Evolutionary Dead-Ends

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Some people seem genetically inclined – perhaps I should write doomed? – to believe in nonsense: believe in conspiracy theories, in myths, legends, superstitions and supernatural, in magic, in pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. Nothing – no amount of fact, truth, education, reason or contrary evidence will change their minds. The harder you try to correct them, the more firmly they believe.

Watch, if you can, this painfully dim woman trying to dismiss paleontology and evolution as she blunders through Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on the evolving Earth and comments on the displays. It’s a tough video to view for anyone with an IQ bigger than your shoe size. Within seconds you’ll be wincing and asking yourself “Can anyone really be this stupid or it is a joke?”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32mxZxv3dYM#t=746]

Yes, they can be that stupid. I couldn’t make it all the way through in one sitting. I had to stop and clear my head. Shake it, drink wine. Who is this woman, you ask? According to Patheos, she is a public nuisance who is also a

…self-described “homeschooling, Tea Partying, conservative mother”

Okay, I have a low opinion of all of those categories even without the head-shaking, face-palm-encouraging video.

Dragons? She really believes dragons were dinosaurs and humans walked around the planet with them? Cave paintings of dinosaurs? (This has been long debunked by better minds than mine). She believes in a global evolutionist conspiracy theory trying to hide this stuff?

Maybe this critique will be easier to follow and less painful to watch:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNGAtFDm7OY]

or this one:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9v0RjhAEUU]

or even this condensed version.

One even has to have some sympathy for the museum staff who suffer such fools among their visitors. It almost makes me wish there were a higher power who could ensure such wingnuts don’t reproduce. Just a prod with that magic finger and *zap* they’re out of the evolutionary game. Damn, too late for this one…

Stupidity itself imposes constraints on all other species: it creates evolutionary dead-ends by weeding out the weak links. When the zebra thinks, “Gee, that tiger looks friendly,” or the lion thinks, “Yeah, I can take on a charging rhinoceros,”  natural selection does its work.

Sadly, humans don’t always have such limits: we’ve let technology take over from natural selection. Stupid people breed (as, apparently, she has). But what future could her children have, raised in such a cocoon of ignorance? Is Wal-Mart in such dire need of shelf-stockers as her children will likely become?

The more you try to show believers like her that the latest dietary or health fad, the anti-vaccine mumbo-jumbo, creationism or the conspiracy theory du jour is just a pile of fetid dingo’s kidneys, they more they cling to it.

Some of this is, of course, simply subjective validation – perceiving a relationship between unrelated or random events because of the viewer’s belief, or what he or she expected to happen. Or because the viewer needed to validate an otherwise untenable hypothesis that requires a relationship to be true (like astrology and creationism).

Sometimes it’s cognitive dissonance. or simple logical fallacies.

And sometimes it’s because people just can’t fathom the difference between fact and fiction. They want desperately to believe the fantasy instead of the reality. Fantasy is much more interesting because it isn’t limited by reality. It doesn’t need to consider gravity, biology, chemistry, reason, physics or logic. Fantasy is a wonderful dream state where anything can happen without restraint; where Harry Potter casts spells, the fiery breath of dragons scorches non-believers and angels flit about like butterflies granting wishes.

How can the dreary real world compete? How can logic and reason outshine fantasy? How can life possibly have no meaning when the Force is with us? Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of magical healing crystals instead of painful vaccinations? A world of angels and magical beings instead of hard-to-contemplate physics and biology? A world where dragons and mermaids and Hobbits are real, not merely figments of the imagination; a world where Bigfoot and Nessie flounce in the wild, and doors in closets open into other dimensions…

Claptrap. How can we educate people, teach them the truth, the science, the facts? How can we educate them out of their belief in claptrap? In some cases, we simply can’t.

ComicsCreationism is a prime example. In The Atlantic last month, Emma Green wrote a piece titled, “You Can’t Educate People Into Believing in Evolution.” (I tend to agree, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.) She concluded:

Classroom discussions aren’t the most important factor in shaping people’s views, and many people are either unsure or don’t care about being right. It seems that most people simply believe what they’re going to believe about the metaphysical nature of the universe.

Green also quoted Calvin College assistant professor Jonathan Hill, who recently wrote a report for the BioLogos Foundation (which is, oddly, an American pro-evolution, Christian organization, giving me reason to feel there is hope after all…). Hill said in his report,

“Ideas are important, but ideas only persuade when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them.”

Ideas, in this sense, are social. Like memes. Most people aren’t like Montaigne or Erasmus, pulling apart each idea for themselves, wrapped up in introspection, and making sense of the world in some splendid intellectual isolation.  Most folks get their ideas and beliefs from their peer groups and social circles, which also help buttress them and give them solidity. Those group ideas don’t need to be factual, just shared.

Green added:

In his report, Hill found that religious belief was the strongest determinant of people’s views on evolution—much more so than education, socioeconomic status, age, political views, or region of the country. More importantly, being part of a community where people had stated opinions on evolution or creation, like a church, had a big impact on people’s views.

Green also quotes Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, who noted,

“No creationist wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I have really strong opinions about whether Archaeopteryx is the ancestor of modern birds.’ Who are we as people? That’s the question that they think evolution is answering. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be an animal?”

In other words, they are looking for an answer to a bigger question when they look at evolution – in fact to a question that is really outside the purveyance of evolutionary biology to answer: what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? But evolutionary biology is about the process, not the philosophy of the purpose (or even if there is one).

Let me give you a poor analogy: a chemist doesn’t explain why you want to drink a glass of water: he/she explains what water is made of, how it behaves and how it is formed and broken into its components, what it dissolves, how electrons move through it. Why you drink a glass is not up to a chemist to explain.

Green writes,

George Gaylord Simpson… wrote in his 1967 book, The Meaning of Evolution, “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.”

And that purposeless is at the crux of the debate for those creationists who cannot accept that life – all life, not just humans – has no inherent purpose outside its own survival. Some people have a distinct lack of comfort considering nothingness, considering the void, considering there’s no greater purpose and that when we die, there’s no paradise, no afterlife at all. They are not willing to accept that we are simply fleshy vehicles for spiralling coils of self-replicating DNA.*

If you have been raised to think you’re the centre of creation, the special flower of that creation, the whole reason for everything else on the planet, then it’s an easy to find science – especially evolution – unsettling. (However, if you think you’re just another animal in the bigger kingdoms of life, then it isn’t so tough… you might even begin to believe your purpose is to help nurture and protect that life…)

So these people look for purpose that reinforces their special-purpose faith outside the constraints of logic, science and reason. They use their belief in magic and supernatural to justify ignorance and, in many cases, willful stupidity. And don’t lose sight of the latter: there’s an awful lot of self-inflicted stupidity out there, especially online.


* From the Monty Python theme song from The Meaning of Life, which sums it all up beautifully (a song my ukulele groups needs to learn…):

Why are we here, what’s life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Well tonight we’re going to sort it all out
For tonight it’s the meaning of life

What’s the point of all this hoax?
Is it the chicken and the egg time, are we just yolks?
Or perhaps we’re just one of God’s little jokes
Well ca c’est the meaning of life

Is life just a game where we make up the rules
While we’re searching for something to say
Or are we just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA?

In this life, what is our fate?
Is there Heaven and Hell? Do we reincarnate?
Is mankind evolving or is it too late?
Well tonight here’s the meaning of life

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears
Sitting round with real nothing to say
While scientists say, “We’re just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA”

So just why, why are we here?
And just what, what, what, what do we fear?
Well ce soir, for a change, it will all be made clear
For this is the meaning of life

C’est le sens de la vie
This is the meaning of life

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