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195. The Science of Evolution and Life

19 Dec

In some recent discussions, I was disappointed by how biological evolution is poorly understood by many people. Here are some facts about evolution and life, which may be helpful.

The unbiased scientific view is: that life is just a complex variation of matter and will begin when certain organic (based on carbon) compounds happen to combine in a particular way, without any purpose or design (see below for details). An exploding star or the “birth” of a star, just happens,  without any purpose or striving. There are many amazing processes in astronomy and on Earth that just happen. Does the moon circle the Earth due to some striving? When an earthquake occurs,  is there a purpose or goal?

The origin of life and its gradual evolution, in the same way, just happens. Some philosophers and other non-scientists see purposes, goals, striving, drives, etc. in many areas. Scientists ignore all this and are concerned with physical laws and objective descriptions of events. Nothing that happens on Earth or in space seems designed, particularly because of general disorganization and imperfections.

The origins of life and evolution, progress by the principle of “survival of the fittest.” Life and death provide variation and some variations are relatively permanent (mutations). If a variation leads to a better chance of survival, at least long enough for reproduction, then on a statistical basis, it is more likely to occur. Evolution depends on the fact that variations may be persistent and occur in subsequent generations. For example, a species of bird may  have small variations in the length of its beak. It may be that birds with a slightly longer beak are able capture food better. Under the concept of evolution, birds with longer beaks likely will survive better and eventually, this species will have longer beaks. There is no design or purpose here, it just happens as a property of matter.

At this point, you might ask, how can the amazing and complex features of life, occur without the design of someone or thing? In order to understand this, consider that these developments happen in a slow process over billions of years. It is difficult for people to mentally cope with things out of the ordinary time spans and sizes that we are used to. Can you comprehend the size of our solar system, or worse, the galaxy or the entire Universe.  In the same way, five billion years is beyond our comprehension. It should not  be surprising that amazing things can happen in that incomprehensible long time.

You might further inquire, how can there be a transition from ordinary matter to the very first life? The answer is this. The Universe is mostly filled with very simple atoms, mostly hydrogen and some helium. The more complex atoms and molecules develop mostly through supernovae, which are gigantic star explosions (see for example: Wikipedia: “Abundance of the chemical elements.” Right from the very beginnings of the Universe, there was ubiquitous movement. Almost everything is in constant motion, at the very smallest levels (atoms) and the very largest (stars and galaxies). The movements of certain atoms, especially carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc, resulted in the formation of organic (carbon based) compounds. Movement and accidental contacts of organic compounds resulted in something extremely unlikely, a compound that had the property of “life.” It only took one extremely unlikely combination of compounds out of trillions and trillions of chance interactions, to produce in one instance, a compound that could reproduce itself (living). Because of reproduction, this one case could spread life all over our planet. It may be difficult to understand all this, without reference to chemistry and biology textbooks.

Now we come to people. We all want to feel that we are “special,” but like all life, and all actions we see in the Universe, we just happen. Every plant or animal is constructed and develops as a consequence of the DNA it inherits, and all of the experiences it is exposed to. Experiences include learning, parenting, imitation, food sources, environmental and social factors.

This may be disappointing and confusing for many people, but scientists see no evidence for anything else. Given this bleak picture, my advice is to live your life in a normal, responsible, and enjoyable way, but when appropriate for some intellectual reason, recognize reality. Personally, I like to live my life with kindness because it is good for me, and for others — a win, win. (I welcome criticisms and comments.)

 

174. Our Education Affects “Reasoning” Ability

8 Jun

I was recently reminded of a problem in education: that children (and adults) are actually trained in what I call “magical thinking.” The reminder was a recent TED talk by Kate Bowler, entitled “Everything happens for a reason” — and other lies I’ve loved.  Many people could benefit from her illuminating piece.

Most of us are trained in various types of magical thinking. Examples are that life has “purpose” and “meaning” and that our actions should be guided by pleasing a higher power.  This is supported by the fact that ANXIETY is so much a part of our biological makeup. We create comforting attitudes to decrease our fears. Like many others, Kate Bowler‘s magical thinking was not questioned until faced with a horrible disease;  she got cancer. The bottom line is that this kind of thinking generally makes us feel better, and so is reinforced, just like we eat to avoid hunger and drink to avoid thirst, we pursue faulty thinking to avoid anxiety.

Being highly educated and logical is more difficult than “magic,” but it also works, and we are not so shocked when bad things happen. My solution is better education, which emphasizes logic and science. Many people have found joy in really understanding how the world works. When you study the origins of the Universe and the origins of life, science helps in understanding these issues. We don’t have final and exact answers for these “origins” but what is known suggests plausible explanations. When the above author, Kate Bowler, was young, what if some authority figure had asked her this question: how can you be sure of your beliefs and understanding of life? Where is the evidence? What are the details? Can we live without unsupported beliefs and just focus on what is observable and logical? (Note, although logic and science are important, I also recognize the role of love, kindness, sports, arts, music and other human factors.)

Along these same lines, I would ask this question: can we really make decisions and think in ways that are truly independent? Or, are we totally controlled by our original structure (DNA, etc.), all of our learning experience, and various environmental influences? For most people, beliefs are learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and/or peers — and regardless of events, may persist for entire lives.