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Evolution versus Tower of Hanoi

Look at a common misunderstanding likely caused by the phrasing, “survival of the fittest.”

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.

Disbelieving Evolution is Anti-science

Evolution has many analogues. Among these, science stands as one of the most directly useful to man in his quest to achieve a peaceful and bountiful existence. Ultimately, those that reject science would doom our kind to dysfunction.

For an old controversy with roots in institutional inequality (eg, the aristocracy in England in the late 18th century), evolution has a proud tradition of being rejected by the devout non-believers of science. And yet you see them claim they just make their minds up, not being anti-science or uninformed. They just buy the other argument.

The problem for their position: rejection of evolution amounts to rejection of science, due to the substance of the theory of evolution.

The theory of evolution states that those biological organisms that best adapt to their environment will tend to exist, while those maladaptive organisms will tend not to exist.

More generally, an evolutionary system (biological or not) is a system in which entities continue to exist (via simple continuation, via propagation, or some other mechanism) or cease to exist (via death, simple removal, or some other mechanism) based on having the property of being functional or not being functional in some context.

Thus, science itself is evolutionary. As are human thought, behavior, language, etc.

Science is based on the idea that explanatory power of an idea constitutes the fitness test. An idea which does not explain the evidence will tend to be rejected, while an idea which does explain the evidence will tend to be accepted.

Evolution is accepted exactly because it fits the evidence for why all of these organisms exist today while others that existed in the past died off.

Science is accepted exactly because it is a more functional way of seeking to understand the world and interact with it than other methods such as poking everything you see with a stick. If poking everything you see with a stick could generate the thrust needed to land humans on the moon, for example, then it would at least be a real competitor to science. It isn’t.

But without some better explanation than “I made my mind up” to reject evolution, any claim to be accepting of science in general would be mistaken. Moreover, any theory which explains the biological records better than evolution would instantly be adopted as a new paradigm for conducting all scientific inquiry, so those that reject evolution should be beating the rest of the scientific community in publishing astounding new findings in all areas.

It is not the case. The sad truth is that those who reject evolution do not understand it. They do not understand science. They have some vague notion, as they probably have with mathematics and other areas of knowledge.

And it is a sad truth, because a failure to model evolution and science is also a failure to model the psyche of their fellow man. And that failure leads to all sorts of anti-scientific political decisions that cause massive suffering. That failure means their own children have a lower quality of life.

Evolution is a beautiful idea that should be visited often with an eye toward how elegant systems can function. It is as beautiful as any painting or any song. And yet there are a lot of people that stare at it as if it’s a random dot autostereogram image (like those Magic Eye images that were popular some years ago), unable to bring into focus the reality before them. They dismiss it in favor of a simple line drawing with no depth or substance.