Tag Archives: Evolution

Our Northern Flicker

My wife and I recently moved from Manhattan to Tacoma Washington. Although we still love NYC, we were ready for a change from the endless scaffolding and continual roadwork that seems unending and incessant in lower Manhattan. We were frankly tired of being woken up by jackhammers echoing through the skyscraper canyons (in lower Manhattan they literally tear up the streets and pave them over only so they can rip them up again the very next day). We were ready for the peace and serenity of the Puget Sound.

Imagine our Deja Vu shock to be virtually bounced out of bed in the morning by a noise somewhere between a jackhammer and an over-revved race car between 6 and 8 am in the morning. It seemed to come from the general area of the chimney, but it reverberated throughout the house. After exhausting every possibility inside, I went outside to spot a paunchy little bird perched on our chimney, industriously drumming away with his beak on our metal chimney cover at like 10,000 ppm (pecks per minute). He was essentially the little transducer at the base of a huge sound resonator.

northern-flickerIt turns out that he or she is a Northern Flicker and they are well-known to north westerners because they are regionally infamous little drummers. Of course no one can say with certainty why they do this but we can speculate. They are peckers by nature. They peck out hollows for homes with their beaks, they peck to find food, and they peck produce a unique sound that attract mates or communicate with them. Hey, they have a very efficient and powerful little hammer, and when that is all you have…

Some people assume that the bird is just mindlessly pecking on metal because they are too stupid to realize that it is metal. I don’t subscribe to such dismissive and diminutive assumptions regarding animal behavior. This kind of view often arises from a false notion of human exceptionalism that is endemic to religious thinking.

Instead of only taking pride and self-satisfaction in how unique and special we are, I also take great pride and satisfaction in appreciating how alike we are with our animal cousins. Rather than feel diminished by comparisons to animals, by ascribing human-like motivations and capabilities to them, such comparisons give me a deep sense of continuity and familial community with all of nature. Furthermore, we can better learn more about ourselves if we are more open to recognizing our own simplified and less complicated behaviors and motivations in other species.

Therefore, when it comes to our Northern Flicker friend, I think that, like us, he drums for many reasons. Drumming is what he does, he’s really good at it, he takes pride in it, and he enjoys it so it does it just for fun. He probably really, really likes the huge megaphone that our chimney cover offers, and likes to be the loudest Flicker in the neighborhood.

This is not to suggest that our Flicker’s emotions and behaviors and intellect are on a par with ours, but they are simpler versions of our human versions in the same way that his little bird legs gave rise to our human legs and his littler eyes are earlier versions to our human eyes. Their behaviors do not merely “appear” human, they are exactly what evolved into our more complex feelings and emotions. Just as we aren’t the only animals to have some form of brain, we aren’t the only animals to have some level of emotions and intellect and feelings. To dismiss these deep and direct similarities out of some religious sense of separateness is, to me, a highly sad and lonely pedestal on which to place ourselves. You may choose to DEFINE emotions as things only humans have, to DEFINE intellect as intellect only when it reaches human capabilities, but that does not negate the real presence of highly developed precursors in animals.

And just as the drumming of our little Flicker resonates and echoes and touches others in ways he cannot imagine, so too do our more complex behaviors reverberate our to touch others in tangible and deeply personal ways that we cannot imagine. If I were to make it impossible for our little drummer to peck on our chimney cap in some way, he or she might very well start to peck on the wood of our home and that would be much worse for us.

So, my new Flicker friend, you go on drumming on our chimney cap. I grok you and it enriches my life to listen in on your early morning broadcasts. I can identify with your joys and compulsions and frustrations and yearnings for a mate. I hope that later this spring, when your drumming stops, it will mean that our chimney cap has helped you find a mate who will give you other things to do with that spectacular beak of yours!

The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.

 

 

If Only I Had a Photographic Memory!

Few of us probably remember the 1968 B-film cult classic Barbarella. In that fantasy story the naively buxom Barbarella battled the sadistic Durand-Durand and the evilly beautiful Dark Tyrant. One notable character in this sex romp was the blind angel Pygar. The white-winged angel befriends Barbarella but is then kidnapped and cruelly tortured by the Dark Tyrant.

pygarIn the climax of the film, with the city exploding around them, Pygar swoops down and rescues both Barbarella and the Dark Tyrant, flying off with one woman in each arm. Barbarella looks up at his angelic face, confused, and says “Pygar, why did you save her, after all the terrible things she did to you?” Pygar answers serenely, “Angels have no memory.”

It’s an interesting thought. Angels have no memory. Perhaps only without memory can one really be an angel. Perhaps memory makes us just too bitter, too angry, to resentful, too hurt to be truly forgiving. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to remember every hurt one caused you and still fully forgive them. Perhaps those memories must be sacrificed to gain your wings.

There is data to support this premise.  Researches have looked at individuals on both extremes of memory. They have studied those rare individuals who have no long-term memory – who cannot recall anything beyond very recent events. They have compared those individuals to those equally rare individuals with nearly perfect recall, people who can exactly remember almost every incident, no matter how unremarkable, that they ever experienced.

When you compare these two groups, you see clear differences. Those with impaired long-term memory tend to be quite happy and contented while those with exceptional long-term memory tend to be quite unhappy, depressed, angry, and even suicidal. Apparently, having perfect memory takes its toll. One cannot forget every slight, every insult, every disappointment, and every disillusionment. Such unselective memories make one quite unhappy. Not having memories can be a blessing.

On the other hand, those with perfect memories tend to be excellent networkers. They recall every birthday, every anniversary, and every name. So they tend to have lots of social support that can offset their hurtful memories. Those with poor memories on the other hand tend to have few social contact and fewer friends. The cost of happiness may be loneliness and the loss of social connectivity. Are they then still happy? Kind of a sad internal contradiction.

Don’t hire an angel to become your salesperson and don’t expect them to win celebrity Jeopardy.

Thankfully most of us aren’t angels with no memory and we aren’t elephants who never forget a slight and stomp their trainer into a bloody pulp years later. We lie in the broad middle of the spectrum. I am certainly no angel but I think I lie off toward the bad memory end of the continuum. I have a terrible memory but am pretty free from regrets and grudges. But I’m also quite bad at social networking as I am hopeless at remembering things, let alone birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve wisely perhaps stayed away from professions that rely upon memory and entered instead into a career where things change quickly, where continually looking up current information is an advantage.

Many of us imagine that perfect memory would be kind of a cool superpower but that such recall is just not really possible. But it is clearly possible and evolution is wise enough not to give us what we think we want. Sometimes less is better. We could have much better smell or hearing or taste, for example, and some people do and it makes them painfully miserable. Longer lifespans are apparently possible as well, but evolution knows that longer lifespans are not actually a good thing for the individual or for the species.

Evolution has given us the balance of memory we need to make us both functional and happy. If technology eventually lets us override evolution on this, we may regret being burdened with all those painful best-forgotten memories.

Creative Dreaming

I came up with this blog topic in the shower this morning. That’s where I come up with the vast majority of my blog topics. Why is that do you suppose?

PsychicReaderI occasionally have psychic readings for fun. Purely for fun as I have absolutely zero belief that psychics are really psychic. There simply is no such thing. But I am extremely impressed and fascinated by the rare and marvelous talent of these people to make others believe that they actually have real psychic powers. I see them as a type of stage magician.

As in the art of horoscope writing, the biggest trick in being a convincing psychic is coming up with observations that are universally true but little appreciated, and seemingly specific yet actually very vague and generic. Then you make a lot of them and the mark will selectively remember those that ring true.

Decades ago, one particular psychic gazed deeply into my eyes and revealed to me “You have many of your best ideas in the shower, don’t you?”

YES! That’s amazing! How could you possibly know this quirky and intimate detail about me? The only possible explanation is that you must be truly psychic! What else can you tell me? Oh, you need more money to unveil even more startling revelations about where I’m destined to meet my true love? Do you take MasterCard?

But in reality  this is just a great example of a using a near-universal truth that we falsely imagine is something unique about us that no one could possibly know unless they have psychic powers.

Why is it that so many of us relate to this particular “psychic” insight? My theory of shower-thoughts begins involves dreams.

I suspect that dreams have a very important and largely unrecognized evolutionary benefit. I think that dreams are an essential part of our creative thinking process. In his 1993 book The Metaphoric Mind (see here) author Bob Samples summarized current thought about the creative process. He said that creative thinking requires that we alternate between “play” mode and “logic” mode in order to arrive at creative solutions. We must follow a line of reasoning logically until we reach a dead-end, then enter play mode and make wild leaps of free-association to find a new starting point from which to reenter a new logical train of thought. Techniques like brainstorming are methods for formalizing this process.

I speculate that dreams are a way that evolution has already hard-wired the creative process. Dreams give us a method for entering this “play mode” in which we rearrange the niggling facts of the previous day (selectively those that are unresolved threads of dead-end logic) and make wild leaps unconstrained by logic, by assumptions, or even by the physical reality of our real-world desk and pen and gravity. In the morning, our minds freshly brimming with “play” thoughts, the shower gives us the undistracted time we need to logically process them, to connect and rationalize them into something sensible, and to follow new trains of logical inquiry to unexpectedly new creative conclusions.

Shower-thinking isn’t very novel insight anymore. It’s now pretty well-known (see here), but I am not sure that the role of dreaming in this process is sufficiently appreciated. Nevertheless, this is exactly the kind of detail that a good psychic latches on to in order to establish credibility with an otherwise skeptical client.

The job of a psychic must be getting harder however. Even 20 years ago a psychic could make this kind of “reading” and it would be fairly difficult and unlikely that their client could learn that this amazing insight isn’t actually that amazing at all. If I went to a psychic today and they told me that I have all my best ideas in the shower, a quick Internet search would show me that this is actually pretty universal and quite well-known and documented. It would be clearly obvious that one did not need psychic powers to divine this.

But here is the important lesson. Even 25 years ago when that particular psychic told me this about myself, even though I could not easily fact check this particular phenomenon at that time, my conclusion was not “this person must be a real psychic.” It was “this phenomenon must be more common than I realized.” Keep that in mind when some psychic makes a seemingly correct observation about you, even if their “psychic impression” isn’t quite common knowledge on the Internet yet. Even if you can’t imagine what it might be, there is necessarily some mundane trick to their apparent psychic powers.

Lack of information and openness to magical thinking are the essential conditions for mysticism and fakery to thrive. Religion makes us more susceptible to other kinds of magical thinking. And some of what we are lead to believe through mysticism and fakery is not so harmless and benign as the entertaining insights of a $20 psychic.

So use your dreams creatively. Evolution almost certainly produced them to give you an advantage over your non-dreaming cousins. But don’t imagine there is anything mystical or magical about them.

 

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolution Did It!

While serving in the Peace Corps in rural South Africa, I loved to visit different schools to talk about science. One of my favorite activities was playing the “Why” game. I’d encourage the kids to ask “Why” about anything at all and we’d use scientific thinking to formulate hypotheses.

It would take a while to coax even one “Why” out of the kids as they were totally unfamiliar with any kind of meaningful dialog with a teacher. When I invited them to ask “Why” questions, the only responses I got were dazed and confused expressions. Students were seldom encouraged to ask any questions, and if they did the only answer they were likely to get was “because it is” or “god made it that way.” But clearly those answers are not really satisfying because as soon as just one kid bravely took the chance to venture a question, the floodgates of pent-up curiosity unfailingly broke loose and a deluge of “Why” questions came pouring out from the entire class.

Tellingly, one of very first questions was inevitably “Why am I black while you are white?”

Now that might seem like a tricky question but it isn’t really hard at all. In everything to do with life, be it human or animal or plant or microbial, the answer to pretty much any question is “evolution.” Even if that isn’t a complete answer, it’s the perfect foundation upon which to discuss further nuances.

Why are you reading this article right now? Evolution! Granted, we could just as legitimately answer “chemistry” or “physics” and start from there. But when it comes to the traits and behaviors of living things that most kids are naturally most interested in, “evolution” is always the sensible starting point.

eggsTo get things started I would often hold up a hard-boiled egg that I typically carried around for a snack. Why do you suppose eggs are egg-shaped? This question would be met with confused looks, so I’d oil the hinges of their flood gates with squirts of evidence. Do you think it means anything that eggs of birds become increasingly oval as the land they live on becomes steeper? Within minutes we’d find ourselves testing the evolutionary importance of egg shape by rolling my lunch down a slanted desk-top and speculating on how rolling behavior can help or hinder the survival of those birds.

You don’t need to join the Peace Corps or teach school to play the “Why” game. You can play it with family and friends or even all by yourself. Think of any characteristic of living things, make it as simple or hard as you can, and start by asking why it is so. The answer of course is “evolution,” but now the real fun begins. Now you can think about “Why” that particular trait or behavior might have been an evolutionary advantage or hindrance.

To help you play the evolution game, here are some rules that are not always obvious:

1. Every trait of living things – physical, mental, behavioral, social, temperamental – all arise through evolution. Practically anything at all is fair game.

2. It is OK to personify evolution to help us talk about it. Personification makes it much easier to understand and relate how evolution works. It just needs to be understood without necessarily saying that personification is only a communication technique and that evolution does not really have motivation or intent.

3. Not all traits are necessarily helpful. Some are simply the result of innocuous mutations that don’t particularly help but they don’t hinder enough to get selected out. However the best starting hypothesis is to assume evolutionary significance. And just because we cannot imagine the significance of a trait, that doesn’t mean it has none.

4. Most traits have many advantages and disadvantages. In the grand dice-roll of evolution, the advantages of a trait must only collectively outweigh the disadvantages. In the case of egg-shapes, rolling down hills is just one of the many ways this simple trait affects the survival of that species. There are lots of right answers.

5. Evolution does not “care” about individuals. There is a rampant misconception that evolution favors the survival of individuals. This is largely a misapplication of the concept of “survival of the fittest.” This misapplication causes some to claim that examples of evolved traits that cause harm to individuals disprove evolution. Nothing could be more wrong. Evolution only cares about the species. It will happily kill individuals off, even within a species, if it helps the population to survive. Certain spider females eat their mate after fertilization. This helps the species to survive. The male is most useful as food after his job is done. Evolution holds individual lives in no particular regard.

6. Evolution does not guarantee the “best” traits. It merely makes it more likely that those random traits that happen to be good enough in a given circumstance are passed along. Our spine isn’t a good design let alone the best design. An intelligent designer would have come up with something much better. But it is good enough.

7. Evolution is not “going” anywhere. It is not “leading to” any sort of perfect human for example and mankind is not the “pinnacle” of evolution. All of evolution did not happen in order to create us.

8. Just because evolution is not going anywhere does not mean it is not going anywhere. Evolution is like a driverless car. There is no driver and it knows not where it is going. But it is definitely going somewhere nonetheless, following forces that direct it along a logical, non-random route defined by its characteristics, obstacles, terrain, and the physics of motion.

9. Evolution is not guaranteed to find a way for a species to survive change, especially rapid change. Most in fact do not survive change. Evolution certainly has not found ways for the vast majority of species on the planet to survive dramatic changes, the worst of which may be the holocaust of humanity.

10. Certain unimportant traits might have little role in survival right now, but they might either save or kill your species when the environment changes.

11. A good trait isn’t always good. Change the environment slightly and that trait that helped you survive yesterday may cause your extinction tomorrow. Belief is one of those. Just because it evolved yesterday does not mean it is not bad for us today.

12. Bad traits can be good. If a trait isn’t bad enough to kill you before reproducing, it’s good. Sickle-cell Anemia is not a desirable genetic trait right now. But it may be the only trait that grants immunity to the zombie apocalypse virus that is right around the corner of random mutation. The more biodiversity a gene pool can support, even “bad” genes, the more likely that species will survive over the long haul. Wiping out a “bad” gene today could doom us tomorrow.

Those are just a few of the things to consider when you think about how traits and behaviors might have evolved. So enjoy the “Evolution Did It” game! It’s infinitely more fun and stimulating than the “God Did It” game.

The Evolution Standings

evolution by country graduatedWe have all seen these ubiquitous bar charts showing the level of acceptance of evolution by country. It’s fun to see how different nations are doing in the evolution standings and I’ve got a few choice things to say to some of our rivals.

First to Turkey (from maybe a third of Americans)… Thank You! Based on this totally fair litmus test we would clearly be THE stupidest, most insane people in the world if not for you. Don’t change Turkey, we love you!

But to Turkey again (from the other two-thirds of Americans)… Damn You! Were it not for you we Americans would be 1st in doubting or outright rejecting this evolution nonsense. Watch out Turkey, we’re training a new generation to overtake you!

icelandic womanNow to you Iceland. I’m really happy you’re at the top of the list. We all know you’re dominated by a race of gorgeous super-women adapted to the harsh climate and long nights, so you have direct proof of the survival of the fittest. It’s only fair that you top the litmus test for intelligence and sanity since what else do you have up there to be proud of except for giant volcanos and mossy green Matrix-themed landscapes.

And on to Denmark and Sweden. Haha, you losers were beat by Iceland! You’re always so smug about being first in every quality of life measure we can come up with, how does it feel to be second in rationality to those highly evolved Icelandic beauties? Next time I run into you guys on vacation maybe you’ll be a bit less smug about being first in “almost” everything.

To you French, nice work edging out Britain. Take that Brits! It must be especially humiliating to lose out to the French on this, especially considering that Darwin was one of your own. Way to blow an early lead and a big home-field advantage.

Haruhi SuzumiyaAnd Japan, way to go! Nice to see you sitting so high up in the standings. However you do know that Haruhi Suzumiya counts as a god too right? Just making sure.

Now, ignoring all those unremarkable countries in the middle, we come to Latvia and Cyprus near the bottom. Hey Cyprus you have a ways to go to catch up with Latvia, but if you can find a public school in America where the teacher isn’t too afraid to teach evolution, you could send like 30 exchange students there and overtake Latvia easy.

Finally, we need to mention a country that is conspicuously missing… China. Guess we don’t need to worry about what the biggest and most populous country in the world thinks. After all, they’re all the way over there in like… China. Actually China would be at or near the top of the list as they have perhaps the highest rate of unqualified acceptance of evolution in the world. But according to my Christian friends they are cheating yet again. They tell me that Chinese people only believe in evolution because they are mind-controlled by their dictatorial government. Isn’t that like totally unbelievable?

But views on evolution are far more convoluted and nuanced than this simple chart reflects. In some countries an acceptance of evolution somehow does not correlate with a rejection of creationism. Apparently while 73% of South Africans say they never heard of Darwin or evolution, 42% of them nevertheless agree with it. Having lived in South Africa this makes some bizarre sort of sense to me.

But I also lived in India, and I’m still perplexed how 77% of them accept the science of evolution as valid yet 43% of them also believe that life on Earth was created by God and has always existed in its current form (citation here). The Indians are indeed complex and mysterious folk.

Then there is America. Here is a truly interesting statistic. Even though 71% of Americans surveyed profess to be familiar with the science of evolution, roughly that same amount reject the science or think it is inconclusive. Evidently the scientific training of these Americans is SO advanced, they can find critical flaws in the “theory” that generations of scientists have failed to recognize.

It is also interesting to note that national wealth has a very strong correlation with the acceptance of evolution. In every case, the wealthier a nation becomes the more likely its people are to accept the science of evolution.

evolution by wealth

Well, there is that one anomalous data point off to the lower right there. Yup, that’s America again, way, way off by ourselves. We are by far the wealthiest nation with the lowest acceptance of evolution. We win after all!

Better yet, similar charts of health outcomes, education, wealth inequality, and many other measures would all look essentially the same. Overwhelming proof of that American Exceptionalism I keep hearing about!