Posts Tagged ‘genetic mutation’

SERMON: “Talk to the Animals” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

We’ve all heard it: one half of a cell phone conversation.

“Nothing.  Just waiting to pay for my groceries.  What are you doing?”

Someone in their pajamas, at the grocery store, having all appearances of nowhere to rush to, and nothing pressing to do, nevertheless carries in her hand the technology to talk to anybody about nothing anywhere she wants to.

Our communications technology, it seems, has far outstripped our capacity to come up with something worth saying.  It makes me wonder just what it is that we’ve done with our much-vaunted ability to talk.  Though the creationists among us may see ourselves as the ultimate “purpose” of life on earth, I’m fairly certain that the rest of the animal kingdom is not (The Jungle Book’s King Louie’s plea of “I wanna talk like you” notwithstanding) desirous of our position.

Birds chatter all the time. What do they find to talk about?

Birds talk all the time.  I often wonder what it is that they find to talk about.  After all, how complex can the internal life of a grackle or sparrow be?  Maybe, for them, chirping is the calming act of repetitive sound making — sort of a sing song meditation.

Whales, I think, would really have something to say.  They live for a very long time, and must have interesting interior dynamics of affection, memory and even wisdom.  But, alas, they do not possess verbal language.  They do have a capacity for communication, to be sure (and something to say, I expect) but it is limited to clicks and rumbling sounds.  They simply have not been endowed by evolution with the mechanical capacity for speech.  Why not?  Can’t they simply “evolve” a voice box and the brain parts to activate it?

This question seems almost reasonable when seen in the light of the way evolution is often discussed in the popular press.  The language we use to describe evolution almost invariably borrows words that indicate intentionality: a shark is described as a perfectly-designed killing machine, we are told that dinosaurs evolved feathers and turned into birds, humans in higher latitudes developed blue eyes and narrow nostrils (as if they all got together one day and just decided to “do it”).

And this, it turns out, is a rather big deal, and it points us to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that is as maddening as it is widespread: individuals don’t evolve, populations do.

And populations evolve because of the way we reproduce: we make babies by combining the genetic material of two parent animals to form a new, single cell.  Once that cell starts dividing, there is a whole lot of copying and duplicating of genetic code going on.  And, like any such complicated endeavor, mistakes are made.  Most often, these mistakes do not cause harm.  But many times they do, and that future individual animal could be in serious trouble if the mistake is in a place in the DNA that causes a severe malformation (a missing limb, a heart condition, a lack of a pain response).

Most often such damaged fetuses are aborted spontaneously by the mother’s body before she even knows she’s pregnant (current estimates are at 50% among us humans).  But just every so often (it doesn’t have to be very often, when you take into account the long years over which evolution and natural selection have had time to “work”), a mutation occurs which provides some tiny, incremental benefit to the animal that has it.  In nature, it doesn’t take much — a touch more speed or agility, or a shred more smarts — to give you an advantage.  In fact, giant leaps of change are most often disastrous and, frankly, wasteful (there is a reason we have the body shapes we have and the huge brains to run them — but as it is we are living right at the hairy edge of disaster as women often have a very challenging time getting that huge human head safely past their narrow pelvises).

A lot of the idiocy around intelligent design has to do with a belief that one animal simply decides, one day, to turn into another animal.  And, since we don’t see that happening around us, evolution must be a fallacy.  Of course, evolution and natural selection aren’t based on decisions at all.  There is no “force” behind it that thinks about anything at all.  It is simply a process in which the success of any and all life forms is the product of the inherited characteristics of that particular life form in a particular environment.  If an environment is stable over time, then life forms will inevitably adapt to it (or fail to, and die off).  So that throughout the history of this planet, life forms that began as the most basic of units have had time and opportunity to keep on reproducing, over and over, mixing and mutating their DNA until, due to an ever-increasing accumulation of those one-in-a-million (or billion, or trillion, or???) beneficial inherited traits, you end up with entire animals built up of cooperative collections of bacteria and bone and muscle and blood.

At some unknowable and uncountable moments in our human reproductive history, the genetic frameworks for our capacity for verbal speech were set in place.  They did not evolve in order for us to speak, they just happened, bit by bit until, by chance, some sort of functional unit took shape that gave the first human that could grunt a slight advantage of the one who only squeaked and, voila, a line of grunting descendants was set to become dominant.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And this is the way that a bacteria becomes a mutlicellular creature, and then a fish and then a talking, thinking human being.

But it’s more complicated than just evolving the mechanical equipment of a voice box activated by air flowing from our lungs.  Surely the nature of our language shapes our thought.  We rightly wonder whether the internal, cognitive complexity of animals isn’t itself limited by a lack of verbal language (or, conversely, greatly enhanced by it).  After all, it is our language — our words with their shared meanings — that provides the sort of filing system of our experience of living.  Without language, I think much of our memory and ideas would remain undifferentiated, like our memories of very early childhood (or even of our birth).

(I mean, surely we were conscious during all of those early experiences, but they are ideas we had before we had words to form ideas with.  They are like digital files from our first computer in a program that no-one has anymore.  The data is surely locked in our minds, but we cannot access it).

Such is the power of language.

And this is also why we will never be able to talk to the animals.  As much as we are able to communicate with chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats, we can’t actually talk with them.  We do share a very real understanding, at times, with other creatures.  But it is not simply a problem of translation (in the way it might be when trying to talk to another human who does not speak our particular language).  For we don’t even know how whales, say, file the memories and ideas that they have.  To read a whales mind would pose the same problems as trying to recall the pre-language experience of our own birth: how can we translate thoughts that were not recorded in any language?

It’s like the aging floppy disks that I keep in now dusty boxes…well, sort of.  For though those disks carry data in an actual language readable by an actual (if out-of-date and-hard to-find) technology, they will soon be, for all practical purposes, impossible to read.  The difference is that our pre-language memories (and likewise, one assumes, the thoughts of the whale) were never recorded in a language at all.

As one scientist said to me: what we really assume in our inter-species communication fantasies is that the other animal will learn our language, and tell us what he or she is thinking.  But for that to happen, that animal would have to evolve the brain and body structures that we did.  And since evolution is not directed, there is no reason to expect them to do that over the next million years or so.  But even if they did, they would no longer remember life without language, and could not tell us some of the secrets to our own wild past that we seek.

So what we really hope for, I think, is for a dolphin to suddenly start talking to us.  But it should be obvious by now that this is a fantasy.  For that magical talking dolphin, too, would have no access to its pre-verbal memories (unless it were, truly, “magical”).  This is why the notion is such a potent subject for fantasy in film and fiction.  It’s appeal is only outweighed (or perhaps enhanced) by the sheer impossibility of it actually happening.

I think we should be appreciative of both the benefits and limitations of our unusual capacity for language.  I coo at dove, or moo at cows all the time, and talk to cats and dogs as if they have a clue.  It amuses me and doesn’t traumatize the animals.  And it serves as a kind of wry reminder that we humans are in this talking life alone, together.  Our capacity for verbal language is one of the highly unusual products of an incredible series of tiny historical mutations that had to rise or fall in our population in the living conditions of untold numbers of individual lives.

And make no mistake: our capacities evolved step by step, always built upon the body plan that came before.  There is nothing “irreducibly” complex about us.  We see analogues to our own eyes and hands and throats and minds in the animals around us.  They echo our sameness and shed light on our uniqueness.  It is a wonder that the whales would probably enjoy talking about.  If only they could.

Or maybe, like us, they’d quickly run out of things to say.  And then we’d be reduced to visiting them at Sea World where, instead of thrilling us by leaping out of water for their wet-suit clad trainer, they would instead entertain us by chattering endlessly on their own whale-sized cell phones:  “Oh nothing.  Just jumping for some fish.  What are you doing?”

t.n.s.r. bob