Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Most Natural Thing in Existence

            Evolution Happens

            A great misunderstanding has made its way into our society's popular conception. This misunderstanding has profound consequences on our social, moral and political discourse. The misunderstanding lies in the understanding many people have of evolution. Evolution, of course, is what put us on this planet, so anyone who does not "believe in it" (as if it were a choice) is experiencing a  misunderstanding as profound as an adult continuing to believe storks deliver babies down chimneys. And among those who accept evolution as the means by which we, and all other life, came to be, yet insist that God had to have a hand in it, we find this misunderstanding as well. And finally, even among those who accept evolution without reservation, in roughly the form that it is understood by professional scientists, this misunderstanding lingers.

            The misunderstanding is this: that evolution is some kind of (happy) "accident" that happened on this planet, and maybe others, but is by no means "inevitable." This is erroneous. Evolution is as inevitable as 2+2 equaling 4. It is an inescapable fact of existence of any kind, as long as a few simple conditions are met, which could similarly be said of the above arithmetic.

          There are several reasons for this misunderstanding, most of them historical. First of all, our understanding of evolution is relatively young; Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, versus Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687, which kicked off the scientific revolution. The fact that it was first explained in biological terms by one man working mostly independently, makes it seem as if it is merely a "theory" which  could be disproved, with perhaps the work of only a few diligent individuals who would prefer a magical explanation. Secondly, biological evolution generally  occurs on scales of time outside the true comprehension of the human mind; we can say "billions of years" in our language, but none of us can truly comprehend the enormity of that time scale, evolution didn't design us to. (The term "design" inevitably comes up in any discussion of evolution, which smacks of intelligent intent,  but since our language has no concept of "design without intelligent intent" we are stuck with it.) Because of the fact that evolution doesn't seem to occur "under our noses" (though anyone who has failed to take their full course of antibiotics has unfortunately seen it in action) like, say, gravity, it doesn't seem to have the same inevitability that gravity does. Incredibly, precisely the opposite is true; gravity is an accident of the universe we live in (and probably many others, as we shall see), whereas evolution is an inescapable law of existence.

            The root of this misunderstanding lies in the fact that most people's understanding of evolution is limited to a biological one. The reason for this, also, obviously, lies in history, precisely because Darwin first explained evolution as it pertains to biological life forms. This however, is not the only arena where we see the inevitable laws of evolution play themselves out. Examining this one, along with some others, in this post, will hopefully help eliminate this misunderstanding for the reader.

Our Friend Occam

           Before we jump into this, I need to make a brief detour to explain a rather vital concept which I have yet to lay out properly on this blog, but whose usefulness makes returning to it inevitable. This is the axiom known as Occam's Razor, which was first laid out by the logician, theologian and Franciscan friar William of Ockham in the 14th century. The words attributed to Occam are "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity," which is often popularly misrepresented as "the simplest explanation is the correct one." What Occam was actually trying to warn us against is adding unnecessary complications to our understanding unless those complications help us understand our subject more. For example, we could imagine that the surface beneath our feet was actually an illusion, but we never notice this because little elves run around below the surface with feet-shaped pads which they stick up at precisely the point where our illusion says the ground should be. This explanation however, then requires us to explain what the elves stand on, where they came from, why we can never seem to trick them, etc. In other words, it is a lot more likely that the earth beneath our feet is real. In most discussions of philosophy and science, it is magic, souls and God which take the place of our elves here, since the entire physical universe can readily be explained without recourse to these complications.

 The Laws of Natural Selection

            To return to our subject, we must first explain those "few simple conditions" which I said above made evolution inevitable. Only two factors need to be in place which will ultimately lead to the occurrence of evolution, and these factors are by no means limited to biological entities.  The two factors are these:

           1. There must exist entities which are capable of replication with high, but not perfect, fidelity.
          2. There must be selection pressures which will make some of these entities likely to survive long 
                enough to replicate, and others less likely to do so.       

 These factors are actually even simpler than they sound, and with a few examples from various fields, we will see how they lead to an inevitable evolution, every single time. But first we should make sure we are clear about exactly what these factors mean. Taking the first factor, first, "entities" can be absolutely anything; in this post we will consider molecules, ideas and universes. Second, "replication" means that they have some capacity to create a "copy" of themselves, of producing a succeeding generation. Third, when this replication occurs, the features of "the parent" are passed on to "the offspring" with reasonably high fidelity, though occasionally, there are random alterations to these features. As for the second factor, these entities must exist in a situation where some of their features will make some of them more likely to survive long enough to replicate themselves, which, over time, will lead to a prevalence of entities with precisely these features. It should also be noted that there is a second "strategy" here, creating many replicas of ones' self, even if your survival is short-lived, is often as good as surviving for a long time.

Evolving Cosmos

            Our universe probably evolved. I don't mean that in the loose sense that people toss around the term "evolved" when they really mean "changed." I mean it is quite possible our universe is the "daughter" of another universe, which is the "daughter" of another universe, which is the "daughter" of another universe, and so on, ad infinitum. This concept is yet untested (and may never be), but whether it actually occurred or not, the beauty of its logic is profound, and will be useful in understanding how the laws of evolution apply to far more than chickens, dung beetles and human beings. 
            This idea was introduced by the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin in his book The Life of the Cosmos. The idea is this: daughter universes are "born" from other universes in the singularities of the black holes of the parent universes. Since our universe was "born" in a singularity, we can attest to at least this piece of the theory. For those who are vague on the concepts of "black hole" and "singularity," hopefully a simple explanation will suffice. A singularity (of which a black hole is a term for a certain kind) is an entity that occurs when the laws of gravity cause mass to be condensed to such a density that it becomes infinite. In our universe, this happens in the life cycle of certain extremely massive stars. At the end of the life cycle of these stars, the chemical energy which has caused the star to burn for billions of years is finally exhausted, and thus the thermal (heat) pressure which was pushing outward on the star wanes, and the force of gravity takes over, collapsing the material of the star in upon itself. This creates a runaway effect; as the star collapses under the force of its own gravity, the density of the star increases, causing the force of gravity to increase, accelerating the collapse of the star. This eventually leads to a black hole, where the entire mass of the star is collapsed into a radius the size of a few meters. (For a star originally of 250 solar masses, 250 times more massive than our sun, a fairly common size, the black hole resulting from the star's collapse would condense 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kgs worth of material into an area about 2 m in radius. That's pretty dense.) As even the popular understanding has embraced, this creates an "event horizon," the radius within which the force of gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape, hence the "black" in black hole. The evidence further suggests that black holes are vital to the formation of galaxies, and that super-massive ones lie at the heart of all galaxies, the Milky Way included.

            What this means for us is this; universes are born from singularities of precisely this sort. (Think the "big bang," although that idea is a gross over-simplification.)  As more and more evidence turns up to suggest that our universe may very likely not be the only one, Smolin's hypothesis suggests that it is conceivable that  universes are "born" from the black holes of other universes. Think of an infinitely complex network of tree branches, where each off-shoot is an entire universe unto itself. Humbling isn't it? I know, it is way, way easier on the ego to think that our little ball of dust is the center of everything and that the creator of everything there is stops in for a visit from time to time, and that he deeply cares if you get that job you are interviewing for tomorrow, but this has the unfortunate failing of not being true.

           So how could universes "evolve?" One of the most common (and most erroneous) arguments against a naturalistic explanation of existence and life is that our universe seems particularly fine-tuned for the existence of life. If protons were a little bit heavier, or lighter, or if gravity was a little bit weaker, or stronger, stars would never have formed and thus planets and thus life as we know it would not exist. Many have tried to use this "fine-tuning" argument as proof of the existence of an intelligent creator (ignoring the fact that existence also must then be fine-tuned for his existence, of course.) However, this is very easily refuted by what is known as the Anthropic Principle; if the universe wasn't fine-tuned for our existence, we wouldn't be here to ask why it seems to fit us so well. (In one of Hitchen's brilliant examples, this is rather like a conscious puddle assuming that the hole it exists in must have been made specifically for it, since it fits in the hole so perfectly.)

            While the Anthropic Principle is self-evidently true and irrefutable, Smolin's argument alleviates us of the necessity of leaning on it so heavily. The reason that our universe is so fine-tuned for our existence is that it evolved to be this way. Not for our sake, of course, but it evolved because the universe it was spawned from was a universe whose physical constants (masses of fundamental particles, strengths of fundamental forces, number of dimensions) was such that this universe "survived" long enough (as opposed to rapidly collapsing back in on itself in a singularity, which would happen if gravity were sufficiently strong) to produce stars, which produce black holes, which give birth to new universes with the same properties.

            Think of this; the "original" universe, so far back in "time" (this concept would lose its meaning here) as to be utterly outside our puny mortal comprehension, is simply a single particle/ anti-particle pair, popping into existence and almost instantaneously annihilating itself. (This happens all the time around us, literally everywhere, all the time. Pop! It just happened right under your nose, it is just too infinitely small to detect except with the most sophisticated equipment, like the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.) Except this isn't just happening once, it is happening all over. Two of these pairs, instead of simply annihilating their partner, happen close enough together to collapse back into "nothing" together. When they "pop" back into existence again, it is not as a single pair, but as two pairs, and maybe this time they consume a third, and then a fourth... Eventually, after an insanely long period of time, you have a whole "universe" worth of mass "popping" into existence. 

            Now at first, maybe the fundamental forces are still sufficient to almost instantaneously collapse this universe, but in the mad scramble that is a singularity, the next time it spawns, the forces are slightly weaker, and it "survives" just a little while longer, which of course, would allow it to gather even more mass. Over an eternity, this universe is now "surviving" long enough that its mass is spreading out across space and time (these concepts are finally taking on some meaning at this point). Eventually, the density of mass, and the fundamental laws are such that stars can form, and then, black holes.

             Now we're getting somewhere. Because out of these black holes, Smolin argues, "daughter" universes could be formed which would have the same fundamental properties, with maybe a minor mutation here and there, as the fundamentals are altered slightly in the singularity. Each of these "daughter" universes is going to be increasingly likely to contain their own black holes, and more and more of them, as the fundamentals become increasingly fine-tuned to produce them. So the universes which are most likely to contain black holes, are going to "replicate" themselves more rapidly, "quickly" (a very relative term here) filling existence with black-hole filled universes.

            We could not exist without a planet orbiting a star. Does that mean someone put them here for us? No, it means that we could only come about it a universe which has evolved to contain stars; stars as intermediary between a universe's birth and its "reproduction" in the collapse of some of its stars into black holes. Our universe evolved. Not by some random accident, but because when the two criteria of evolution are present, its occurrence is simply inevitable.

Evolving Ideas

            Every idea you have in your head exists because it was more successful than other ideas at lodging itself in your brain. There is only so much idea-space in an individual's head, and this is primarily because many ideas preclude the holding of rival ideas. For example, one cannot be Jewish, and deny the divinity of Christ, and Christian and accept it. (There are Jews for Jesus, but they believe something slightly different than either of these mainstreams do, and this doesn't change our point.) In fact, we will stick with powerful, well-known ideas, such as science and religion, throughout this section, because they make excellent examples in this case.

            What I am going to describe here is a concept known as "memetics" or the study of "memes," essentially "idea units," which was first introduced by The Great Explainer,* Richard Dawkins, as an afterthought, an appendix, to his seminal work, The Selfish Gene. His purpose, the same as mine here, was to show that the laws of evolution are not confined to the biological realm of plants, animals and bacterium. 

           (* I refer to Dawkins as The Great Explainer because I do not believe another mammal has ever existed who was simultaneously so profoundly brilliant, and so good at explaining very difficult concepts for the average person. The entire inspiration for this post was based on my sitting down last night to read his magnum opus, The Ancestor's Tale, and within 7 pages of the introduction coming to understand several ideas about physics, ideas I have read whole books on, better in the paragraph he devoted to them in a book about biology, than I ever had before. His talents are unique.)

            Back to memes. Think of an idea that has shaped the history of our world; "This man from Nazareth is the Son of God," or "Eating shellfish is 'unclean'," or "Rather than sitting around guessing and making stuff up, if we actually studied nature, we might obtain a better understanding of how it works." Do these ideas meet the criteria we laid out above for a thing to evolve? As can be readily seen, they do. Ideas "replicate" when they are transmitted from one person to another, usually with pretty high fidelity, but not always. Ideas are subject to various selection pressures, the most important ones being these: how much a person "wants" to believe it, whether it fits in with what the person already believes, whether it helps the person be more successful in the world, and whether it prompts the person to spread the idea itself. Ideas spread when they are adept at some of these, but they need not necessarily be adept at all of them. Some examples will help make the point clear.

           How might the idea that "God forbids the eating of shellfish," be spread? Do people want to believe it? No, not really, I know many Jews who so don't want it to be true, because lobster is yummy, that they ignore this one entirely (yeah, I'm looking at you, Tam). Does it fit in with what people already believe? Well, if you are Jewish, then you already accept that God has a vested interest in micromanaging your diet, among many other things, so this injunction wouldn't come as a shock when you first heard it. Does it help the person be more successful in navigating the world? This is the big one for this particular idea. If you were an ancient Hebrew, with shoddy cooking techniques and no federal agencies to warn you about red-tide and the like, eating shellfish could be a risky proposition. After watching a few neighbors succumb to food poisoning, interpreting that as a sign of God's disapproval would not be much of a stretch, and further avoidance of shellfish might be a wise decision, even if your reasoning for it is completely fabricated. How about prompting the bearer of the idea to spread the idea itself? Well, this person who came to believe that would almost certainly instruct their family and friends in their new discovery, who would do the same with theirs, and 3,000 years later we get special little "K"s on all of our food products. 

             This line of thinking would also clearly apply to many other Levitical prohibitions, such as copulating with a menstruating woman, or engaging in male-male intercourse, since these activities are highly likely to spread disease. This is also precisely why Leviticus forbids male-male intercourse, and female-animal intercourse, but says nothing about female-female intercourse, since that activity is very unlikely to spread disease.

             What about the idea that a carpenter's son from Nazareth is the Son of God? This certainly fits most of the above criteria, and we can easily see why this particular one spread like wildfire. Do people want to believe it? Of course, they do. Eternal life in heavenly bliss, and all you have to do is accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior? That's not even hard. Does it fit with what people already believe? Well for the ancient Hebrews, they were waiting for the Messiah, so for some of them, this guy would do just fine. As it spread throughout the Roman empire it was also easily taken up, because so much of the story was borrowed from religions which were already popular. (That is a whole other post, but there are several dozen religions whose savior was the product of a virgin birth, for example.) 

            Continuing; does it help people be successful in the world? Well, at first it didn't (getting fed to lions sucks), but it was so strong at the other aspects, particularly the next one, that it didn't matter. But after Constantine's conversion in 478, when it became the official religion of the empire, being Christian became increasingly a requirement for any kind of social mobility. But the last one here is the big one. Does it prompt the bearer to spread the idea itself? Abso-friggin'-lutely. Every missionary, every door-to-door preacher, every billboard claiming "Jesus Saves," every parent who has ever raised their child to believe the same thing, all because part of being a good Christian is "spreading God's Word," was helping this odd little notion replicate itself over and over and over.

           Christianity is a perfect example for taking a look at the way that ideas generally replicate with fidelity, but not always. The early church was divided over all sorts of issues; whether Jesus was in fact God or just an agent of his, which wasn't codified until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (the Arian "heresy" for instance, claimed he was divine, but less than God the Father), the make-up of the Trinity, etc. But delving into these would require more ancient theology than most people are familiar with, so we will skip ahead to stuff with which the average reader would be more familiar. More sensible Christians will acknowledge just how many of the traditions of their practice were borrowed or appropriated from other belief systems to make it more palatable to the natives in the hopes of converting them. Most people know that Christmas was moved to around the winter solstice to broaden the appeal for Germanic peoples who already celebrated the birth of various gods at this time, and that the Christmas tree comes from this accommodation as well. Fewer people probably know that the elevation of Mary, particularly in Catholic doctrine, helped spread it through the Roman empire, where the Cult of Isis was very popular. (Isis was also a virgin mother of a divine son, Horus- Horus/Hesus-Jesus, who was tempted in the desert by his father's mortal nemesis, was sacrificed, conquered death, and rose after three days. Yeah, weird, huh?) So while an idea can't be said to really spread if it doesn't bear some semblance of the original, we can see how an idea's malleability can help make it spread even better. And Christianity continues to evolve. In my last post, I explained how truly un-Christian conservatism truly is, yet in this country, the two so often go hand-in-hand. It is precisely its adaptability, like a potent flu, that explains its endurance and success throughout the ages.

            Lastly, we come to science. Is this idea something people "want" to believe? Generally, no. As we saw in the section on universe evolution, what science reveals is often profoundly humbling, not ego-stroking like the idea of a God who hears your every prayer and knows your every fear. Science has revealed that we are just really smart mammals (as far as mammals go, anyway) who live on a not-very-special planet, orbiting a not-very-special star, in a not-very-special galaxy, in a not-very-special universe. Who wants to hear this when you could instead believe you are going to live forever in perfect bliss? (Only people who care that what they believe is actually, you know, probably true.) Does it fit with what people already believe? Well, at first it didn't. When science first started gathering momentum, the order of the day was still guessing; pretending that you knew how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, or that the body had four humors, or, in other parts of the world, that five "elements" comprised the world and "chi" explained most things going on inside your body. But slowly, as people saw how this idea fulfilled the next criteria, they slowly began accepting it more and more. Quantum mechanics or general relativity wouldn't have flown in the 15th century; we needed Newton first.

         Understanding the spread of science is understanding how it fulfills the next criteria; helping the bearer successfully navigate the world. As people started to realize that studying the world, testing over and over to see what works and what doesn't, could lead to new understanding, and more importantly to new technologies, it began to spread. As other civilizations began to see the advantage the West was gaining in political, military, agricultural, medical and economic areas, they began to adopt the same methods as well, even if the implications of it challenged deeply cherished cultural ideas, such as religion. 

           Regarding the last, science only mildly prompts its bearer to spread it. Accepting the scientific method as the best means of understanding our universe doesn't necessarily mean you have to go knocking on your neighbor's door, since you aren't worried about his eternal soul, and doing so wouldn't make you a better naturalist. However, recently, after surveying the damage that has been done by other world-views, such as religion, and acknowledging the fact that this damage nor these beliefs show any sign of abating, many naturalists, such as myself, have begun to try a more proactive approach, which is precisely what this blog is. You are ingesting a meme as we speak. : )

           Ideas evolve. Not just change, but evolve. "Better" ideas get passed on, poorer ideas don't. (An idea that forbid you to write, speak or sign for the rest of your life would do very poorly.) But "better" here doesn't always mean "truer." It simply means, "better at getting someone to share it with someone else." Think of a email promising "hot sex tonite!," which sends itself to all your contacts when you (if you're an idiot) open it. This isn't a good email, but enough fools open it that it shows up in all of our in-boxes from time to time.

Evolving Molecules

            One of the main reasons even intelligent people have for giving up and violating Occam's principle, when it comes to biological evolution on Earth, is that they simply cannot comprehend how evolution could have gotten started in the first place. "Yes," they say, "I can see how life could continued to change, to evolve, once it existed, but why was it here in the first place? How did it start?"

            Now that we have seen how evolution is an inevitable process in anything, from universes to ideas, that replicates and where some of these things replicate better than others, I would think that understanding this in regards to biology and chemistry would be rather simple.

          Around 3.6 billion years ago, the chemistry of the Earth was such that some molecules, through perfectly natural laws of chemistry, were producing copies of themselves. Most of the time, this copying went off without a hitch. Sometimes though, it didn't, maybe due to the electric charge of a lightning strike, or something else perfectly natural but rare, and the "daughter" molecule was slightly different than its "parent." Much of the time, since the parent was so good at copying itself in the first place, this would be the end of the line, since the daughter would be just different enough to not be able to replicate. Sometimes though, the daughter would be better. Maybe it replicated faster, and was copying itself twice for every one time the other molecules were copying themselves once. Within a relatively (very relatively) short time, this new breed would be monopolizing a majority of the resources, taking over that little primordial puddle...

            .... Until one of these miscopied itself, and its daughter happened to be better at copying itself. The rest, as they say, is history.

            Or evolution. Rabbits, elms, AIDs, velociraptors, osprey, poison oak, tomatoes, goldfish, cows, pine trees, the plague, frogs, toads, us, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, Komodo dragons, finches. Everything.

             2+2= 4.
             A triangle of equal sides will have equal angles.
             The ratio of the area of a circle to its radius is 3.14... times the radius squared.
             Evolution happens. Some things just are.


  1. Your last large paragragph "Around 3.6 billion years ago....) Is confusing.

    I understood everything up to that point :)

  2. Was wondering if there was a way I could email you something, you can contact me at But don't feel obligated to give me your email, I'll still read your blog :)