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Evolution as alien god

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In the days before Darwin, people would look at the intricate complexity of life and blame it on a god - something with a mind. Knowing the English sentence "evolution does not have a mind" doesn't automatically enable people to imagine a mindless, unintelligent designer. People seem to visualize something more like a helpful spirit that works to improve species - whether they recite the phrase "evolution has no mind" or not. They think that rabbits mate in order to "propagate their species", or wonder if evolution plans to carry on working through nonbiology...

People don't stop anthropomorphizing just because you tell them to.

To overcome the metaphor of the helpful spirit, one approach is to consider what kind of god evolution would be if it were a god - what sort of god takes a million years to invent a new complex design, what kind of god would put the retina in backwards, what kind of god would let elephants starve to death once they wore out their last set of teeth; and yet still managed to design a human brain, however poorly...

It would be a tremendously powerful, unbelievably stupid, ridiculously slow, and utterly uncaring god; a god monomaniacally focused on the relative fitness of genes within a species; a god whose attention was completely separated and working at cross-purposes in rabbits and wolves...

...in short, less like Jehovah, and more like H. P. Lovecraft's Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

And this is the process responsible for the creation of all biological life on Earth, and you in particular, so you should probably get to know it in some detail.

Blog posts

  • An Alien God
  • The Wonder of Evolution ...is not how amazingly well it works, but that it works at all without a mind, brain, or the ability to think abstractly - that an entirely accidental process can produce complex designs. If you talk about how amazingly well evolution works, you're missing the point.
  • Evolutions Are Stupid (But Work Anyway) - evolution, while not simple, is sufficiently simpler than organic brains that we can describe mathematically how slow and stupid it is.
  • The Tragedy of Group Selectionism - a tale of how some pre-1960s biologists were led astray by expecting evolution to do smart, nice things like they would do themselves.
  • Evolving to Extinction - it is a common misconception that evolution works for the good of a species, but actually evolution only cares about the inclusive fitness of genes relative to each other, and so it is quite possible for a species to evolve to extinction.
  • Anthropomorphic Optimism - you shouldn't bother coming up with clever, persuasive arguments for why evolution will do things the way you prefer. It really isn't listening.

See also