Gould, Tires to Sandals

But
consider the system of variation as a whole, rather than focusing upon a few species at the right tail. What has ever changed besides overall diversity? The modal organism on earth is now, has always been, and probably will always be, a prokaryotic cell. There are more bacterial cells in the gut of each person reading this essay than there are humans on the face of the earth. And who has a better hope for long-term survival? We might do ourselves in by nuclear holocaust, but prokaryotes will probably hang tough until the sun explodes.

Progress
as a predictable result of ordered causes therefore becomes a double delusion--first because we must seek its cause more in the quirkiness of the wheel, turning tires into sandals and big brains toward fear of death, than in the plodding predictability of the wedge, propelling monkeys into men; and secondly, because the supposed sweep of life toward progress only records our myopic focus on the right tail of a distribution whose mode has never moved from a prokaryotic cell.

Our
reasons for profound unwillingness to abandon a view of life as predictable progress have little relation to truth, and all to do with solace, Ironically, while using the wedge to supply ultimate solace in his claim that "all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (from the concluding section of the Origin of Species), Darwin also recognized a challenge in the bloodthirsty, character of unrelenting battle. He therefore concluded chapter 3 of the Origin with one of the few soft statements of a very tough-minded thinker:

When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.

Our
chances of understanding nature would improve so immensely if we would only shift our search for solace elsewhere. (Solace will always be a desperate need in this vale of tears, but why should the facts of our belated evolution be pressed into such inappropriate, if noble, service?) Perhaps I am just a hopeless rationalist, but isn't fascination as comforting as solace? Isn't nature immeasurably more interesting for its complexities and its lack of conformity to our hopes? Isn't curiosity as wondrously and fundamentally human as compassion?

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