198.149.1.gif

But Darwin achieved continuity of humans with animals as much by humanizing animals as shrinking humans. Resisting “the too-ready ascription of action to instinct” (Beer 2009: 242-255), Darwin imagined that horses “admired a wide prospect,” baboons had “capacious hearts,” earthworms made aesthetic choices, and snails showed “some degree of permanent attachment.” He did not imagine that biology could benefit, as physics had, by abandoning animism, animals being so . . . animistic.

It was the neo-Darwinian assumption that genes and environments were sufficient causes of animals’ behavior that turned natural selection from an animate doing into a physical happening. Attributing behavior to stable causes both inside (molecules) and outside (environment) turned animals into spectators, along for the ride. Their mental lives were made redundant in the British sense of unemployed. (Compare John and Gabriel Terrell’s thoughts about self-generated, stimulus-independent, internally directed thought in their March 3 post Thinking about Thinking 2. Through the Looking Glass.)

Misreading Darwin’s use of use and disuse as simply Lamarckian enabled the neo-Darwinian demotion of both humans and animals, as meaningful roles for ancestors and Gods were, like baby and bathwater, summarily thrown out.

The word purpose is singularly inapplicable to evolutionary change … If an organism is well adapted … this is not due to any purpose of its ancestors or of an outside agency, such as “Nature” or “God” … (Mayr 1961: 1504).

The purposeful activities of ancestors were not final or ultimate causes. They were some among many causes. Yet they were bundled with God’s finality and dismissed. In the last paragraph of Origin of Species (Darwin 1860: 490) between his “entangled bank” metaphor and the poetic “endless forms most beautiful,” Darwin summarized the key elements of his theory. Two have been pushed to the edges of mainstream evolutionary thought, the ultimate activities of “the Creator” and the contingent activities of ancestors—”use and disuse.”

In the margins of an article by Wallace, Darwin wrote “use of moral qualities” (Greene 1981: 102), telegraphing a view of our moral origins that insinuated these dignifying lines of descent:

  • Life is inherently autonomous.
  • Autonomy has evolved (Rosslenbroich 2014).
  • Nervous systems support flexible, adaptive responding.
  • Vertebrates specialized in intention, allowing metabolic support for increasingly larger brains (Wrangham 2009).
  • Birds and mammals made relationships vital heritable resources (Kemp 2006), expanding autonomy by cooperating in relationships of secure dependence and interdependence.
  • Humans extended these achievements with ethics (Boehm 2012) and friendship (Terrell 2015).

The twentieth century dethroning of humanity carried out in Darwin’s name clipped human dignity more than Darwin intended. The following affirmations return to the evolutionary image of ourselves buds of autonomy and responsibility that Darwin was careful to leave on our family tree.

affirmWhen we consider the evolutionary role of animal behavior—or as we also say, ancestors’ activities—scientific theory becomes human nature mythology, the telling of which must be recognized as a moral act (Bock 1994: 8). The moral significance of our origin story hits home with the realization that how we tell this story can leverage or constrain personal and collective action toward sustainability (Clark and Clark 2012), peace and justice (Chorover 1979; Oyama 2000; Novoa and Levine 2010).

The sense we make of ourselves and each other shapes who we become, including our capacities for learning, cooperation and self-regulation. “Knowing” that intelligence is fixed inhibits learning (Blackwell et al. 2007). “Knowing” that personality attributes are inherited impels hasty negative judgments of others, foreclosing opportunities for constructive encounter (Dweck 2000). “Knowing” that free will is illusory engenders cheating (Vohs and Schooler 2008) and aggression (Baumeister et al. 2009). “Knowing” that humans are selfish by nature favors policies that crowd out reciprocity and trust, inducing selfish behavior (Bowles 2008). And “knowing” that metabolism is natural while intention remains a supernatural specter (Mayr 1982) hedges responsibility for our extended metabolism—energy consumption—compromising our ability to regulate our own inventions.

Knowing there is a choice to make and it matters what we choose to do prepares us for wising up to shared responsibilities and cooperating in the good use of resources.

Biologists rightly argue that a clear understanding of our evolutionary past must inform our plans for a sustainable future (Vermeij 2010: 253). Explaining the evolution of sighted animals as a blind process blinkers our understanding of the past, so also our outlook. Envisioning and motivating sustainable living is better served by an origin story that includes the vision and intentions of ancestors.

Evolution is not only what happened to our ancestors while they were busy making other plans. Ancestors did not plan our evolution, but their plans, successful or not, with consequences intended or not, were part of the story.

In the way he used use and disuse, Darwin recognized our ancestors’ part in how we came to be and our part in resolving where we go from here. By affirming our autonomy and interdependence, Darwin’s origin story also demands of us continued use of our moral imaginations.


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Beer, G. (2009). Darwin’s Plots (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackwell, L. S., K. H. Trzesniewski, and C. S. Dweck (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development 78: 246–263.

Bock, K. (1994). Human Nature Mythology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Boehm, C. (2012). Moral Origins. New York: Basic Books.

Bowles, S. (2008). Policies designed for self-interested citizens may undermine ‘the moral sentiments’: evidence from economic experiments. Science 320: 94–112.

Chorover, S. L. (1979). From Genesis to Genocide. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Clark, T. and E. Clark (2012). Participation in evolution and sustainability. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37: 563–577.

Darwin, C. R. (1860). On the Origin of Species (2d ed.). In J. van Wyhe, ed., 2002 The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online(http://darwin-online.org.uk).

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self Theories. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Greene, J. C. (1981). Science, Ideology, and World View. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kemp, T. S. (2006). The origin of mammalian endothermy: A paradigm for the evolution of complex biological structure. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 147: 473–488.

Mayr E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science 134, 3489: 1501–1506.

Mayr E. (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Novoa, A. and A. Levine (2010). From Man to Ape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. (2014). On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Terrell, J. E. (2015). A Talent for Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vermeij G. J. (2010). The Evolutionary World. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Vohs, K. D. and J. W. Schooler (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science 19: 49–54.

Wrangham, R. (2009). Catching Fire. New York: Basic Books.

Tom Clark

As a psychologist, I have been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since my graduate training at the University of South Florida.



© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.



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