Evolutionary Primer

Here we detail the natural elements of evolution, not for the sake of biology but rather as an intellectual framework to apply to other phenomena (ideas, culture, trends, technology, whatever you like).

It’s foolish to analyze anything statically, systems are dynamic. Let's give a succinct example:

Suppose you wish to analyze something arbitrary: like work culture:

why do we work 9 am-5 pm 5 days a week?

Where does this come from? A naive, static investigation would explain how it fits into contemporary society well, or that it’s a natural structure inherited for its optimality. An Evolutionary explanation would, instead, go far beyond this, & investigate how work schedules have oscillated throughout history & converged to some stable state. It would give insight into how widely this structure varies across cultures: from work-a-holic china to blasé, lackluster, Bali. It would examine how this structure is indicative of the values of a society: how we measure success undoubtedly plays a role; or how other ‘unrelated’ advancements have changed work-culture like the invention of electricity allowing people to work late nights & shift us from an hour-based to an output-based labour market & how new advanced continue to do so (zoom call me later?).

A trivial example, nonetheless the point being you cannot study things in isolation: context is everything, & pressures (as in what moves things in a certain direction) are equally imperative. The evolutionary pressures in this example are things like ‘what do people want out for a work-life balance?’, what is the society's ideas of success’?, ‘how does work change with the invent of new technology?’, or ‘how rich is society’. Apply to whatever you like: this serves as a precursor to a bigger project I’m doing: investigating the origins of Religion & God.

Things only make sense in the context under which they originate — as a consequence, things are only truly understood in contrast with its history, competitors, era & general environment. Evolutionary thinking is also in thinking about converging to an optimum, survival of the fitness (& broader selection mechanisms) are applicable to so much more than biology: trends, cultures, social norms, ideas, innovations & yes, religion. Agents are inseparable from their environments.

Below is a framework for thinking like an evolutionary biologist: to use outside of biology :).

Darwinian Evolution

The logic of Darwinian evolution is based on a few simple components:

  1. Traits can be heritable (passed successively over generations).
  2. There is variability amongst traits.
  3. Some versions of traits are more adaptive than others (better suited to the environment).
  4. Mutations occur that can produce massive changes.

One can then readily apply this framework to reason about genetics & evolution, but also to other concepts, like culture. Consider how culture is inherited differs across groups (exhibits variability/mutations) & adapts over time (how different cultures changes/thrives/struggles from one generation to the next).

Animal Behaviour

The currently accepted theory is that animals behave to pass on as many copies of their genes as they can.

This affords us a conceptual framework to think about animal behaviour in terms of maximizing reproduction success. Here are the selection mechanisms understood in nature, that accurately inform a lot about what we know of animal behaviour:

Natural Selection: refers to the process by which organisms better adapted to an environment are more likely to survive & reproduce.

Sexual Selection: a trait need not necessarily be adaptive to survive & be passed on. Traits are also selected by sheer preference. If females prefer a certain ‘look’ in males, that trait will be selected regardless of its implications of the species adaptiveness. These mechanisms can, in fact, appose one each other, for example, female fish may prefer a male with brighter colours, the same bright colours may make it more likely that the male is eaten by a preditor.

Kin Selection: “I will gladly lay down my life for 2 brothers or 8 cousins”. Animals act to maximize passing on their genes. Genes are shared across family/kin & as such animals would benefit from their kin reproducing. Interestingly, in nature, we observe the degree to which animals will sacrifice themselves for their kin is directly proportional to the percentage of genes shared (50% shared with siblings, 12.5% shared with cousins). Thus cooperation among relatives is favourable.

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Stable situations often occur in nature whereby populations regulate themselves because as a collective they benefit from this stalemate. For example, animal A won’t kill animal B because animal B kills animal C which is a danger to animal A.

Cooperation: Where Rock-Paper-Scissors describes a stalemate, cooperation often emerges in non-threatening settings — simply because it’s often the case that more can be achieved through cooperation.

This lends itself to cheating & freeriding, which are as important in the animal kingdom as they are contemporary human life: a wealth of literature explains results where animals hold grudges, take revenge on behalf of themselves or their kin, or ultimately behave in a tit-for-tat manner: often characterized by Game-Theoretic results.

All of this leads to a final, imperative, notion of governing animal behaviour: Reciprocal Altruism.

Reciprocal Altruism + Selfish Genes

So if we consider the above one would quickly note that by this framework, that there is no true altruism in nature. So why is it then, we observe so much altruism in human society? Richard Dawkins — a global authority on the matter — suggests it’s a byproduct of our evolutionary track, before exploring this idea we need to introduce a final notion of selection.

Group Selection: Often critiqued with a controversial history, there is some evidence evolutionary process can select on the group level (a fundamental premise on our exploration of evolving theology). This — termed group selection — refers to situations in which an individual could be worse off individually but better off as a group. As an illustration: consider aggressive vs docile chickens. Aggressive roosters might be able to dominate docile roosters, increasing their ability to reproduce, in groups, however, docile roosters may fare better: as large groups of aggressive roosters may cause great impedance on the success of the group due to its violent tendencies whereas the docile group may cooperate more readily & thrive as a consequence.

Group selection provides another explanation by which altruistic behaviour could emerge in a population — one that isn’t necessary selfish on genetic level but rather on the collective level. Again one can easily extrapolate & abstract these ideas to a societal level.

Important to note, although this framework dictates that genes are selfish, that says nothing of the selfishness or selflessness of the individuals who carry those genes.

Group Dynamics, Warfare & Cooperation

Evolutionary mechanisms are undoubtedly premised on scarcity — in a world of abundance evolutionary pressures bare no consequence. Though this premise is seen most readily on the microlevel (whereby organisms compete for food, reproduction rights, group authority & so on), it is readily extrapolated to the micro — where groups compete on a larger scale, enter: warfare.

In-group vs out-group dynamics define so much animal behaviour. Them vs us. Seen eternally in nature, Robert Sapolsky explains: there’s nothing my scary than when a group of males start getting on a bit too well.

Chimpanzees are known to turn kinship driven altruism into war. Groups of relatives will collective sabotage & attack other groups of males — this fits quite snuggly into the definition of genocide. In nature, however, this seldom goes beyond direct relatives. In humans? The logic extrapolates.

Human’s take in-group out-group to a whole other level. Tribalism, war, racism — all stem from them vs us thinking.

One can consider organized, large scale conflict a byproduct of cooperation: for between groups to fight in a dangerous way, within-groups need to work effectively & be well organized. Groups learn to cooperate to confront the ‘other’. Thus the same mechanism: reciprocal altruism, kin selection & group selection; bread both cooperative & competitive dynamics between groups.

In-group out-group behaviour governs so much of the rich & violent history of the human race. Though it’s themes are far from antiquated. Creating a brotherhood is an effective military strategy: most military training is effective because it creates an unassailable brotherly bond (we’re no different from the chimps at war). The same elements are at play sports teams, boarding schools & a myriad of other subcultures.

One element is missing on the human scale: purpose. No other animal has the cognitive capacity to question the why of life. If we stip away the multi-dimensional convoluted subjective meaning of the word, & simply focus on a core element of purpose that‘s important to our consideration:

A key component in finding purpose is the ability to act for the greater good. Self-sacrifice for the prosperity of some collective wellbeing.

Before examining Religion from this perspective, we ought to consider some flaw in the evolutionary doctrine that we are readily susceptible to.

Critiques of the Evolutionary Doctrine

The deeper we traverse into evolutionary theory the more alluring the temptation to simply classify all natural phenomena as a byproduct of these systems. Here are some of the ways in which they break down or are taken out of context:


Firstly, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, biologists & geneticist cannot find a coherent corollary of inheritance. Evolutionary biologists often conclude that some behaviour is inherited though geneticists are unsatisfied without seeing a link to a gene.


Not all that we see is adaptive, some of which is selected by sheer, irrational, preference. Others are simple a byproduct of other phenomena. Consider spandrels:

Spandrels are an important part of architecture, but often aren’t a consequence of design for some greater purpose. They are simply inevitable when arches are brought together, nonetheless, they’re bound to be decorating. Much of evolution is analogous to spandrels, evolution is a tinkerer, things come about as a byproduct of other things. Evolution is riddled with spandrels.


The final consideration is that of gradualism. Many evolutionary processes operate on some step function under conditions of stress, not simply gradual incremental changes, this is directly applicable to our case.

Next Step

Now utilize this by applying this way of reasoning to your favourite idealogy, culture, movement, fashion, system, technology, whatever you like.





Statistician, scientist, technologist — writing about stats, data science, math, philosophy, poetry & any other flavours that occupy my mind. Get in touch

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Zach Wolpe

Zach Wolpe

Statistician, scientist, technologist — writing about stats, data science, math, philosophy, poetry & any other flavours that occupy my mind. Get in touch

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