Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Understanding Darwin

Well, I haven't angered anyone yet, so let's get controvercial.

I'm a biologist. Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" is an excellently written book, and his theory of evolution is wonderful. However, very few people in the world actually understand it. Part of it is bad teachers. Part of it is that no one actually reads the source -- Darwin lays out his argument very well, slowly progressing from the obvious to the less obvious, taking the reader on a slow journey that maximizes understanding. But most people remember the short, sweet, and unintentionally misleading phrase "survival of the fittest".

The word 'fittest' (and fitness) as Darwin uses it does not mean what instantly jumps to most people's mind. It specifically does not mean strong, buff, fast, etc.. Well, it can, but it doesn't have to. Fittest has to do with fitting in. That's it. Which ever animal fits it's environment -- the entire environment -- and manages to make more babies will pass on more geentic material to the next generation.

Some animals use strength, Some use speed. Others are more devious -- like apes that wait until the strong apes are out hunting, or fighting each other, then quietly sneaks into their mates homes and makes a few babies for the nice strong men to raise as their own. Cuckolds, as they are called, are quite frequent in nature. It's a great strategy for the weak one -- not only do you get to make babies you don't need to invest any time or energy in raising, you get the strongest guy in the tribe to raise him for you! What a deal!

I was reading a refutation of Ben Stein's recent atrocity (and I really like Ben Stein, so it was a dismal, sad day I watched it) at The Corner:

Stein wrote:
But it fell to a true Imperialist, from a wealthy British family on both sides, married to a wealthy British woman, writing at the height of Imperialism in the UK, when a huge hunk of Africa and Asia was "owned" (literally, owned, by Great Britain) to create a scientific theory that rationalized Imperialism.

Stein's entire argument makes no sense, if you read it with any understanding of the Theory of Evolution at all.

Derbyshire does a good job refuting it even though he doesn't even bother to point out the real meaning of survival of the fittest:

If that's what "Darwinism" (he means: modern biology) is, how does it happen that there are any meek, un-hardy creatures in the world? Yet in fact "hardy" … "stronger" … "dominant" describe only a tiny proportion of species. How is it that all those wimp species are still around after three billion years? Wouldn't the "dominant" ones have eaten them all? Oh, but wait a minute … then the dominants would have eliminated their own food supply … um …

1 comment:

piscesgrrl said...

Woohoo, we're getting controversial!

I found you through a link back (my unofficial made-up term ;-) after you quoted my 'How We Got Here' post, so hallo!

This is great, so I'm eager to read more. Perhaps if more folks referred to it as 'fitting in', there'd be less confusion. I'm always so smitten when something so simple as a change of phrase causes such a huge 'OHhhh' shift in me. So, thanks!

And congrats on stepping off the escalator and onto the muddy path! Unschooling is a delightful journey.