The Reproductive Habits of Amazonian Moths
Note: I don't know what this is. It's not really a short story. It's not an essay. It's not intended as a persuasive argument. I'm not sure if it's catharsis, or boredom manifest. I can't explain what prompted such a whirling tour through the well-explored realm of evolutionary biology. But here it is. A couple thousand words on being wrong, biology, and the way people think.
"I think you're wrong, Doctor Conway," a confident voice said, approaching my table in a neighborhood coffee shop. It was mostly students and teachers in this shop, plus the occasional drifter trying to blend in.
As a biologist, I was not uncomfortable hearing those words. Evolution is basically nature's way of saying, over and over again, that what we thought we knew was wrong. The duck-billed platypus, everlasting jellyfish, metamorphosis. Just a few examples of human thought being wrong, wrong, wrong. Every day of a biologist's life is devoted to being uniquely wrong. But I'm still a human, too, despite what people might say about biologists, and no matter how long you study biology or physics or chemistry, no matter how much a scientist tries to distance himself from the sensitivities of the human brain, hearing 'you're wrong' still perks the ears.
"Hmm?" I said, feigning disinterest over a cup of coffee.
"About intelligent design," a young Indian man sat down across from me as though I'd invited him to do so. He was quite forward, this one. "I think you're wrong."
Oh boy, I thought, another indoctrinated nut come to sell me on his savior.
I'd given a lecture the night before at the University of Washington on evolutionary biology, specifically the reproductive habits of Amazonian moths. Naturally, with every discussion involving science, I unavoidably pressed the buttons of those who do not subscribe to fact and logic. Be it Christian or Muslim or Hindi or Satanist, at every stop on the lecture tour, there was always one. One little prick who'd attended a semester of college and discovered that he was, in fact, The Smartest Person In The World.
"And why's that ...?" I said, leaving the sentence open so he would give me his name.
"Rajesh. You're wrong about intelligent design, because nature is creative. You said it yourself ... when confronted with an evolutionary challenge, nature always finds a way around the challenge. That's creativity. That's intelligence."
I laughed and shook my head. At least he wasn't a religious nut. They were rarely amusing. "No, you're wrong," I said. "You're anthropomorphizing. Nature doesn't apply creativity the way you do. It doesn't even understand creativity, because creativity is purely a human invention. Nature very simply, very efficiently, rewards the most-effective solution to genetic death. That's it. It doesn't know it's doing it, it's merely a product of the system. A plant doesn't know its being creative. A tree-climbing vine isn't thinking, 'You know, it would really help me get more sunlight by wrapping around this larger tree and climbing up to the canopy.' It does so because others before it did so, because others before it didn't and went extinct, leaving only its kind to scale the treetops and bask in nourishing sunlight."
"I'm not talking about individual organisms, Doctor Conway. I'm talking about that system. The architecture of nature."
"The universe doesn't know it's being creative either, Rajesh."
Rajesh smiled, absorbing the jab better than I'd expected.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because an explosion of matter is not aware it is an explosion of matter. A collection of gases is very precisely a collection of gases. A person, like me or you, is nothing more than a bundle of atoms in a familiar shape. We are our own creation, Rajesh. Humanity is its own intelligent designer, thanks to the evolution of our dense, wrinkly brains and the evolutionary prompt for our species to 'design.' But our existence is completely meaningless to the rest of the universe."
"And yet we know that about ourselves. We know that about the universe, too."
"Yes, because we detached ourselves from the sinking ship of 'intelligent design' and swam to the life-raft of 'science.'"
"I wasn't aware that life-rafts had names."
"They do when you're on them long enough."
Rajesh laughed, "Do you have a lot of experience with life-rafts, Doctor Conway?"
I smiled, "More than you'll ever know, Rajesh."
"Okay, but what does it say about the universe that we are capable of understanding it?"
"It says nothing at all! Humanity got lucky, depending on your definition of luck."
"So the evolution of our brains was luck?" he said, his mind-chops chomping. "That's it?"
"No, not really. Luck actually has very little to do with it. Evolution is a series of course corrections. Little nudges here and there from a genetic line to survive. Whether environmental or mutagenic, our brains are a result of billions of years of those little nudges. But there's nothing intelligent about the design of our brains, other than the result ... once again, depending on your definition of intelligence."
"I read a quote once," Rajesh said, his confidence slowly returning, "it went something like this: 'Perhaps creativity is just intelligence having fun.'"
"That's a good quote," I replied.
It was a good quote.
"Well, what if evolution is just physics having fun? What if physics itself is trying to survive, with its own little nudges? With its own version of intelligence? What if physics has to come up with creative solutions to its own obstacles so that the universal ecosystem may survive?"
"Because physics can't have fun. It can't emote. It can't experience feelings or thoughts. Physics is a collection of laws that give order and structure to the universe. It isn't fluid like evolution, although evolution is contained within its laws, as is everything else that we currently understand. You don't have mutations in physics that suddenly change the properties of the known universe. If such a thing were to occur ... say, if the nature of gravity suddenly changed, we'd know about it. And then we'd probably be dead as a result, because we are not immune to the laws of physics."
"But if creativity and intelligence are real things, and they are contained within the laws and structure of evolution, which are then contained within the laws and structure of physics, doesn't that make creativity and intelligence real? And therefore, can't they be applied beyond humanity to physics itself?"
"No, you're wrong," I took a drink of coffee. It was already lukewarm, but I didn't mind. "You're missing the point. Creativity and intelligence are not 'real things,' not like you want them to be. They only exist because we think they do. They only exist because we named them 'creativity' and 'intelligence.' You've come back to the same misconception you started with. Outside of us, there is only the raw constructive power of evolution, and beyond that, physics, and beyond that, quantum physics, and beyond that ... Do you understand?"
Rajesh slumped down in his chair, "I think so."
"How old are you, Rajesh?"
"19," he said.
"Do you go to school here?"
"Biology," he replied sheepishly, forcing me to smile.
"You know, when I was 19 years old," I said, drifting back far too many decades for comfort, "I wasn't even enrolled in school. Not like yours, anyway."
"I was in England, stuck in a seminary, training to become an ordained priest."
Rajesh raised a brow in disbelief, "Wow, what happened?"
"I started asking questions," I paused, laughing nostalgically, if not a little painfully. "It was not heartily encouraged in the seminary. The more questions I asked, the more my faith began to dwindle, and the more trouble I created -- for myself, my friends, and the poor teachers who didn't know how to handle a young man as confusing and incorrigible as me. Subsequently, the path that had been laid out before me by my parents, and their parents before them, and so on, fractured and disappeared. It was the most terrifying time of my life. I thought about running back to the shelter, where it was warm and safe, where I thought I knew everything and was accepted because of it. I had always believed that I, me, Herman James Conway, was the center of the universe, because there was no other explanation for god's apparent interest in me! Science said otherwise. Science said I wasn't special. But I had been trained to feel different, unique, despite learning that I was no more novel than the other billion people who were told to feel the exact same thing. I couldn't connect those disparaging feelings."
"I'm not religious, Doctor Conway," Rajesh said proudly.
"Oh? And why not?"
Rajesh hesitated, "Because science is the truth."
"Do you know that, or were you told to believe that?"
"It's all right, Rajesh," I chuckled. "I'm just pulling your leg. This isn't an exam."
"So you're saying that creativity isn't real," he said quietly, coming to terms with the universe. The poor kid. "Intelligence isn't real."
"It's real within our system, but not the system of the universe. Not even the sub-system of evolutionary biology. But within our system, we still need to be creative. We still need to have fun. So many scientific discoveries came from that very thing. That's really what science is! It's about having fun. It's about facing these supposed 'unsolvable mysteries' and solving them. That takes a lot of creativity, that takes a lot of intelligent design. When I left the seminary and enrolled in university, I had to come to grips with the fact that I didn't know anything. I went from knowing everything, to nothing, with a few years of little nudges. It was my own personal mental evolution."
Rajesh was a patient kid, listening to me prattle on like this. I'd forgotten why he was even sitting at my table.
"So our thoughts evolve, too?" he asked.
"Of course! That's essentially what thought is, Rajesh. What did you know when you were born?"
"No, you're wrong," I replied. "You knew a lot of things. Genetics made sure of that, otherwise you and the rest of the species would go extinct. Can you imagine an infant that didn't know how to nurse, or breathe, or cry? No, you didn't know as much as you knew now, but you knew enough to survive. Assuming you continue asking questions and being open to old men like me telling you you're wrong, you're going to know a lot more in the future, too, and that will continue to help you survive. You're going to keep learning, keep evolving. And that will help you find a wife, or a husband ..."
"A wife," he said.
"All right, a wife. As a biologist, you know, it's unreasonable for me to make any assumptions about that sort of thing. As I was saying, that knowledge will help you find a wife, and you may choose to have children, and if so, simply by the evolution of your thoughts, you will pass the genetic test and extend the lineage of your genes. And your children will benefit from those genes, too, which will hopefully help them learn and evolve and continue passing genes from one generation to the next. Creativity and intelligence don't have to be approached from a universal height. We don't have to compare them to or try to force them into physics. They can survive on their own ... as an evolutionary trait that helps certain organisms pass along their genes. Whether we're talking about ancient humans learning to use tools or build fires, or modern humans painting beautiful art or writing prose, creativity and intelligence can help our species achieve the same end: Procreation. Survival. Evolution!"
"That's the only purpose for them?" Rajesh asked.
"Well, purpose is a vague concept. If you want to talk about purpose from a philosophical standpoint, maybe you should go find a philosopher instead of a moth-loving biologist like me. But to a moth-loving biologist like me, the purpose is in the procreation. That doesn't mean we can't find joy in creativity, or pleasure, or whatever else is part of the human constitution, but the functional purpose is not complicated."
"You know, you can be quite depressing, Doctor Conway," Rajesh said.
"Ah, Rajesh, there's nothing depressing about science. There's nothing depressing about physics, about understanding the universe, about understanding why we are the way we are. Depression comes from ignorance, not the other way around. Tell me, are you afraid of getting sick?"
"What do you mean?"
"Cancer. Heart disease. Malaria."
"Sure," Rajesh replied, sportingly.
"Perhaps, somewhere along the way, a mutation occurs and causes one string of humanity to be more resilient to disease. As a result, that genetic trait will select itself, copy itself, over and over again into normalcy over thousands, millions of years. The disease-prone will disappear, and the disease-resilient will prosper. And whatever ceiling we thought we'd reached as a species will need to be raised. If that's not the most exciting prospect, I don't know what is. We are always changing, Rajesh. Always. Mentally and physically. We can go from fish to human, from sick to healthy, and, of course, we can go from the seminary to the laboratory, too."
"Do you have a wife, Doctor Conway?" Rajesh asked. "Or a husband?" he quickly added.
I laughed, "Unfortunately, I've yet to find a partner willing to join me in the rainforest to stare at moths."
"You will," Rajesh said.
"No," I replied with a smile, "I think you're wrong on that one, too."