Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

What Flat Earthers Got Right That Evolutionary Theory Misses

A psychological intuition with earth-shattering implications

The Chinese, way ahead of the West on so many innovations (stirrups, gunpowder, paper), thought the earth was flat right into the 1600s. We in the West caught on about 2000 years earlier, shortly after Pythagoras (600 BCE) declared the earth round.

Columbus and his crew were not the least worried about falling off the edge of the earth. But they were concerned about deadly risks, as are we all.

In this sense the flat earth model is an apt metaphor for living. In life, we travel freely all over our terrain’s range, knowing we are surrounded by sheer drops, places not to go for risk of life and limb. One false move and a living being falls off the edge of viability. 

Like flat-earthers, we worry about those edges. We can’t exactly see them, though we try. A perfectly safe move one day becomes an unsafe move the next. In general, you’re safe crossing intersections on green lights, but then one day some cell-phone fondler runs his red light and your otherwise safe crossing is suddenly deadly. How were you to know there was an edge there? 

Explore this metaphor a moment with me: We wander free but fearful of unknown edges, some of them deadly precipitous. Picturing all of life as wandering a flat earth with unknown edges helps you overcome one of the deepest misunderstandings about life in general, and affords you insights into your everyday life.

We humans are big on pinpointing destinations. We declare goals and aim for them, the absolute bull's-eyes at the very center of targets.

And then we make the mistake of assuming that evolution works that way, too. It doesn’t. It’s not survival of the pinpoint fittest: It’s the non-survival of the unfit, the creatures who fall off those often unforeseeable edges.

Darwin introduced evolutionary theory’s key concept, natural selection, by first describing artificial selection, a farmer’s selective breeding of plants and animals for favored traits. When farmers do that long enough they get the domesticated breeds tailored to their pinpointed preferences. Darwin suggests that natural selection is like that, too, but it isn’t.

To this day, even professional biologists stretch the parallel between artificial and natural selection past its breaking point by treating natural selection as though it’s an active selector that prefers targeted traits. Evolution “designs for” this trait. Natural selection “chooses” adaptive traits. There’s “selective pressure” for these specific features. 

As such, natural selection becomes a stand-in for God, a trait-connoisseur pinpointing and cultivating what it wants. After all, in the Bible, God does all sorts of artificial selection. He selects Lot (not his wife, poor salt lick) and Noah’s family because they have the piety God pinpoints. He chose to breed them and not the sinners who God culls with fire and drowning. And then there's Revelation's great sinner-purge, the ultimate in artificial selection. If God does that long enough, eventually the earth will be populated by more of the pious than the sinners. 

In contrast, natural selection does no active choosing whatsoever. It doesn’t select. It doesn’t prefer. It doesn’t design, not even blindly. In fact, natural selection is nothing more than the fact that everything degenerates eventually, some things faster than others. It’s differential survival, not survival of the fittest as selected by some imagined entity that knows and breeds for targeted traits. 

People intuit that life began when this new force called natural selection kicked in and started picking things it prefers based on its targeted goal of fitness. But natural selection is merely the fact that everything eventually falls apart. Everything eventually falls off the edge of existence. As such, it’s been around since time began. Natural selection is at its core merely the second law of thermodynamics, the simple truth that all forms breaks down.

Natural selection is not what’s new when life began evolving. What’s actually new is a new kind of self-regenerating existence, things that do active work to repair and replicate their forms faster than they would otherwise degenerate. Living forms “re-grade” themselves faster than they would otherwise degrade. Everything wanders the terrain of existence until it falls off the edge into non-existence, but only living things wander that terrain in an active effort to stay on it.

Rocks disappear, some faster than others, but they don’t evolve through their differential survival. To say that natural selection explains evolution is like saying that erosion explains mountain formation. Yes, differential survival explains the sculpting of life but not the peculiar forms that natural selection sculpts.

No explanation of mountains is complete without reference to what rises to be eroded. No explanation of life is complete without reference to the peculiar living forms that evolve when eroded by the universe's ever-present tendency toward degradation. Life doesn’t stay on a targeted location. It ranges through all sorts of varied forms, but always at uncertain risk: that risk of degradation, of falling off viability’s edge.

We learn the practical flat earth approach to life as children. Our parents guide us about the edges. They say, “You can play (wander) any way you like, but don’t get close to those uncertain edges.” Parents have to convince us that the edges are not absolute or clearly demarcated.

Child: But mommy, that man just crossed and he didn’t get hit.

Mother: I know dear. I’m not saying you’re certain to get hit, but you could get hit and we wouldn’t want that.

Sometimes you cross on red and survive. Sometimes you go on green and you get hit. Edge-avoidance is a percentage game, a lesson that we keep having to re-learn life long.

Wife: I think you’re drinking too much.

Husband: Oh come on! My uncle lived to 95 drinking three whiskeys a night.

Wife: Still, it’s a slippery slope that too many have fallen off, and we wouldn’t want that.

Husband: My uncle lived that long because he had a goal in mind. He always said, “I’m going to live to be 95,” and that’s just what he did.

And misunderstanding evolution we continue to live a myth as preposterous as the flat earth concept, a myth that all goal-oriented behavior is a matter of pinpointing a target state and aiming for it.

By means of language humans can do something like that. I can say my goal is to make a million dollars and then try to do so. But other organisms do nothing like that. They evolve to be fit enough to stay on their viable terrain by whatever means possible. There’s no pinpoint ideal elephant that all real elephants approximate. There’s just the diverse creatures that wander the elephant’s terrain, having inherited elephantine form from whichever parents didn’t fall off the terrain of viability before procreating.

And even if I did set out to make a million dollars, it’s not a pinpointed goal. Making a little more or less still counts, and making a million says nothing about how I make it or in what denominations or sequence of profitability. Our goals are never exact pinpoints at the center of a target, pinpoints as imaginary as Euclid’s imaginary zero-dimensional points. At best, our aim toward declared targets is more like hitting somewhere in the middle of that big round circle in the middle of a dartboard, a circle that in real life can change even while we work toward it. 

When we say that a trait evolved because it has a certain advantage, we are speculating about what features afford a creature its safety on its terrain flat rather than falling off its edge. For all we know, any individual creature could have gotten by without the specific trait we pinpoint. Lots of organisms that never came into being might have survived without those traits we speculate that natural selection picked, but with others too numerous to imagine. 

In general, life evolves for robustness, which translates as more terrain to wander. We humans of the past 400 years are a stellar example of robustness gained. With modern medicine, you can wander on your flat earth even if your heart fails, provided you have insurance to cover the cost of an artificial heart. With modern culture’s liberating effects, your mind can wander further too, without causing you to be burned at the stake. With modern transportation, you can wander our earth further without risk to life and limb most of the time. Columbus’ edges were more uncertain than ours, given advances in navigation technology. 

And yet for all of our expanded terrain we also wonder if our many recent adaptations are ultimately going to shrink the safe terrain we can traverse, making the edges closer than we’ve come to expect: Global warming, dependency on Middle Eastern oil, the breakdown of society as we allow people to believe anything they like, the loss of species we depend upon, as we spread the human domain ever wider. We’ve expanded our present range in ways that we vaguely foresee as bringing some dangerous edges closer, ultimately shrinking our terrain and making unsafe some of the wandering we do now in relative safety.

We have some capacity to foresee the edges of our survivable domain and to steer clear of them. Sometimes we steer so clear that we fall of the edge on the other side. We start preventative wars that escalate, leading to our own deaths or at least shrunken resources for domestic security. 

The flat-earthers thought the perilous edges of the earth were enshrouded in clouds. They are for us too, as they have been for life all along. We all play on our piece of flat earth, watching out for those uncertain edges.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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