An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. Continue reading

6 stupid things done by natural selection

When we think of evolution, guided by natural selection, we tend to think it leads to “better” organisms. And in some sense, it often does. Forget the idea of a ladder where you always get “higher” organisms as you go up. It’s way more complicated than that. But even putting that aside, even if we just consider organisms adapting to new environments rather than becoming “better”, it seems natural selection guides things in a purposeful direction.

That does happen, but it’s easy to get the wrong impression. If you look at some feature of an organism that’s well adapted to its environment, like a monkey’s hands and tail used for climbing or a flower’s colours that attract insects, you’ll get an explanation like this: In these circumstances, it was useful for the species to have that trait, so natural selection favoured that trait and the species developed in that direction. Those who had the trait could outcompete those who didn’t, so they had more descendants, and so natural selection gave the species that trait.

It seems like this is the very basis of evolution by natural selection. Well, kind of. But it’s oversimplified. The problem is that it often leads to the reasoning “If trait A is good for survival and its alternative trait B is not, then natural selection must end up choosing trait B.” But if you ask real evolutionary biologists, there are a number of ways in which it does the opposite, and those make perfect sense once you look at the details too… Continue reading