On the His Dark Materials series

A New Eve

By Dave Hodgson

Alongside the adventures, the love story, the battles and the fantasy, His Dark Materials holds a crucial prophecy: Lyra is to become the new Eve. This Eve’s purpose is not made fully clear, except that she should restore the Dust and begin to build a “Republic of Heaven.” But how will the members of this new republic behave? Like the previous regent of heaven who kept his predecessor alive in a box and those who endeavoured to destroy Dust, calling it “sin”? Clearly not. In fiction it’s easy to delineate between good and evil. At the end of The Amber Spyglass we’re left with the confidence that if Lyra succeeds she will begin a new direction for Homo sapiens: a new lifestyle that better values biodiversity, that harvests resources more sustainably and that acts unselfishly for the benefit of others.

With these optimistic thoughts we can all retire to our normal lives, do what we can to help the planet, sponsor an elephant calf, recycle milk cartons or help old ladies cross the road. But to settle down and wait for a sustainable future to evolve ignores some quite depressing scientific issues. Despite our best intentions we are, by evolutionary design, very selfish creatures. The logic of natural selection, the mechanism for evolutionary change that dominates modern biological thinking, shatters any illusion that we may easily transform ourselves into selfless creatures. Natural selection pays no heed to long-term stability, to caring and sharing, to selfless acts of altruism, to the “rights” of other organisms to exist. Instead, evolution is all “Me! Me! Me!,” and often even more selfish than that. No matter how “nice” and “careful” Lyra is, a new republic based on altruism and prudence will FAIL.

Or will it?

But first, a short refresher on natural selection and evolution. Evolution is simply change through time, the observation that living things have changed and evolved over time. Natural selection provides the mechanism of that change. Evolution through natural selection emerges from consideration of two basic facts of nature:

First, all organisms tend to produce far more offspring than will make it to adulthood. And of those that do make it adulthood, not all will successfully find a mate and reproduce.

Second, there is a significant amount of variation within any species, much of which is genetically based and passed on from generation to generation. This variation plays a large role in determining which organisms survive and which do not.

Combine these ideas and the result is the theory of natural selection. The organisms that breed are the winners; their genetic makeup was better suited to survival and reproduction than those that failed to breed. Therefore the average genetic makeup in the next generation is different from that in the previous generation. The next generation is, infinitesimally, better suited to survive. Over thousands of years, these changes accumulate until the organisms, or some sub-group of the organisms, have changed dramatically, sometimes becoming an entirely new species. This is what is meant by evolution by natural selection.

So not all evolution is evolution by natural selection. The transformation from egg to larva to pupa to moth is not considered biological evolution, but the development of this life cycle from a simpler egg-nymph-adult cycle, over many generations of mutation and selection, is. Biological evolution should also be distinguished from cultural evolution, which is the learning of new skills from others, with no direct change in genetic material.

So we have two building blocks of biological evolution: variation and inheritance. Natural selection, Darwin’s famous evolutionary mechanism, takes place when individuals compete for limited resources; the best resource-gatherer wins and the winner passes genes for skillful re-source-gathering on to its offspring. It is a game of numerical domination: better genes spread through a population, only to be replaced later by even better ones. These pejorative terms, better and best, are made scientific by defining “fitness” as the ability to, or speed of, spread through a population. Genes can be fit or unfit, but so can genotypes, the combinations of genes that make individuals.

Evolution by natural selection works at the level of the individual, and cares nothing for the group. Physical features, lifestyles, behavior and interactions with others do not evolve “for the good of the species.” The idea of species-level selection, perhaps the commonest scientific misinterpretation since Copernicus showed us where we actually are, is often called “BBC Evolution” in the UK, thanks to its promotion by narrators of natural history television. Parasites do not evolve to be less virulent “to keep their hosts alive” (they evolve to be less virulent in order to increase their chances of reproduction and survival). Prudence is not the best way to harvest resources (the prudent individual will be out-competed by the imprudent). Natural selection does not favor diversity. Instead, natural selection promotes exploitation, competition and cheating. This is the scientific position that really titillates evolutionary biologists because of the questions it raises. If selfishness and imprudence evolves, then why are we still here? How long until we go extinct? If everything is in a vast, never-ending competition, then why are so many different “things” still around? And why, if I should be looking out for number one, am I urged to help old people cross the road, risking life and limb when I don’t even want to be on the other side? I thought only the fittest survived? Questions like these represent the major paradoxes of modern evolutionary biology: the evolution of altruism (why are we nice to each other?), the evolution of prudence (can we exploit resources sustainably?) and the maintenance of diversity (how do species and/or genotypes coexist?). It’s only having learned that altruism, prudence and diversity are all very unlikely that the evolutionary biologist can try to find exceptions to the rule: are there any situations in which sustainable living is evolutionarily sustainable? Fans of his books will be pleased to hear that Pullman, whether accidentally or by design, provides a set of conditions in which altruism and prudence might, just might, be favored by natural selection. So there is hope for Lyra’s Republic of Heaven. Maybe. But first we have to be clear about why a society of altruists is so unlikely.

Imagine a tribe in which everyone instinctively cooperated with each other. We’ll call this tribe, and its individual members, Cooperators. Imagine another tribe in which everyone looked out for themselves. We’ll call this tribe, and its members, Freeloaders.

The Cooperators would beat the Freeloaders eight ways from Sunday. They’d be better on the hunt and better at warfare. They’d out-compete the Freeloaders handily and wipe them off the face of the Earth. They wouldn’t need to waste resources on fences or door locks or chastity belts. Needless to say, the Cooperators would be nothing at all like us.

But why aren’t we like the Cooperators, if they are so superior? Why didn’t we evolve that way? The reason we didn’t is, as I said earlier, that evolution doesn’t work at the group level; it works at the individual level. Imagine a Freeloader born into the Cooperator tribe. He would be a fox let into the hen house. He would cheat in every way possible, avoiding work, stealing, sleeping with his neighbor’s wife, etc. The Freeloader would out-compete and outbreed his more trusting brethren. Soon Freeloaders would outnumber Cooperators, who would be slowly squeezed out of existence. This is the unfortunate logic of natural selection.

But natural selection isn’t the only mechanism of biological evolution. Something different can happen when populations are fragmented. When small groups are created (maybe the Himalayas are colonized by a small group of giant bears, or a Mulefa village is bisected by a new river channel), each group may be a biased sample of the population. This bias, maybe in favor of altruism or prudence, can set a whole new course for the evolutionary pathway of the new populations. Even if there isn’t a strong bias, small groups are prone to an evolutionary mechanism called genetic drift. Just by chance, genes that wouldn’t be favored by natural selection might become “fixed” in a population; in other words, everyone in a future generation inherits that gene, more by chance than because it’s a useful gene to have. Thus luck (good or bad) becomes an important part of the evolutionary process: populations grown from small founder groups may suffer high rates of genetic disease or may have thickened heels, just great for kicking, or may be very small. This genetic drift may set the group on entirely novel evolutionary pathways, driven by natural selection or further drift, leading perhaps to further reduction in size, the sequestering of toxins and the development of heel spurs. And flight? Just ask the Gallivespians. Note the crucial difference between the processes of natural selection and genetic drift: population fragmentation into small groups. This will become important as we try to find an evolutionary mechanism that favors prudence and altruism, a mechanism that gives us hope for Lyra’s Republic of Heaven.

For now, however, consider Lyra as a new Eve. She’s a good person; she cares about others; she saves people from death and even when she can’t she saves their ghosts from purgatory. She hates to see resources wasted and savors biodiversity. Not only that, she’s highly skilled, or at least gifted, at sustainable resource use. She managed to stem the vast flood of Dust from the world of the Mulefa, a flood that could have killed all sentient life, simply by having pure adult love. What a brave new start she could engender: her offspring would share her generosity and prudence; their offspring would inherit these traits, and their offspring, and so on, creating a new population of humans with responsibility for a vast biological empire of behavioral and ecological goodness. That was the vision that Metatron tried to destroy, the competitive lifestyle that the Consistorium wanted to squash and the fragile future whose rescue brought Lord Asriel and Lady Coulter together in mutual, fatal sacrifice.

“Fragile” turns out to be a good adjective for Lyra’s Republic of Heaven. As we saw, a population of the selfless is very vulnerable to a few selfish individuals. The gene for selfishness may not exist in Lyra’s new republic, but it can emerge de novo via mutation. And if it does, it will spread. Altruism is costly: you use resources by being nice, resources that either go directly to the other party (here, have a piece of marzipan) or get used up as part of the action of being nice (introduce yourself, take her arm, look left and right, cross the street, walk slowly, warn off cars, carry her bag, give her directions, cross back over…it’s exhausting!). A cheat will simply accept resources without repayment (thanks very much! Now get lost) or watch as the altruist wastes time and effort (Ha! You wouldn’t catch me helping old ladies). With more resources, the cheat will sire or give birth to more offspring, and the cheating gene will spread through the population. It’s inevitable.

Cheating is as damaging to hopes of sustainable resource use as it is to altruism. In 1968, Garrett Hardin famously developed the ideas expounded in 1833 by W. F. Lloyd, and described a simple model that he called the “tragedy of the commons.” Here is a Pullmanesque version of the argument. In The Amber Spyglass, the Mulefa seem untroubled by issues of overpopulation. Were it not for the devastating effects of the disappearance of sraf, there would be plenty of trees and seeds to go round. Groves of trees seem to be shared by communities, everyone chipping in with costs of maintenance but reaping the rewards of the seeds they collect. However, imagine if the Mulefa population grew large and, although the land remained communal, each individual “owned” trees and had exclusive rights to the seeds from their crop. Here is an economic situation similar to the grazing of common land in medieval Europe, when sheep belonged to individuals but the land was communal. In that example, it always benefited each farmer to add one more sheep to their flock. Individual gains outweighed communal losses and the land was ruined due to overgrazing. In our example, there is a large, direct benefit to the individual Mulefa of planting another tree. But too many trees exhaust soil resources; this affects the entire Mulefa community. Large, short-term, direct benefits (get more seeds for me) will always outweigh small, long-term, indirect costs (all the trees are starving) and, to paraphrase Hardin’s words, “Ruin is the destination toward which all Mulefa rush. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Hardin also discussed the problem of “fouling one’s own nest.” Imagine if lots of people owned subtle knives. The direct benefit, to the individual, of using the knife (travelling to a new world) far outweighs the indirect cost (to everyone) of creating a new Specter. Eventually, selfishness would lead to many windows and murderous densities of Specters. Where cheats evolve, sustainability seems impossible.

Cheating is a famous trick, and has been the nail in the coffin of many a sustainable enterprise. For example, there’s very little wrong with the basic definition of the socialist philosophy, everyone working for mutual benefit and common rewards–but cheats tend to ruin the party by abstaining from work or by exploiting others. Similarly in the natural world, mutualisms and symbioses can be very tenuous, fragile relationships. There’s a fine line between mutualism, the coexistence of two or more species or genotypes with mutual fitness benefits, and exploitation. Take ants and aphids, for example: aphids secrete honeydew because their food supply, plant sap, is just too sugary. Ants know a good thing when they sense it, and they harvest the honeydew. In return, they protect the aphid “herd” from ferocious predators. It’s all lovely and potentially sustainable, but what happens when the ants aren’t getting enough protein elsewhere? Say goodbye to sweet Miss Aphid. What about if the plant runs out of sap? No amount of antsy encouragement will convince the aphids to stay; they just have to run or fly away quicker than the ants can catch them.

We can expand the Mulefa example. In their dramatically simple ecosystem, with apparently little to fear but the tualapi, they have developed what could be an obligate mutualism with a species of tree. Without the wheels provided by the tree’s seedcase structure, the Mulefa’s versatile lifestyle would disappear and they would have to stumble around on pegs (although their young seem to do this quite happily). Without the seed dispersal provided by the Mulefa’s need for speed, the trees would compete for light in dense groves and suffer fitness costs. Through evolutionary time, these mutual benefits have coevolved into some kind of mutual dependency. But there is always scope for cheating. Imagine a mutation in the tree genome that makes a weak seed case. Not a very good wheel, but it looks just like the others. If the Mulefa don’t spot the fake, the seed will be used as a wheel but will break relatively soon. The tree still gets its seeds dispersed, but it didn’t have to put all that effort into making a strong seed case. Instead, it can divert resources into making more seed, or growing taller. Cheats win. Imagine a Mulefa that doesn’t look after the seed. It gets free wheels but doesn’t bother wasting energy on gardening when they break. Energy and time saved is diverted into more feeding or making more offspring. Cheats win.

This is all getting a bit negative, and slightly off-track. The question is, can Lyra’s Republic of Heaven be a sustainable one? Or, even more fundamentally, can a sustainable, altruistic civilization continue indefinitely? Is sustainability sustainable?

Maybe genetic drift can help. In large groups, natural selection will favor selfish, exploitative genotypes. In small groups, though, traits can dominate populations just by chance. Lyra would make a great start as long as she could isolate herself from competition with other humans. A new colony, a brand-new republic somewhere else, would be dominated by Lyra’s altruistic, sustainable lifestyle. However, this is not a sustainably sustainable culture. As the colony grows selfish, cheating mutants will appear, gain fitness benefits and dominate the population. For genetic drift to help our quest for a sustainable future, Lyra’s republic would have to go through repeated “bottlenecks,” fragmentation of the population into small groups, possibly accompanied by mass mortality. Only then could drift cause altruism and sustainable resource use to dominate. But even this probably wouldn’t work. Genetic drift is a random process, it doesn’t deliberately choose “good” traits. Selfish and exploitative genotypes stand just as much chance of dominating these small pockets of human civilization. Imagine lots of small groups, regularly culled, some good, some bad, some indifferent, all drifting. Is that the fine republic Lyra is destined to begin?

This is the stalemate that had been reached amongst evolutionary biologists in the 1960s. Darwinian thinking, with its focus on the individual or gene-level of selection, made little room for selection for altruistic and prudent behavior. And yet such behavior exists in nature: there remained a large group of biologists who believed that group-level selection was its mechanism.

The debate was broken in 1969, in favor of the Darwinists, when W. D. Hamilton proved that natural selection could favor altruistic behavior. It wasn’t group selection, he pointed out, but kin selection. It all relies, just like genetic drift, on how the population is arranged in space. Models of natural selection tend to assume a big population, with everyone mating randomly with anyone else. In reality, space becomes a problem: unless I had the benefit of an intention craft I would be unlikely to raise offspring with someone living on another continent. What tends to happen is that, to save energy, individuals stay near where they were born. That means they are likely to encounter close relatives. Hamilton, recognizing that natural selection actually promoted the spread of genes, not necessarily whole genotypes, through populations, defined something called inclusive fitness. At one extreme, he suggested, it would be possible for an individual to completely forgo any reproductive opportunities but still have fitness. How? By helping its relatives to reproduce. We share genes with our kin, and it is sometimes possible to increase the rate of spread of those genes by helping siblings, parents and cousins to have lots of offspring. In other words, what looks like an altruistic act (using a sting to protect someone else, studying sraf to understand the sudden death of trees) is actually selfish; it exists to protect and propagate one’s own genes. There was little evidence of kin selection in the Coulter family until the end of the trilogy, when mother and father sacrificed themselves (and any reproductive opportunities that lay in store for them) to ensure the survival of the new Eve. Would they have done the same if Lyra had not been their daughter?

Acts of kin-selected altruism are easiest to perform when we can recognise our relatives. For example, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel knew that Lyra was carrying their genes. However, this level of awareness is not necessary for natural selection to favor altruistic acts. All that is required is a certain correlation between who you meet and where you meet them. This was the discovery of another crucial, but often overlooked, evolutionary biologist called George Price. His story has a sad ending, but let’s start with his outstanding contributions. Price came up with an equation to describe how natural selection proceeds. Maybe that doesn’t sound exceptional, but his equation was so elegant and full of interpretive potential that it deserves to be seen by everyone, whether they understand it or not. Here it is:

w∆z = Cov (wi , zi ) + E(wi , zi )

The eyes of non-mathematical readers will probably be glazing over at this point, but pay attention. Price’s equation tells us that evolutionary change in some feature (e.g. how altruistic we are) is determined by a) how it tends to benefit our fitness, and b) how likely it is to be passed on to our offspring. We’re talking statistics now. Quite logically, a gene will spread through a population if a) it tends to be useful to an individual, and b) it tends to get passed on to offspring.

But there is more to Price’s equation than meets the eye, for three reasons. First, it extends and generalizes Hamilton’s ideas of kin selection and makes them work for individuals in small, fragmented populations. Altruism and prudence can evolve if you help your relatives to reproduce, thus passing on your genes vicariously. Second, it makes it possible for spite to evolve. Spite happens when one individual goes out of their way (i.e. suffers costs) in order to hurt another individual. This is possible because, in fragmented populations, you might just find yourself in a group of individuals totally unrelated to yourself: less related than you would expect by chance. Before Price’s work, spite was considered an impossible evolutionary outcome, but now we know that it can happen and an example has been found. Tiny wasps whose larvae grow inside caterpillars will forgo reproductive opportunities simply in order to kill members of other families who are also growing up inside the same caterpillar. What a crazy world. Sadly for Price, who was a true altruist, his proof that spite could evolve in a natural system was part of his downfall. After years of personal, religious and scientific crisis, destitute after giving all his money to the homeless, Price was found dead in a squat, having cut his own throat with nail scissors.

Price’s exceptional insights have left an important legacy for evolutionary biologists, and are described here because they provide hope for the concept of Lyra’s Republic of Heaven. The third novel property of Price’s equation is that it says group selection can happen. Indeed it makes that point so well that even Hamilton was converted. If you replace “individuals” in his equation with “groups” it becomes apparent that group-level behaviors can evolve. Traits, carried by individuals, that benefit the survival of the group and the formation of new groups, can spread through a population. Thirty-five years’ worth of analysis of Price’s equation support the fact that, if certain restrictive assumptions are met, altruism and prudence can outperform selfishness and exploitation in the quest, driven by natural selection, for numerical domination of a population. But what are these assumptions?

Assumption One. The population must be split up into groups living in discrete patches.

Assumption Two. Groups must suffer a high rate of extinction.

Assumption Three. There must be some, but not much, migration between patches.

Assumption Four. Altruism and/or prudence must significantly decrease the probability of group extinction.

Assumption Five. Altruism and/or prudence should increase the probability of colonization of a new patch.

If all five assumptions are met, then this is what could happen. Imagine lots of patches, some of them colonized by groups, others left empty. Groups made up of selfish individuals over-exploit resources and suffer tragedies of the commons. They go extinct regularly and rarely manage to colonize empty patches. Groups made up of prudent, altruistic individuals, however, sustain their patches and rarely go extinct. Instead, they send out dispersers and migrants to colonize empty patches elsewhere, including the patches left empty after the extinction of selfish groups. Within each group, natural selection will favor the spread of selfish cheats, but as long as prudence begets new, prudent groups and selfishness promotes extinction, then an altruistic, prudent civilization might just evolve!

What has this got to do with His Dark Materials? Amazingly, Pullman provides just the right set of circumstances that could allow Ly-ra’s Republic of Heaven to be sustainably sustainable and altruistic. “Worlds” are “patches,” so groups form when individuals colonize new worlds (assumption one). Extinction could be a rather common event: the residents of Citt gazze seem well on their way to dying out completely (assumption two). Dispersal between worlds is possible but very limited, allowed only via use of the subtle knife or via enormous anbaric explosions (assumption three). Finally, altruistic behavior and sustainable resource use would clearly lengthen the life span of new colonies (assumption four). With strokes of his pen, Pullman creates nearly all the necessary conditions for the evolution and persistence of a glorious, altruistic Republic of Heaven. But the prize is snatched away when we consider assumption five: would altruistic groups be better able to colonize new worlds? Slicing d¦mons away from children to form holes in the sky doesn’t seem very altruistic. The subtle knife isn’t just for nice people: it has been wielded by altruistic and by selfish individuals in the past. And anyway, now that the knife has been shattered, only selfish people, those willing to sacrifice others and create Specters, can disperse between worlds. Lyra’s Republic of Heaven will fail.

Or will it?

There is a way to disperse between worlds. The angels use it. Will’s father used it. Pullman teases us and never reveals the solution. To build the Republic of Heaven, for it to be a sustainable and altruistic civilization, to avoid the inherent selfishness of natural selection, and to satisfy the near-impossible conditions for group selection, Lyra must learn a new way to colonize worlds. A sustainably sustainable future across many worlds? With the right Eve, just maybe.

Enjoy This Essay?

More from Dave Hodgson

Stay Updated

on our daily essay, giveaways, and other special deals

Our Books

Subscribe via RSS