Evolution: The Hidden Thread


by John Davy



Anyone who studies Rudolf Steiner's teachings will soon realise that the descriptions he gives of the way man has evolved are not easy to reconcile with the descriptions given by modern science. The purpose of this article is to try and indicate how some of the difficulties may be resolved.

When Darwin was born, the idea of evolution was already percolating, so to speak, into men's minds. Darwin's great achievement was to put forward a theory to explain evolution, and to collect a vast number of facts to back it up. He suggested that evolution could be brought about by 'natural selection'. That is, any variations in the 'normal' displayed by an animal would confer on it either advantage or a disadvantage in the 'struggle for existence'. Animals with advantageous variations would be more likely to survive and to pass on their advantages to their offspring. They would, in other words, be 'selected', and an accumulation of such advantageous characters, in the course of generations, would, Dar win supposed, eventually produce new species.

In Darwin's day, very little was known about the 'fossil record', and Darwin thought that the present-day higher animals must have descended from animals very like the present-day lower ones. As paleontology developed, however, it became clear that in the past many kinds of animals, now extinct, had flourished. Also, the fossil record seemed to confirm Darwin' s suggestion, which caused such a furor at the time, that man is descended from the higher animals - for if the fossil record is traced back a point is reached where human remains no longer appear, while further back still there are no mammal, no reptile, no amphibian, and finally no fish remains.




Towards the end of the nineteenth century the work of Mendel was rediscovered, and the science of genetics began to develop. It became clear that variations could arise from genetic mutations - changes in the 'genes' which are regarded as the bearers of inherited characteristics - and that these variations could be handed on intact to the descendants. For some years genetical theory proved not altogether easy to reconcile with the idea of gradual evolutionary change caused by natural selection. In 1930, however, R.A. Fisher published The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In its way, this book was almost as much of a milestone as Darwin's Origin of Species. Fisher showed how apparently insignificant mutations could confer a selective advantage if the 'selection pressure', even though very slight indeed, continued over long stretches of geological time. (Selection pressure is the term used to describe the 'pressure' of the environment on the animal which produces natural selection). Such apparently insignificant selective advantages, he showed, were sufficient to account for the formation of new species, for the development of new sub-groups, and even for the most improbable adaptations such as are described in every 'wonders of nature' book.

Fisher's work, which in recent years has been much supported and extended in great detail by such scientists as HJ. Mueller, B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, involves a lot of difficult statistical mathematics. Indeed, the whole of modern genetical theory is so complex that it cannot be discussed here. Three points will be enough.

First, Fisher describes natural selection as 'a mechanism for generating an exceedingly high degree of improbability'. His theory thus effectively undermines the empirical argument that the odds against evolution having occurred 'by chance' are almost inconceivably great.

Second, present-day ideas about the scale of geological time give ample scope for the slow speed of evolution demanded by Fisher's theory.

Finally, it is worth remembering that while the theory is extremely consistent and convincing - it has certainly convinced over 99% of the biologists who have studied it - it is, and must remain a theory. Like a newly invented kind of mathematics, it could correspond to a reality, but it need not if there seems to be sufficient reason to look for an alternative.

The modern theory of evolution is thus a formidable and coherent structure, which is being continually backed up by work in many branches of science. Nevertheless, some of the adaptations and patterns of behaviour found in the animal kingdom are so extraordinary that non-scientists often feel that to explain their evolution merely through the action of natural selection on chance variations is far-fetched - and that there must therefore be something wrong with the theory. However, it is important to understand the scientist’s attitude to this kind of objection. Hardly any scientists now doubt that modern evolutionary theory is broadly correct, and it would not normally occur to them to regard for instance, the social organisation of the ants or the extraordinary nest-building behaviour of many birds as a challenge to the theory. Rather, such phenomena are regarded as a challenge to the ingenuity of the biologist in thinking of a way in which such phenomena could have evolved gradually, through variation and selection during stretches of geological time measured in millions of years. Indeed, in more cases than the layman often realises, very plausible evolutionary schemes for many 'wonders of nature' have been worked out, and there seems to be a priori reason why similar schemes should not be worked out for others. The basic idea that even the most extraordinary specialised adaptations develop from an interaction between the organism and the environment is, I think fundamentally sound - although, as some modern work in genetics and embryology is beginning to indicate, the interaction may not be quite as simple as the classical Darwinian picture has it.


* * *


At this stage, one might reasonably ask why, if the generally accepted theory of evolution appears so convincing and watertight, one should need to take account of Rudolf Steiner's differing views?

There are two reasons. The first is simply that there are, nevertheless, certain aspects of the modern theory which present some fundamental difficulties. But the second reason is more important.

Evolutionary theory is, in the last analysis, nothing more than a certain interpretation of the facts. With the help of Rudolf Steiner's work, one can interpret the same facts quite otherwise. Such an interpretation leaves room for man to be understood as something more than simply a higher animal, and for the evolutionary process to be understood as something more than the operation of chance. Let us now take a closer look at some of the facts.

The hardest facts, so to speak, of evolution, are the fossils of the fossil record. How are these fossils distributed through the strata? In the Paleozoic strata, for instance, fish and plant remains of all kind abound. Reptile remains are particularly abundant in the Mesozoic. Mammals dominate the Tertiary strata. But what is especially characteristic is that well-defined groups of animals tend to appear comparatively suddenly in the record, to flourish for a while, developing in the process all kinds of variations and specialisations of their basic form, and then to die out.

For instance, the reptiles which begin to appear in the fossil record at the beginning of the Mesozoic, gradually become very abundant, and a process called 'adaptive radiation' begins. That is, the 'basic' reptile type splits up into more specialised types adapted to particular modes of life - crawling reptiles, running reptiles, swimming reptiles, flying reptiles, carnivorous reptiles. It is as though all kinds of complicated variations on a theme were being elaborated. At the end of the Mesozoic virtually the whole vast and varied group dies out, and mammal fossils begin to appear, gradually becoming in their turn the dominant group. This process repeats itself, on a larger or smaller scale, throughout the fossil record.

Here we meet a real difficulty in modern evolutionary theory. The later representatives of most groups of animals in the fossil record are extremely specialised. On the other hand, the early representatives of a new group are generally relatively unspecialised. It is very difficult to see how the specialised animals of one group could have given rise to the unspecialised animals of the next group up the evolutionary scale. What is more, even the unspecialised early representatives of a group often seem, on closer exanimation, to be already too specialised to be direct ancestors of a higher group.




This is a very real problem, and modern biology is well aware of it. It is not simply that real fossil 'links' between most of the main groups of animals are lacking. A major obstacle is the difficulty of imagining how animals could get out of their specialised ruts, in order to give rise to higher animals. In a recent essay entitled The Evolutionary Process [ 1], Dr. Julian Huxley writes:

"Thus one result of specialised improvement is an eventual restriction of any further improvement. In addition, high specialisation for one mode of life restricts the possibilities of switching over to another . . . .Specialisation thus almost invariably forces organisms into a deepening evolutionary groove out of which it is increasingly impossible for them to climb."

One interesting suggestion for avoiding this dilemma is elaborated in an essay in the same volume, called Escape from Specialisation, by A.C. Hardy. He summons to his aid a phenomenon called 'neoteny'. Neoteny is the process whereby a larval or embryonic form, which may itself undergo evolution and develop special features independent of the adult, becomes sexually mature and able to reproduce itself. The most often quoted example of neoteny is the Axolotl, which is found in Mexico, has external gills, and lives in the water. But it is also identical, except for its sexual maturity, with the larval stage of the North American Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, which lives on dry land and breathes with its lungs. What is more, the Axolotl can be experimentally induced to postpone sexual maturity, develop further, and become a North American Salamander.

This phenomenon makes it possible to conceive of an animal escaping from a specialised groove by means of a pre-adult stage; during this it would develop certain evolutionary novelties and then, after becoming sexually mature through neoteny, it would give rise to a new race, less specialised, and with new opportunities for adaptive radiation.

Dr. Hardy ends his essay thus:

"However specialised a race of animals may have become in its typical adult condition, provided it has a less or differently specialised young or larval form (which naturally will be well-adapted to its particular way of living), and has a gene-complex which may sooner or later produce neoteny, then, given sufficient time, it stands a chance of escape from its path to extinction. In the great majority of stocks the end must come before this rare opportunity can intervene, but in a very small minority, the chances come earlier, before it is too late, and such lines are switched to new pathways, with fresh possibilities of adaptive radiation . . . Rare as they may be, these escapes from specialisation seem likely to have provided some of the more fundamental innovations in the course of evolution."

This picture of evolution is in many respects considerably different from Darwin's. The idea of natural selection, originally invoked as a process to explain the progressive evolution of more and more higher types of animals, now seems to be playing the opposite role of a process which tends to lead animals to extinction when they become too specialised. Invoking neoteny as a means of escape from this impasse makes it necessary to picture the actual ancestors of the major groups of animals, and presumably also of man, as having certain larval or embryo-like qualities.

Neoteny is thus now considered by many biologists to be the means by which evolutionary progress has ultimately been possible. But what is actually meant by 'evolutionary progress'? For many years science has been groping for a clear answer to this question. Do the terms 'higher' and 'lower', as applied to animals, really mean anything? Mere complexity is no final criterion - is a man more or less complex than a leopard or a beetle? There is no real answer.

Huxley, in the essay quoted above, considers this question, but reaches only a rather nebulous conclusion. "Biological progress," he says, "consists in biological improvements which permit or facilitate further improvements ... It is the process by which 'higher' types come into being, the process operating in the succession of dominant types, the process by which the upper level of improvement or biological achievement has been steadily raised during geological time."




But there is a particular characteristic of ‘biological progress' which has not yet been granted any fundamental evolutionary significance. This is that if, broadly speaking, the panorama of animals from the 'lowest' to the 'highest' types is considered, animals can be seen to have become progressively les s dependent on their environment.

To take only the vertebrate group, the fish, for example, is dependent on a watery environment to bear it up, but reptiles and mammals can support themselves with their limbs by their own efforts. Reptiles' bodies, however, remain at much the same temperature as that of their environment, whereas mammals can maintain an even body temperature, independent, within certain limits, of the temperature of their surroundings. Young mammals develop, to begin with, inside the bodies of their parents, thus becoming independent of the external environment during their early stages.

This process can be followed through the animal kingdom, even into anatomical details where it is reflected as a kind of individualisation and consolidation of organs. Here, again, this process is evident even within the vertebrate group where the basic structure is relatively similar in the various types.

Compare the circulatory system of the fish with its mammalian counterpart, where the heart is divided into four chambers, and the circulation to the lungs is independent of the circulation to the body. The fish’s head is fused to its trunk, whereas in higher animals the head has much greater independence of movement, and the jaw is an independent grinding apparatus instead of simply a kind of door into the mouth. The eyes of the fish are more or less static 'windows' - in the higher animals they are much more active and mobile. The fish’s sense of hearing is spread out over its body in the lateral line system, and is barely distinguishable from a sense of touch or pressure. The bones of some of the gill arches of the fish are metamorphosed, in higher animals, into the ossicles of the highly independent and specialised organ, the ear.

The final and most dramatic effect of this process is man’s upright posture. In this way, head, arms and hands achieve a certain emancipation from the environment. They are not forced to function in such close connection with the earth as are the front legs and snouts of animals. The head can, as it were, sit back and think. The hands are freed from the limited function of helping to move the body from place to place.


A Counter-force


There is a clear connection between the ideas of emancipation from the environment and of neoteny, in that neoteny produces an animal which is less specialised, and hence able to live in a more generalised environment. Both a neotenous and an 'emancipated' animal would be less dependent on a specialised environment for survival. The distinction between the two concepts is that while neoteny is assumed to have occurred repeatedly for many groups of animals, emancipation seems to have been a process operating steadily all the time. What the relationship between the two actually is will emerge in due course.

Emancipation clearly provides a kind of counter-force to natural selection. The tendency of natural selection is to edge the organism into an ever narrower and more specialised environment, to make it increasingly dependent on a special combination of external circumstances, to bind it more strongly to the earth. Emancipation works in the opposite direction.

Why, then, do adaptive radiation and specialisation play so important a role in modern evolutionary theory, while the polar concept of emancipation from the environment does not? There are two reasons. First, adaptation and selection can be observed actually happening - Darwin collected many examples - whereas emancipation, having occurred gradually throughout the course of evolution, is harder to define and identify.[ 2] Secondly, whereas a 'natural' explanation for adaptive radiation is available in the idea of natural selection, there is no really satisfactory corresponding explanation for emancipation. The tendency therefore is to assume that it has not really occurred, at any rate in any consistent way. But one can find an explanation in Rudolf Steiner's teachings.

It is curious that while science postulates all kind of unobservable entities to explain, in particular, atomic and sub-atomic phenomena, it shies away in alarm if asked to postulate supersensible spiritual entities to explain other phenomena. Yet Rudolf Steiner asks, to begin with, little more than science asks of itself - namely that his descriptions of events and beings in a spiritual world, not immediately accessible to the senses, should at first be neither accepted nor rejected, but tried out, by considering them side by side with natural phenomena to see if they are mutually illuminating. Accordingly, if we are prepared to examine some of the things Rudolf Steiner says about the spiritual aspect of the evolution of the world and man, the phenomenon of emancipation begins to fall into place, and the fossil record, the concept of neoteny, and the relation of man to the animal kingdom appear in a new light.


Descent into Matter


What distinguishes man from animals, Dr. Steiner says, is his possession of Ego. This is a spiritual entity, man's ultimate spiritual individuality, which lives in each human being. What we dimly experience as the central 'personality' of a person is the reflection of his Ego. In order to live on earth, the Ego must have a suitable physical vehicle - the human body. This vehicle had to develop gradually, over a long period of time. Evolution is really the story of the gradual descent of the Ego into matter, and of the gradual development of a physical body capable of containing it. The only physical form in which the Ego can express itself freely, into which it can descend completely, is the human form. What, therefore, is the connection between the animal forms preserved in the fossil record and the evolution of the human body? Modern science accepts that the majority of known fossils are already so specialised that they represent evolutionary dead-ends. At the origin of each major fossil group, therefore, an unspecialised neotenous form, which has left no fossil trace, has to be postulated.

This implies that neoteny must have occurred repeatedly - i.e., that each neotenous form is related to the next one up the scale only via a more specialised form which then at some stage undergoes neoteny. The problems involved in this rather unlikely sounding process disappear if we turn the whole concept the other way round. That is, we consider the series of unspecialised forms, (which science postulates but which do not appear in the fossil record), not as the outcome of repeated neoteny, but as a continuous evolutionary line, from which the specialised fossil groups have developed by branching off at various stages.

This raises a fresh difficulty - that in order to remain unspecialised, this 'embryonal' line must have somehow avoided being subject to 'selection pressure' from the environment. At the same time, it must have remained constantly subject to the emancipation process described above, since new specialised fossil groups appear at a higher stage of emancipation than their predecessors.

This difficulty is resolved if we recognise that this line of embryonal forms really represents the stages through which the human body has evolved.  In the emancipation process, cosmic spiritual forces can be seen at work preparing a vehicle for the human Ego, the principle of independent individuality.

A more dynamic picture of evolution here begins to emerge, with the Ego principle gradually wresting a suitable physical vehicle from out of the grip of earthly forces. Neoteny is no longer required to account for the avoidance of specialisation, and indeed it is evident that science has introduced this concept largely in order to be able to explain the existence of an 'embryonal line' of evolution - which the fossil facts themselves demand - without having to admit into its picture of evolution any guiding process other than natural selection.

However, it is not easy to imagine this process of the gradual incarnation of the Ego clearly unless one associates with it a conception which modern science must inevitably find very hard to accept. All modern theories of evolution are based on the assumption that physical conditions in the past were essentially the same as they are now, and that physical laws known to be true now can be extrapolated backwards indefinitely. According to Rudolf Steiner, this is not so. Both physical substances and the laws which govern them, have themselves undergone evolution.

We must imagine, Dr. Steiner says, that before the beginning of the earth's evolution, substance itself existed in a purely spiritual condition. The first 'physical' manifestation was a kind of subtle interplay of states of warmth. Later, a gaseous, airy state was reached; then a vaporous, watery condition. Not until solid substance began to appear did geology begin, so to speak. But the particular characteristic of this process is that the earth must be imagined as a great living organism. All substance was more alive than it is today, and the 'dead' minerals we are now familiar with should be imagined as having been deposited gradually within the living earth, in the same sort of way that mineral bone is deposited in the developing embryo. When solid substance first appeared, says Dr. Steiner, it assumed horny, waxy, colloidal and jelly-like forms. .

This makes it easier to imagine the sort of conditions under which the 'embryonal line', the human body-form, must have developed. They must have been in a certain way similar to the conditions under which embryos develop today: in the embryo even bone, the most mineral part of the adult organism, is alive and cartilagenous.

One can therefore picture the animal kingdom as having arisen through a kind of series of premature births of the living form which eventually developed into the present human body. An Ego which did not resist the pull of the physical forces of the earth for long enough, so to speak, would find its half-formed physical vehicle becoming bound too tightly to the physical environment, developing specialised forms and becoming irretrievably mineralised and rigid. Such an Ego would have lost the chance of fashioning a physical vehicle into which it could descend completely. The result would be an animal form.

Thus, when fossil fish appear in the fossil record, this is indeed a sign that the human germ was at that time passing through a 'fishlike' stage. But an idea of what this germ was actually like can be formed only by imagining what the embryo of the fossil fish must have been like. The adult is already too specialised and hardened in a particular direction.


Haeckel's Law


Modem science has recognised this indirectly in the way it now interprets Haeckel's famous 'biogenetic law'. Haeckel suggested that 'ontogeny repeats phylogeny' - i.e. that in its embryological development an animal repeats, in a modified and condensed form, its evolutionary history. This used to be taken to mean that the fishlike stage in human embryology, for instance, when the embryo possesses gill-pouches, represents a 'repetition' of an adult fish ancestor. Modern embryology, however, has realised that this stage of the human embryo is really comparable only to an embryonic stage of a fish, not to the adult stage. In an excellent critique of the 'biogenetic law', Professor G. de Beer writes in this connection: 'All that can be said is that the fish preserves and elaborates its gill-slits, while reptiles, birds and mammals do not preserve them as such, but convert them into other structures such as the eustachian tube, tonsils, and the thymus glands.' [ 3]

However, in the light of Dr. Steiner's teachings we can take Haeckel's law almost literally. For the embryonic development of man really does reveal his evolutionary history much more accurately than does the line of fossil animals, for in it is reflected the 'embryonal line' of evolution which gave me to the animal fossils.


The Other Thread


Seen in the light of Rudolf Steiner's teachings, therefore, it becomes clear that modem biology has so far confined itself to studying only one of the two threads of evolution - that thread which is visible in the process of adaptive radiation, and in the development of specialisations. The forces of the environment which give rise to natural selection, and the forces of genetics which bind the organism to the earth and maintain a physical continuity from generation to generation, represent forces of the earth. But modern evolutionary theory is coming to need more and more an understanding of the cosmic, heavenly, forces which have worked down into substance to fashion a vehicle for the Ego of man.

As it stands at present, the theory is really half a theory, since it can explain man only as the highest of the animals. Rudolf Steiner’s work makes it possible to make the theory whole, and to begin to understand man as a being who is, at the same time, the 'lowest of the Angels'. Darwin's book, The Descent of Man, although what it is really concerned with is the ascent of man's body, is well-named, since the story of the evolution of man is the story of the descent of a spiritual being on to the earth. The animals represent beings which have descended too soon and too far - and perhaps the most tragic of all animals are the apes and monkeys, which descended just too soon to become men.

Among the multitude of spiritual beings which comprise the spiritual worlds, Rudolf Steiner sometimes described the human ego as a Spirit of Freedom. Man, he also once said, is not yet free, but he is on the way to freedom. The first task of the human Ego was to evolve a body in which freedom could be achieved - and this is what lies behind the process of emancipation, which from the physical point of view culminates in the form of the human body, as described earlier in this article.

It is interesting to find that modern biologists have realised something of the same kind - that man is in a unique position on the earth. He has reached a position in which he is not the passive subject of external forces, but in which he can take his future in his own hands, and mould his own environment. In the essay already cited, Julian Huxley writes:

'The present situation represents a ... highly remarkable point in the development of our planet - the critical point in which the evolutionary process, as now embodied in man, has for the first time become aware of itself ... and has a dawning realisation of the possibilities of its future guidance or control. In other words, evolution is on the verge of becoming internalised, conscious, and self-directing.'

The 'highly remarkable point' mentioned by Huxley is surprisingly similar to that often described by Rudolf Steiner from many different points of view - namely, that the human Ego is now beginning to be able to exercise control over evolution, working in full consciousness within the body.

The future course of evolution will thus be directly affected by the ideas man holds about his own nature and about the evolutionary process. If he remains conscious only of one of the two threads of evolution, if he persists in seeing himself as primarily a higher animal, he will shape his life and his society accordingly. But if he allows his ideas to be fructified by Anthroposophy, so that he becomes conscious of the other, cosmic-spiritual aspect of evolution and of his own nature, he will understand that his task is to carry the spirit into matter and transform it.



[1] Included in Evolution as a Process, a collection of essays by various authors (Allen & Unwin, 1954)

[2] Perhaps the best-known example of natural selection in action today is 'industrial melanism'. In the past hundred years, black or dark forms of several moths have spread and become increasingly common in manufacturing districts of England and Germany, while their 'normal' varieties have become increasingly rare. All these moths have a habit of settling on exposed places such as the trunks of trees, so that the dark varieties are almost invisible on the soot-blackened tree-trunks in industrial areas. Moreover, they appear also to be generally tougher and better able to survive the dirty air and vegetation of their environment. The detailed genetics of industrial melanism is still a subject of discussion and experiment by entomologists, but there is no doubt that its rapid spread is correlated with the blackening and pollution of the landscape. In country areas, the dark varieties are still fairly rare. See E.B. Ford, Moths (Collins, New Naturalist Series, 1955)

[3] Embryos and Ancestors (Oxford University Press, 1952)

John Davy, O.B.E., M.A. (1927-1984), was co-director of Emerson College, Forest Row, England, and had particular responsibility for the foundation year program, a requirement for the Waldorf teacher training. He was also an international lecturer and chairman of the Anthroposophical Society of Great Britain. After studying zoology at Cambridge, he became science editor of the Observer in London. He was awarded the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in 1965 by Queen Elizabeth II for his achievements in writing on science.

This article was first published in "The Golden Blade", London, 1956.

The sequel to this article will appear in the next issue of SCR.