Evolution, efficiency, and politics

31 Dec 2015

Conservative "thinking" and "values" are a hodgepodge of internal inconsistencies, misconceptions, misinformation and outright lies, mostly designed to keep the downtrodden, the uneducated, and the misinformed, downtrodden, uneducated, and misinformed. And so we find in the same political camp, the religious fanatics, who deny modern science and modern evolutionary theory, and the free market fanatics, who embrace their distorted and abused version of evolutionary theory, to promote their dog-eat-dog view of economy and society.

A sliver of commonality however can be found between those two groups of fanatics. They both strongly believe in efficiency in the natural world, and hold a view that nature's creatures and processes are as efficient as can be. For the religious, there cannot be any other option, as an almighty god will surely not create anything less than perfectly efficient. For the free-market fanatic, efficiency is the ultimate argument for applying their version of Darwinism to all spheres of human activity, from healthcare to education.

I have already claimed that conservative thinking is based on misconceptions. This case is no different. For those of us who have actually studied nature, and the products of evolution (by natural selection, but also by other processes that are now part of modern evolutionary theory), nothing could be further from reality, than a view of nature and natural selection as efficient.

First, the process. Natural selection is anything but efficient. In terms of effecting evolutionary change in living things, natural selection is wasteful and slow. Effects of selection are in the vast majority of cases very small, and swamped by other factors such as environmental effects and random variation among individuals that naturally occur in each generation. And so, it is only when these tiny and noisy changes from one generation to the next have accumulated over long periods of geological time, do we see marked differences in living things. Even artificial selection, by which our crops and livestock have evolved, is a relatively slow process. New techniques of genetic engineering clearly demonstrate how traditional methods of husbandry and crop improvement are slow and inefficient.

There are other processes in nature that have similar logic to natural selection. For example, the construction of microtubuli inside living cells, and programmed cell death during embryonic development. In both these cases, as well as in natural selection, we get overproduction of some basic units (individual organisms, tubuli or cells), and consequently selective survival of only some. This has the effect of producing structure (the cytoskeleton of cells, the embryo, or the tree of life), but in all cases these processes are wasteful, and by no standard of efficiency, can we call them efficient. These are the processes that operate in nature exactly because there is no intelligence or guiding hand in the natural world. These processes are robust and have stood the test of geological time, but they are dumb, wasteful, slow and inefficient, and are exactly what we would expect from methods that have arisen haphazardly through countless iterations of trial and error.

And what about the end products of evolution by natural selection? I have already discussed microtubuli and embryonic development. If you require more examples of the inefficiency, imperfection and haphazardness of nature's "designs", consider the need of whales and dolphins to still go up to breathe air, for all their "perfect" hydrodynamic structure; consider the countless examples of vestigial organs, from the human appendix to the internal molluscan shell of slugs and squids; and consider the ridiculous "design" of the human eye (a favorite example of "perfect creation" among religious fanatics), with its light-sensing cells pointing away from the direction of the light, and the nerves away from the brain, so they have to pass through a hole in the retina to reach it (and if someone tries to convince you that this is a sensible arrangement, you can challenge him/her by pointing out that it is the other way around in octopi).

But we humans possess the skills of rational thinking and foresight. We can do better than just put our future in the "invisible hands" of a dumb process of trial and error. Moreover, we have established a common memory of past experience from which to draw our decisions. And we have uncovered how nature works, and how to manipulate it, and improve upon it. It is in our power to produce truly efficient designs. Not only in matters of technology, but also in matters of society. Designs that can maximize self-fulfilment and well-being among all people. Those in favor of a misconceived "natural" order of things, and who advocate a misinformed and misleading view of efficiency through Darwinistic principles in society, economy and geopolitics, are doing us all a great disservice.