Posts Tagged ‘darwin’

Darwin and Evolution

Darwin’s 200th anniversary has come and gone, and thousands of news stories have reflected upon it. One of the largest issues we still grapple with is why so many people still don’t believe in evolution, by which I mean, they don’t believe that natural selection suffices to explain all the wonderful life we find here on Earth. And that issue is, accordingly, one of the most commonly recurring issues in last year’s Darwin pieces. There is, however, a potentially more troubling issue lurking about, also related to understanding Darwin, and this issue emanates from within scientific circles, from among Darwinists themselves (and I’m one of them).

And the problem is this: Many proponents of evolution, having grown up with natural selection, have lost their ability to see just how amazingly counter-intuitive the idea is. As a professor of mine used to say, “One generation’s maelstrom is the next generation’s jacuzzi.”

It is not that “evolution” is counter-intuitive. There is no mystery in the idea that organisms can change, and can even do so in small steps in response to selection pressure, like moths changing color or bird beaks changing shape over generations. What is mind-boggling, and what many Darwinists forget is mind-boggling, is how these small changes can add up over millions of generations to create complex fancy machines. What is mind boggling is that this kind of local, short-term evolution that we can wrap our minds around can possibly explain the life on Earth.

Let me try to reconvey the wonder of natural selection by an example. Consider the Grand Canyon. We can comprehend how it got formed. We see the local, short-term erosive properties, and we can fairly well  fathom how, with enough erosion, the canyon gets deeper and deeper and wider and wider and branchier and branchier and so on. But imagine that I told you that, after all that erosion, the result wasn’t the Grand Canyon, but a modern football stadium, with seats, bathrooms, flat field, fake grass, box seats — the works.  That is, imagine after more and more blind activity, one gets a highly engineered complex structure that can do amazing things.  That’s what it should mentally feel like when one contemplates that, with a little selection pressure and extraordinarily long periods of time, one can get elm trees, octopus and humans out of goo. It should blow your mind. That’s why Darwin is worthy of remembering for 200 years, or for 200,000 years. Not because he pointed out that organisms can slowly change over time in response to selection forces, but that he suggested that that is enough to explain all the complexity of life.

This problem I am pointing out among scientists like me is also relevant for better convincing creationists. If a creationist has not been steeped in natural selection, they may actually have a better grip on how mind-boggling it is. If one hopes to unboggle the creationist’s mind, one must first recognize the reasons for it having become boggled.

[See these pieces for more about evolution.]

This first appeared on January 4, 2010, as a feature at the Telegraph.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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