The Frontal Cortex

So I finally sat down and watched Planet Earth on my new television. It’s even better than everybody says: endless hours of the most extravagant nature porn ever put on film. But the show also got me thinking about evolution, and why it’s so difficult for most Americans to believe in Darwinian theory.

Watching Planet Earth, I was stuck by the sheer difficulty of life. You can’t help but feel for these animals, as they are forced to scrounge out a miserable existence in their ecological niche. I’m thinking of the desert kangaroos, who have to lick their paws to keep from overheating in 140 degree surface temperatures. Or the male polar bears, who are forced to swim for sixty miles in icy ocean in search of food. Or the penguins, huddled with their eggs in Antarctica. Life is short , nasty and brute. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

And then I looked at myself, lazing on a couch and complaining about the lack of air-conditioning as I sipped my cold beer. I have absolutely no understanding of the struggle for existence, or just how cruel the selection of the fittest really is. Most Americans live similar lives of luxury. As a result, we don’t realize that staying alive (let alone reproducing) is damn hard work. And this leads us to dramatically underestimate the creative powers of natural selection. Most of us think it’s absurd that a simple algorithmic process could create an orchid, or a human brain, or hundreds of thousands of beetle species, in “just” a few hundred million years. Thus, we invoke God. But perhaps the ingenuity of evolution appears less absurd from the perspective of the male emperor penguin, who is shivering in a -90 degree blizzard right now.

What do you think? Do the glorious comforts of modernity (air-conditioning, frozen dinners, cold beer, etc.) make us less likely to appreciate the selective pressures of evolution?


  1. #1 Gork
    July 9, 2007

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but look at the teeming billion-plus in India who forgo in this life any hope of a worthwhile existence, comforted with the hope that maybe ten thousand lives ahead on the wheel they’ll be sitting pretty for a bit. They invoke a pantheon of entertaining sky fairies to comfort them in their misery.

    The ability to entertain fantasies, and be entertained by them in turn, is something we have, but it is clearly not a survival trait.

    Think of the Shakers, and you’ll quickly get the point.

  2. #2 Daniel
    July 10, 2007

    Survival for many people is very difficult, and even miserable and yet for others, it is a piece of cake.

    But that is how it is with different animal species, too. The penquins have it tough, standing in huddled masses holding onto the egg, trying to keep it warm, for months at a time, until the cold night of Antartica Winter has passed. What suffering. It sounds bleak. I am sure I woulld not want to be a penquin.

    But then, look at humming birds? Isn’t life a piece of cake for them? Buzzing and flitting around, sipping from flower blossoms, migrating great distances for better weather and more flowers? I am not exagerating the pleasantness of such a life, am I?

    I think that some animals have evolved to a tenuous and difficult state, in a specialized environmental niche, and others have shall we say, tapped into a “cash cow” and skate through a life of relative ease and contentment.

  3. #3 Ryan
    July 10, 2007

    Is it our inability to imagine the difficulty of evolution that has us invoking gods or is it simply the perceived distance to the next branch down the evolutionary tree? I would guess that those that really doubt evolution couldn’t even define ‘selective pressure’, much less appreciate its effect on the world around them.

    And Gork, I’m not sure that Jonah is calling a belief in deities adaptive. It sounds more like looking for an explanation than a defense of belief.

  4. #4 Brian
    July 11, 2007

    I think you’re drastically overestimating the understanding most deists have of evolution… to really ‘see’ and appreciate that extreme environments lead to population explosions assumes a thorough understanding of the basics of evolution.

    Most hard-core deists just don’t care. Why should they? You’ll only make their lives more depressing in the short-term… anyone remember how you felt the moment you realized Santa Claus wasn’t real?

    Christians, for example, have even made-up grandiose extreme circumstances, ex. world-wide flood and Noah’s ark, and I’d wager not a single church goer ever thought… ‘yeah, that’d be a great condition for massive evolution!’

    No… I think we’re just social creatures with a poor scientific understanding. If everyone you know and trust believes in God – you believe in God. Simple as that. There are extremely few children of scientists raised in scientific communities who ‘discover’ religion.

    And Gork – I agree with the India analogy… I’d go as far as to say, the poorer you are, the more likely you are religious. It’s a reason to life.

    I’d bet those freezing penguins would adopt any religion if they could understand it.

  5. #5 Paul
    July 11, 2007

    Brian: Karl Marx certainly thought so, and in fact, sociological studies have correlated religiosity and church attendance with socio-economic position. So you’re really not far from the mark there.

  6. #6 Jonah
    July 11, 2007

    These are excellent points, thanks for the input. I’m pretty sure that, as Brian and others have pointed out, religion is the opiate of the impoverished masses. It gives meaning to their suffering. Nobody wants to think of themselves as the unfit who are being weeded out by natural selection.

    My point was simply intended to apply to the coddled citizens of developed countries. (And it may be a stupid idea anyways…) I was trying to suggest that one of the stumbling blocks for people trying to grapple with the powers of evolution is that they can’t conceive of the struggle for survival, and how this fierce struggle leads to brilliant biological innovations. Obviously, there are numerous other stumbling blocks making the majority of Americans resistant to Darwinian theory, but I was hypothesizing that our luxurious lives might play a small role…

  7. #7 thompson bishop
    July 11, 2007

    And how does one account for the teeming masses who hit the marathons of our major cities? are they not full fledge into the throws of natural selection…
    what is cras, i think, is that you discount those who simply exist within multiple realms, ergo, those who are scientist, and yet enjoy the moral equivalent of a level playing field thruout their community by attending church, or synagog, or yoga, or fly fishing…
    whether we tend to look at the impending death of ourselves as that wall approaches or not is no barrier or defense, but the fact is without much of a glimpse, global suffering can be seen. I don’t understand, i guess, that “Most Americans live similar lives of luxury.” it may seem this way, in certain parts, however i would argue for that we are not all that way. There is a strong sense of pride in exercise in many of the communites i have lived in. I have been that person, who sits lazily and watches as life happens, as i battled depression following rehab. i have also been thru many regiments sense to help raise my own blood flow, and body into a higher energy. Whatever the method, to my belief, that raises our friends from hurt, pain, saddness, if only just for one blink, may be worth all the backlog of stories. it is far to early, even for a condemned person, to give up on the one thing that we are all looking for…hope. namaste.

  8. #8 Daniel
    July 11, 2007

    Near the end of Jonah’s posting, he made the very brief comment, “thus we invoke God.” From those 4 short words, almost everyone commenting here has been thrown off, into thinking that Jonah was talking about God, religious Deism, Intelligent Design, and yada-yada-yada, when that was not really his point, AT ALL.

    Wow! It’s a little frightening.

  9. #9 Russell
    July 12, 2007

    Daniel writes:

    Others have shall we say, tapped into a “cash cow” and skate through a life of relative ease and contentment.

    Like the osprey.

  10. #10 david
    July 12, 2007

    Is that penguin really shivering (and, impliedly, suffering)? or is that just the author projecting human sensibilities onto a penguin?

    isn’t that penguin perfectly evolved to live in those conditions? if it could reason, that penguin might wonder why someone would live in a hot apartment drinking beer watching a TV (whatever that is). it seems to me, this projection of human sensibilities onto nature is the fallacy.

    oh … and i guess i should say that i believe in God.

  11. #11 Corliss
    July 12, 2007

    My point was simply intended to apply to the coddled citizens of developed countries. (And it may be a stupid idea anyways…) I was trying to suggest that one of the stumbling blocks for people trying to grapple with the powers of evolution is that they can’t conceive of the struggle for survival, and how this fierce struggle leads to brilliant biological innovations.

    Your point is better applied to humanity as a whole, not just to the citizens of developed countries. All of the world’s major religions were created by people living in far worse poverty than you’ll find in most Third World nations today.

    Gork’s “teeming billion-plus” living in “misery” is mostly just more civilized people living with less clean drinking water, a leaner diet, and fewer consumer goods. They will not be eaten by predators because of bad vision or a twisted knee. Stronger members of the herd will not prevent them from reproducing. They have no more comprehension of real survival at the plant and animal level than Paris Hilton does.

  12. #12 llewelly
    July 12, 2007

    … anyone remember how you felt the moment you realized Santa Claus wasn’t real?

    It was something of a relief, because at that point, I realized I got few presents because we were poor, not because I was a rotten kid.

  13. #13 Paul
    July 12, 2007

    Anthropopathy, examples:

    • “You can’t help but feel for these animals as they are forced to scrounge out a miserable existence…”
    • “The penquins have it tough … What suffering. It sounds bleak”
  14. #14 PeteK
    July 12, 2007

    Well, smaller creatures have it easier. Such as gut flora of the mammals mentioned…That’s probably why most species are small in size

  15. #15 Mariel
    July 12, 2007

    I can only agree that most of life on our beautiful planet is suffering.

    It says in Genesis that all the creatures of the earth suffer in the fall of mankind. And all will be restored with the coming of the Lord. The lion will lie down with the lamb, a beautiful picture that has given courage to countless generations.

    My son, an atheist, directed me to this site. Why, I do not know, as he seems devoted to trying to make me an atheist. He has already succeeded greatly in life goals and reproduced with great success–I can’t understand why he wants Mom to wake up and smell the debacle.

  16. #16 Alvaro
    July 12, 2007

    I just saw the uncensored version of Planet Earth, including footage of the human species. It pays to be a Martian with connections.

    What a species. So powerful, yet so depressed. With huge potential and beautiful realities, yet too stuck in conflicts, credit card debt, beer drinking and culture wars.

    OK, enough. The commercials are over, and Sicko III is about to start.

  17. #17 James Collins
    July 13, 2007

    Belief in evolution, causes persons to imagine the most absurd postulate imaginable.

    Many people, when they can’t provide evidence for their theory, adopt the strategy of falsehood. Such is the case with many of those who have fallen victim to the propaganda of renowned evolutionists.

    If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a ‘simple’ living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the ‘simple’ cell.

    After all, shouldn’t all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a ‘simple’ cell.

    If it weren’t so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

    Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence ‘FOR’ evolution for THEMSELVES.

    Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the ‘raw’ stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth’s recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

    Oh, you don’t believe the ‘original’ Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

  18. #18 Jeff McNeill
    July 13, 2007

    Thank you for this post. Natural selection I think makes sense to many Americans, but the sense that natural selection is supernatural selection (you get what you earn) is so deeply embedded in the country, it tends toward blindness. The part that is even more curious to me is how come we 1) forget that mutation is the missing element in evolution, largely overlooked. We are still very much children, in a cultural sense, who see amazing things, wonder at the distant ancestors who have created all of this, and worship them to keep in their good graces. Some folks, it appears, still believe in Santa Claus…

  19. #19 Lorrine Lovering
    September 14, 2011


  20. #20 James Tansil
    November 1, 2011

    I find it to exist as a thing that really has no any importance to the current topic at hand. It is just plain odd to allow such thing to happen alas it happens anyway even when you dont want it to but thats just the way it is.

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