Category Archives: Evolution

With or without the Creationists, evolution continues apace

Woodland Creatures

Maybe I watch too many zombie movies, but the story of zombie raccoons was just too good to pass up. A story by Marwa Eltagouri in the Washington Post described a spate of recent “zombie raccoon” incidents in eastern Ohio, not far from where I grew up. While the likely explanation is distemper, one of the behaviors of these raccoons stands out—they walk on two feet. Since I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book by Linda Godfrey—who’s made a name writing about anomalous animals in North America, particularly bipedal dogs, or wolves—I found this aspect of the raccoons particularly interesting. That’s the thing, you see. Bipedalism suggests other human-like traits. Think great apes. Or penguins. (Although birds are generally bipedal, they tend to be squat and more horizontally inclined than vertical. The penguin not only dresses for our most formal occasions, but waddles around like many of us do after having been a bit too generous at the dinner table.) But bipedal raccoons—now that’s scary.

As a species Homo sapiens seem to have a need to believe themselves unique. Over the centuries any number of traits have been claimed as unique to us. Bipedalism, the ability to speak, being relatively naked so that we have to wear clothing, being able text with our opposable thumbs—we’re not like other animals. We’re special. So when animals that normally go on all fours walk on two legs we instantly think they’re trying to be like us. They want to have all the rights and privileges of our species so they can elect alt-right leaders and destroy everything they’ve built. Uppity critters! We have trouble reconciling ourselves with our animal origins.

Other animals, it seems, are beginning to note the advantages of walking on their hind legs. I’ve watched enough zombie movies to know that it’s the intention that’s the real problem. They want to be like us. Notice the accounts of bipedal animals—witnesses say there’s something in their eyes. Global domination. Yes, they’ve been watching us and now they want the same things we want. They want to take over the world. I know enough about World War Z to know that you can’t save everyone. Hard choices will have to be made. And maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’ve noticed the bipeds are from red states: the dog-men of Michigan and Wisconsin, the raccoon-men of Ohio. If we can’t save everyone, we need to make wise choices. Why not let them have Washington, DC? They certainly can’t be any worse than what we’ve got there right now.

Urban Evolution

They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.

I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.

Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.

Science of Unbelief

An article a friend sent me from Science Alert back in December recently came to mind. Titled “Thinking About God Might Make You Sweat, Even if You’re Not Religious,” the article by Brittany Cardwell and Jamin Halberstadt discusses how religious ideas are deeply engrained in human psychology. Like people who say they’re not afraid of spiders or snakes, people who don’t believe in the supernatural have made an effort to become this way. For reasons poorly understood, human beings are natural believers. As the article takes pains to state, that doesn’t mean a non-believer isn’t sincere. Thinking, however, doesn’t come only from rationality. Many people hold to the Mr. Spock fallacy—the belief that reasoning can solve anything. We all know from experience that it can’t. The big decisions in life—whom should I marry? What house should I buy? For whom shall I vote?—are often made with the emotions rather than rationally.

Which one’s the captain?

Reason has taught us to be expert deniers. We can learn to overcome our natural aversion to snakes and spiders and we can learn not to believe in God. Sometimes that belief can even be knocked out of us by the silly, unthinking behavior of “true believers.” But deep down it’s still there. Funnily, those who claim that reason alone answers all things are in denial about their own evolution. The human brain is a direct adaptation of the “reptilian brain” with its fight or flight impulses. That viper doesn’t plan to bite your ankle—it’s reacting to fear. Emotions are an integral part of thinking. Crimes of passion are committed by otherwise rational people sometimes. That thing you keep on bumping into in the room is, in fact an elephant. As irrational as that may seem.

The Science Alert article discusses the empirical proof that people fear to dis the Almighty. Were the brain a computer I’d say it was hardwired into us. We’re not wire and circuits, however. We’re messy, organic, evolving stuff that at one time lived beneath the waves. It took a certain amount of lungfish faith to believe we could survive on dry land. As mates approved of such irrational behavior, the trait multiplied and became more common. Today our smart phones and our cubicle window posters tell us there’s no such thing as a deity beyond our own scientific rules. The truth is, however, at some level we don’t really believe it. You can learn not to believe, but you’ll still sweat the big stuff, even in laboratory conditions.

Creating Science

Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?

Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.

In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Why Horror?

Some people wonder why I like horror. Well, “like” is hardly the proper verb here, I’d rather go the passive route—why I’m compelled by horror. That fits better. But isn’t compel a transitive verb? What’s the object? It really depends on the circumstance—compelled to read, watch, or look at. Quite apart from grammatical imponderables, I keep finding myself coming back to horror and I frequently wonder why. Mathias Clasen may have answered that question for me. Why Horror Seduces is a fascinating study that considers biological and psychological explanations for why we’re compelled to watch or read or play horror, even when we find it distasteful. And it’s not just excusing bad behavior!

As fairly weak creatures that are prey as well as predators, human beings have always placed a high value on security. We’ve driven most of our predators to extinction, but we still have other people to worry about. And microbes. And things that come from space. And, after all that, we still die. These are, realistic or not, things we must face. Horror allows us to confront them and assists us in considering “what would I do if…?” Clasen delves into an evolutionary theory of horror—we’ve evolved to need it. Negative emotions are some of the most ancient, leading us to self-preservation in a hostile environment (something our own government is teaching us anew even now). Watching or reading how people cope in such settings provides us with valuable information. In other words, horror is a learning opportunity.

From that perspective, it doesn’t feel so bad to have written a book about horror movies. I’m participating in the long struggle of humankind against forces that are out to get us. As with most things evolutionary, we need not know why we do them for the whole thing to make sense. Our brains reward us for behavior that is conducive to survival—we like to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Reward centers in our heads go crazy. Then we go to the theater to see the latest, greatest horror film. What may seem counterintuitive here is that we are engaging in a similar kind of activity to other atavistic survival techniques. Watching these movies, reading these books, (and for those who do so, playing these games,) has a basic biological utility. Who knew? And once I get brave enough to crawl back out from under the bed, I may feel better about myself for admitting I like horror.

Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.