Monday, February 14, 2011

Shoveling Towards Consciousness

I've been reading Richard Dawkins', The Greatest Show On Earth.  In a playful and joyous manner, he does an excellent job explaining the nuanced brilliance of natural selection.

A particular point he spends time on is the differences between artificial and natural selection.  Or rather, the lack of differences.  He notes that when the horticulturalist or pet breeder selects for some desirable characteristic, he is simply doing consciously what natural selection does unconsciously.  He points to the fact that certain flowers have been bred relentlessly, owing to some natural beauty or perfume the strength of which can be heightened by selection.  Yet other flowers, such as the corpse flower, which smell like rotting flesh in order to attract the flies and carrion beetles which are their pollinators, are of obvious disinterest to horticulturists.

He gives numerous other examples of the ways in which natural selection in nature is driven by a continuous, back-and-forth relationship among organisms, each placing what is ultimately reproductive pressure on one another.  When a flower grows brighter or more nectarous to attract a particular bird (those mutations leading to brighter colors or sweeter nectar being pollinated further), the bird is actively selecting for those characteristics which please it most: color and taste/caloric content.

I haven't finished the book.  And for all I know Dawkins has already or will make this next point.  But it occurred to me while reading about this similarity between natural and artificial selection, that there is no small degree of anthropocentrism going on here.  Because, aren't we all simply selecting for the things which please us?  Or to go further, aren't we being selected for by the things which would please us?

A man wants to plant a tomato plant, so he digs a hole.  The soil is firm, and so he devises a tool to make the job easier: a shovel.  As shovels don't generally exist in nature, you might say that he selected for, or designed the shovel.  Yet could you not also say that his shovel was designed by the firm soil into which the hole must be dug?  Just like the hole itself was designed by the tomato plant?  And the tomato plant having been designed by the man's desire for tomatoes?

So now we come to the classic creationist argument for an intelligent designer: does not a watch need a watchmaker; does Mt. Rushmore not need a sculptor?  Just like shovels, neither occur naturally in nature. 

Yet is man not nature?  When man selects for a particular trait that pleases him, he is behaving just like the bee that selects for the tastiest nectar.  The only difference, it seems to me, is that man's brain is considerably larger, and thus is able to have something called "consciousness" about the whole thing.  Although, as any post-modern deconstructionist will tell you, man is often quite unconscious of what he is - knowingly or not - selecting for.

Now, consciousness is certainly an amazing process.  It is likely one of the most amazing things we know of existing in the universe.  But the actual act of consciousness is largely unconscious (just ask yourself how you thought what you just thought!).  And while the conscious mind can do some pretty amazing things - the Parthenon, the Mahabharata, Hamlet - these are but child's play compared to the staggering complexity of the eukaryotic cell, or the eyeball, both of which were selected for and "designed" over the course of millennia.

At this point it might also be fun to observe that consciousness itself has evolved by a process of natural selection.  Our ancestors a million years ago likely could not have dreamed of the Labradoodle.  Yet the structures in their brains responsible for the inevitable desire to breed such a creature were well under developmental way.

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