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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Misunderstanding Evolution

There is snow on the ground this morning, but school is still on today. Bow is napping, and I am taking it easy.

The snow on the ground early this morning

All is peaceful and I am reviewing. It's a time to take stock of everything, toward the end of the year, before looking forward to the next year. One thing that has struck me lately is how the concept of evolution is being misunderstood by "forward thinking" people. Take, for instance the expression "we are more evolved than that." What on earth does that mean?

Bow outside briefly yesterday -- too cold to stay long, but still fun

Evolution is about natural selection by environment. It implies nothing about one animal or plant being "better" than another in some general, absolute sense. Yet people with pretenses toward enlightenment are using the term as if evolution were about a scale of preference, from worse to better in a long line of improvements, like the great chain of being: with man at the top. The whole time that these people are singing "everything's beautiful in its own way" -- they don't believe it.

What is more, they don't seem to understand that no being can evolve to a place where it is exempt from the laws of the universe. I was trying to tackle this topic on my other blog in a post entitled Misremembering Robin Hood. On my Facebook page, I posted a picture of a rabbit from children's book In Case There's a Fox, and I wrote:

"What if rabbits tried to make a living out of eating foxes? If you understand why that could not work, then you understand why robbing the rich to feed the poor would also not work as a self-sustaining system."
Along came someone and accused me of being in favor of "dog-eat-dog".  She said we need to evolve beyond dog-eat-dog. Since dogs eating dogs would be cannibalism. and I had just explained that cannibalism does not work, clearly I wasn't in favor of dog-eat-dog. Nor do we need to evolve "beyond" that, as it was never possible in the first place. Yes. an occasional killing and ritual eating of a conspecific can happen, but as an ecosystem that could not work, because it would be like a perpetual motion machine. If you feed on someone else, then that someone else needs to feed on something else, not on you, or there will eventually be nothing for anyone to eat. It's also the same reason why two friendly neighbors cannot make a living by taking turns selling each other books they have written. And it's the same reason why our chickens could not live on the eggs they themselves laid.

But this person was so scandalized by the idea of comparing some people to rabbits and others to foxes that the next thing she wrote was something about Nazis. (And you know that when people start calling other people Nazis, a rational discussion is unlikely to ensue.)  And then she came up with this:
If you want to argue science and evolution...I suggest you check out the most recent information on chimpanzee behavior. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA. So far from being the gentle vegetarians they were thought to be, it turns out that they are homicidal, genocidal, wage war, and commit sexual atrocities on each other (and on humans they think of as being like them). That is our genetic inheritance
I for one never thought chimpanzees were gentle vegetarians. Have you seen the canines on a chimpanzee? What would lead anyone to think that? Where people get these misconceptions, I don't know!

I gently told her that I happen to live and work with a chimpanzee twelve hours a day. And then she said, did I see what a chimpanzee at a sanctuary had done to a volunteer who worked there when she put her hand on a chain link fence?

I would not recommend putting chimpanzees behind chain linked fences, standing on the other side of the fence, and sticking your hand in -- or even getting anywhere near that fence. You know why? You just made it an us-versus-them situation. If you want to get that close to  a chimpanzee, then cultivate a face to face relationship over a long period of time, and go in without barriers.

Bow and I together
Notice the holes in the grid are so small that you can't stick a finger through
Some of those sanctuaries should call on me to help them design their enclosures. They should also hire me as a consultant for chimpanzee psychology. They should not recruit any people who think chimpanzees are "gentle vegetarians" or pacifists or beatniks or whatever other misconception about chimpanzees happens to be current.

We are different from chimpanzees, but I would not say ever that we are "more evolved." We did not evolve from chimpanzees nor they from us. We had a common ancestor somewhere down the line, and there may have been some interbreeding even once we split off. But by and large, we evolved under different conditions to specialize in somewhat different skills. We have a lot in common, and we can live and work together, but only if we are on the same side of the fence. Put up a fence between you and the chimpanzees, and you have just declared war.

If you don't like chimpanzees because they get violent and wage war, then you probably secretly don't like humans, either. You don't accept yourself or that aspect of your own being. And you probably don't understand the ecology that you purport to want to save.

In any ecology and in any economy, different participants contribute in different ways and serve different functions. Producers are very important, and they are always more numerous and at the bottom of the trophic pyramid, because no system can work that is top heavy. And no matter how they develop and change to fit the circumstances, no individual or species can evolve to be immune from the rules of reality. Which is why cannibalism is never going to work, and we can't make a living by taxing each other.


  1. I had to lookup "trophic". ;-)
    Great post, Aya - very thought-provoking. I never mentioned it, but when I met Bow, I figured there was a good reason that the cage grid was small to prevent fingers from being poked through for a very good reason.
    No, "killing the golden goose" isn't going to work either. But it's a lot of work to try to explain that to people and a glacial process to see the results. Sometimes, I just give up trying to explain it.

    1. Yes, killing the golden goose definitely doesn't work. I don't usually try to explain it directly, either, but I thought I had found a way that would seem less partisan. Sadly, it did not quite work. I guess I have to find a different metaphor.

  2. People will bring their own biases to any argument about these things and see it through their pre-disposed bias. To me, it seems that many are more geared to "social justice" than they are worrying about the economics of it all. They never look at the "end game" or what the actual results would be, I guess.

    1. Yes, that's true. Some have a non-functional notion of fairness, being less interested in long term consequences of the application of their formula for "social justice" than in some kind of momentary equality of participants.That parents also have a stake in the well being of children and so consequences over more than one generation involve fairness, too, never occurs to them.

  3. Well, I appreciate your efforts to explain it using metaphors that are not offensive. At least to most of us. I think those that are out for social justice from the left are as focused and rabid as those on the right are about their view on things too. And so the battle rages around us. And empires are destroyed.

    1. It's hard not to lose hope. But unless everybody is intentionally destroying their own future, there must be some way to reach them. We just need to figure out what the magic words are.