Talking about evolution - blog by Gurdur


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Talking about evolution
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Posted 10-Apr-2015 at 01:09 AM (01:09) by Gurdur

Evolution happens, but it's not a simple thing at all, and it's often burdened with projection and myths by people with agendas. Evolution only really gets interesting once we talk about complex things; and those things are the hardest to explain, of course. One of the most comon agendas driving myths about evolution is based on the myth that simple answers can be given off-the-cuff to complex questions, which is of course wrong. One book that really helped me begin understanding evolution is a book not about genetics: "The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge", by William Poundstone. This discusses how to research complex things from 'simple' foundations, a necessity for truly understanding evolution. If you think this is automatically easy to understand, you're very wrong; pick up a copy of "Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues", by by J. A. Cover, Martin Curd and Christopher Pincock, to find out just how thorny, complex and difficult - and occasionally insoluble - many philosophical problems inside science in general are. The philosophy is essential - science gives us a lot of what to think about, but it's philosophy that gives us how to think. Including logic - logic comes from philosophy, not science.

It is very important not to burden evolution with agenda-driven tribal politics. Evolution is not incompatible with religion per se; for example, most British Christians accept evolution, and in 2011 over 500 Christian church parishes throughout the USA celebrated Darwin Day. It is equally important to realize that just saying "evolution" is not an explanation by itself; you have to describe the process and mechanisms plausibly. One of the most common mistakes, made both by scientists and non-scientists, is to unconsciously think that because evolution is a process, it is defined by its end. You see the mistake come up time and time again; it's called the teleological fallacy, the belief that evolution does A, so it has the purpose to get to A. For example, saying that brains evolved to help us talk better, or saying birds evolved because flying is an advantage. Evolution has no purpose; it simply is. Eventually, bacteria evolve into humans - but bacteria remain existing alongside humans. The tree hyrax is related to hippos and elephants, but doesn't look or act like either. Evolution has no mind nor intent of its own - but we evolved with minds and intent. As soon as someone starts, "The reason X evolved is...", they've almost always gone wrong; evolution does not proceed to a goal.

Another good book that really helped me understand evolution is "The Selfish Gene", by Richard Dawkins. While the science in the book is a little dated, and many debates rage on as to mechanisms of evolutionary processes and drives, the book remains a classic, and is brilliant at explaining some issues. Where Dawkins goes wrong is usually on the extended philosophy, and that does not affect this book - I recommend it wholeheartedly, even though there are omissions, and things in it to disagree with.

Debates within biology and wider science rage on as to the exact mechanisms and processes of evolution. Natural selection, adaptation versus sexual selection, gene selection versus kin selection versus group selection, genes versus epigenetics, all these debates and many more rage on within science. We don't have anywhere near all the answers, we're just struggling forward to get real answers as we can. It's essential we do so.

Darwin's desk:

Statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London - draped in a knitted squid:

Link to much bigger version of the graphic below:

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