marți, 10 februarie 2009

Of life and beetles

About a most generous, visionary and dangerous vision of the world. A vision that still stir thoughts and passions, a century and a half later.

The whole article here, courtesy The Economist. Please witness the clear, balanced, mindful style.


Darwin’s theory explained why species were so well adapted to their environment and how new species would form. It suggested that all living things were related, from the beetle to the lotus, and that everything descended ultimately from a single common ancestor. Evolution thus removed the need for divine explanations of diversity and, along with evidence emerging at that time of the extreme age of the Earth, it further suggested that the wider universe might also owe nothing to divine intervention and everything to natural laws. Darwin understood all of this and was greatly troubled.

That trouble continues today. In the United States a Gallup poll conducted last year found that only 14% of people agreed with the proposition that “humans developed over millions of years”, up from 9% in 1982. Acceptance of evolution varies around the world, with the most ardent believers being in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden (see chart). In general, as you might expect, a country’s belief in evolution is inversely correlated with its belief in God. But there is an interesting twist.

Gregory Paul, an independent researcher on evolution, and Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in California, have argued controversially that a belief in God is inversely correlated with the level of what might be described as the intensity of the struggle for existence. In countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure. A belief in God, and rejection of evolution, they suggest, is most valuable in those societies that are most subject to Darwinian pressures.


Whether the mystery is why people are so averse to risk, unable to estimate the time needed for a given task, or give different answers to the same question depending on how it is framed, there is a fair chance that the explanation will, at some point, involve evolution. To understand human behaviour properly, the world needs Darwin. Some have said it is the best idea that anyone ever had. If it isn’t, it certainly comes close.

Despite so much evidence, evolution remains difficult to accept because it implies everything living is largely accidental. Stephen Jay Gould, an American evolutionary biologist, who died in 2002, argued that misunderstandings about Darwinism were rife not because the theory is difficult to understand but because people actively avoid trying to understand it. He thought a misunderstanding about progress was the problem.

People are comforted by the idea of a designed and harmonious natural world, with themselves at the top. It is hard to accept that such harmony has arisen as an accidental consequence of a brutal system with no principles beside the one that every individual is striving for reproductive success. It is depressing to think that life is purposeless and that evolution has no higher destination.


For those of you with time to spare, you can listen to Simon Conway-Morris on the most recent trends the evolutionary theory currently takes.

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