Saturday, February 28, 2009

Living in the Actual World

Correlation is not causation, I teach my freshman students every fall and every spring.  Also, the world is not a teleology.  I write these fine phrases on the board, and then tell stories, trying to get them to see past the world they have always lived in -- which has always been a teleology, where correlation, sumbitch, is causation (Ya see what happened there?  Ya take that prayer out the schools, test scores shoot right down! Obviously --), trying to get them to move to another sort of a worldview.

Which I know is not so simple.

We've got a desperate need to seek patterns and meaning, humans, and it's hard to shoulder past that and stand in a universe that just is, or, well, I suppose what I mean is, it's hard to shoulder past that and see the universe as it actually is, past the patterns we want to impose.

Here is why I am thinking about this today.  It's an article talking about (mis)readings of Darwin, which, well, that's practically all my students ever get/have gotten, misunderstandings and misreadings of evolution.  

Evolution isn't much taught in Arkansas high schools, certainly not the private Christian ones most of them have attended, and not, usually, the public schools either.  It does get taught in our universities, but by then the students have been inundated for 18-20 years with how evolution is evil-ution and if they listen to a word of it Satan is going to snatch their souls to hell.

This article talks about how even those of us who are interested in and understand (want to understand) evolution keep imposing our own patterns on it -- as we do: trying to make it a teleological system, as the Social Darwinists did, or as certain SF writers did (I've been reading some SF from the 1930-1950, getting ready to teach my SF class this summer, but frankly a deal of the SF being written today by certain ahem less enlightened fellas is not much better), such as the idea that by "allowing" inferior classes to breed, or giving the poor food and medical aid,  we will destroy the human race -- this is the trope we see in that charming movie Idiocracy, for instance. (This belief system is captured neatly in a quotation from Robert Heinlein, wherein he says, "The cure for hemophilia is not to cure the hemophiliacs: it is to let the hemophiliacs bleed to death before they breed."  Elsewhere he applies the same notion to anyone who is poor.  Let the poor starve: obviously if they are unfit to survive or they would not be poor.)

Good Darwinist thinking, I'm sure he believed.

Contrast this with another reading, cited in the above article: "If we...ask Nature: "Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?" we sat one see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest."

My kid, who has been studying evolution on her own (her school touched briefly on evolution, mainly to mention that it existed, and that the theory of creationism also existed and that "students would have to decide for themselves" which was the right answer, apparently in the abeyance of actual facts, since none were provided): well, not entirely on her own.  I provide books and links and answer questions.  Recently she came to me with one.  "If two separate species," she says to me, "are both best suited for an environment, how does evolution decide which species wins?"

"Ark," I said.  "Urk.  Okay.  First.  Evolution isn't an agent.  It doesn't exist in the sense you're thinking of.  Second.  No teleology.  Nothing to win here.  No aim exists.  We're not evolving toward anything."

She frowned.

"Think of the moths," I reminded.  "When the trees were white birch trees, which moths survive?"

"White moths," she said, impatiently, since this was the first illustration I ever used, teaching her survival of the fit.

"Then the industrial revolution comes along, coal enters the air, the white birch trees get coated with coal dust, which moths survive?"

"Black moths."

"Then the EPA makes people clean up the air, and the trees are white again.  Now what?"

"White moths tend to survive."

"Is it better to be a white moth or a black moth?  Which is a superior sort of moth?  Neither.  It depends on what the environment makes more advantageous at that moment in time.  It's why we need all sorts of genes in our toolkit."

Having heard all this before, the kid is bored.  "Okay, but--"

"Okay, so no species is going to win anything.  We're not evolving toward anything.  Whichever species happens to fit an environment best at that point in time, it will do best in that environment.  If two species do well, whichever has a slightly better fit will outperform the other -- or maybe it won't.  Maybe they'll both do well in that environment, and use it up, and destroy the environment, and die.  Oops.  Turns out they weren't such a great adaptation after all, then.  Fit means you fit, you survive and pass on your genes.  That's all it means.  It has no other meaning."

She frowned, thinking this over.

And that's the thing.  We want to believe in some Agent, some God, some Teleological force that will bless us and keep us and mean that we matter -- but that's not what's at work here.  It's only what is, the world as it is, and if we don't use these fat brains we evolved to get that figured out really soon, well, what use are they?

I cheer myself up, at this point, by adding that it's not like it will actually matter, though, will it?  If the like of Michelle Malkin and Joe the Plumber survive?

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

What a great way of discussing evolution, especially why it's NOT teleological with your child! Good job!