Friday, September 3, 2010

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 2

Continued from last time...
The idea that organisms evolve first according to their environs and second according to the competition is also what the HuffPo shockingly cried that Darwin got wrong. Of course, Darwin got plenty of stuff wrong. And yes, he did indeed "get this wrong", or at least, get the priority backwards. He was quite aware that the environment was a significant cause of selective pressures, but he mostly put it down to competition between species. That he was a brave man willing to risk everything to stand up against the status quo does not make him infallible, and certainly not a man to be worshiped (though, I suppose personal bravery is a much better qualification than political piety, and yet the Pope stands as an edifice to humans overinflated sense of importance). But besides brave, he was also tremendously careful. It was only after 20 years, vetting his ideas, researching, gathering as much evidence as he possibly could that he dared to publish. Careful, brave, and wrong? Certainly. The web of life is very complicated, and remember, this was 150 years ago: they had barely plumbed the mysteries of electricity. They had no computers, no electron microscopes. In the absence of the concept of DNA, Darwin got incredibly close in some ways, and very far off in others. The fossil record was very shallow at that time as well. A man, so concerned with self preservation that he didn't share his idea with anyone outside a circle of close confidants, with limited means and without the benefit of evidence gathered by thousands of scientists working to verify (or disprove) got some things wrong. Barely even worth commenting on, except for this bizarre tendency in the western world of assuming that smart people don't (or can't) make mistakes. What is amazing is how much he got right, without any of the advantages afforded our position. Then again, he did spend 20 years honing his theory.
The very sober abstract is specifically examining the relationship between tetrapods and their roles in nature, which is a general concept, as I detailed last time, that has been accepted for a long while, though it appears it is only recently being studied to get specific data.
The theory of evolution contained a dire warning, as well- a foreshadowing of the industrial revolution which was in full swing by the time he had published. The study of ecology led to the discovery of the peppered moth, a moth which evolved to be black simply because the trees had turned black from the soot, and it was harder to see than its white competition. This seemingly minor discovery showed that not only had humans discovered evolution, their actions would directly impact the rest of the web of life. One hundred years later, and we realize the implications of human caused global warming- and now, we find ourselves in the middle of a mass extinction. But that's another post entirely.
There was a chilling side to Darwin's discovery- specifically, the Survival of the Fittest: the weak die and the strong survive, as Bill Maher quipped (point 6 in this post). This led to the British, Americans, and finally the Germans coming up with some very disturbing ideas. The British, thankfully, didn't go too far. The Americans and Germans certainly did- for Americans, it was their Eugenics programs.
Eugenics led to travesties of human rights. Men and women were rounded up and sterilized, due to "feeble mindedness." While the thought of eliminating all the idiots might have a surface pleasure (particularly after being forced to suffer at the hands of a few), the idea of government funded practice of it is deeply disturbing. Minorities and others were taken as well, removed from their families and placed in foster homes with white people, in the hopes that they would escape the stigma of their past, and be absorbed into the "dominant culture". Evolution was used to justify terrible things. If you want to read about the Germans with their perfect Aryan race, and their breeding programs, I'm running out of room in this post. I can go into more detail if anyone's interested.
But that leads to a significant flaw in the thinking of that day. The flaw is that just because a law exists in nature that we should necessarily live our lives by it for the best. Consider gravity. The theory of gravity basically says that two objects will attract each other. Does this mean that we should go outside, find the most massive thing we can see, and rush over to it? Or simply lie on the ground, in fulfillment of some cosmic purpose? That's foolish on its face.
It is no different to assume that simply because in nature the best adapted survive, we should try to ensure this. Just as with gravity, the law will run its course in any case. It is a cruel, merciless world, run according to a law that tests every aspect of every living organism. The price for failure is death, and death for all your descendants. By the very fact that we are a part of nature we are subject to its laws- but just as we evolved to overcome the fetters of gravity to walk on the moon and explore the stars, we have matured culturally to the point where finally we might cast off the bestial chains of evolution. Evolution has also given us kindness, mercy, music, and dozens of things that make us quite capable of living our lives without ever needing to harm another. Our ability to understand evolution should encourage us to choose which traits that we, as a species, as animals, as individuals, will live by.


  1. I think personally that no matter what or who you believe in, there is going to be an asshole that takes it to an extreme. Unfortunately creationists will use this to persuade the public that our views are going to be the undoing of humanity and civilization itself. We not only battle hundreds of years of religious beliefs but also the humane ego. We just have to keep on building cranes I suppose...

  2. This isn't so much about taking something to an extreme as applying something in a way it shouldn't be applied at all. Like using a hammer to fill a water bed. Just a bad, bad idea. That said, I agree on the rest. It's ego, fear, and general ignorance all rolled into one.