Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Why We Need To Understand Evolution.

One of the things a proper understanding of evolution teaches us is humility. When I say a proper understanding, I don't mean to the sort of depths to which a research biologist would go, just the sort of level of understanding that you can get by reading a book or two written by people like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould for people who don't have degrees in biology.

One of the things you learn is just how wrong your pre-conceptions were. For example, I bet most people who thought they knew what evolution was about, and who hadn't rejected it out of hand on religious grounds, thought evolution was all about some sort of 'ladder of evolution' with life arranged in a hierarchy with less evolved creatures at the bottom, leading up through more evolved creatures like reptiles, then mammals with apes towards the top and humans sitting on the top rung as the most highly evolved, and therefore most superior, of all life. Animals which obviously weren't ancestral to humans, like elephants, giraffes or bears, were just left clinging to the sides of the ladder, looking like mistakes and having no useful purpose other than as food, clothing or ornaments for humans.

The 'social Darwinists' took this one step further and arranged human life in the same sort or hierarchy, with, of course, their own 'race', and even their own social class, being the most evolved, so, sitting right on the top-most rung of this ladder of evolution sat the ruling class of the superior race with the others arranged in descending order below them so the lower orders of the lesser races were little different to the animals below them.

A basic understanding of evolution changes all that. With a basic understanding comes the realization that evolution is all about life diversifying like a branching tree and not one species giving birth to a more highly evolved one which in turn produces another 'new improved' model.

A basic understanding of evolution shows us that all species evolve and that every one is at the top of it's own 'ladder' of evolution with the rungs below occupied only by its direct ancestors. Humans are nothing special at all in this respect and the idea that one human race has more highly evolved skin, hair, noses or brains is incomprehensible. Whatever shape or colour we are is merely the result of our particular evolutionary line. We have all been evolving for the same amount of time. And the same goes for every other species, no matter that it has features which were found in our common ancestors. A lizard is not just an under-evolved mammal; it is a fully evolved lizard. A fern is not a plant that hasn't yet learned to grow flowers and bear fruit; it is a fully evolved fern, no less perfectly adapted to its environment than a rose bush or a daisy.

This realisation is humbling. It is humbling to know that, in the grand scheme of things, you are the result of billions of iterations of the perfecting mechanism of natural selection; that you are the descendant of survivors who never failed the fitness test. But mostly, it's humbling to know that so is everything else.

But there is another way in which an understanding of evolution is humbling; and this form of humility is something we are sadly lacking but desperately need right now.

Evolution is not, at its fundamental level, just about evolving genes. All replicators in a selective environment will evolve. As writers like Susan Blackmore have shown, humans, and to a lesser extent other species, have another set of replicators in addition to their genes. We have memes. Memes are units of cultural inheritance which we pass on to the next generation and, like genes, they form mutually beneficial alliances and 'memeplexes' which can behave in many ways like genes for skin colour, hair type, shape of nose or epicathic eye flaps. And of course a component part of most human cultures is a memeplex we call religion.

Our cultures are inherited in our memes but, unlike our genes which are fixed at conception, our memetic cultures are changeable. We can actually change our memes at will. Maybe not easily but we can do it. We can, if we wish and if we make the effort, move to another country, learn their language and songs, adopt their traditions and superstitions.

And this is where a basic understanding of evolution helps us understand cultures. One of the inherited memes common to just about all cultures is that our particular culture sits at the top of a ladder of cultural development, just like the mistaken view of evolution I've just described. But of course we know that, since all cultures are the result of an evolutionary process, and that all cultures have been evolving for the same amount of time, that all cultures are equally evolved.

This means there is no such thing as a superior culture or an inferior culture. And this explains why people get upset when you tell them your culture is the best and that they should become more like you if they want to be fully developed and 'normal'. It also explains why other people get upset when you assume they would be like you if only they had the where-with-all or that they are just longing to be like you if only their corrupt government would let them. And it explains why people get upset when you tell them they have the wrong religion.

If we could really understand this quite simple fact, it would then be less of a shock to find, when you invade their countries to overthrow their government, they don't dance in the streets and greet you with wild enthusiasm, grateful that you've come to teach them better ways, but that they are more likely to try to throw you out at the earliest opportunity.

In fact it should be no surprise that they react in exactly the same way that you would if they invaded your country or told you you have an inferior religion and need their help to learn the right one.

But then, if we understood that we're are all as good and worthwhile as one another, there would not be these wars and invasions in the first place and people would not kill one another in order to find out who has the best imaginary invisible friend and who is the one who knows the real truth.

None of this should really be surprising since human culture is merely an aspect of human biology and human biology is merely biology, of which evolution is a fundamental principle.

If we could only grasp that simple idea which a basic understanding of evolution and of the memetic nature of human culture can give us, we could end cultural chauvinism. Just as we are beginning to understand that we are better than no one and no one is better than us; that our race and our species are better than no other and none are better than ours, we should be beginning to understand that our culture is better than no other and none are better than ours.

Like us and our species and all living things, our cultures are all winners in the fitness test of evolution.

An understanding of physics and chemistry gave us weapons of mass destruction. An understanding of biology might just prevent us killing ourselves with them.

1 comment :

  1. "We have all been evolving for the same amount of time. "

    Ah, but creatures with shorter generation times have been evolving for more generations, and creatures with higher mutation rates (and creatures with sexual reproduction) have been changing faster.

    So it is probably accurate to say that many species of bacteria are "more evolved" than humans. (I believe "more derived" is the technical term.)

    Of course that really does turn people's misconceptions about evolution on its head, doesn't it?

    I've come to realize that the single biggest barrier to people understanding evolution is that most people simply do not realize how much variety -- how much variation -- is out there. People mentally classify, very quickly, so they say "ah, these are all humans". Some have extra bones or nerves running along different routes, but until you study it you don't realize it.

    People need to be exposed to the sheer massive variety of life before they can "get" evolution. 19th century natural history museums, with their endless cabinets of thousands of individual specimens, each varying slightly, were really good about this; the 20th century style is much worse at making the evidence clear to people.


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