As an evolved creature, I came into this world (and so did you), with my brain installed with ‘bloatware’ – as they say in software speak. What is bloatware?
Well, when you buy a brand new laptop (say a Sony VAIO) it usually comes pre-loaded with a whole bundle of software: the customary VAIO taskbar, the VAIO control centre, VAIO messenger etc etc – all this you don’t need, it uses up valuable RAM and it just slows down the computer.
It is called bloatware, and you would do good to get rid of it by uninstalling it, so that the computer runs faster.
We also come tumbling into the world with our own bloatware installed in our brains. The difference being that our bloatware was not installed by a conscious computer programmer. Rather it had been accumulating gradually over millions of years – becoming wired within the neural architecture of our brains – by the forces of descent with modification (aka evolution via natural selection).
As babies we come tumbling into the bright blue world with the following bloatware pre-installed in our brains:
1) Essentialism – that people, living things and non-living things (like rocks and clouds and mountains) have an unchanging essence. For example in Plato’s famous example of the shadows in the cave – there are many different types of ‘tree’, and they all look different, but all trees are based on an ‘essential idea’ of a tree – the perfect tree, that exists not in the physical world but in some ‘thought world’. This idea ‘tree’ is unchanging. When you see a tree you know it is a tree even though all trees look different. What Plato asks is how do you know it is a tree? And he say’s because there is an essential tree that all trees are based on and that is how you know. Similarly, rabbits come in many varieties – different colours, sizes, shapes – but we know it is a rabbit, when we see a rabbit, because it fits in with the ‘idea’ rabbit – an unchanging essence of rabbitkind, that exists in the world of forms.
Essentialism is useful in the world because it helps us to group things into categories, and this is important for survival. But what it meant was that it lumbered us (and still does lumber many) with the erroneous idea that species are fixed forever and don’t change or evolve with time (‘God created man and all the beast and fowls…’). A rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit that adheres to the ‘idea’ rabbit existing in a state of purity in the world of forms. Essentially, we find it hard to imagine and even believe that a rabbit could have evolved because if it did then there are no fixed forms and all is flux. Hence, why it took so long to cast aside the idea of the immutability of species – Darwin did that in 1859 with the publication of the ‘Origin of Species’ – a monumental giant leap for Mankind.
2) Designoid objects – human beings are designers. We make stuff. We make chairs, computers, watches, aeroplanes, smartphones and kindle ebook readers! These are complex objects – consisting of many parts – and it is clear that someone thought of them, designed them, manufactured the parts, and put them together with the express aim of making them – with a specific purpose in mind. The problem is that we also look at the living world – the intricacy with which a bee is put together for example, its wings, its nectar sensing antennae, its head and brain and nervous system, how it comes into the world seemingly ‘knowing’ what it has to do. i.e. how to fly (no flying lessons needed!), find a flower, reproduce, eat, etc. The same applies to all living things from Hedgehogs to Humans; we are complex, made of many parts and it looks like we were designed by a designer.
Yes, there is a ‘designer’ but it is not some benevolent being in the sky – it is the blind forces of natural selection working on the raw materials of mutation and gene shuffling. Variation occurs in nature – and due to the limited resources and the struggle for food and mates from predators and members of the same species – some of these variations arm the possessor with an advantage in the survival stakes. As there are so many individuals born, and resources so limited – there is a struggle for survival. What you see with time, is a statistical curve that slowly changes with time: a statistical curve of gene frequencies. Some genes are better at equipping their possessors with survival attributes and these will willy-nilly become more common in the population. Evolution is nothing but the movement of a statistical curve distribution of gene frequencies over aeons of time. Living things get better at surviving in the particular niches they live in. Birds get better at flying, moles better at burrowing, fish better at swimming, sharks better at sensing blood, humans (apparently!) better at thinking. The differences are so small from generation to generation that it takes tens of hundreds of thousands of years for these changes to be made visible.
Imagine you were to line up your ancestors in a straight line going back in time – starting, with say your maternal line – you, your mother, and her mother (your grandmother) and her mother (your great great grandmother) and her mother (great great great grandmother) etc. If you were to line them up going back millions of years, and then you were to inspect this line of your maternal lineage like a general inspecting his troops, what would you see? You would see that the variation between mother and daughter is the same variation you see today between mothers and daughters. You will not see a mother that looks drastically different to her daughter – and this would be the case anywhere on the line. But as you go back 50,000 then 100,000 and 200,000 years you would start to see the faces and the bodies change. The changes are so gradual like the movement of the minute hand in a clock – but changes nonetheless. At each point in the line the daughter will look like the mother as they do today – but the faces of your ancestors 100,000 years back will be different to the faces of today. And by differences I mean differences in posture, larger brow ridges, bigger noses, smaller but thicker limbs, a more shuffling gait. Differences beyond the racial differences of today.
You my friends are seeing evolution in action! And if you go on inspecting the line to even farther back in time, and at greater speed, you’ll meet your long extinct ancestors – bipedal apes, not so stooped apes, little tree living mammals, scurrying shrew like creatures, and even farther back through the mists of time, amphibious things, fish that can lift their snouts out of shallow water with their bony fins (see Tiktaalik Rosea) and full water living fish, soft boned water dwellers, calcified boned creatures, squidgy things, conglomerations of many cells, unicellular Eukaryotic cells with a nucleus and mitochondria, Prokaryotic cells and then finally the first ‘living cell’ – the ancestor of us all!
3) Time and Space – our brains exist on a ‘middle earth’ of middle distances and middle time frames. We live for tens of years and we are familiar with things on human size scales. We can imagine a mm, a cm, a metre, a foot, a yard, a mile, 100 miles, and maybe a 1,000 miles. But it is almost impossible for us to comprehend and ‘feel’ what a million or billion miles or a million light years is. We don’t need to understand such scales because they are not essential to our survival in middle earth – where we evolved. So our brains are not equipped so understand them. Similarly, we can comprehend time-scales of days, weeks, months, a 100 years. Maybe 200, 300 years. But what does a 1,000 years really feel like? Or a million years? A million years is 1,000 x 1,000 years – what is this like? Can I possibly understand what how long ago 65 million years is? 65 million years ago the dinosaurs died out. It’s just a number to most.
Modern science tells us that life emerged on earth 3.8 billion years ago and that the earth is 4.7 billions years old and the universe 14.72 billions years. What are these but large numbers in my head? I don’t ‘feel’ these time-scales. We know that before the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ about 500 million years ago there were few multi-cellular organisms, and then suddenly in a riot of activity, the body plan of multi-cellular life was laid out. All the complex life we see around us today: birds, bats, bees, whales, fish, insects, humans, lions and earthworms all evolved in a relatively short (500 millions years out of a total of 3.8 billion years) space of time. But, how can I possibly know what 500 million years is like?! Can you? Do I, or you; our brains having evolved for short time frames of 70 years – can we possibly comprehend what this enormous ocean of time feels like? We can’t. Hence why many still don’t get it. We never evolved to get it.
So, we come into the world pre-loaded with bloatware. Bloatware that we acquired over many millions of years of evolution in a ‘middle-earth’ of middle distances and middle time-frames. The size and age of the world is much greater – the expanse of time so much profounder then our little brains can fully comprehend. We cower from such scales. The bloatware loaded onto our brains did serve a purpose: The tendency to essentialism allowed us to see patterns in nature and to classify objects into categories – an important survival tool for if you’re in the wild you must be able to say “that is a lion” and not dither with “It looks a bit like a lion but it also has slightly bigger ears and its hair is more tawny then I have seen and…” – well, then you will be eaten! So it is a lion. And a lion is fixed. Unchanging. This is written in our genes. Similarly with designed things and time as we have discussed.
We can uninstall this bloatware with the sharp tools of science. It requires thought, it requires bravery, it requires a clear clean mind, it requires the right sort of education (free of the superstitious and irrational nonsense of fairy tales and comfort blankets).
And once the bloatware is uninstalled, you will cast your eye up at the heavens, and see with such tremendous clarity, like seeing stars in the Atacama desert, the clearness of things – that, if you are the emotional type, you may fall on your knees, and weep – in the grips of a scientific spiritual experience that pits you; a tiny little thing bobbing like a corkscrew in the infinite ocean of space and time.
Ahhh, you have no idea (or maybe you do) how I am feeling right now. Life casts us recklessly into the maw of the seething, bubbling, flotsam and jetsam of the ocean universe, and with clear vision free of bloatware and hindrance – one can see farther, and more clearly and more deeply – then anyone has ever done before.
And to be able to do that – is the seminal pleasure of existence!