Tim Minchin on Americans' knowledge of evolution



Tim's anecdote actually raises an interesting topic, one that I just discussed a few posts back in my discussion of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Why can't God have guided evolution? I mean, that's basically what esteemed and otherwise very intelligent people like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller believe.

It's because evolution undoes the very important theological idea that we were destined to be here – that our existence is the end result of some teleological process. We're inclined to ask, per Aristotle's Fourth Cause, "What is this for?" We want to think that we're supposed to be here, that we were put here quite deliberately. But evolution proves this is not the case.

The reason is very simple. The a priori odds of us being here are quite infinitesimal. That is, if a cosmic observer was around at the emergence of life to hedge bets on what lifeforms would appear in the next 3.5 billion years, humans – or any other particular life form – would be so absurdly improbable that our cosmic observer would have to be a complete fool to bet on our existence.

So that means our existence is miraculous, right? Nope. That would be committing the lottery fallacy. The odds that any particular person will win the lottery are infinitesimal. But the odds that someone will win the lottery are actually very, very high. For our cosmic observer watching Earth in the distant past, the a priori odds of any particular lifeform emerging are infinitesimal. But the odds that some lifeforms will emerge are very, very high.

An important consequence of evolution is that if we were to rewind the clock and play it all over again, humans would most likely never exist. Evolution is a blind, indifferent algorithmic process; nothing about it suggests that it favors any particular species. It simply favors whatever species is best fit to survive long enough to reproduce. That's it. It's a tough lesson for the believer, but truth is never kind to faith.

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