Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thanks, Science Guy

I've said before and I'll surely say again that in my view, my generation is as much defined by Ultraman and Kung Fu Action Theater as by anything else. This may well define me as the lone member of "my generation". I'm not sure about whether that's the case or not. There may be others out there.

The bottom line on that definition probably amounts to little more than this: For better or for worse, my cultural awareness is and will likely always be something that (at least in part) is tinted by the influence of television. Whether that's ultimately a good or bad thing is not something that I'm interested in discussing at this point. (At least not during this blog entry.) However, I have mentioned it as simply a noteworthy scrap of information. Having said as much, I am willing to go on record as saying that neither is this truth a cause for great celebration nor is it one of the world's great tragedies. I'm quite certain that it falls somewhere on the line between those two extremes.

I bring this up as a way to getting to Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

A few nights ago, I was flipping between channels, when I happened to stop for a few minutes of Countdown With Keith Olberman (in which the part of Keith Olberman was being played by some other fellow whose face I didn't recognise and whose name I didn't catch). His guest for this segment was Bill Nye. They were discussing this fossil find (Tiktaalik, link 1, link 2).

Bill Nye said something that struck me as being very important, and I am extremely grateful for his having said it (even if it didn't reach nearly as large an audience as it needs to). I don't have the exact quote, so I'm paraphrasing here:
This notion of evolution as "improvement" is wrong. Improvement is a human idea and it has no bearing on the processes of evolution.

I bring this up because I think it's a very important concept. It is, in my view, one of the most fundamental concepts in our understanding of the universe.

"Evolution" does not equate with "improvement".
"Evolution" does not encompass "improvement".
"Evolution" does not engender "improvement".
And "evolution" does not imply "improvement".

The idea of improvement plays no role in the process of evolution. And I think that one of the great failings of our science education has been the failure to make this concept crystal clear.

This is one of the biggest problems I had in my high school biology class. Evolution is obvious. It makes sense. But to me, it always seemed that "improvement" was generally considered (if not outright taught) to be a strong overtone or a deep underpinning (take your pick) of the theory of evolution. And this always struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong.

It took me a while to come to terms with this discrepancy. And what I came up with all those years ago is exactly what Bill Nye said. In essence: I was not wrong in my understanding of how evolution works. My thought process was not at odds with science. Logic is logic, and rational thought is possible. The disconnect was merely an error of word association.

If you associate the word evolution with the word improvement, it won't make sense.

The reason: That association of words is nonsensical and illogical.

Thank you, Bill Nye, for saying so publicly.

It is fair to say that a fruit fly is just as evolved as a human being is. In fact, by some measures, it may be fair to say that a fruit fly is more evolved than is a human being. Certainly, a fruit fly's lineage includes many, many more generations than does a human being's. It takes us a long time to reach sexual maturity and to reproduce. In fact, it's probably fair to say that the human reproductive cycle is among the slowest in the animal kingdom. This does not mean that fruit flies are any better or worse than we are. We coexist. That's evidence of only one thing: Neither species has gone extinct yet. That is an observable fact. And there's no value judgement involved in saying so. By the same token, we are no more highly evolved than gorillas or chimps or monkeys or dogs. We have simply evolved along different (divergent) paths.

The idea that evolution is about adaptation is misleading. The idea that evolution is a process that is heading towards something (perfection?) is misguided. And the idea that evolution is about improvement is inaccurate.

Evolution is not about anything. It's just a natural process. It's simply the way things happen. And it is utterly indifferent to qualitative assessments.

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