Monday, 5 August 2013

Evolution and mortality

Pretty big title, hunh? Just one point, though.

Someone was writing on the BBC website recently about human day/night rhythms,  and putting forward the theory that artifical light disrupted the rythms with which homo sapiens evolved. Seemed plausible. Then s/he used the phrase ..."than evolution intended."

Noew I'm no evolutionary scientist, but that's bollocks, isn't it? Evolution doesn't "intend" anything. It simply happens.  It has no agency, intention, or identity. And if "intended" was just a metaphor, it's a seriously misleading one.   It's an easy error to make, though. One way we understand our world is to give human traits to nonhuman forces. The wind sighs in the trees, etc. But evolution can't intend, any more than gravity or electricity can, I guess.

So -what? Why does this matter? (Well, to me, anyway.) Because it can be really liberating to accept that evolution is a fantastically complex but entirely arbitrary set of interacting processes.

Death and life, generations, are part of evolution, which depends of course on generations of creatures - generational succession is evolutionary, evolution is generational. So all creatures live, die, and evolve. Even us. So that's one thing I can stop worrying about!

Evolution links us to the entire planet and all its life forms. We sit, as it were, in the midst of evolutionary change. We belong in it, it is part of us, we are evolving.

I think we can accept this whatever religious or non-religious beliefs we have, whatever the stage of spiritual journey each of us is on. 

(Sorry to all those who refuse to accept the idea of evolution - now that refusal really is a bit of a watershed! Flat earthers.... welcome to their beliefs, but please don't foist them on our children.)

All hail the mighty Darwin and all those who work away challenging, modifying, adding to his work. And happily, evolution also resulted in a very nice, humane sort of genius, to boot!

Well, that remains to be seen. But misunderstanding or misrepresenting evolution won't help us!


  1. Amazing how often you hear people sigh/exclaim "It was meant to be." Evolution has yet to eradicate fatalism.

  2. Charles, you're causing me to think (ouch!) about the differences between fatalism and acceptance. Maybe fatalism has a veiled belief in omnipotence somewhere - because who or what meant something to be? And acceptance simply - accepts. Accepting evolution and generational succession rather than falling back on fatalism seems to me the liberating thing - but I guess people will use whatever helps.

  3. Acceptance, like her little sister, Acquiescence, and her children, After-You and Turn-The-Other-Cheek, can, I think, seem overly passive, primitive even, certainly unsafe, to those who brandish the trusty sword of Reason or the magic wand of Faith. Mankind abhors an unmade bed, Universal chaos -- indeed, anything that hints at an absence of aims and objectives, KPIs and a decent road map. Tidy minds busily explicate the inexplicable and espy a Plan (pref overarching). 'It was meant to be' (that's all right, then).

    The problem with generational succession is that it smacks of genetic predisposition -- when we all like to fool ourselves that we're the captains of our ship and the masters of our fate.

    Old age, though, is an enormous help, I find. The more barnacled one gets, the more receptive to acceptance. It's the time of life when one begins to shrug a lot, and the shrug is the manifestation of wisdom.

  4. How interesting, thanks Charles. Though by generational succession I merely mean, here at least, the fact of it- leaving aside genetic influence for the moment.

    However, genetic predisposition is perhaps useful if it helps us see through the illusion that we are captains of our ships!

    I much like your image of old age. "The shrug is the manifestation of wisdom." Lovely.

    So clearly (?) the French are the wisest people on earth...QED