Thursday, January 17, 2008

Further ab/evo-lutions

Can we just let go of the Great Chain of Being already?

If you don't know what I mean, you can always go and Google or Wiki it. Basically, the GCoB is an old medieval concept about life in the universe (then thought to be Earth only), in which everything has its place on a sort of ladder from the lowest, most unworthy lifeforms to the highest and greatest (inevitably Man) according to Nature or God, take your pick. It was really just an exercise in vanity that went unchallenged during the entire length of the Dark Ages and indeed up until Darwin's time (though not entirely Darwin himself) because everybody liked to think that we're the best.

Here's the thing, though: humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. (If you're a creationist, well, then you have bigger problems in your thinking than whether or not humans are on top, and I'm not really talking to you here.) Indeed, we are exactly as evolved as everything else on earth. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, have been evolving just as much as we have in the millions of years since we both diverged from our closest relatives. Also importantly, we are still evolving; we're not the end product or acme of anything, even if there were an end product entailed in the process - which there is not.

Evolution is the change of gene frequencies over time in response to environmental factors. That is it. That's what it is, nothing more. There are a number of factors which will work; it's not limited to natural selection. We can go over the evolutionary forces later, but for now, the point is this: there's no goal, nor even a direction in which it works. It does appear to work in the direction of greater complexity, but that is, in this case, probably just because it takes time to develop complexity. You know what the most successful organisms on the planet are? Bacteria. Not particularly complex, in relative terms. (...Though exceedingly so in more absolute terms. Just ask a molecular biologist.)

Anyway, you remember how your high school textbook in Biology went "up" through the ranks of life from the Monerans and Protists through Fungi, Plants, Animals, and finally Homo sapiens sapiens? Yeah, that was intentional. It's because your textbook publisher was one of the four or five big publishing houses, and frankly, they don't understand a single goddamned thing about biological science. You can, in fact, safely disregard most of what you learned in high school biology; most of it is bullshit.

So that's your lesson for today: relativism and disrespect for authority.

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