The University Record, January 30, 1995

Alexander’s lecture on evolution of arts draws large crowd

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, Prof. Richard D. Alexander believes that those who appreciate the arts possess “social cleverness”–perhaps the primary criterion of overall fitness.

“Both performers and appreciators of performances are really favoring elements that reflect underlying social cleverness,” Alexander told a room-in-the-aisles-only crowd at LS&A’s 19th Distinguished Senior Faculty Lecture at Rackham Amphitheater last week.

Alexander, the Theodore H. Hubbell Distinguished University Professor of Evolutionary Biology and director and curator of insects at the Museum of Zoology, said that the recent evolution of humans has been driven by social selection rather than natural selection.

“They pushed natural selection back. They have become involved in social selection in almost all their activities, and have made social cleverness the prime target of social selection.”

Alexander said that an organism’s overall fitness is determined by the genes that enable social cleverness.

“I think it’s a growing opinion that the human brain evolved not to solve the math problems on I.Q. tests or any such thing, but as an instrument of social cleverness, as a social tool,” he said.

Humans, he said, have been effective in muting the significance of Darwin’s hostile forces of nature— parasites, predators, pathogens, food shortages, climate and weather.

Instead, humans have become their own principal hostile force of nature, an idea he first espoused in the 1960s, Alexander added.

“Humans have extinguished their predators in most parts of the world,” he said. “They’ve domesticated animals and plants, and raised their own food to get around shortages. They’ve built shelters and manufactured clothing to ward off weather problems. They even have multiple means of reducing the significance of parasites and pathogens.

“They’ve accomplished these things, moreover, as a consequence of the kind of cooperative sociality that should have begun in other conflicts and then become involved in human competition itself.

“In other words,” Alexander said, “humans have created the circumstance in which social selection became, literally, the important vehicle in directing their evolution.”