Struggling with Meaninglessness

searching meaning in meaninglessness

Understanding Evolution

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Just came back from Bangkok (5 days trip) few days ago. Well, actually it was already almost a week ago, but i was too exhausted by the too-much-non-stop-walking-around-Bangkok-streets, so i gave myself a little permission to rest and be a little lazy inactive in blogging .

I bought a book from Bangkok’s Kinokuniya – The Making Of The Fittest by Sean B. Carroll .  I was weighing my options on buying between this book and another book on physics, but for some reasons, i chose this.

On the very same night, my friend saw this newly brought book of mine and read the first few chapters of it. He then promptly asked me a question which nobody has asked me before – “Ronn, what is Natural Selection?”

I was blank for several seconds not knowing how to answer the question. It’s not because I do not know what it is about. But rather, I was thinking how should I explain such complex scientific process using layman words while effectively conveying the idea of Natural Selection to him.

I’m a pretty perfectionist when it comes to conveying my thoughts – I always try my best to make sure people fully understand my words and ideas. So, I’m sure I will only confuse people who knows nothing about Evolution if I use terms and sentences like ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘species keep diverge and descend’ in order to ‘adapt to the environment’.

And so I went on to explain Natural Selections to him by illustrating examples of Darwin’s discovery of finches’ different type of beak due to different type of diet, the shorten elephant’s tusk due to illegal poaching, and also Artificial Selection of domesticated pet like dog, cat, and pigeon. (how human breed colorful patterned fur in these animals).

While on the plane flying back to Malaysia, i recalled back this little experience of mine again, and I was thinking – What’s the best way or method to convey the idea of Evolution to people who knows zero about Evolution? (Just in case if anyone asks me this question in the future, I will not need to go mind-blank for several seconds again).

I realized that giving descriptions and examples (or perhaps analogies) of Evolution alone is never good enough as it is pretty prone to misconception and misinterpretation. It was just like … Survival of the Fittest was innocently linked with Adolf Hitler for no apparent good reasons (genocide is not by any means … natural). Besides that, there’s also reason why not everyone accepts the truth of Evolution – their presuppose thoughts resist any ideas which seem contradictory to their beliefs. They simply can’t see ‘how it could happen’. Hence, the best way to explain Evolution is to ‘awaken’ the mind-set of the people or eliminating certain presupposition pertaining to the reality.

One of the presuppose idea everyone has by default is recognizing things as permanent. I highly suspect this instinctive thought has something to do with Evolutionary Psychology for the sake of humanity survival but I do not know exactly why. (perhaps there is something to do with certainties?) But its true, we always tend to see many things as permanent.

For instance, if I’m born with this look, then I know I will remain with this look for the rest of my life. If this tree produces green leaves, then I know it will only produce green leaves throughout the tree life span. If Shelly passes away, we know she will be gone forever. Most of us are born with 5 fingers, and we know we will not grow another finger without any reasons.

But notice that these ‘permanence’ is just something we could witness in our everyday life. What about things which the duration could stretch beyond our lifetime? Something which takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years to happen?

The truth is, in a bigger scale, impermanence is the reality of life. (Don’t worry if you are confused at this point because Evolution is a pretty counter-intuitive idea to begin with. I will explain why.)

There’s always a reason for any circumstances to take place. Let’s ask a simple question – Why is there such diversity in the Equidae family where we have horse, donkey, zebras and kiangs? Why not the Nature just create one species and fit all? Why does diversity in animal exist?

Same goes for the primates family. There is such a diversity in primates where we have monkey, chimpanzee, baboon, gorilla, orang utan, and *gasp* human, etc. Despite the differences of our looks and features, we do share similar core traits and characteristics. One obvious core trait – we are the only existing animal family which could walk upright.

We always have the tendency to only believe things which go accordance to our ‘common sense’ and perception. Therefore, we tend to think that the mentioned diversity has already exist since the beginning of time because at the back of our head, we always mistakenly think – if indeed the diversity of species was caused by Evolution, then how come I couldn’t see it? If Evolution is true, why couldn’t the crows which lives around my neighbourhood produce non-black colour baby crows? Or perhaps a patterned feathers instead of plain black?

And that’s exactly the mistake of permanence-perception which I’m trying to say. We always believe in permanence by default. To convince ourselves to believe otherwise, we always try to look for drastic changes or mutation in order to believe in Evolution. The subconscious reasoning of us is always – “Evolution says a fish transformed to a land creature many years ago. But the fish in my pond never drastically evolved before! So how could it had happened?”

But the fact is, Evolution works in small and tiny incremental steps which we could hardly notice even if we try to meticulously observe with our eyes.

It is equivalent to yourself spending 15 years standing in front of the mirror 24/7 watching yourself grow. The incremental changes is so tiny that you will barely notice anything. You won’t notice when you grew taller or  when your face structure changed a little.  You can’t observe how your hair grew. You know it happened, but you simply can’t observe it.

However, if you take a picture of yourself when you are 6 years old, another when you are 12 and another when you are 21, compare these pictures and you will then be able to clearly see the differences of your growth stage.

And this is exactly how scientist tries to decode Evolution – by gathering evidence and creating hypothesis.

So why do I say life is impermanent? It is simply because the most fundamental block of our life, our genes, which makes us the way we are, always mutate and changes over time. Mutation does not happen overnight to an individual but only during the process of creating offspring hence the term – diverge and descent.

Another presupposition we have is thinking that we know the reality and environment around us well. But the truth is we know very little about it, at least from historical point of view.

Borrowing Richard Dawkins’ piano analogy, imagine if the piano’s 52 white-note keys, from left to right, is the age of the earth. Human only started to exist right at the last key. And no, it does not occupy the whole key – just half of the last key.

Hence, human being’s existence has only occupied roughly around 0.25% of the entire earth’s history. Which means we do not have a great deal of knowledge knowing what has happened during the earlier 99.75% of the earth history. Thus, scientist could only create hypothesis based on geology and fossils to understand Earth’s history. Perhaps occasionally, there would be an Einsteinien-like scientist proposing outrageous ideas of how the reality works. And this is exactly the function of science.

Once these presupposition and rigid mind-set is replaced with a more precise view of reality, then it would be much easier for people to understand Evolution and comprehend the role of natural selection, mutation, genetic drift and genetic flow in driving the force of Evolution of Life. We would then understand why we are so different from a chimpanzee but yet closely related to each other.


Written by elan85

August 23, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Evolution, Philosophy

One Response

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  1. “One of the presuppose [d] idea everyone has by default is recognizing things as permanent. I highly suspect this instinctive thought has something to do with Evolutionary Psychology for the sake of humanity survival but I do not know exactly why.”
    It is because we are a “proactive” species: we define the environment in which we live and to which we adapt. If “a species is defined as a discrete entity which remains in equilibrium during phases of environmental stability” (Google), it is necessary that we treat as “permanent” the environment that we define at each stage of our evolution.
    We were a different species when we thought that the earth was flat, or that it was at the center of the universe. We were then behaving very differently than now and didn’t have the same potentials.
    I believe that the times have come for us to redefine our environment from a holistic point of view, so we acquire more potentials and drastically alter our behaviours. It has become crucial for our survival. I am working at it.
    The “postulate of objectivity” (Monod) of modern science has become (désuet).
    From a holistic standpoint, it is as if postmodern scientists have regressed to”counting angels on the heads of pines.” Modern science is the reason of the present dismays of our Enlighten Ages as religion was the reason of our intellectual stagnation of the Dark Ages.


    A Gaudwin

    September 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm

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