Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Complexity and the human desire for supernatural answers

We humans are funny. We are hard-wired to seek patterns and answers. But don’t make those answers too complicated, because we don’t like that. Up and down, good and bad, Black and white with as few colors to the rainbow as possible. Tell me the answer – quickly and easily.

I’m reading a wonderful book right now called Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin. Shubin doesn’t refute creationism. He doesn’t have to. He just tells what we know from decades and centuries of scientific discoveries. As an expert in both paleontology and embryological genetics, he is uniquely positioned to provide the information. He also has a layman friendly writing style, but doesn’t dumb-down the science along the way.

I read these:

“Genes interact with each other at all stages of development. One gene may inhibit the activity of another or promote it. Sometimes many genes interact to turn another gene on or off. Fortunately, new tools allow us to study the activity of thousands of genes in a cell at once. Couple this technology with new computer-based ways of interpreting gene function and we have enormous potential to understand how genes build cells, tissues, and bodies.”

And a little later:

It is hard not to feel awestruck watching an animal assemble itself. Just like a brick house, a limb is built by smaller pieces joining to make a larger structure. But there is a huge difference. Houses have a builder, somebody who actually knows where all the bricks need to go; limbs and bodies do not. The information that builds limbs is not in some architectural plan but is contained within each cell. Imagine a house coming together spontaneously from all the information contained in the bricks: that is how animal bodies are made.”

Those really got me to thinking about us Homo sapiens. Not about our bodies; but about our minds and how we incorporate information into our daily existence. Grasping the complexity of just this one small part of biology is not easy. We live in a society in which some of us feel flabbergasted that others can’t learn that there are no racial differences beyond what we can see with our eyes. Sure, there are cultural differences, and race has played a part because we section ourselves off according to various criteria for in-groups and out-groups. Once isolated, groups diverge culturally. But it has nothing to do with fundamental genetics. We see people everywhere who seem incapable of grasping very basic ideas and living according to them. How much more difficult would it be, then, to expect them to have a deep understanding of biological functions, or geologic reality, or anything about the nature of the universe?

We want things simple. We strive to limit complications of all sorts. We get up, brush our teeth, go to the kitchen for coffee, and sit down to scan the newspaper (or check it on the Internet). With those few motions, we could have instead done any of billions of other actions. But we didn’t. We committed to that line of behavior because it is easy to form a habit structure and stick to it. It’s extremely difficult to do dramatically different actions. Our very nature fights against it. And this is where things get dangerous for many, many people.

Rather than face the complexities that have been revealed by science, it is so much less complicated to attribute all of what we don’t know, or are uncertain about, to some unseen force and leave it at that. It requires a tremendous act of will for those of us who want to expand our horizons by learning out at the edges of our cumulative knowledge. Most people simply lack the will to do so and instead succumb to the easy answer. Especially when whatever answer is chosen can even provide a solution to the things that science can not. It’s both uncomplicated and all-encompassing.


The Exterminator said...

Nice post, but I do have one thing to add:

We get up, brush our teeth, go to the kitchen for coffee, and sit down to scan the newspaper (or check it on the Internet).

Many of us pee right after we get up, before fooling with our teeth, coffee, or the Internet.

Some people pray, too. Oddly, though, if you pee, you don't necessarily have to pray. But if you pray, you're still gonna have to pee. Therefore, peeing brings far more relief than praying.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post.

Ex, the pee/pray thing doesn't have to be an either/or situation. One could pray while peeing, or pee while praying. This brings up an important question, though.

Does it matter whether praying is the primary activity and peeing is the secondary one, or the other way around? Would God be offended if one's first thought were to pee and the prayer was just an afterthought? Given the fact that peeing brings with it a distinct physical urgency that prayer just doesn't carry, are peeing pray-ers, or praying pee-ers, doomed if the prayer doesn't come first? Think carefully before answering, as this question has substantial eternal ramifications.

I'll come back later for your answer. I have to go pee.

Anonymous said...

Correction: Given the fact that peeing brings with it a distinct physical urgency that prayer just doesn't carry, are peeing pray-ers, or praying pee-ers, doomed if the urge to pray doesn't come first?

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

Is it ironic that an understanding of the processes of evolution requires us to override our evolutionary tendency to economize our effort?

John Evo said...

Good question, Sean. I'd guess that assuming a drive to know and explain, there are going to be a select few who will have the drive to do so and that's what drives the overall culture forward. But most people are just being dragged along with little or no understanding of most issues beyond getting from the bed to the coffee and computer.

Prash said...

the exterminator is funny & so true !

Very informative and nice post !

John Evo said...

@ Prash - you have no idea. He's a regular Groucho Marx. (Google him).

Kelly said...

Many of us pee right after we get up, before fooling with our teeth, coffee, or the Internet.

"Every morning I wake up and piss excellence."

But really, isn't this where the whole god concept stems from, at least primarily? "God" is an easy answer to anything, whether it's "Where do babies come from?" or "How did Hurricane Gustav develop?" or "Why did Little Johnny die?"

It just doesn't work when the "God" answer isn't satisfying. Then "Satan" is the answer (or whichever archetype one prefers given his/her mythology).

The thing is, though, I often wonder whether people know they can know truth. If this is something they don't know, how can it be an option?

PhillyChief said...

Some unfortunate guys with huge prostates may be praying to pee. Hopefully I won't ever become one of those guys (with either a large prostate or a delusion of thinking praying does anything).

I think the religious would simply ask, "how'd that code get into the cell?" and then do an unwarranted victory dance. It doesn't matter if their beliefs fail to hold water or not. They'd rather piss on science and pray, which really pisses me off, especially when you read things like this.

It all makes you want to just throw up your hands, walk away, and go get pissed, preferably with Another Goddamned Beer

Grumpy Lion said...

What, me, complex?

I was assembled from a tinkertoy set by a pale, ghostly being. At least it feels that way some days.

A simple solution for the pee/prayer problem - piss on prayer (and, if so inclined, on the occasional public prayers you may come across). I keep a stone tablet with the Lord's Prayer out in the backyard and every morning I pee on it. It does interesting things to the stone. Freaks the neighbors a little too, especially the Christians.

You all should read the Lanza interview in the September issue of Discover Magazine. Fascinating.

EnoNomi said...

Your blessay is dead on. I have an IQ of 136, which was enough to barely squeek into Mensa, yet even though I understand alot of what I watch on the Discovery channel about Astronomy or Astrophysics, if you wanted me to explain any of it a half hour later I'd be reduced to saying, "Well there was this stuff, and it, like, happened, and then there was other stuff...and it was all really cool." And with our wee attention spans, anything that can't be explained in 30 seconds is more than most people can handle.

John Evo said...

@ Eno - as always, good to see you around. Thanks for your numerous comments on my posts today. I guess it at least proves that I wasn't boring you.

Thank you for not disproving Evo's Law. "Anyone who mentions their personal IQ never has one lower than 130".