Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld IV’: Chapter 13 / Chapter 14, Part I

In the thirteen and fourteenth chapters of Judgment Day, Rincewind and the Dean visit London; I learn more about how things “improve.” Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld IV. 

So, from what few clues I was able to pick up on from chapter thirteen, the wizards seem to be roughly in the modern era of London? I suppose that this whole chapter could be taking place just after the popularity of cars took off, as there aren’t many other details that set this in a contemporary London. But it’s closer than they’ve ever been, right? Taxis! They took a TAXI to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral! And it’s twenty pounds currently to access the Whispering Gallery, so this could not have been set all that long ago, since the Dean and Rincewind were asked to pay fifteen pounds. I’M A SUPER SLEUTH.

Anyway, a lot of this chapter features an interesting conversation between Rincewind and the Dean about something that chapter fourteen addresses in much more detail. Exactly how does the world change, and how does it change for the better more often than not? We’ve seen before from many previous chapters and books in this series that evolution is not often a straight line through history, that natural selection doesn’t work with a sense of narrativium like humans might expect it to. But there is a narrativium to “evolution” of things and objects and ideas and cultures where humans have a hand in changing them. We switched to cars from horses, for example, which hasn’t always been a good thing. (Particularly in the way that capitalism has shoved the car industry so intensely into human life that, at least here in the States, entire geographies were changed to accommodate cars.) So, humans can change things, and I certainly believe that the presence of humans has directly and indirectly caused evolution of other living things. But I love that the Discworld chapter makes the point (through the Dean) that most of this shit just happened. It wasn’t part of a plan, and even if it was, it sort of undercuts a lot of creationists’ main talking points. Even if a god or God created the world six thousand years ago, the creatures alive then are so different than the ones that are around today!

The book veers away from a criticism of humanity’s reliance on “toxic” ideas of creation and change once we get to the first half of chapter fourteen. Here, evolution—a frequent subject throughout the Science of Discworld series—is given a different treatment. Why doesn’t intelligent design work as a theory? Well, the authors unpack the very ideas behind what it means to evolve and what it means to be designed. I loved that technology was used to demonstrate actual design because that helped me understand the difference in a very real way. I would have maintained that technology is all designed. Right? Humans made it. However: 

Improved technology is selected because it works better, and it then displaces earlier technology. This process is analogous to the way that natural selection causes organisms to evolve, so it is reasonable to speak of technology evolving.

In short, humans might design technology and institute minute or massive changes at that level, but what if no one uses that technology? The device or program or app fades away, and as a whole, society has not adapted to a new technology. There’s no evolution. Phones evolved, for example, because of how we have adapted to them. Like… okay, this is a very specific, personal example, but I was deadset on NEVER, ever, EVER owning a cell phone that didn’t have a keyboard on it. I had a Sidekick for a long while (I FUCKING LOVED THAT THING, Y’ALL, oh my GOD. There was nothing as satisfying as flipping that fucking screen open I WANT ONE AGAIN.), and I had the first Google phone (the G1) and was so damn resistant to the idea of using a touch screen to type. It seemed like the worst idea in the world. Uncomfortable. Unnecessary. THIS WILL NEVER WORK OUT.

And here we are. And now there’s swiping to type? And I’m sure things are going to progress in a new way, and we’ll figure out a new technology, and maybe we won’t even need physical phones at some point? Or maybe phones won’t matter when we fall into climate despair, so WHATEVER. What is possible? How does invention invade that space? How does it affect the world? I also liked that the authors made a point (around page 183 in my copy) about how not everything gets “better” or more complicated with time. Actually, “better” is probably a terrible means of measuring any of this. It’s more that natural selection favors a change that allows something to survive in a particular environment. (Again, that whole misinterpretation of “survival of the fittest” comes creeping back in.)

Even then, hindsight might allow humans to assign narrative value to things that have none. As the authors note, a lot of believers in intelligent design point to incredibly specific features in the world and claim that it is practically impossible that such a well-working or “perfect” element appeared in the world randomly. Except… it did? And it increased the odds of survival, and therefore was “chosen” in future generations. This part, talking about the improbability of any one human existing, was fantastic:

The odds that you exist are certain, because you do.

The end!

Finally, I also appreciated the conversation about social evolution, because that’s the other major way in which humans change, both on a personal and a cultural level. (The other being embryonic.) I don’t think that section was as detailed (they mostly referred to Jung, Morris, and Gold), but it was a neat way to think of evolution in different terms, especially in how societies that were thousands of miles apart AND had no contact with one another still created roles that were remarkably similar. Granted, that’s not solid evidence that if the world were restarted, everything would eventually end up the same, but it was still an interesting thing to think about.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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