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Going with the flow

| Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Aristotle believed that “adaptation” was the result of species being built a certain way. The problem with Aristotle’s view, which is still accepted by many, is that it implies we are perfectly built and intentionally designed to do the things we do. I want to show how Darwin’s argument for an alternative explanation of adaptation, via natural selection, can improve our everyday lives.

The trick is understanding natural selection’s limitations, specifically its lack of foresight. Natural selection is not a conscious agent. This means that it cannot imagine how successful an individual would be in a different environment or at a future time. It can only work with what increases fitness at the current time and place.

It is also essential to know that natural selection cannot invent anything new. It can only tinker with what it has. It is reasonable to think, then, that there are potentially far better traits for an organism to have in its niche, but because selection is stuck working with the variation we already have, there is no way to get there from here. This means that, metaphorically, natural selection has endowed us with a sharp spoon and asked us to use it as a knife.

To see what I mean, consider the location of our trachea directly above our esophagus. In other words, the channel for bringing air into our body, the thing we need most to survive, is right next to a channel frequented by objects just the right size to clog it. It would have made a lot of sense to put these two channels in different places, but instead we are stuck with a handy little flap called an epiglottis, which works well enough (except for when it doesn’t and we choke).

The point is that our bodies and minds were not constructed intentionally to do the things we do every day. Nor are they perfectly adapted to be doing them. We are just jerry-rigged creatures trying to exist in a new environment, and to make things even more difficult that environment is constantly changing at an increasing rate. This may sound disappointing, but I am not saying that we are broken or faulty creatures. We are indeed extremely complex, possibly the most complex life-forms on Earth. What I am trying to say, is that sometimes when we feel weird, fall down or get sick, it is not our fault. We are just spoons trying to be knives.

A lot of times when you ask existential questions or wonder why you have a this or a that, the answer isn’t because someone “built you a certain way” and meant for you to use your this or that for a purpose; it is simply because having a this or that increased our ancestor’s fitness at some point in history or because it didn’t decrease it enough to get removed, so it has stuck along for the ride. So does this make us purposeless products of randomness trying to find meaning in the world because our cognitive abilities are maybe a little too advanced for our own good? It shouldn’t.

Anyone who has ever been “in the right place at the right time,” be it catching a perfect wave during dawn or meeting a future spouse or best friend at a place you almost didn’t go to, knows this to be true. The story of existence is riddled with many things that were not “intended” to happen and probably statistically shouldn’t have, but they did, and that makes them even more astounding. We are no exception. Humankind is another beautiful moment in the existence of planet earth. To the cosmic observer, we are like a moment of stillness on the pond of life, just long enough to catch a glimpse of a reflection before the water begins to move again.

The point is that accepting and understanding Darwin’s explanation does not make our lives purposeless or make religion meaningless. Nor does it turn mankind into a violent creature fighting day and night to be the fittest. What it does do, and it does so beautifully, is help us understand how we got here, why our bodies and minds are the way that they are and why we have a hard time answering these questions in the first place. It helps us understand why we are really good at some things and not so good at others. Perhaps, most importantly of all, it helps us go with the flow, understanding why things don’t always go like they should, but still accepting and loving every second of it simply because it is.

Contact Matt Williams at mwilli41@nd.edu 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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