Posts Tagged ‘evolution’


December 21, 2009

I recently saw the movie Avatar (possible minor spoiler below) – which is a stunning piece of work by the way – but was struck by the ‘sign’ that the main characters observed. In particular the fact that it probably actually qualified as a ‘sign’ unlike than the rather droll matters that human have for centuries been alleging ‘it was a sign’.

The jellyfish-like Seeds of the Sacred Tree land on Jake’s outstretched arms.

A sign - from Avatar

Meteors, tsunamis, volcanoes and comets clearly don’t make the cut as a sign because it is obvious to all who care to look that they are solar system or planetary geological forces at work – any coincidence with a human activity is just that – a coincidence.

Other things that have been labelled signs over the centuries – a face observed in a cloud or rock, a coincidence of weather and some significant time in some human’s life – a funeral and a storm, a birth and a clap of thunder or an unjust death and a subsequent drought are just fanciful connections made by an over-active human brain. Of course the brain is acutely tuned to detect faces and some real processing power is given over to the task allowing the person to interact in a social community appropriately. A dog would do it differently. Similarly, evolving on the savannah, there was a benefit in drawing conclusions between things (wandering away from the troop and getting attacked by a lion, eating a new berry and later feeling sick) to aid learning and so the survival of the individual bearing the ability to draw rational conclusions. Unfortunately – as yet – there seems to be no commensurate significant selective advantage in generally avoiding making an inappropriate association between events. This is a sort of ‘err on the side of learning’ rule of thumb which must have served humans well in some way in the past. As a result we have a legacy that there is no harm in thinking some deity is behind all that happens – good or bad, or that seeing a black cat is a portent of bad things.

The trouble now is that this predilection to consider all sort of extraneous observations might be a ‘sign’ is that it seriously detracts from the real signs which are all around us for the observing. Consider climate change, population growth or loss of biodiversity. Unlike the berry example the benefit of the lesson is not quickly reinforced by those that hold it. The lesson is not absorbed and integrated in one or even two generations so it does not persist in the same way. This slow evolution of knowledge about these complex issues might just result in our extinction if the change happens faster than the time required to get the understanding and the remediation.

I am an optimist but the lack of vision from Copenhagen does not bode well for the future of life on Earth.