Something that bothers me

June 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

We often depict humanity as evil because we do things like massacre entire species, poison our environments, overhunt/overfish an area, rape, murder, and generally act like assholes. Humans are a killer species, we say. The problem is, the things we do aren’t unusual in the animal kingdom. We look at war, at deforestation, and we think ourselves unique. But relatively few of our behaviors truly are unique to us, and most of those unique behaviors are based on our imperfect understanding of the world. In short, most of what we do is stuff other animals do: we just do it with more complex brains and limbs that are better at making and using tools. Even tool use isn’t unique to us, we’re just better at it.

Many species of animals will wipe out all of their prey in an area and then have to move on. Humans didn’t invent that. We’re just much, much better at it. Even behaviors that seem completely devoid of any practical purpose, like killing rhinos and consuming their powdered horns to boost our virility are rooted in the need to reproduce, filtered through a complicated mind that has misapplied itself to the problem. When humans do differ from other animals on the planet we live on, it’s usually in that we can examine and critique our own behavior and those of our fellows in ways  we cannot determine if they can share or not. Our inability to determine if other species on Earth can communicate meaningfully with each other (we suspect it of whales and dolphins, for instance, but we can’t confirm it) does not mean they can’t. It just means we can’t tell.

The idea that humans are inherently corrupt because we apply our evolved brains to these same tasks bothers me. Yes, we do many horrible things to our planet and ourselves. Part of this seems to be based around the fact that evolution first rewards success. It comes down to who reproduces. Behavior that causes mass suffering to 99% of life on the planet but which leads to successful reproduction will be selected for over altruism that does not pass your genes forward.

This isn’t meant to justify or explain atrocities. It’s simply meant to place them into context. We’re no more special for our brutality and viciousness than we are for our use of tools or upright posture. The fact that we even understand that we’re doing immoral things comes solely from our minds, which we didn’t evolve for that purpose. We evolved them to keep from being eaten. And we’ve successfully turned this planet into one where, on the average, we live a hell of a lot longer than our ancestors.  The fact that there are huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor, that we have failed to make a society based on equality of gender, race, sexuality or other factors is not due to our inherent monstrous evil, nor is it due to our animal heritage. It’s due to the fact that it will take as long as it takes, and that evolution is not in fact our ally here.

We use the term ‘unevolved’ to describe people who hold social or ethical views we consider to be out of date. But evolution doesn’t care about morality or ethics. It cares solely about selection. Whatever you do that allows you to reproduce is good, to evolution. Now, one could certainly argue that altruism, social equality and justice, and empathy for one’s fellow creatures have positive effects on whether or not we get to reproduce. But I don’t think that’s going to work as a slogan. “Be good to each other so we can have a better society for baby making!”

Furthermore, the argument could be made that we’re too good at reproduction. However, that leads us to consider: the people who consider that there are already enough people and who therefore don’t want to have children have selected themselves out of the gene pool. If we purely relied on evolution to create the future, then clearly we would be selecting away from that form of altruism.

Luckily for us, we’ve learned ways to preserve information so that it can survive the death of the physical body. First with art and writing, and through a process of refinement to recording and storage, we can preserve information for generations past the death of those who conceived of it. This means our society and our culture have another way to progress, with a different selection method than evolution’s brute force selection pressure. The concept that societal justice has benefits, for instance, can endure beyond the deaths of every single person who holds that worldview. Empathy, altruism, love, care for the greater world, concepts that unlike selfishness do not have an immediate effect in terms of passing on one’s DNA can still be transmitted, and can serve to allow our minds to do work they did not strictly speaking evolve to do. Being rational is not what the mind evolved for – keeping you aware and alert, away from predators and towards edible food, is what the mind originally grew for.

This process can work in the opposite way. If our society prizes concepts, those who hold affirmative opinions can be rewarded by society by finding work, mates, and in so doing reproduce more effectively, with a greater chance for those offspring to thrive. In this way, we see evolution again working alongside our extra-physical storage of information. In essence, we learn, and in so learning teach the world to change its selection parameters.

Humanity isn’t inherently good or evil. The distinction between the two only comes with the capacity to weigh moral choices, which we have developed, refined, and even held contrary opinions on over the years, and which we will change our minds on again and again. We have chosen to believe these things, and we will hold different opinions in the future as we have come to hold wildly different opinions from our ancestors. In this way, the information we rely upon to make those decisions evolves as well.

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§ 3 Responses to Something that bothers me

  • Matthew Care says:

    I’ve read your work and followed your podcasts for over a year now, and I absolutely respect you, your writing, and your opinions. I say this to make it clear that what I’m going to say is my assessment and my response, not an offense to you.

    I do not believe in evolution. I would call myself a Christian, except for the fact that I would likely be associated with hateful, close-minded, or bigoted people, and I am none of these. But my disbelief in evolution comes from science, not theology.

    DNA can only be produced with the help of at least 20 proteins. These proteins are produced at the direction of DNA. Since each requires the other, a satisfactory explanation for the origin of one must also explain the other. It would appear that the entire system came into existence simultaneously. This implies creation. A circular logic system, so to speak, where rather that having progressive steps, it supports itself. A paradox, but at the same time scientifically factual. DNA creates the thing that creates itself.

    This simple circular system combined with the theory of irreducible complexity, gaps in the fossil record, and certain non-religious scientist jumping off the evolution bandwagon make believe it to be false. Obviously we can witness life adapt to it’s circumstances, but it is inadequate to explain origins of species and life itself.

    • matthewrossi says:

      With all due respect, your argument about DNA is specious. It ignores established fact about molecular biology and how it functions. DNA is the way it is BECAUSE of evolution. You can easily look it up, if you choose: no reputable molecular biologist believes what you said.

      There is nothing about evolution that is in any way anti-Christianity. It doesn’t address the existence of God. For all we know, God is the one who chose that the universe should function with the physical laws that exist. Evolution, by itself, merely addresses the mechanism by which species come to be. We have so much evidence for evolution now that I shudder to think that you can believe it isn’t the mechanism by which organic life has developed on this planet despite being an obviously well spoken, intelligent individual.

      Please. Go and look up the history of organic chemistry and molecular biology. It’s more complex than I really have time for, but in short, you’re just making a more complicated form of the “chicken and egg’ argument, and it’s just as specious. DNA has changed and mutated over time. We can even SEE it in ourselves. There’s tons of evidence for how DNA that doesn’t look like our own at all led, over hundreds of millions of years, to the DNA we have today using the proteins we do.

      • Matthew Care says:

        On an unrelated note, I really am a fan of yours, it’s cool to finally talk to you 🙂

        Your absolutely right, there’s nothing anti-christian or anti-God about evolution. Which is why I clarified in the second paragraph that my disbelief didn’t come from religion. And I do intend to read up chemistry and molecular biology, par your recommendation. Though I would contest what you said about no reputable biologist believes what I stated. The scientific community is far from being the united front people think it is.

        I’m going to link a clip from a documentary by Ben Stine. It’s about academic freedom in the scientific community, and to preface the scene in the video; Stine decides to make this documentary after hearing about a scientist who was fired from the Smithsonian simply for questioning evolution. Of note among those interviewed is Dr Maciej Giertych, Population Geneticist and sitting member on the European Parliament.

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