Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tumblers in the Lock of Time, Part Four

One could argue that this category falls under my previous entry into this series, but since Evolution occupies such a crucial place in our cultural and scientific society, I felt it deserved an entry of its own.

How could such an important theory become so misunderstood? Easy: because we want it to be something else.

With science, there is always an emotional confrontation. We can't help it. With evolution, it's all about where we come from. Many of us can't stand not being special from the rest of nature. some of us can imagine breeding the products of nature, like dogs and cows and roses, but we can't stand a rather simple concept: that our environment bred us from lesser creatures. It's a major stumbling block for people, especially those who believe our origins are directly divine.

For some, Evolution is just one of those strange ideas that science will likely till under as time goes on. For others, it is a dragon of modern times, a demon that encourages ruthless behavior and Godlessness. But each interpretation is based on a misinterpretation.

First of all, Evolution is a very well integrated, very mainstream theory of biology. It forms the basis for most inquiry into how creatures come to adapt to the rest of the world around them, and helps us with the nagging questions of why adaptations go wrong, and why they're not perfect. Second of all, Evolution is morally neutral. Think of every cute and docile creature. Think of every vicious, callous predator. Think of every goofy, devoted pet. Think of ever wild ugly and nasty thing. No matter what the disposition a creature may have, or we may percieve it having, Evolution took a hand in that creatures development. Scorpion or dragonfly, doe or lion, all creatures we see around us owe their continued existence to the fact that they are adapted to life on Earth. Our judgment of that worthiness is entirely beside the point.

Additionally, Evolution is a theory of the natural world. It can only stand in the way of faith if one depends on the evidence of the natural world to confirm one's faith. If one doesn't require the bible to be literally true, and doesn't ask nature to confirm God's existence, then nothing about evolution precludes the existence of God. Additionally, if one recognizes that man has evolved with the capacity for moral behavior, then one can recognize that evolution is not entirely about adaptational warfare.

People talk about how unlikely the chance changes in our genetics are, even as many of them deal with relatives, friends, and spouses struggling with cancer, a disease that comes from a failure in our body's response to constant mutations in our genetic code. They compare evolution to a 747 being assembled by a whirlwind. Never mind that both evolution and the manufacture of a jet occur in many small steps, and under nonrandom conditions. The only thing really random about evolution is mutation, and it is a constant force.

Some might wonder how even with millions of years, the mutations could build to create new species. The trick there is that no species starts with a clean slate- all genes are some other gene's mutations. There are a myriad of possible genetic directions, which the circumstances of a creatures life can play with over the generations to create new species.

As I noted in my previous entry on the economy, many businessmen use evolution, in particular, survival of the fittest, as guiding principles. God knows, many Republican do. But there is one thing that should be considered about evolution and human behavior: We have a choice about our behavior, about our adaptations. That is our adaptation. Though our brains and bodies are the imperfect results of evolutions's provisional efforts, they have given us the ability to choose between good and bad, rather than simply be vicious or docile according to our genetic legacies.

I think the real lessons of evolution are these:

1)It doesn't pay to be unexceptional and competitive. Those who can't distinguish themselves from their competitors are doomed to struggle continuously for the same wealth. Those who can find a useful niche of their own can prosper in competition, essentially by setting up a business without true competitors. In nature, competitors often destroy each other, or sidestep each other to different niches. Two species might hunt similar prey, but one do so at night, the other during day.

2)The most exceptional talents or developments exact tradeoffs. These are part of the risk of running a good business. Care must be taken to support extraordinary efforts with proper infrastructure and balance progress with other more conservative use of assets

3)Sustainability is as important as acquisitiveness. Nature rewards excess with starvation, eventually, and so does our economy. Some accept this as part of the natural business cycle, but the reality is that such practices are dysfunctional, and such wild fluctuations can be tempered by prudent policy.

4)It is impossible to know everything but advantageous to know the right thing. We see no more than a tiny fraction of the Electromagnetic spectrum, but oh, the things we can see with it. Every creature has senses suited to their course in life. The fish's don't have our vision, but their eyes are suited to the way light travels through water. They see clear where we see a blur.

In business and other human pursuits, one cannot know everything, but it is useful to know the right things. With the complexity of life, though, that often means knowing an awful lot. No big deal. Learning builds on itself. The more you know to start with, the better you can decide what to do and how to do it. Too many people pursue business careers and leadership positions in ignorance of the endeavors they wish to lead people in. How does one lead wisely when one does so ignorantly?

The ability to learn in such a complex fashion is one of our greatest adaptations. To make the best use of our brains and our words, we must be constant seekers of the knowledge necessary to do things right, and do the right thing. Because we go through life with limited means to do what we must, we must act with prudence, intelligence, and wisdom. When we don't, then we find ourselves out of balance with the world around us, and exposed to the real forces of selection still alive in our world.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at May 7, 2005 8:14 AM