Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld III’: Chapter 4

In the fourth chapter of Darwin’s Watch, the authors address Paley’s watch and geological time periods. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of trauma, anxiety

It’s interesting how much these Science of Discworld books make me take trips through my childhood. I suppose it’s not hard to do that when so much of these books discuss how science and scientific theories are opposed in Roundworld. This chapter is no exception, either, and it’s true that there are plenty of people in the world for whom the theory of evolution is an offensive, blasphemous idea. 

In particular, though, I think “Paley Ontology” (I’M STILL SO MAD AT HOW CLEVER THIS TITLE IS) deals with the sheer magnificent span of time over which evolution takes place, while also acknowledging that evolution can happen in the course of a few years. But it’s that time span that was routinely left out of conversations I had early in my childhood and teenage years, at least not until I got to junior high and high school. Mrs. Hall, my seventh grade science teacher, was the first to ever say to me that evolution can be observed over long periods of time, that it was a myth that evolution happened overnight. It might seem silly to you, but I genuinely was around individuals who were offended by the notions that humans had evolved from other creatures. Their common refrain? Well, how come there aren’t monkeys turning into humans right now? Why aren’t we seeing any evolution right before our eyes? 

Hindsight obviously helps me understand how absurd these questions were, but at the time, they were calculated detonations. I didn’t know how to respond to them, and I was conditioned to repeat them to others! You ever have that experience as a kid where adults are telling you something with absolute certainty, and you feel like something is wrong with it, but you have absolutely no tools or skills to vocalize those feelings? I’m sure a lot of us have, but that’s something I’ve had to reckon with as an adult. I felt that often. I had no real response to people telling me that the Earth was only six thousand years old; I had no information to counter the idea that all the evidence that life on Earth was billions of years old, that this planet had been around a lot longer than a few thousand years before Jesus. And that’s a frustrating thing to go through! I wish I’d know about zircons and geological cycles back then, but alas, you can’t be born knowing everything. 

As I grew older, I began to have serious problems with the notion of intelligent design for ridiculously personal reasons. In this chapter, the authors detail out the arguments against Paley and the watchmaker theory, but I came at things from an emotional place. If a Creator designed me, why didn’t they make me perfect? Why did I have so many things wrong with me? I’m happy to report that the world AROUND me was what was wrong, not me, but I didn’t know that at the time either. So I grew up feeling woefully inadequate in practically everything. (No one should be surprised that I have anxiety!!!) So there’s something comforting in this chapter, and it’s probably not something the authors intended. There’s a common notion they discuss here:

This kind of description is easily misunderstood as a kind of inbuilt tendency towards ‘progress’—ever onwards, ever upwards. Ever more complex.

Which they then immediately discard:

Rubbish. ‘Works better’ is not an absolute statement. It applies in a context that is itself changing.

I often think about what my life would be like if I’d not experienced trauma so young. How would my brain be different? How would my emotions and reactions be wired differently? I am a living adaptation, a being who changed in order to survive. And I did! I tell myself that a lot: you have survived every terrible thing that life has thrown at you. Have I worked better over the years? That’s a lot harder to determine. But I love the idea that progress is not inherently a natural thing or even a good thing! With natural selection, it always comes down to survival. What features or qualities or even random mutations allowed a living organism to survive, to then pass on those things to a future generation? Maybe I’m not progressing all the time, but I’m living. And that’s pretty good, too.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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