August 6, 2010
This is definitely one of my favorite quotes of all time:
“However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead.”
– Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker
When you look at all the violence and cruelty in nature, you can’t help but be disgusted. Whether it’s birds chomping away at the insects, big fish gobbling up the little fish, or lions hunting down the peaceable grazing animals, it’s worth asking why things are this way. What possible purpose could such madness serve?
I’ll let you in on a surprising secret — that very cruelty is what led to our awareness of this world!
The nature of life on planet Earth revolves around DNA. Each time an organism has offspring there are random mutations. Sometimes there’s a large mutation, and other times the mutations are far less noticeable. Either way, they’re there. DNA based life-forms have the property that they replicate with minor mutations. As the first cells came together, they began forming more and more complex structures and organisms. Let’s take a look into how such structures formed.
The first thing you have to understand is the sheer age of everything around you. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. Our planet is over four and a half billion years old. Evolution began not too terribly long after our planet formed. Various chemical processes led to the first cells forming which had the property of replication, similar to bacteria. They replicated in the waters and with each new generation there were slight mutations. Cell colonies started to form, and this process eventually leads, over billions of years, to the complex organisms which you see all around you. Colonies began competing for resources.
In a finite world, there’s only so much to go around. All lifeforms on the planet have to compete for whose design will live on. DNA is a sort of computer program with instructions on how to build a certain type of body. There’s only so much space on this planet, and only so many atoms to use, so nature is undergoing a long process to determine which design gets to use the available resources.
In evolution by natural selection, various environmental pressures weed out less well adapted designs. A lot of people find evolution a crazy idea because they think, “How could something as complex as the eye, or the wings of a bird, come about by random chance?” People who say these things don’t understand natural selection at all. Evolution is a far from random process. The small mutations in each organism’s offspring are pretty much random, but what’s not random is the fact that the environment weeds out the less well adapted designs. Though there’s not a set direction in evolution, not all directions are allowed. The bodies that evolution constructs slowly over time, piece by piece, minor modification by minor modification, have to be able to withstand their environment. They have to hold up under planetary conditions. For example, they have to be able to withstand the temperatures, hold up under the pull of gravity, and not come undone by the blowing winds or the swirling currents.
The vast majority of designs evolution cranks out are no good. The thing is, those garbage designs were eaten by predators, died early in their youth, suffocated, baked under the sun, starved, were ripped apart in the waves, died of sickness, tripped and smashed their heads on the rocks, and so forth. They didn’t reproduce and so their random mutation goes away while the better designs live on and reproduce further. The tree of life started a little bud, but it was cut off there. It never developed into a full branch. Nature constantly weeds out the duds and only “designs” adapted to the environment survive. That’s why everything appears so well constructed for its environment.
So although people are tempted to say, “How could all this have just happened by chance?”, in reality it didn’t just happen. You’re seeing the end result of a long process and what’s around you are the winning designs. But just because they’re winning designs does not mean they’re perfect. There’s flaws in everything when you examine it closely.
Just look at the human body. It’s a mess. In the interview below, Richard Dawkins is speaking with a physician who talks about how badly the human body is designed. I enjoyed it when he showed our eye’s blind spot. Our eyes have a very bad flaw. The wires within the eye are placed in front of the light detection rods and cones, which is the worst possible design choice. Creationists like to use the eye as the profound instrument which could never have come about by natural selection. The thing is, when you realize the flaws in the eye’s design, and how eye designs differ from one species to the next, you can’t deny that our eyes are products of natural selection. These are the sorts of things discussed in the interview. (This is part 1 of 5. If you want to watch the others, right click on it, say ‘Watch on Youtube’ and then watch the other parts which will be there in the sidebar):
A loving God would have never created a body which is so susceptible to disease, so prone to injury, and so fraught with pains.
Now to get to the crux of this post.
Predators serve a very specific purpose in the evolution of our nervous systems and consciousness – they weed out those who are less aware of their surroundings. The predator and prey model led to a sort of “arms race” between species forcing evolution in a direction toward environmental awareness. Without this system the likelihood of evolution producing life-forms, piece by piece and modification by modification, who are highly aware of their surroundings, is next to nothing.
Our awareness became fine tuned in our search for food and evasion of predators. Those designs who couldn’t see well didn’t eat, and so they died off. Those who couldn’t move quickly were caught by predators and so were less likely to survive and reproduce. Those who weren’t very smart couldn’t catch prey and weren’t able to evade their craftier predators. These sorts of selection pressures led to the construction of highly nimble body constructions and large brain capacities. Without that system, we never would have developed our mobility or conscious awareness.
If life exists elsewhere in the universe (and I’m quite sure it does), and if they have a high degree of awareness of their environment, and a high degree of intelligence, they probably underwent their evolution under a predator and prey model on their planet. Their life tree probably isn’t based around DNA per se, but will almost certainly use something similar. It’s very likely that many, if not most aliens are violent and dangerous. If they’re really advanced, in order to survive and not blow themselves to bits during their technological development, they had to learn how to live peacefully. As for others, they’re likely violent.
It’s my guess that advanced aliens would be peaceful but would have no interest in us at all. They’d be so far advanced that we’d pretty much consider them gods. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had such a deep understanding of physics that they could create realities around them at their whim. Maybe they can control entire universes, or even modify the laws of physics.
Just look at the progress between us and a chimpanzee. We’re only slightly different in DNA and just look at how much more intelligent we are. That’s a very small difference in the eyes of evolution. Imagine evolutionary progress over a period of a billion years. Just look at how far science is taking us now. Look at the exponential progress. Even within the next 10,000 years, we probably won’t recognize humans. Their bodies will be modified genetically and merged with the technology around them.
Violence and the struggle for survival may well be just a temporary phase in the development of intelligent life-forms by mindless natural processes. Cosmologists now believe that the beginnings of our universe began with random quantum fluctuations. The empty space all around us teems with random activity. Maybe that whole plot from then to now is just to produce intelligent beings who then take control over their environment from then on, carving their universe how they like it.
I’m hopeful that planet Earth is slowly leaving the “age of violence”. We’re on the verge of taking control of this planet and will, in time, change how everything works to our preference. Biological evolution is being replaced by societal evolution and changes in states of mind. Changes in our physiology, at this point, won’t do much to promote our survival. As for growing a bigger brain, we won’t be able to do that. Women won’t be able to deliver children with huge heads. We’ll have to either grow our children in the lab, or modify them after they’re born, implanting technology into their brains. But don’t get too excited, we’re a long way from totally changing the order of things here on Earth.
But enough about all that. To conclude this post, remember that everything has a purpose. Nothing in this world is random, not even its cruelties.