Evolution versus Tower of Hanoi

The Tower of Hanoi (Wikipedia: Tower of Hanoi) is a neat little stacking game. The rules are simple:

  1. There are a number disks of varying sizes.
  2. There are (typically) three slots the disks can sit on.
  3. Only one disk may be moved at a time.
  4. Only the top disk of a stack may be moved.
  5. No larger disk may be placed atop a smaller disk.

The goal is to get the entire stack of disks from one slot to another.

In this arrangement, it would be sensible enough to call out a natural ordering of the disks, from largest (bottom) to smallest (top). You could create a sensible narrative where the smaller disks are more fragile, or more exalted, or whatever.

The problem with many laypersons’ accounts of evolution (particularly those portrayed as deniers, e.g., in documentaries) is that they attempt to impose this sort of narrative where one doesn’t belong. In large part this may be due to the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” But regardless it is demonstrably false and it undermines any attempt to actually understand evolution.

Let’s start with that phrase. You have many animals or creatures in an environment, and suddenly food becomes scarce. The pressure on these animals causes some to starve, others to fight, &c.

What fitness means, and all it means, in that context is that those animals who happen to be best able to cope with the pressure will survive. That may be due to them hiding, running away, being lazybones that happened to sleep through a catastrophe, &c.

Fitness is being used very loosely in that phrase. It doesn’t mean the one that can run the 100 meter dash the fastest, nor the one that can bench-press n times its own body weight. It lends no credence to eugenics, for example, unless your idea of eugenics is letting random chance determine the gene pool.

They happened to survive, and that’s all that was required for them to be called fit. If you repeated the event 1,000 times, and some subset of the population portrayed a similar tendency to avoid the catastrophe in a large set of those trials, that would be a measure of fitness. But even once, even a fluke, still imbues them with some level of fitness.

When creatures or animals change from one species to another, it means there has been enough genetic change that they can no longer reproduce with their ancestors’ other species (be they the old species or other derived ones). That doesn’t mean the other species are extinct, nor does it mark them as inferior. It’s just a statement of biological fact.

The notion that we, as humans, are superior to all the other species is a common human belief. It may bear out in certain contexts, but it fails in many as well. For example, we cannot survive by swimming around in antarctic waters, eating krill. No, we are adapted to particular environments even if we may possess the intellect to adapt to a wider range of environments than other species.

Do us a favor, documentarians. When you wish to produce a documentary about those who deny evolution, please make sure they first take a class that dispels such fallacies, both ubiquitous and idiosyncratic.

If they still choose to disbelieve the science based on an understanding of it, fine. But calling them disbelievers when they don’t even have the correct picture to disbelieve reads as disingenuous. More akin to telling a joke poorly, and then when they don’t laugh writing it off to their poor sense of humor.