What is evolution? Seriously. Think about what that word is supposed to mean. It means gradual change over time. It usually refers to the process which life on Earth has gone through over the past something odd million-billion years. Now think about what we supposedly know about evolution. It works by random mutation and natural selection, meaning small changes accumulate in different species and changes which improve the odds of reproduction of an individual or population relative to other populations will be propagated and contribute to long-term, substantial change. That is, it’s driven by natural forces and random chance. So why do people insist on assigning teleological purpose to a materialistic phenomenon like evolution?
Seriously? Why do people do this? To be clear on what I’m talking about, it’s when people say things like: “Humanity today is not highly evolved enough to live together peacefully,” or, “Those people are not evolved enough to share our sensibilities.” The problem is when you use phrases like ‘evolved enough’ you ascribe a direction to evolution. But evolution is not directed except by nature and circumstance. So it makes no sense to say this.
To clarify what I mean: Let’s say man domesticates dogs. Now let’s say man prefers very tame lapdogs and so he breads the animals until they are small and tame. Now let’s say that man’s taste have changed and he now prefers hunting animals and so he breads dogs so they are more like wolves again. Breading is a form of artificial selection so these animals have evolved from wolves to lapdogs to wolves again. At which point are they more “highly-evolved?” Does that even make sense in this context? No, of course not because to say something like this is to assume that there is a final end towards which the dogs were evolving, but direction of the artificial selection kept changing so there was no highest form.1
Evolution is the process by which life changes to suite the circumstances which nature creates for it and unless you have an intelligent force directing it (such as breeding by humans,) there can be no purpose, no telos to it. A stupid man is neither more nor less highly evolved than an intelligent one. If his stupidity holds a reproductive advantage at the time at which he possesses it,2 then he is perfectly evolved for his circumstance regardless of society’s prejudice against stupid people.
So, why do people ascribe purpose to evolution? Well, aside from religious belief,3 I think I have a reason. It has to do with human tendencies to make their own values systems universal. With overt religious belief, people generally can reference a supreme being or karmic force which can impress its values on mankind universally, but a true materialist4 has to accept a world devoid of universal morality and teleological purpose. However, projection of one’s own values is natural and logic has never prevented anyone from doing so and it’s natural that people would then project them onto the closest thing to a universal values system of which they can conceive, the unforgiving forces of natural evolution.
This is why people ascribe traits which are perceived as negative to “lower stages of evolution.” Arbitrary things like skin color and personal appearance, to things which are clearly values judgment, like propensity to violence or prejudice are then ascribed to evolutionary status. Despite the fact that killing one’s genetic rivals presents a clear advantage in evolutionary terms, we still sit in smug superiority to those “unevolved” savages who commit genocide or engage in long term feuds. Our stance is fundamentally ridiculous but we hold on to it anyway.
All in all, I guess it’s to be expected, but why does it mean I have to exposed to such stupid PSAs?
- Natural selection doesn’t have a purpose but artificial selection by its nature does. Artificial selection doesn’t need to maintain the same purpose for long however. ↩
- Seeing as people with higher IQs or more education tend to have few children than people with lower IQs or less education, this is likely the case in our own society. ↩
- Which doesn’t usually manifest itself in such banal phrases such as “more highly evolved.” ↩
- or physicalist more properly ↩