Evolution is not just for Democrats

Reading the news these days, one might get the impression that evolution is just for Democrats, not Republicans. For example, in a recent (23 August 2011) post for the Washington Post, Richard Dawkins calls Republican Governor of Texas a “fool” and an “ignoramus” for expressing some doubts about evolution, and implies that these labels apply to anyone voting Republican.  The next day (24 August 2011), Ann Coulter published her own post, calling Richard Dawkins “retarded” and trotting out a series of tired old arguments against evolution.

Coulter is just plain wrong on evolution. At the same time, though, Dawkins is wrong to disparage the political opinions of people who happen to vote Republican.

Coulter is wrong about evolution in many ways. For example, she claims that if “Darwin were able to come back today and peer through a modern microscope to see the inner workings of a cell, he would instantly abandon his own theory.” Darwin, however, spent many years peering through microscopes at the inner workings of barnacles, and it was the fascinating complexity of their anatomy that deepened his understanding of evolution. Modern understanding of the inner workings of cells has further deepened scientific appreciation for how evolution works. The patterns of DNA encoded within each living cell have confirmed Darwin’s insight that every living thing on earth is part of one big family, the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life

Comparing the similarity of DNA sequences has revealed some interesting surprises – for example, humans and chimpanzees are closer kin than chimpanzees and gorillas, even though gorillas look basically like giant chimpanzees – but has also generally confirmed the big picture of the tree that would be expected from shared descent with modification: humans and chimps are twigs on the primate branch, sprouting from the mammalian limb, emerging from the great trunk of vertebrate life, which near the roots of the tree joins with other great trunks and side branches: fungi, plants, and a variety of different bacteria.

Similarly, Coulter brings out the old argument from probability theory, that “it is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum – forget the 200 parts of the cilum! – could all arise at once by random mutation.” But as Dawkins clearly explains in The Blind Watchmaker – which Coulter doesn’t seem to have read, or at least not understood – evolution doesn’t throw together everything at once. Evolution works with small gradual changes, building on what exists already. It would indeed be statistically highly improbable to throw even a small number of things together at random and have them work together at all, much less well. But evolution doesn’t do that. Instead, evolution blindly, mindlessly tinkers with what already exists, changing a little bit here and there at random, and then lets these different variants fight it out in the arena of natural selection.

Coulter has made a career of strident political writing, and while the tone of her piece may be more appealing to those who already agree with her than persuasive to her opponents, it is at least consistent with her genre. Richard Dawkins, however, is a scientist. Indeed, he is one of our clearest thinkers and writers on evolution. It is disappointing that he here conflates views on evolution – which he rightly calls a scientific fact – with views on politics – which are, after all, opinions.

We have abundant evidence from fossils, geology, genetics, molecular biology, physiology, development, biogeography, and numerous other fields of study that evolution has occurred and continues to occur all around us. In contrast, while political opinions bear some relation to facts, they nevertheless pertain mainly to matters about which people with intelligence, experience and expertise continue to debate vigorously. Political questions are generally much more complicated and harder to be sure of than questions in the natural sciences, and they often relate to values – what people care about – rather than things that can be objectively determined to be true or false. Many political questions concern economics – which is routinely insulted as “the dismal science” because economists have such a great diversity of opinions. And why is economic opinion diverse? Is it because economists are more stupid or quarrelsome than other academics? Or is it because economies are just incredibly complex and difficult to understand?

Contrary to what readers of Coulter and Dawkins might be led to believe, evolution is not just for Democrats. The scientific truth of evolution doesn’t depend on a person’s political affiliation. People with all sorts of different political views have made important contributions to evolutionary theory. The great population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane was an idealistic Marxist and from 1937 to1950 a member of the Communist Party. Haldane’s colleague Ronald Fisher, described by Dawkins as “the greatest biologist since Darwin,” was politically conservative. Nobody today much cares about Haldane’s or Fisher’s political views. It’s their scientific ideas that have survived the test of time.

Darwin’s own political views might be hard to categorize today, because political views change greatly over time. Darwin shared Lincoln’s exact birthday (February 12, 1809) and Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. Maybe, if Darwin had been American, he would have voted Republican. I don’t know. But we don’t remember Darwin for the stances he took on the pressing political issues of his day. We remember him for his idea of evolution by natural selection, which remains just as powerful today as it was 150 years ago, and will continue to be so 150 years from now, or 150 thousand years from how, when the political issues we care so much about today will long be forgotten.

Indeed, evolution by natural selection will necessarily occur wherever life exists in the universe. If intelligent beings exist on a planet orbiting, say, Alpha Centauri, we can be sure of two things: (i) life on their planet undergoes evolution by natural selection and (ii) the question of whether to vote Republican or Democrat will be entirely, er, alien to them.


A few minutes after we drove into Lake Itasca State Park, a large animal with glossy black fur crossed the road in front of us. Since we were in Minnesota, not Africa, I had to suppress my first impulse to think it might be a chimpanzee or gorilla, and decided it must be a black bear instead. The bear casually shuffled along, watching us indifferently as it crossed the road. As much as I enjoyed seeing the bear, it it did make me rethink my plans to go running through the park with the baby in the jogging stroller.

Visiting Minnesota’s first state park prompted many comparisons with Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where I have been doing fieldwork for much of the past 10 years.

In the early 19th Century, both parks were part of vast wilderness areas, still largely unexplored by Europeans. In both cases, English-speaking Europeans visited the area searching for the source of great rivers. Henry Schoolcraft determined that Itasca was the source of the Mississippi in 1832. Previous explorers had identified various other lakes as the Mississippi’s source, but Schoolcraft seems to have been the first to ask the locals for directions. Schoolcraft had learned to speak the Ojibwe language from his wife, Jane, and when he asked for directions, he had the good fortune to meet Ozaawindib, who hunted in the area and knew the lakes and rivers perfectly well, and agreed to show Schoolcraft the way.

Not long after, in 1858, Richard Burton became the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he claimed to be the source of the Nile. Had he arrived some 10 or 20 million years earlier, in the Miocene, he would have been correct. But since then, the Virunga Volcanoes had risen and blocked the flow to the Nile; now Tanganyika empties into the Congo River instead.

Being identified as the source of the Mississippi proved key to Itasca’s eventual protection as a state park. Gombe lacked such a geographical distinction, but had chimpanzees, which was enough to arouse interest in protecting the area.

While it was interesting to see the official source of the Mississippi (and fun floating down the infant river), the really striking thing about Itasca was the trees.

Red pines in Preacher's Grove, Itasca (http://www.flickr.com/photos/accousticjunkie/3905091331/)

It’s easy to feel a bit smug about forests in Minnesota. After all, forests still cover much of the state – quite a contrast to central Illinois, where I grew up, where hardly any of the original habitat (tallgrass prairie) remains. What Itasca makes clear, though, is that these forests are, by and large, scrubby remnants. When Europeans first came to Minnesota, the state’s vast pine forests boasted many giant pines, said to reach 200 feet tall.

In 1837, the Ojibwe signed the Treaty of St. Peters, trading millions of acres of land for a promise of government subsidies. Logging companies moved in fast, and within a single man’s lifespan, cut down pretty much all the trees worth cutting.

By the time Jacob Brower visited Itasca in 1888 to settle a surveying dispute, Itasca had one of the few significant patches of old growth pine forest left in the state. Brower lobbied to protect the pines, and as a result in 1891 Minnesota established its first state park at Itasca. So now we can get a glimpse of the forest that used to cover so much of the state: stately red and white pines, hundreds of years old. In a modest, Midwestern sort of way, these forests bring to mind the great Ponderosa Pines of Yosemite Valley – a far cry from the usual thick tangle of aspen, birch, and (compared to Itasca) gawky adolescent pines and spruces that cover so much of Minnesota today.

Minnesota has had some conservation successes. We have a healthy population of top carnivores: 3,000 wolves (the largest population in the lower 48 states), over 20,000 black bears, and occasional visits from cougars. Species that were nearly eliminated from the state, like bald eagles, wild turkeys, and peregrine falcons, have made impressive recoveries. But the great pine forests will take centuries to recover — if they ever do.

Does it matter whether people believe in evolution?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about politics and evolution. He asked, “Creationism is pretty harmless, though, right? It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”

I suppose for most people, the question “Do you believe in evolution?” seems to matter about as much as the question, “Do you believe in Bigfoot?” Bigfoot might be there, or he might not be, but whether he is or isn’t doesn’t make much difference in their lives. But even though most people may not think about this issue much, I think Creationism does hurt people, and in two main ways. First, evolutionary theory has many practical applications for all sorts of different topics: geology, medicine, agriculture, economics, advertising, mate choice, and pretty much anything else that has anything to do with biology. A proper understanding of evolution can help people make better decisions regarding all sorts of practical matters. Creationism hurts people by closing their minds to this useful information. Second, evolutionary theory opens the doors to a profound and beautiful view of the world. Creationism hurts people by robbing them of a deeper understanding of what the world is, and how it came to be.

By Creationism, I mean the belief that God created the world suddenly, pretty much as it is now, some time in the recent past. This is different from, say, theistic evolution, advocated by people like the great dinosaur scientist Robert Bakker (who apparently is also a Pentecostal preacher). Advocates of theistic evolution accept scientific evidence that the world is very old and has come into its present form through billions of years of gradual changes. (I’m not a religious person myself, but can see how theistic evolution would be an attractive and reasonable view for many people who are religious.)

As an example of where the practical and poetic sides of evolution meet, think of the southern shore of Lake Michigan, where the Indiana Toll Road passes through the huge industrial wastelands of Gary:US Steel plant in Garythe grim, depopulating city to the south, the smokestacks, blast furnaces, and slag heaps to the north, mile after mile of rustbelt ruins littering the shores of an inland sea. The steel industry made Gary a boomtown, and the industry’s decline has left it a husk. But some of the factories are still working, and they depend for their work on key three main ingredients: iron, coal, and limestone. Factories make steel by smelting iron in blast furnaces with coke (a purified form of coal) and limestone. The burning coke melts the iron and provides carbon, which combines with the iron to make steel. Limestone removes impurities from the iron, resulting in slag. Gary provides a convenient place for steel factories because it lies close to sources of coal (Illinois) and limestone (Indiana), and is connected by the Great Lakes to a major source of iron (Minnesota).

We owe coal, limestone and iron to three key evolutionary events: the invention of trees, shells, and plants.

Coal Forest Swamp. Used with permission of the artist, Richard Bizley (www.bizleyart.com)

The most recent of these is the invention of trees, which resulted in the formation of coal. The coal in Illinois formed during the Pennsylvanian period, just over 300 million years ago, when what is now Illinois was covered by vast, low-lying tropical rainforests. We know from fossils preserved in coalmines that these forests looked unlike any living forests. They had giant club mosses and tree ferns and all sorts of huge versions of plants that survive today only as small forms living in the shadows of more modern trees. These plants were able to grow so tall thanks to a newly evolved fiber, lignin, which they used to make strong, woody stems. In addition to helping the trees grow tall, lignin toughened their bark and protected them from insects, which could not digest the tough fiber. Neither could any of the bacteria or fungi that existed then. As a result, when these trees died, instead of rotting, they piled up and gradually turned into coal. As a result of all this accumulating carbon, the atmosphere developed a growing surplus of oxygen – which may explain the evolution of giant insects and other arthropods, including dragonflies with wingspans two feet wide and millipedes six feet long. Our very distant ancestors, early amphibians, crept and swam about in these swampy forests.

Living foram

The invention of shells occurred much earlier, shortly before the Cambrian period, which started around 543 million years ago. We don’t know much about life before the invention of shells, because animals without hard parts don’t fossilize very well. But once shells were invented, we get lots and lots of fossils – including huge beds of limestone, made almost entirely from the shells of tiny animals, especially foraminifera: single-celled amoebas that live in tiny shells called tests. Indiana limestone was laid down in the Mississippian period, around 335 million years ago. At the time, a vast shallow sea covered much of Indiana. As tiny marine organisms died, they rained down to the bottom of the sea, their shells contributing bit by bit to what would eventually become limestone.

The invention of plants – or more precisely, photosynthesis – occurred even earlier, and had a profound effect on life on earth. The first creatures to capture sunlight to make food were bacteria. Eventually some of these, such as blue-green algae, developed a method of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product. At the time, oxygen was poisonous to most living things. As the oxygen waste built up in the atmosphere, some species evolved ways to deal with the poison, but most went extinct, or survived as refugees in crannies hidden from the deadly air. As oxygen dissolved in the sea, it combined with iron compounds already dissolved in the water to make iron oxide (rust), which sank to the bottom and accumulated in layers on the sea floor. The resulting banded iron formations of the Minnesota Iron Ranges are thus the result of biological activity some 2,000 million years ago.

Abandoned iron mine outside Virginia, Minnesota

Evolution is not just some story. It’s the explanation for how we get iron, limestone and coal. Without an understanding of evolution, we wouldn’t know where to look for these minerals – or other fossil formations, like oil. Knowing about evolution helps us understand that our supply of these fossil resources, however large, is ultimately limited. And without the glacial lakes formed at the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, we would have a much harder time getting the iron from Duluth to Gary.

Why are Americans so religious?

At a conference in Germany a couple of years ago, a European colleague asked me, “Why are Americans so religious?”

This is a big puzzle for many Europeans. Only a few percent of people in France, Germany, and England attend church weekly. Most people in countries like France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark tell pollsters they don’t believe in God. A recent study of religion and wealth found that religious feeling was strongest in poor countries, like much of Africa, South America, South Asia and the Middle East, but weaker in rich countries, like most of Europe and Japan. Only a few outliers, like the United States and Kuwait, were both rich and religious. I told my colleague I thought it had something to do with state support for the church in Europe. In America there’s a free market for religion, so religions compete to attract members, but in Europe, many countries have state churches, which stifles competition. My colleague said this was an interesting idea, but that there wasn’t a state church in Germany, for example.

Since then, I’ve done a little more research on this. My colleague was technically right that Germany doesn’t have an official state church. But as a friend of mine who lives in Germany tells me, you do have to register with the state as a member of a church. You can register as a Catholic, or a Protestant, or a Jew (but not yet a Muslim, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or any other religion that doesn’t have official status). Your registration determines which religion classes your children attend at state schools. And when you pay your taxes, part of your taxes go towards the religious denomination for which you registered.

Other countries in Europe have similar systems, like the Church of Norway, the Church of Sweden, and so on. There’s lots of variation among countries – like the Church of England, which is an official state church, headed by the monarch, but which doesn’t receive direct financial support from the government. But insofar as churches are supported through taxes, rather than through the collection plate, the producer of the product – religious services, aid and comfort to members, and the like – depends on consumers only in an indirect, government mediated way. There’s no pressure to make services more interesting, satisfying, or enjoyable for people – and so people turn away from them in droves.

Looking again at the map of wealth and religious belief: most of the countries that are low on religious belief either have a history in which the state ruthlessly suppressed all the competitors for an official atheistic state religion (e.g., former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, revolutionary France), or are countries with some version of a state church.

And this is not a new idea. Back in 2003, the New York Times ran a story with this quote:

“”Monopolies damage religion,” said Massimo Introvigne, the director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin and a proponent of the relatively new theory of religious economy. ”In a free market, people get more interested in the product. It is true for religion just as it is true for cars.””

Because there’s a vibrant free market for religion in America, religions have evolved rapidly to accommodate people’s varied and changing tastes. Numerous new denominations have either originated in America, or flourished as transplants from a hostile Old Country: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Jedis, Pastafarians, and many more. There are denominations for everyone – conservatives, moderates, liberals, young-earth creationists, evolutionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and pagans. As Garrison Keillor says, “My people were Puritans who came to American in the late Seventeenth Century. They came to America in hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law.”

Ironically, it’s this vigorous state of cultural evolution that promotes the development of churches that preach against the idea of biological evolution. But it also promotes churches that respond well to what people want – and which therefore flourish and grow. We’ve got churches where they play Bach on pipe organs and sing old hymns in four-part harmony, and churches with electric guitar bands and praise choirs, and everything in between and beyond.

Tom Lehrer addressed this back in 1965. Discussing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he says, “I feel that if they really want to sell the product, in this secular age, what they ought to do is to redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms.” He then proceeds to sing his “modest example,” the Vatican Rag.

(As with so many things, what was parody in 1965 has now simply come to pass.)

With this in mind, some advice for those lobbying for more government support for religion in America (which usually means support for their own favorite brand): Be careful what you wish for. Such support is not only bad for religious freedom; it will ultimately stifle and distort whichever denominations get the support.

Hyenas can count

A new study in press at Animal Behaviour shows that hyenas can count. This study builds on work done in other animals, including work that I did on chimpanzees, and finds similar results: animals that fight in groups don’t like to pick fights if they seem to be outnumbered.

Game theory predicts that animals should use numerical assessment when deciding whether to get into a fight with a rival group. You generally don’t want to fight you can’t win. I found this to be the case with chimpanzees, and other studies have found this to be the case for lions and howler monkeys too. Game theory predicts that hyenas should do this too.

To test this prediction, Sarah Benson-Amram and others on Kay Holekamp‘s research team at Michigan State University did playback experiments with hyenas at Masai Mara in Kenya. A write-up of this study in Nature discusses how a particularly nice feature of this study is the way they set up the experimental stimuli. Previous studies have simulated larger groups by playing back recordings of multiple individuals calling at once. This is, in fact, what often happens in the wild – members of groups of lions, chimpanzees, howler monkeys, wolves, hyenas and such often call at the same time, probably to announce to the world that they are in a big group, so watch out. But experimentally, this raises the question of whether the animals are responding to the number of individuals, or just the total amount of noise in the vocalization. This study very elegantly disentangles these variables by always playing three non-overlapping whoops in each playback. In the single-intruder playback, the three whoops are by one individual. In the three-intruder playback, the three whoops are by three different individuals. And on hearing these playbacks, the hyenas responded differently to whoops by different individuals. When they heard the same individual calling repeatedly, their vigilance response decreased. But when they heard a new individual calling, they looked longer at the speaker.

So for hyenas to respond differently to the different numbers of callers, they have to be keeping track of the different individuals that call. This is trickier than simply distinguishing between a single caller and a chorus of callers – but it makes sense that hyenas should be able to do this, since their livelihoods depend on defending group territories and keeping track of how many rivals they face, even if they’re not all calling at once.

This method has the happy byproduct of also demonstrating that hyenas can tell individuals apart from their calls. It makes sense that they should be able to do this – but it’s nice to have experimental support for this prediction.

Will the New Atheism Save us from Jihad?

In March 2009, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the University of Minnesota on “The Purpose of Purpose.” I was eager to see him talk, as I greatly admire Dawkins’ writings on biology, and assign his work as readings for my classes. Most of his talk, though, turned out to be an attack on religion, with many references to 9/11. The main message seemed to be: religion is a menace to humanity, it motivates people to do horrible things to one another, and we would all be better off without it.

It was only when I saw this talk that I really understood how much the flurry of so-called New Atheist books – The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2005), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2007); god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007), and Dawkins’s own book, The God Delusion (2008) – owed their inspiration to 9/11. Okay, so maybe I’m a little slow to catch on – but not being a religious person myself, reading these books seemed a bit like, er, preaching to the choir, so I haven’t done so yet. But the main point that Dawkins made, and what I suppose motivates these other books, is this: we were attacked by crazy religious fanatics, and the best way to fight back is to attack the root of the problem: belief in God. As Victor Stegnor (author of The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009)) quips: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

So, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, maybe this is a good time to ask the question: will the New Atheism save us from jihad? My guess is: it probably won’t. And why not?

Well, for one, the audience for these books – educated people in rich countries, especially the United States and Europe – doesn’t really include the people who want to fly planes into our buildings. The chances seem pretty slim that someone like Osama bin Laden would pick up The God Delusion, give it an open-minded read through, and end up saying, “Oh, well, I guess he’s right. There is no God and no eternal paradise waiting for martyrs, so I should really just give up the jihad.” Even if all the educated people in rich countries stopped believing in God tomorrow, there would still be a world full of people who believed fervently in their own Gods, and in the righteousness of their own struggles.

Second, it seems at best an incomplete explanation to say that religion is what inspired the 9/11 attackers, and the rest of Al Qaeda, and their hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban. Yes, they are all Muslims – but so are about 1.5 billion other people in the world. Why does this particular small group of people interpret Islam in such a way that it motivates them to attack us? What does Al Qaeda want?

According to Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda (2002): “the ultimate aim is to reestablish the Caliphate—the empire of Islam’s early golden age—and thereby empower a formidable array of truly Islamic states to wage war on the United States and its allies.” 1

But what are they really fighting over? What was so great about the Caliphate? What did bin Laden and his allies think they would gain from its restoration?

There were a number of Caliphates. An especially impressive one, the Umayyad Caliphate, was  huge. By 750 AD, it stretched from Spain to Pakistan, and included much or all of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and others. Surely there’s a huge amount of historical pride and longing for this vast empire, and dreams of what could be done if all these lands united and used their oil wealth to achieve some grand unified aim.

And what would that aim be? I don’t pretend to know for sure. But I think we can get some clues from how the Taliban ruled when they were in power, and the laws they enforce where they have regained power. Many of the laws most harshly imposed by the Taliban had to do with restricting the freedom of women. For example, a decree from 1996 states:

“Women you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics and appearing in front of every men before the coming of Islam.”

And it goes on and on like that. There are also decrees against kite flying, pigeon keeping, beard cutting, music, gambling and narcotics, but the main thing at stake seems to be the rights of women. Al Qaeda and the Taliban hate the West, not so much because the West is Christian, but because in the West women have rights and independence. Bin Laden had five or six wives, and fathered twenty to twenty-six children with them. The West represents a threat to traditional patriarchy and male power and control of women and their reproduction. Whether or not people in the West believe in God or not, Western values like equal rights for men and women represent a threat to the polygynous tribal patriarchy that greatly benefits high-ranking men like bin Laden.

It seems like a better bet for beating the jihad is to support the momentum of the Arab Spring. I don’t think the average person in the former lands of the Caliphate really wants the Caliphate back. That would just give all the power to the despots with their harems. Instead – if what the newspapers have reported about the protesters on the streets of Egypt and Libya and Syria is any indication – what the average person wants is the chance to get a job, to earn a decent living, to be able to afford to marry, have children, and live a quiet, peaceful life with freedom, dignity, and little risk of getting blown up by crazy people. According to The Atlantic, the rebels fighting in Libya love Western bands, including Pink Floyd. Maybe they share the postwar dream that Roger Waters sings about in the Pink Floyd song, The Gunner’s Dream:

A place to stay
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what’s more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.

If basic political and economic reforms succeed in giving people a reasonable chance at such a life, I don’t think it will matter much what their particular religious views are. Nobody will bother with jihad.

Xenophobia and Immigration

A few years back, during a family visit to northern Minnesota, we came across the Hibbing Ethnic Festival. My brother-in-law, who lived in California, thought this was hilarious, as Hibbing is about 97% white.

“What ethic diversity?” he asked. “Swedes AND Norwegians?”

And sure enough, the Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Welsh, Cornish, and other people that immigrated into Hibbing and other Iron Range towns were pretty much all pale-skinned Europeans. But they were not yet White. They were members of mutually hostile tribes. They spoke different languages, had different customs, different churches, and maintained deep suspicions towards one another.

Mom’s maternal grandparents were Swedish and Norwegian. At the time, this was a mixed marriage. Now we have a hard time remembering who was the Swede and who was the Norwegian. But at the time it was a big deal. And their daughter, my Grandma, once told me that in high school there was a boy who was allowed to come visit with her on the porch, but he was not allowed inside the house, because he was a Finn.

Nowadays, I think the Swedes and Norwegians and even the Finns get along just fine up on the Iron Range – and many of them are so intermarried through so many generations that ethnicity is just something to remember at the Ethnic Festival, if they still have it, when they need to decide who bakes the pasties, and who brings the lutefisk.

And we have such a universally favorable opinion now of the Norwegians – with their fjords and nice sweaters – that the news of the recent shooting just seemed unbelievable. We’ve grown used to Americans doing that sort of thing, but Norwegians?

The shooter, Anders Breivik, apparently thought that he was providing a wake-up call to save Norwegians and other Europeans from cultural and demographic suicide. According to his manifesto, he believes that Norway is being overrun with foreigners, many of them Muslim.

As part of an effort to understand why people can have such hostility to outsiders, Rhitu Chatterjee from PRI’s The World interviewed me, Frans de Waal, and Samuel Bowles about the evolutionary roots of xenophobia (fear of strangers). In this story, I get quoted mainly talking about the nasty side of chimpanzees, while the others get quoted talking about how nice bonobos and humans can be. Which I suppose is fine, since much of my work focuses on how and why chimpanzees can be so nasty to each other. But now that I have a blog, I can add a few of my own words about how and why people are different from chimpanzees.

Male chimpanzees spend their whole lives in the same community. They never leave their territory, which may cover 5 to 25 or more square kilometers (something like 2 to 10 square miles). They are perfectly capable of walking further than that, but in a world of chimpanzees, you can only go so far before running into another community’s territory.

Chimpanzees live in a zero-sum world. The only way they can get more stuff is by taking it from others. Their food supply depends on their territory. If they want more food, they have to take more territory from their neighbors. And if a male were to immigrate into another community, he would have nothing to offer the resident males. He would just be another competitor in the mating game – and even worse, he would be an unrelated competitor. If you’re a chimpanzee competing for mates against your father or brother or half-brother or cousin, it’s not so bad if you lose, because you share some of your genes with your kin, and those will get passed on. But losing to a stranger? That’s a total loss.

Humans, in contrast, have created a world that’s not zero-sum. When we meet strangers, we don’t have to knock them over the head and take their stuff to benefit from them. Instead, we can trade with them, to our mutual benefit. Even better, if we trade with someone this year instead of knocking him over the head, he might come back next year with more stuff that we want. We can also benefit from immigrants. When my great-great grandfather Anton came over from Sweden, the resident males in northern Minnesota didn’t gang up on him and kill him. Instead, they hired him to work in the iron mine. There were already lots of people living in the United States when Anton immigrated, but there weren’t enough of them willing to live up north and do the difficult, dangerous work of iron mining. So the mine owners, and the steel workers, and the people who used steel for their farm tools and anything else, all benefited from these immigrants. And it was dangerous – Anton died in the mine a month before his thirty-third birthday, when a block of stone fell on his head, leaving behind a young widow with a baby boy.

In the late 1800s, Norway and Sweden were poor countries with rapidly growing populations, and many people left for the US, where they and their descendents lost their tribal identities and became Americans. Now Norway and Sweden are rich, with slowly growing and rapidly aging populations. These countries need immigrants, and the immigrants are coming in from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States has its share of ethnic conflict and resentment towards immigrants.  But it’s even trickier for the European countries. Being American depends on citizenship, not ethnicity. But in Europe, following the fall of empires and the rise of democracy, national boundaries were drawn around ethno-linguistic groups. It’s going to be a challenge for countries based mainly on old tribal boundaries to absorb these new immigrants. But with an aging, low fertility population, an increasing number of new immigrants will be needed to keep the European economies going. And as long as the countries to the south and east of Europe have growing populations and few job prospects at home, there will be lots of people knocking at the door.

But the amazing thing, from the perspective of a chimpanzee, is that people do this at all.

Rehabilitating “Monkey”

Think of a monkey.

What do you see?

I bet that most people picture a chimpanzee, most likely a juvenile chimpanzee, like Curious George (who in the books is always called a monkey). Even though adult chimpanzees look rather like small gorillas – they walk on all fours, they are nearly as big as people, and they are tremendously strong – most people seem to think of chimps as “cute little monkeys.” The monkeys in a Barrel of Monkeys are chimps. Do a Google Images search for “monkey” and you will get some pictures of proper monkeys, but you will also get lots of chimps.

Anyone who knows something about primates, though, knows that chimpanzees are not monkeys. They are apes. And what are apes? They are a group of primates from the Old World (Africa and Eurasia) that don’t have tails. There used to be many more species of them, millions of years ago, but now we just have twenty-odd species, most of which are different kinds of gibbons, plus siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans.

For many years, people used the word “ape” to mean the group of Old World primates that didn’t have tails, but that weren’t humans: that is, all of the apes except us.

More recently, biologists have argued that when we classify living things, we should use only monophyletic groups: groups in which all members are descendents of a common ancestor. Since humans evolved from apes, then, strictly speaking, we are apes.

So what about monkeys? If the term “monkey” does not include the apes, then it is no longer a monophyletic group. A good monophyletic group should include all of the descendents of a common ancestor. In the jargon of taxonomy, Old World monkeys and apes are classified together as Catarrhines (“downward noses”), while monkeys from the New World (North and South America) are classified as Platyrhines (“flat noses”). These are good monophyletic groups. But nobody uses jargon like this in ordinary language. If we translate these terms into ordinary language, we get Old World monkeys (which, to be monophyletic, must include the apes) and New World monkeys. So apes are all monkeys. Which makes you and me monkeys. And any man whose siblings have reproduced is a monkey’s uncle.

So I suggest that we rehabilitate the word “monkey” as a perfectly good word to use in describing chimpanzees and all the other apes, including us. Apes are just one particular branch of the monkey family tree.

When I discussed this in class this spring, one of my students complained that officially classifying apes as monkeys would rob him of the pleasure of correcting strangers at the zoo when they go around calling gorillas and orangutans “monkeys.” To me, though, this seems like a happy case in which ordinary language fits perfectly well with good biology.

This doesn’t always have to be the case. I expect it will take people a while longer to get used to the idea that birds are dinosaurs, and that, monophyletically speaking, we are all fish.