We’re Here Cause We Can Speak Good
June 7, 2011
So in my last post I made a kind of depressing statistical analysis. To balance that out I’m going to (hopefully) take a more optimistic approach to analyzing our existence as humans. In advance, I would like to acknowledge that I am absolutely biting off more than I can chew, and the thoughts I ramble off here are still largely incomplete, they’re just things I mull over every once in a while.
At college this past semester, I took a course on biological anthropology. Being an anthropology major, I figured this was a good way to get some requirements out of the way, and I had heard that the professor was a great lecturer anyways. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Apparently, a course on biological anthropology encompasses everything from basic cell anatomy and function, to human evolution and adaptations. It was a HUGE amount of information to cover, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
One of the biggest takeaways from the course–at least in my opinion–was that we are incredibly lucky to have become the species that we are today. Natural selection is not merely ‘survival of the fittest’ (in fact, that was a term which apparently Darwin himself disliked) but rather it is differential reproductive success. The fact that we were able to survive as a species isn’t based on the fact that we could essentially kill off our competition. We survived because of minute differences in our physiological make up which advantaged us over others.
What’s important to keep in mind is that we didn’t evolve to dominate, we evolved to adapt to our environment. Bipedalism–perhaps our most lauded trait–was really formed as a response to increasing grasslands and decreasing forests, mostly in south-central Africa. Lucy didn’t triumphantly step out of the trees in order to conquer her enemies, she skittishly darted from tree to tree, eventually cover greater and greater distances which required her body to adapt to become more efficient. We’re all about efficiency, not just making sure we thwart our challengers.
What’s perplexing to me, is the fact that some people cannot reconcile evolution with ‘intelligent design.’ While most people go about blaming radical theists for wanting to offer up intelligent design as a comparison to evolution, I think ‘radical atheists’ are just as ignorant as their Bible-thumping counterparts. Sure, there’s absolutely evidence to support biological evolution, but I don’t understand how the presence of that evidence necessarily precludes the existence of a higher power. To go about claiming that there absolutely is no god is just as naïve to go about claiming that god is the only explanation for our existence. The evidence (both scientific and spiritual) suggests there is quite a lot of leg room.
Of course, there are plenty of people who see my point of view. Unfortunately, as with most contentious issues in this world, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. The people with the most polarized opinions are the ones getting the attention, and those of use who are able to rationally reconcile science with spirituality are left by the wayside.
My biological anthropology professor was the kind of guy who like to say things like “you know how you’ve always hear that–insert commonly heard explanation for phenomenon–well that’s completely wrong” and then follow up with some other explanation. While this sometimes ended up sounding arrogant on his part, most of the new theories he presented to us were actually incredibly thought provoking. The one which stuck with me the most is the theory as to why modern humans were able to essentially replace Neanderthals when we both inhabited the same ecological niche at roughly the same time. While most people believe it had something to do with intelligence, strength, or other self-promoting traits, my professor presented the idea that it really only had to do with articulation. The way the back of our throats evolved versus the way the backs of Neanderthal throats evolved resulted, by chance, in modern humans having more vocal range and articulation. This led to more complex speech patterns, and probably more effective hunting methods. Though the difference was slim, it resulted in a 1-2% increased reproduction rate (if you are more adept at hunting, you can provide more food for your family and drive the competitors away) and over millions of years, that 1-2% better success rate would eventually lead to humans overtaking the terrestrial niche they shared with Neanderthals.
So if our chances of survival as a species were so meager, how can an intellectually honest person truly rule out the possibility that there is some higher power out there who has our back?