Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yay, Evolution

I love evolution. Love the idea of it-- that a series of accidents, nature's trial-and-error, can create life as diverse and complex as we see on this planet. Whenever creationists try to insist, in defiance of all scientific reason and evidence, that everything was simply whipped into existence by a white-haired man, I think, how boring. Creationism is unimaginative. Evolution is dynamic and exciting. And it's such a simple idea, I don't understand why people have such a hard time grasping it.

Traits that enable organisms to make copies of themselves (i.e. reproduce), or that don't hinder the process, get passed on. Traits that harm an organism's ability to reproduce disappear. That's it. Add to this millions of random mutations and billions of years, and you get a profound diversity of life.

I think a lot of people have trouble grasping the scope of evolution, how you get from a one-celled organism to the complexity of the human body, but the problem lies in our ability to see the entire big picture. It's like trying to conceptualize the distance between the stars. We can throw out numbers with lots of zeros in them, but the human brain can't really relate to it. (For example, do you know it would take over 30 years to count to a billion, if you said one number per second 24 hours a day, every day?) So people have a hard time conceptualizing how a series of accidents can get from something incredibly simple to something amazingly complex.

My point is, we're talking about a LOT OF TIME. So much time that you can't even imagine it with your puny human brain. It's not like a fish gave birth to a dinosaur who gave birth to a monkey who gave birth to your grandparents. There are millions of steps between those things. (And yes, I know we aren't descended from dinosaurs. We aren't descended from monkeys, either, but rather we both came from the same ancestors.)

Another big mistake that people make when trying to understand (or discredit) evolution is that they assume that every part of an organism must have some biological purpose. Nature must have designed it that way. Remember, evolution is all about passing on your genes. Genes that don't hinder that process will still get passed on. Some traits don't necessarily encourage an organism's reproduction, but don't stand in the way of it, either. (I guess they're like Quaker genes.) So they get passed on.

The most fervent argument creationists have against evolution is that so much of the human body appears to be designed by an intelligent being. The watch implies a watchmaker, yadda yadda yadda. But the evidence absolutely does NOT bear this out. There are tons of features in our bodies that appear to have been designed by a crazy person. An intelligent designer would not have given us an appendix, or made our photoreceptors point backwards (causing a blind spot in the human eye), or given us jaws too small for our teeth (leading to wisdom teeth problems), or created a human spine in that location that is under so much weight. These imperfections are much easier explained by accidents of nature than by intelligent design. And that's just one animal. Countless other examples exist throughout the animal kingdom.


Anyway, I dig evolution. I've recently discovered two books that have only intensified my love affair with this biological process.

The first is Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire. Pollan tells the story of four crops (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatos) that each represent a different human desire (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, control.) His thesis is that, instead of thinking of agriculture as a way that humans have conquered nature, think of it as a way that plants have used humans to survive. For example, we have cut down forests to plant grains. So the grains have used us to conquer the trees. In the four cases above, the plant took advantage of something that appealed to our human desires to propagate itself. What a fascinating idea!

The latest book is one that I just started reading, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. He introduces the concept of "kluge" (rhymes with "splooge"), which is an inelegant, inefficient, but effective solution to an engineering problem. Think of Rube Goldberg contests.

Marcus posits that evolution is very klugey, with lots of inefficient forms that work well enough, but don't really look great. (ie. human appendices, eyes, jaws, spines.)


Okay, so I didn't intend to go off on a evolution-inspired rant. (But it felt good nevertheless.) My original intention was to quote a line from Kluge.* First, a little context.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not the most kid-friendly uncle around. I've been very ambivalent on the issue of raising youngins. As I get older, I get more interested in my cats than in kids. But lately I've found that a lot of the old hobbies I used to enjoy, like watching TV or playing computer games, just isn't as thrilling as it used to be. I wonder if I'm growing up, ready for a new phase of my life, a new challenge.

Maybe I'm ready to have kids. To finally fulfill my biological purpose: make copies of my genes. Of course, this is a moot point right now, since I would only do this once I found a partner to do it with. But I'm opening myself up to the idea.

So, as I've been ruminating on that thought, I read the following passage in Marcus' book:

Why... do we spend so many hours watching television when it does our genes so little good?

Indeed, I can testify that in my case, TV has done my genes no good whatsoever. I'm not sure how Marcus explains this specifically, since I'm still in the early part of the book, but it is funny to me that he brought up an example that seems to fit so well with my life.

This is my kind of book.

*Not to be confused with Klute, the movie where Jane Fonda plays a prostitute.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Things I Do For TV

Homer Simpson once said, "Marge, TV gives so much and asks so little."

But he wasn't trying to upgrade to digital at the time.

My cable company has been sending me lots of notices lately that they are transferring over to digital. I'm not exactly sure what this means, other than a lot more work for me. I had to order a new digital converter box, which they're giving me for free, but adds another device to my already complicated entertainment system. I like to simplify my life, but it gets harder and harder as we get more and more hooked in to the Mother Ship.

The package arrived a few weeks ago and it's just been sitting on my living room floor. Like an ugly stain in the bathroom, I'm trying to avoid it. I don't want to open it up because I know what's in there: a headache. When I first bought my TiVo (and then again when I moved last summer), I spent way too much time hooking it up and getting it to work right.

Now that everything works, they're making me introduce a new variable into the mix. I have to hook up the cable box, and then make sure it can play nice with my TV, TiVo, and DVD player.

I have too many questions, like: will using this new digital cable box give me new features that I have to pay for? How much new equipment will I have to buy-- adaptors, cables, transmogrifiers-- to make the new system work? One of the things I need, according to the instructions, is called an "IR blaster." I've been getting tired of TV lately-- is it really worth all this trouble?

I'm afraid to start this process, because I know that once I start, my life will be in disarray until I get all the issues fixed that it will invariably bring up. And I will not be able to escape into my TV world to get away from it, because that won't be working.

Monday, April 5, 2010

April Honest Day

Last year my family had a hell of a time trying to decide on a weekend to hold our annual reunion, Schreiberfest. Over the course of two weeks, we sent 48 emails to each other, trying to pin down a weekend when seven overbooked families could find the time to meet. Every time it seemed like we had a date, someone would chime in to veto it, and we'd have to start over again.

After we'd finally nailed down the Labor Day holiday as our S-fest weekend, my sister-in-law sent the following message: "I am so sorry. My cousin is getting married I didn't have it on the calendar and we can't go Labor Day. Back to the drawing board."

But she was lying. There was no cousin's wedding that day, no calendar, no drawing board. You see, it was April First, and according to our culture it's okay to lie to those you love on this day. It's supposed to be amusing to make your loved ones look like a "fool."

I've never understood the appeal of April Fool's Day. Often the lie is just lame, like when my co-worker told me last year about a new state law that would tax dog owners by how much their dog weighed. That sounds weird, I thought, and then went about my day. When she revealed that it was all just an April Fool's joke, I thought, oh, okay...whatever.

Lots of websites and news organizations will run some sort of joke news, and that's kinda fun, but they never do it as well as The Onion does it every week, so why get all excited about it?

The same people who are obsessed with fooling their friends and family are also obsessed with not getting fooled. So they go the other way and don't believe anything you say.

You can never repeat anything interesting or remarkable on this day.


So in response to April Fool's Day, I'm starting a new Timicist holiday. From now on April 5 will be known as April Honest Day. A day for telling the truth, where you can't make up any stupid shit all day long. Where you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

You'll probably be telling all this truth to your therapist, to get over all the "fun tricks" your friends and family played on you four days earlier.