Friday, October 30, 2009

Darwinian Myths and Evolutionary Theology

I've only read a small portion of Origin of Species. It was mandatory reading that a professor printed off in mass to educate myself and my fellow students. As I recall I made it through 2-3 pages. The next thing I remember is waking up face down in the article that was then serving as a sponge for a large quantity of saliva. Thus, I failed at becoming a Darwin scholar. It does not seem that this rules me among a minority. My experience is that a great deal of scientists, even geneticists, have fallen short of reading the boring and generally inaccurate prose that made Darwin a legend.

One of the greatest myths resulting from Darwin is the idea of survival of the fittest. Before I proceed I'll make it clear that I fully believe in evolution. Obviously, if you've read much of anything I've ever written, I don't hold much room for Creationism. Still, I agree with many contemporary thinkers that for all its claims of objectivity, science is just as guilty of mythic, indeed religiously dogmatic, thought as any other culture. Survival of the fittest is perhaps one of the best examples I can point out. The big problem is with the concept of fitness. Darwin was certainly on to something in noting that it is survivors that pass on their genes, and determine the make-up of their progeny. But, the problem is that these survivors are not always more fit than all the others.

There is an enormous variety of "fitness" levels in nature. When we think of fitness we tend to assume this means the big and the strong. But that's not always true. In fact nature tends to select against "the big". In the grand scope of things, it is quite rare for bigness to be an advantage. More often than not it works against one's favor. Nor is strength as it's typically depicted really give one an advantage. Large muscles and stature simply burn more calories, and demand more consumption and make one a bigger target for 'nature' to take down.

Anyone who has spent much time around horses can tell you that they are some of the sickliest animals in all of creation. The vet bills for owning a horse are staggering. We should keep this in mind when we depict professional athletes as the inheritors of the earth: it only takes one bout of flu to make them as vulnerable as everyone else. In our society athletes are paid ridiculous wages because the perpetuate the delusion that they are the fittest specimens which we should all aspire to be. But, nature does not fit into (scientific) dogmas. Nature does select, but rarely does it do so based on who is bigger, faster and stronger.

A lot of the time, natural selection proceeds by blind luck. Were the citizens of Pompeii less fit than those of Rome? If a lion is struck by lightning is it sensible to assume it was less fit than meerkat hiding below the ground? If the meerkat's burrow collapses on top of it because a rhino tramples on top of it should we assume nature voted against him? These are ridiculous questions. These are circumstances that have minuscule relationships to the idea of "fitness".

My biology professor used to put it this way, "Nature does not select the fittest, only the fit enough. Nature shows no preference for those making an A+, it only expects that you make a D."

Statistically speaking it is the D's and C's that actually fair the best in nature. This is simply because there are more of them. Nature will, more often than not, respect the bell curve. There are far more numbers in the middle, and these numbers tend to like reproducing every bit as much as those pulling an A+. Often, they like reproducing even more. The cataclysmic situations where nature raises the bar, such that only the top of the class makes it on, are sparse. Meanwhile, she continues killing off the top of the class with the rest of it at a flat rate.

I mentioned my fascination with bacteria/viruses before. This is another tie in. It would seem that one of the biggest driving forces for evolution is adaptation to adverse microorganisms. Thus, nature cares much less about muscle mass than the functionality of one's immune system. This should serve as food for thought for those who don't think the poor should be provided with adequate health care. Dr. Paul Farmer has pointed out that we rich Westerners are culturing our own demise by leaving the masses living in favellas and barrios around the world where new diseases will specifically evolve to kill humans. The poor will be the first to die of it, and the first to be born immune to it. The privileged will be the ones whose numbers are less favorable. Statistically speaking we won't stand a chance. Thus, we might ought to add a beatitude, "Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the earth." This should be taken literally, and not spiritualized. Sow economic inequality, reap pandemic.

"Survival of the fittest" is a perversion of Darwin's ideas. It is a myth that speaks more of capitalism than of reality. It is what we want to believe, so we don't have to change. We want to believe that we have what we have, because we deserve it; because we are the fit ones. We want to believe that we are the strong who have survived, that our genes are the superior ones. We want Darwin to confirm our greediness, and we've forced axioms from his mouth. In fact, his ideas have told us the opposite. The mediocre survive with the fit. The mediocre are often more fit than the strong.

A Wendel Berry quote I love goes like this, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand, it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." Only in light of evolutionary insights, I would replace "privilege" with "imperative".


At 6:55 AM , Blogger Jonathan Storment said...

I've never heard anyone say that Darwin didn't lay the groundwork for survival of the fittest before. I know that the evangelical world has been pretty hard on Darwin, and that chances are he didn't know a ton of the implications for his work. i.e Scopes Monkey trial etc.

But the way I see it is that this is good for scientist (and politicians, and Christians) to try and parse this from their worldview (even if it is as you say grafted in there by capitalism).

That's the thing about your blog Joe, I always get something new.

At 10:59 AM , Blogger Joe said...

Yeah, I don't want it to sound like Darwin didn't imply the survival of the fittest, but rather that the form this has taken on is a hyperbole of what he actually said. Fitness plays a major role in evolution, but the characteristics we classify as "fit" reflect more about our values than nature's.

I think in this blog I used "natural selection" a bit uncritically. It's been mentioned to me that I leave it too ambiguous, or simply misapply it. Insofar as that's true, I repent.

At 1:57 PM , Blogger ninni said...

Lovely Subject


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