Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Problem of Purpose (part 1)

As humans, we like to think that everything has a purpose. And certainly, nature doesn't contradict that view: peacocks' tails exist to attract peahens, cats have claws so that they can kill mice, birds sing to mark their territories and attract mates, humans have a big brain which enabled the species to develop advanced technologies, cockroaches--okay, maybe those don't have a purpose. The point is that animals exist in certain shapes and forms for reasons, presumably to better fulfill their "destiny", to live out their "purpose".

Except this assumes that some force (the Guiding Hand of God, perhaps?) was directing a small furry mammal to become say, a lemur, and then the lemur to become an ape, and the ape to become a human. It assumes that there was a reason for the animal to evolve along the lines it did.

Scientists make this mistake a lot, actually. Genetic studies purporting to demonstrate why we are genetically predisposed to becoming obese, the link between abnormal proteins here and Alzheimer's/schizophrenia/drug addiction there, and sickle cell anemia and resistance to malaria, must be very careful not to ascribe the selection pressures for a particular gene as the purpose for the gene's existence. Genes exist, solely because the vehicle they are temporally transferred in (living creatures) managed to live long enough to pass it on. No lemur decided, "Hey, this tree-climbing thing is sure getting hard out here on the savanna. I think I'll evolve bipedalism!"

The fact is, there really is no reason for anything to exist, other than the fact that it's not dead already. And this, I think, is one of the biggest problems creationists have with evolution.

It is a stark picture: you exist only because your parents didn't die before they had you. There is no purpose to your life, no "reason" why you were born in the body that you have and with the brain that was given to you. No wonder creationists have such a problem with evolution: it runs counter to everything religious and/or spiritual belief we might have concerning our existence on this planet.

Natural selection is the reason why we evolved the way we did--God, if He's indeed out there, didn't coax anything along except death, destruction, and mayhem. One could hypothetically argue that He, in His divine might, decided that thus would be the vehicle by which He created all life, but that doesn't really change the essence of the argument: natural selection is a harsh and fickle mistress.

1 comment:

Stinky (and oh yeah GO SEE DARK KNIGHT) said...

so. I believe in God, and I like to believe there's a bit of truth in Creationism, beyond the obvious "it's not science," because it isn't. Personally, I like to take it as a spiritual, and not a factual, origin of man.

I don't think Creationists are a bunch of fluffies out there trying to justify existence - Hobbes : "life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" - and no matter how much I love Palahniuk, I don't look at life in a nihilistic way. To say we only exist because our parents didn't die, which might be factually true, is ignoring the bigger, better story. We exist because we are the product of generations of progress. We exist because we stand on the shoulders of those who have died. We exist because we are the next step - or the next millimeter of the next step. We have to exist, to better ourselves, and not just sit around waiting to have babies and die. And the fact that human beings can know this, and want this, and assign value to non-physical things, and imagine, alone out of all the species on earth? and all the species that have gone extinct? that, to me, is something sacred, even if it came about by millions of years of a scientific progress.

Natural selection is a very nasty, imperfect process. However far it goes, it can never change its template. But natural selection is a perfect mechanism for breeding organisms to their purpose, however important or pointless that may be. It goes back to why God seems random, and cruel, and pointless, but at the end of the road is perfection, and beauty. A strange moth for every strange orchid.

So no, I don't think Creationism and evolution necessarily have to refute each other. If natural selection was God's creation, then turmoil exists because there is always another step to take.