Thursday, June 03, 2010

Evolutionary Wars

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, Free Press, Distributed by Simon & Schuster Digital Sales, 2009

How I Got This Book: Recommended by a coworker who name-checked a number of books he has been reading. Since I was looking for books to take on my Pittsburgh trip, I downloaded a couple of them onto my Kindle.

I've talked about my Kindle before, and find it to be an excellent travel book, but some volumes do not fair well on the device. This is one of them. Greatest Show makes copious use of annotations and footnoted sources (which it navigates well enough). It uses extensive black and white illos and tables (which reproduce badly) and color plates (which reproduce worse), and the bibliography and index sprawl over more Kindle pages than they really need to, since the multiple indents in their formatting do not come across easily.

And while it is tempting to think about this book's possible evolutionary success within the environmental niche of e-publishing, that would be pretty wrong. Because evolution by natural selection belongs to one particular science, and when you transport it to another field, things get dodgy fast (like the "Social Darwinism" of Herbert Spenser, which takes Darwin's biology and transfers it into a rationale of why Rich People need not feel sympathy for Poor People). While tempting (and I do it all the time), when you're talking about natural selection, the natural part of the concept is applicable.

In any event, the book was both a good summary of stuff I knew (speciation, continental drift, mutation) and things I needed updated on (protein folding, which is sort of organic origami). Dawkins is best known for his avowed opposition to the religious who reject Darwinism (and most of the post-15th century) out of hand. He fires more than a few high hard ones against the religious institutions and their minions, but over the course of the book, I find that I can understand where the religious-based evolution-deniers are coming from.

I mean, if evolution was a religion, it would make the Cthulhu Mythos look all warm and cuddly.

First off, it take an uncaring universe to its logical extreme. There is a pass-fail existence where the tests come continually and the price of failure is always death. Old-Testament Jehovah is more forgiving than this grim clockwork of action and reaction.

And it's about species, and not about you. Not only are you just another of the striver in the universe, success of your species means absolutely nothing about your personal needs. It is about a larger genetic grading, of which you are a very very small part.

And its not really about you species than about your genes, stupid. The entire purpose of natural selection is the guarantee that the most suitable genes survive. You survive only because your genetic package crafted a suitable housing to create more genes. In these terms, the childless are evolutionary failures (I can envision a conservative evolutionary distopia where children are mandated, and only tested and harvested before they can reproduce). Genetic duplication (with all of its additional mutations) is about as close to salvation as you can hope for.

And because it is about your genes, your fate is sealed at birth. Never mind the concept of "Grace" among us Protestants - this is worse. Your genetic makeup is sealed before you even attained sentience. And if that makeup is suitable for the current environment, or even if that makeup is outdone by the makeups of OTHER individuals whose mutations are better, well, it sucks to be you.

And in the face of all this, we have a strong strain of "human exceptionalism". Despite this supposedly uncaring universe, we are here, and thriving (mostly). We take care of our suboptimal mutations and, spitting in the face of nature, allow them to pass on genetic material. We also pass along a "soft" heritage in culture, art, and knowledge, which exists outside the hardwired chemistry and biology of our forms. You can make a case of both secular and religious thought as being in direct opposition to the uncaring clockwork of natural selection.

The big thing is, of course, that evolution is NOT a belief system, any more than gravity (also called "Intelligent Falling") is. It is a scientific tool that explains the natural world, and knowing where that tool can be applied (like a hammer to a nail) and when it shouldn't (like a hammer to a screw) is part of the process. To haul evolution into the court of beliefs is like hauling religion into the court of science. It is condemning those apples for making overly tart orange juice.

But if you consider science to be an alternate belief system (as opposed to, you know, science), the frightening nature of evolution is apparent. You can suddenly sense the palpable revulsion in the faithful to the threat of this line of thought, even though there should be no threat.

Lovecraft would, on the other hand, be delighted.

More later,