Posts Tagged ‘natural seleciton’

SERMON: “Denying Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

It seems that the number of people denying the reality of evolution is growing, and for a hundred reasons that may all be expression of the most basic one: we don’t want to be alone.

So I’ll trot out the evidence that is so obvious we can easily miss it: the particular breed of dog or cat you have in your house (or pet rat for that matter); the banana you had with your breakfast cereal; the wheat that was ground to make your cereal; the breeds of cows from which your hamburger came; the tomato slices on top of that burger; and the ear of corn you had on the side.

Every single one of these items are the products of selective breeding, which is the intelligently determined action of humans (and, as we now know, other animals as well) upon living things with the aim of producing a desired change in the inherited traits of those living things.  This is different from natural selection in that there is an actual person fiddling (either directly or indirectly) with the genes of the plant or animal in question.  But it was the (rather dramatic) results of our meddling in nature that provided the first great clues that something was up with nature that didn’t fit with the idea of God having created each species as it was and as it always would be (immutable).

But corn was a small seed product of a grass like wheat is now, and wheat was a much smaller seed pod before it was altered by human intervention.  Dogs have been bred for particular traits, cats for color, cows for meat and milk production and tomatoes for color, size and thick skins to withstand mechanical harvesting.

All of these changes to naturally-evolved plants and animals can only happen because human farmers and breeders have been able to take advantage of the way that genetics works.  There is something in living organisms that is subject to change over time, and this turns out to be the natural reproductive process that involves the replication and recombination of genes.  Unnatural selection only hastens the natural process (and directs it in a specific direction it might not naturally take) but make no mistake: the exact same process is “directed” by purely natural forces at all times and in all places that life exists, and it always has, from the time that life began.

Although some creationists argue that what we see in such cases is not a fundamental enough change to warrant a belief in the evolution of one species into another (that the modern banana is still, essentially, a banana and not an apple, for instance), the fact of the matter is that a basic and underlying process for mutation and adaptation over time is revealed in these human-driven experiments in unnatural selection: the most basic doctrine of the immutability of creation does not hold up.

And that, my friends, is why evolution is so blatantly “true”.  What the pigeon breeder could accomplish over a handful of years, the evidence shows natural selection and the pressures of environment and competition have produced over several millions of years, turning not only a wolf into an Irish Setter but a fish into a human.  The processes at work are exactly the same, except that one is directed by another mind, the other by natural forces.  The only other differences are the timescales and the intelligence of the forces at work.

So when that idiot Ray Comfort holds up a modern banana as proof of evolution (because it was “designed” to “fit” the human hand), he is holding up a smoking gun aimed at his own fundamentalist face.  He is holding a product of 8,000 years of selective human breeding that turned a hard and nearly inedible fruit into the tasty yellow one that he is holding.  (I suppose he could argue that ancient, tiny bananas fit perfectly into our ancient monkey fists, but, well, that would be problematic for him as well now wouldn’t it?).

When people talk about “Intelligent design”, they are essentially imagining that a being (conscious in the same way that we are) intervened in nature the way that plant and animal breeders intervene in their domains.  There is a certain reasonableness to this idea, insofar as we humans behold the “end result” of eons of natural selection that can give all life the appearances of “design”.  (In truth, we could easily refer to the evolved eye of the eagle or the fang of the snake as “designed by nature” but for the implication of consciousness such a term brings with it).

We can now reasonably infer that the collection of forces and conditions that we call “nature” does it’s “work” without the need for any consciousness at all.  There is absolutely nothing about nature that requires the addition of an intelligent, thinking force to make it make sense.  So why do we try so hard to imagine nature a being like us?

Well, for the same reason that we have to have a god so much like us.

The hardest cognitive transition for us humans to make, it seems, is the shift in perspective that allows us to see ourselves as the creators of our ideas about the universe, and not the other way around: to see ourselves as the source of the intelligence we project onto the mindless canvas of nature.  Even science (based as it is in testable, verifiable evidence) has to rely on mutually-agreed upon terms that have no meaning outside of that which we assign them.  A gorilla is not really a gorilla, and a gene was not called a gene before we called it that, but we all go along with the nomenclature because we have an overriding desire to be understood when we describe something.

Now it’s easy for folks to trip up on this, and turn such a notion around to make an argument that since scientists coin new terms for their discoveries, that this is somehow the same as having made up the discoveries their terms describe.  This is clearly a defense against the troubling truths that science reveals to us.  But the problem with this sort of reasoning is that it ignores the reality that whether we named them or not, gorillas and genes would still exist (did the animals in the Garden of Eden not exist because Adam pulled their names out of his butt?).  Words are a tool we use to categorize the world in a way so that we can communicate facts and ideas and feelings to each other.  If we all decided to call gorillas “Judys” tomorrow, they would still be the same animal they have always been (only called by another name).

So much about irrational belief (be it religious or other) seems to be an effort to wiggle out of an awareness of just how precarious and passing our presence is.  Even though it will be a couple more billion years before our life-sustaining sun collapses into a white dwarf (obliterating the earth in the process) the very idea of a thing so huge and essential to our lives  (and seemingly unchanging) blasting itself into nothingness is rather troubling.

And so it’s easier to believe that all of this was created just for us than to ponder the fact that untold numbers of “suns” in other galaxies have already lived out the entire life cycle (that ours is still burning its way through).  (It is deeply troubling to contemplate that there could have been other “earths” where life also evolved and thrived, perhaps even leading to intelligent, conscious beings not unlike ourselves, who have had all of their history erased, and returned their elements to the cosmos, as we will do one day.  Despite the likelihood that none of us will live to actually see the earth meet that fate, we understand, on some level, that some living thing that follows us may be there when it does).

I admire humans.  But I admire them in the way that I admire all of life.  We are driven to live by impulses ancient and mindless, as if we, too, must expand like the universe until we can expand no further.  As humans we have the unique opportunity to observe, understand and comment on our own experience of this conscious existence.  And this is both a wonderful and troubling burden to carry.  No wonder we wish to see ourselves as fundamentally different than the ants who rush to rebuild the anthill we stepped on so casually.  But are we, really?  Is there enough difference between us and them to justify the belief in an intervention of divine forces in our creation?

I don’t think so.  Not when you look at things with a clear eye — cleared of the wishes and fears that make so many deny the facts of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Center of the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

It is in the nature of the individual human consciousness to believe what another human tells it.  There really isn’t much mystery in why this should be so: we are born as completely dependent primates, squalling bundles of plastic neural pathways working like mad to make connections, sense patterns, anticipate behavior and see to it that our most basic needs for food, shelter and companionship are met.  Then (if all of that goes relatively well) we’re grown up and gradually thrust from the nest to find our way in a world much larger and more vast than the domestic one we grew up in.

No wonder we thereafter detect the hand of god (or spirit, or universal consciousness) in the events that befall us.  Of course it helps that we are generally surrounded by hundreds of other primates who are using the very same cognitive tool set to navigate their own way through existence.  “You too?” is a powerful affirmation for each of us as we continue to both coax pattern (and thereby a degree of predictability) from the physical world and cement a wide range of critical social bonds with our fellow mammals.

It is, perhaps, a bit easy to criticize the irrational, juvenile solipsism that is the basis of belief in a vast, intelligent power that has created an entire universe over billions of years  just so that we can “ask” it for a favor in the course of our day.  Though such belief does, I think, deserve criticism, I have come to feel that irrational belief is less worthy of derision (in the same way, perhaps, that we understand it is not fair to criticize an individual for attributes over which they exercise no control).

Today I’m thinking about the sheer shock of the arrival of the kind of (apparently, still) unique consciousness that we humans possess.  Imagine a chimpanzee waking up tomorrow suddenly able to express herself in words, sentences and paragraphs, able to build structures, convert raw elements into chemicals and useful drugs, distill whiskey, compose music, drive cars, make laws and punish lawbreakers with civil justice (no more need to tear intruders to death with their own canines).  Then add to that the moment of realization that she is able to step beyond the immediate concerns of survival and consider the fact of her own existence.

Naturally, we humans didn’t come to such a “moment” in a flash.  Yet there had to some actual moments among one, then two, then hundreds of our ancestors that just about blew their mammal minds.  As in physical evolution, such “moments” probably occurred millions of times and went no further.  And, as in nature, eventually the right “moment” occurred under the right conditions and the humans who “thought” differently we the ones that won the lottery of natural selection and, well, here we are.

(The Neanderthals had it in spades.  Other, earlier branches of our hominid tree surely had it as well, but we are the ones that made it through the gauntlet of life.  That is pretty amazing).

And that is one of the things that I keep coming back to regarding belief in a higher intelligent force active in the universe.  For I’ll confess that my brain continues to seek opportunity to make sense of the universe, and one of the tools it will (perhaps until I die) bring to bear is the question of whether I am “right” about there being no god.

We are stardust. Photo copyright Russell Croman.

In my case there are two characteristics of my mammal brain at work here (I think): the one being the critical, analytical part that is constantly scanning for incorrect, useless or even dangerous knowledge to “delete” from my existential toolkit; the other being my profoundly social primate nature that is ever trying to find connection with my fellow monkeys (which, in our contemporary social structure represents a much wider population then our ancestors had to deal with — hence I also try to find common ground with my entire “nation”, for instance).

When I am confronted with this dual critical/social challenge to my confidence that god isn’t “out there”, I feel a familiar pang of anxiety that is equal parts fear of being “wrong” (which is a primal threat to my social standing), and a fear of annihilation before an implacable and all-powerful deity (if that deity turns out to be as advertised by most monotheists).  But instead of directly attacking this fear (which, it could be argued, only re-enforces the “power” of the idea), I end up sort of waiting for the next thought to come, which is generally a recollection of some fact gleaned from our study of nature or the universe or biology that will, in it’s quiet way, simply dispel the wisp of smoke that is the notion of god (when that notion is properly placed against the vast reality of space, nature and biology).

Others have put this better than I (Hitchens, Dawkins), but when we take in the actual cosmic perspective, we are faced with the notion that an intelligent actor created an inconceivably vast universe some 13.5 billion years ago, and used the nuclear furnaces of stars to create the carbon and oxygen and metals and elements that were then blown back out into the void by the violent death of those stars and then made available to a small planet such as ours which, a couple billion years later, managed to foment its own chemical reactions that, over hundreds of millions of years, evolved a vast array of complex, multicellular creatures, one of which became us.  Then, after millions more years of evolution, life, death and struggle for existence against the forces of natural selection (where 99% of every species that ever lived had already gone extinct), this intelligence chose the deserts of the Middle East, some three thousand years ago, to reveal himself to a bronze-age people as a God that required that humans (alone among the teeming multitudes of living creatures) to be careful about what foods they ate on what days, so as not to enrage this God to the point where he might fling his beloved creatures back into the void he had been overseeing (in every detail, and in order to have just this opportunity) for over thirteen billion years.

In the face of such a perspective, the idea of religion seems not that far above primate level thinking, frankly — as if it were something that a chimp could adopt without that much of an advance in it’s cognitive ability.  But then, to me, that makes absolute sense.  For we are, at our core, thinking monkeys.  And this is one of those ideas can be taken as an insult or a compliment, depending on how you look at it.  I think it provides a balancing to our solipsism and hubris by putting us in our natural context (when we need such a countervailing critical force).  But it also reveals to us just how remarkable our evolution to the pinnacle of consciousness is.  For no matter how you slice it, there is no other animal on the planet that thinks like we do. That “achievement” must rank among the most amazing unintended consequences of evolution that there has ever been.  (Though admittedly not by any completely objective standard — hence our continuous debate about whether we humans and our technical advances have, on the whole, been “good” for the planet — but impressive and worthy of note, nonetheless).

We are remarkable creatures.  Of course we are fascinating only to us, as no other animal in the universe is actually capable of “caring” about what we’re up to.  And perhaps that is another part of why we “need” god: as an extension of our human need to hear a heart-warming “Me too!” affirmation from another consciousness like our own.  For we warm to advice from others with an innate belief (or hope) that their experience is slightly better informed than our own and, therefore, helpful.  In the end that bit of encouragement, alone, is often the most useful part of such human interactions.  And so we quite naturally want to hear the same from the god (or gods) we create.

But maybe we have that already, all around us, even if it’s not in the more personal form we desire.  For we are a part of everything that is.  We are truly built of stardust: of carbon and oxygen and minerals formed in millions of star furnaces; our bodies drawn from the collection of cosmic dust that coalesced into our planet.  We live lives powered by our own nuclear furnace sun.  In a sense, the universe might as well be all about us, for it has bred us, borne and feeds us.  We just can’t expect it to say so any more than it already does.

t.n.s.r. bob