Anytime I hear someone talk about the glories of humanity, I often find myself smirking, because when this subject comes up, what is most often the center of focus is language and the human capacity for it. It’s so often listed as one of the chief characteristics that divides us from our animal cousins, and yet, we are using language to describe how awesomely awesome we are at talking. Ever come across the notion that when defining a word, you are not allowed to use said word in the definition? Well, in this case, in talking about what makes us awesome, I think our awesomeness falls short, just a bit.
I live with a geneticist and I’ve met all his evolution-spouting friends. I’ve read the books and enjoyed them, I might add, but there is one peculiar thing I have noticed, and that is, they all talk about their subject in exactly the same way, and ironically, it is in a way that disproves the logicality of the principle. What I mean to say is, I often hear things like: “This gene wants to be expressed” or “Nature has arranged for that” etc. Even from Dawkins, a Darwin-fish toting professor!
Being a person with a BA in our common tongue, I fixated on this. Why is it we are seemingly incapable of discussing vast-sweeping concepts that affect us without personifying them? Is it that the language falls short; does it lack the words necessary to describe how evolution actually happens? Or is it something else entirely?
I thought about it so hard, in fact, after hearing the great analysts of our day talk in this fashion at a recent cocktail party, that I decided I would try and prove the hypothesis wrong. Scientific method, right? I’m logical. I know words. I can conceive of a few simple sentences that put this whole evolution theory “theory” to bed. So here goes:
The process of evolution begins with a niche. This niche can be environmental, for example, a scarcity of food, a climate shift, or the intervention of another lifeform. When the niche opens, life fills it in two specific ways. Firstly, competition for resources is harsh, and if there is a way to gather those finite resources, organisms will find a way, from inventing a new tool, to using old tools in new ways, until the idea of how the tool functions is completely changed. Secondly, due to the statistics of it all and the way DNA replicates, the chance of random flaws, or mutations, is high. A niche forms, creating an opportunity for members of a species with a unique flaw, once considered a weakness, or even lethal, to thrive, mate, and spread this flaw to their offspring. Soon, by this process, the unique characteristic becomes the norm, and evolution has occurred. This can take anywhere from one to two generations as in the case of a fruit fly which only live about thirty days, to a billion years of baby steps. We have seen it happen in our lifetimes and there are countless examples.
The first case of evolution described is memetic, meaning that the ideas have evolved, though the brain of the creature thinking them remains the same, resulting in learned behavior that is passed to the next generation. The second case is Darwinian evolution and results in a fundamental shift of the genome.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? The words do exist to say it properly. So why is it we’re constantly saying things like, “There’s a plan” when we know about chemical bonds, statistical likelihoods, and cellular automota?
If you’re still in doubt that evolution actually happens, there’s a great little game, I highly suggest picking up. It’s free and you can download it. It’s called Conway’s Game of Life and yes, there’s an app for that too (free) Simple concept: a few rules exist about how some squares “interact” with their neighbor squares, (like if two squares beside each other are white, one of them turns black, etc). You set ip the initial configuration of “live” squares and you watch what happens. Some configurations cause the screen to become all one color, while others create anything from small clusters patterns that never deviate or move (kind of like stone), to the creation of little things called “gliders” which are groups of squares, that, because of their particular rules, do not fall apart, but absorb or “eat” each other, and walk across the screen. I won’t belabor the point of whether or not evolution occurs, because anyone can prove it. I’m going to accept it as a given.
With a few simple rules, we can see how more complicated patterns can form and work together. We can see them, but when I try to explain them, why am I forced to do something so illogical as say “the blocks want…” when I know the blocks are not thinking, feeling, or wanting anything of the sort?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is a prime example of memetic evolution. Though the words exist, we cannot conceive of any force that impacts us, unless we describe it in terms of human interaction. It isn’t the language, it’s us.
We are, physically speaking, the same as we were when civilization began. We are the exact same species today that built the pyramids. No joke, the DNA is the same. If we went back in time, we could mate with ourselves. Not ourselves, but our ancestors. Well, not our ancestors, that’d result in songs like “my own Grandpa” but you get the idea. We’re slightly taller, longer lived, better nourished, but none of these are examples of Darwinian evolution. These are examples of how our logic and discernment altered us. We learned to track tides, animal migrations, the stars, even our own chemical imbalances. We learn more every day, but we are the same as we were. Could it be then, that the turns of phrase that make things like intelligent design seem plausible, are built into our brains?
What is the purpose of religion? Go back to the roots. The first sentient man looked up into the sky (after realizing that there was one and that it was different in quality from the earth, probably due to something falling out of it and hitting him on the head) and said, “huh?” Then right after that, he was stricken with the concern, “why?” Sure, language served the immediate function of making things like hunting and gathering easier (“hey you cow, that’s my friggin’ blueberry”), but higher language, analysis came hand in hand with “why?” Our first stories, our very first imaginings were origin tales to explain why when we lacked the know-how to make telescopes or mass spectrometers, and ever since, everything that explains why things happen, is magically discussed in the exact same terminology, whether the language is capable of handling the immense task or not.
There is something fundamentally wrong with us. We are either the most pigheaded things to ever exist, putting all the universe and it’s many complexities into the same convenient relationships as we were forced to experience in grade school (“Teacher, Mother Nature smashed my house!”), or we simply cannot make the sequential, logical peg fit into our god-shaped hole in the brain.
Did our first acquisition of language poison how we think, or did the mechanism of our observation taint how we reason? The answer has to be the latter, if we follow the logic of our definition of evolution. Learned behavior is not passed genetically, so early language could not sculpt the brain, ergo, it’s the brain that’s doing it.
Go ahead, test my theory. Try explaining evolution to a fundamentalist without personifying anything. What is the reply you’ll hear? Either they call you a heretic and demand you get off their couch, or they express in some fashion, how incredibly cold and dispassionate the whole explanation sounds. Here you are telling them that they can watch an animal grow a different pair of ears, and they see it as unemotional and lacking. What is it lacking? The grace, the polish, the …that thing the French say when they don’t know what to say.
We possess intent. That is our chief characteristic that sets us apart, and because we cannot conceive of a world where we do not exist to conceive of it, we are stuck in this vicious cycle, manufacturing intent for forces that really, honestly, don’t give a damn.
It’s not that they’re jerks, they really don’t have that ability, I’m telling you. Talk to an atom all you want, it’s not gonna get pissed if you insult its mother, I promise.
We can’t go on like this anymore. Not in an age of atomic weapons and the ability to program retroviruses that destroy whole populations (which I can do in my garage with about $20,000 by the way). We have to wake up and smell the inadequacy. As Douglas Addams said, the garden is beautiful enough without the bloody fairies. There’s no ghost in the machine, no horsemen of the apocalypse, no Santa Claus to reward your children for good behavior. Nature does not want anything from you, and even if you give her what you think she wants, she’s still gonna flatten your house.
We need to stop creating niches for irrational ideas to fester. We need to stop feeling slighted by all these rude, unfair forces. We need to start referring to life as a combination of constituent parts and a concatenation of developments. It’s the only responsible thing to do really. It’s time to grow up as a species, because that one peculiar Darwinian trait (our immense noggin) has led to one grave memetic flaw, and our world is at stake because of it.
But won’t all the fairies die if we stop believing in them?
No, I’m not a fairy-hater. I just don’t plan my life based on their caprices. Nor should you.
We wrote these stories. Don’t let them tell us.