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More Evolved, part 1

November 5, 2009

A while ago I put my “Environmentalism as Morality” post on YouTube for two reasons: (1) after seeing an article somewhere suggesting that reading your own writing aloud can help you work through common errors I’ve long wanted to experiment with recording stuff I’ve written, and (2) I wanted to make a video response to a particular video.  The sole commenter on my video responded with praise, but was obviously confused by something.1 She also requested that I voice my opinion on modern medicine, so this will be a roundabout response.  Due to the fact that I’m still trying to keep my posts short-ish, this will be a two-part post.

Rather early in Ishmael the narrator, the student, is asked to identify and tell the myth of his culture.  He has a lot of trouble doing this because as far as he knows there is no such myth.  After some prodding and Ishmael telling him to just explain how things came to be this way, he covers the origins of the world, the birth of life, and then, finally, the emergence of Man.  This is where things ended; with the emergence of Man there was no reason to tell anything more.  The teacher and the student then identify the premise of the Taker story—that the world was made for Man and Man was made to rule it.  That’s what I’m going to get at.  There is an unquestioned belief that Man is the end product of evolution.  This belief is stupid and wrong.

I have mentioned evolution, either off-hand or directly, in a handful of my recent posts.  Here are some quotes: From “‘Nature,’ Part 2”: “So long as humans go on changing environments to suit them instead of changing themselves to suit environments, which is what every other evolving species does, we do need to represent the world without human influence.”  From “Cavemen”: “The fear of becoming ‘cavemen’ is a knee-jerk reaction that comes from the belief that we are more ‘highly evolved’ than cavemen.”  Finally, three notable instances in “Environmentalism as Morality”: “I’ll put it this way: The Universe and Life were perfect before humans intervened and started to do things their own way,” “I want the Universe and Life restored to the state they were in before humanity hijacked evolution,” and “People like seeya … believe in linear models … of ‘progress,’ which is reflected both in their beliefs that humans are better than all other animals and that ‘primitive’ people are inferior to civilized people.”

In the wrong context, or poorly framed, I could understand how one might assume from some of these quotes that I am saying Humanity is the Devil! Only without Man can the world exist in peace!  I’ll try to provide the proper context.

First point: Evolution isn’t a process characterized by constant improvement, is not linear, did not start from Bad and will not end at Good.  This is followed, very quickly, by a second point: Evolution does not have a goal, an end point.

When put thusly the truth of these statements is as plain as day.  Obviously evolution doesn’t always end up in things going from worse to better (some might even point to the continued existence of “lesser” creatures after the emergence of man, but that would be dumb).  Obviously evolution doesn’t have an end point—it isn’t a process that just starts and stops whenever it pleases.  The obviousness doesn’t mean these aren’t beliefs held dear by a great many people, however, if not explicitly then at least implicitly.

I’ve had a handful of discussions about this in-person; the most recent and the one that immediately comes to mind occurred this spring between a friend and I when both of us were rather drunk.  (I might be the annoying “thoughtful drunk,” although another friend has told me, during a moment of sloshed philosophizing, that it was “why [I’m] awesome.”  I guess, since I’m rarely intoxicated, that I’m OK with this.)  I made my points and he still went, and I’m paraphrasing, Yeah, but you  have to admit that we’re better than the animals.  Put another way: It all started with the primordial slime and after a few billion years Man appeared—this is the exact story told in the beginning of Ishmael, and indeed the exact same story you’d get from many people if you asked them how things came to be this way.  I don’t remember where the conversation went from there; it’s also quite possible that this was the end of the thread.

The points I made were basically those two I just spelled out.  I could, today, amend those ideas slightly.  I put it this way more recently:

Evolution isn’t defined by improvements; it’s defined by changes. It just happens that the changes that end up with a larger representation in the gene pool are improvements because the negative changes hinder survival, thus these genetic changes eliminate themselves.

This is explained quite well and at length in The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.2

Evolution, the generically-referred-to process which has shaped the lives of every organism to ever exist, is characterized by changes.  Natural selection, the mechanism by which evolution operates, is what selects the beneficial changes and does away with those that are a hinderance to survival.  We could technically say that evolution produces “better” species, but I think that’d be ill-advised.

The important question is: In what way are organisms made better by natural selection?  Every lifeform alive today is “highly evolved” because each has adapted to its role in its ecosystem and continued to exist.  The only real sense in which we can say a creature is highly evolved is when we consider its specialized tasks.  A bird—hell, even a fly or a mosquito—is more evolved than a human when it comes to flying.  A chimp is more evolved than a human when it comes to climbing trees (we do an OK job of it, but a we’re not in the Chimp Tree Climbing League by any means).  A fish is more evolved for swimming.  A white oak is more evolved for, well … treeing.  I could go on, but I won’t.

A while ago it was thought that the last common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees, nicknamed Arni, may have been found.  It was more similar in appearance to a human than it was to a chimp, which surprised many people.  The question arose, then: Are chimps more evolved than humans?  It’s a loaded question, but the man I saw answer the question answered in a way I found rather admirable.  He said that since chimps are more specialized at the tasks important to their survival they were, indeed, more evolved.3 But of course humans are highly adaptable and there isn’t any one lifestyle—the One Right Way to Live—that we must be suited for.  Are humans more evolved for adaptivity?  I think yes, but also for bipedality, the wearing of clothes, and so on.  (I don’t think any species is evolved for the specialized task of sitting and staring at a computer screen.)

These are my first and most basic thoughts about evolution, which should provide a better context for previous mentions.  When I said humanity hijacked evolution I didn’t mean that every human is a devil and that our species must continue evolving because people are icky and stupid the way they are now.  My point is that humanity—a portion of humanity, currently the largest portion and an ever-growing one at that—cannot and should not attempt to divorce itself from biology.

Notes and Links

  1. Comments on Environmentalism as Morality at youtube.com
  2. Comments on My Genes Ride The Short Bus at submittedthought.wordpress.com
  3. The Last Common Ancestor at podcasts.discovery.com [mp4 video]
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jleeger permalink
    November 9, 2009 12:49 pm

    Check out the book “Manthropology” for an excellent review of how male homo sapiens have “devolved” over the past few millennia…

    • November 9, 2009 4:28 pm

      I’m reading the description on Amazon right now. Is it funny? The description makes it sound like it might be funny.

      Earlier in the year I read a few different articles about how the human genome is changing at a higher rate than ever before, and they concluded that humanity is in fact evolving faster than ever (duh!). While this might be technically correct (or maybe not, since I’ve also seen many other sources claim the opposite), it would kind of fall under the umbrella of believing evolution always means “getting better,” because why else would stating “humanity is evolving faster than ever” be stated if it wasn’t to provoke a “Holy shit, that’s awesome!” kind of response?

      I guess that’s my roundabout way of saying I’ll add it to my list. I’m all for some hatin’ on people, and if we’re evolving to sit at desks then count me out.

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