racists, creationists, and techno-utopians all benefit from scientific illiteracy

Great harm is done by the public not understanding that evolution isn’t teleological. That is, it has no goal in mind. There’s no state of perfection it’s progressing towards. There’s no “more” or “less” evolved. If something survives and reproduces in a place relatively well, you tend to see more of it. Evolution is just that fact, along with the fact that mutations are introduced. “Descent with modification.”

I don’t want to write about Social Darwinism, though. I want to write about this link from Hacker News:

Computer Scientists Find Mass Extinctions Can Accelerate Evolution

I feel a bit better because the commenter “OMFGscience” won the thread: “Computer scientists rediscover punctuated equilibrium?” Yes. Empty niches tend to get filled. Mass extinctions create a lot of empty niches. The end of the dinosaur age set the stage for mammals.

Ideology explains why the headline isn’t “computer scientists simulate something we know from the fossil record.” Punctuated equilibrium is something religious creationists have a hard time understanding, too. Hacker News is something for Silicon Valley tech people, who naturally believe that “evolution” means “desirable progress.” The implication is that by going full steam ahead with technological progress and destroying everything, we’re doing the world a favor. It doesn’t matter that this will take place long after we’re extinct.

Planet Earth was all about pig-reptile things called lystrosaurus for about 5 million years after the Great Dying. The dinosaurs were pretty diverse compared to that. 5 million years isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it’s 25 times as long as our species has been around. This is what we looked like 4.4 million years ago:

In our imagination, it feels good to think about that far in the future and how many wicked awesome new species will be around. The power of humans is godlike! I feel manly just thinking about it.

What concerns me is that “technotony” is out there:

Given humans are currently causing the ‘Sixth’ of these major mass extinctions this is relevant. My own view is that there’s about to be a massive increase in biodiversity driven by synthetic biology and that this is going to lead to an acceleration in evolution – specifically our newly developed ability to enable horizontal gene transfer between species means improvements nature finds in one evolutionary branch can rapidly be applied to all evolutionary branches.

He stands in judgment of all creation, deciding which organisms’ life strategies are “good” and “bad,” as if it made sense to ask whether lions are better than jellyfish. Technotony doesn’t get that genetics might be too complicated for humans to understand, or that there’s a non-zero chance of unintended consequences every time we do something.

What’s insidious is that the term “accelerated evolution” means one thing, but will be understood to be mean something else. It means that the rate of increase in the variety of things goes up after you eliminate most of the things. If evolution has a velocity, acceleration is its derivative. What people will think is that mass extinctions are just more evidence of humankind’s awesomeness. It’s an extremely harmful mindset to encourage.

Racists, creationists, and techno-utopians all benefit from the public not understanding evolution on a basic level.