I spent last weekend at a friend's family home tucked away in the wilderness north of Manhattan. Nature, is in full effect there. The place is teaming with life. I saw deer, hedgehogs, turtles, snakes, chipmunks, fish, frogs, a muskrat, birds and insects galore. Not to mention the abundant plant life. I ate 3 different kinds of wild berries off of bushes while I was there.
A particular aspect of evolutionary theory gets overlooked that I find fascinating, the fact that all living things are made of the same stuff. When I look all the wildly different species of animals I don't see "different things", I see the same "stuff" organized into different configurations.
The same material compounds that produce a lamb, are reconfigured by the process of evolution to make a snake, a chimp, "man" and so on. It's the same stuff, shuffled by the surprisingly simple operational rules of evolution.
It's kind of like Taco Bell. The menu consists of a selection of choices composed of the same ingredients. It's the same stuff, just pressed into different shapes. The menu items have different names like burrito, chalupa, taco, quesadilla... but it's just beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and your choice of beef or chicken held together in a shell or wrapper of ground maize.
On a strictly observational level you can't always tell one species of living thing from the next. Could you tell the difference between the internal organs of two animals roughly the same size? Probably not. Pieces of animal remains, particularly bone fragments are often confused for those of a human.
Take slices of apple and potato, eat them with your eyes closed and your nose plugged and tell me the difference. Most people can't.
The other aspect of evolution that I thought about over the weekend was the differences between things have a high degree of variability and things that are low on that scale. The first animals I saw on our drive up were cows. Both humans and cows are mammals. On an organ level we share most of the same basic parts but they're ordered into very different configurations. The cows all look pretty much the same, very uniform in overall construction except for the asymmetrical patterns that are random and different from cow to cow.
The same process at times produces wildly different things with basic similarities, like cows and humans. Those species seem relatively stable with gradual changes over long periods of time. Except for things like facial features and cow patterns which are shuffled with a high degree of variability from individual to individual. What determines what maintains high stability versus a high degree of variability? I don't know, I didn't study science.
Despite the fact that all human faces are, superficially, very much alike the level of information and meaning in the nuanced differences is extremely high. You would think, given how similar human faces are and how many you see over the course of a lifetime that mistaking strangers for people you know or met in the past would happen way more often than it does. Those nuanced differences are so important and meaningful that sometimes they can get you to fall in love with their possessor, they can create "profound meaning". This insight is lost on marketers that place too heavy and emphasis on functional benefits and people in advertising that complain about having a commodity product to work on.
What is clear to me is that the visible, observable differences (like shape, size, color) have more impact on our perceptions and our mental constructs than the material differences.
Recent genetic research backs me on this: Human Complexity And Diversity Spring From A Surprisingly Few (Relatively Speaking) Genes
An interesting quote from that article:
In April 2003, scientists completed the massive Human Genome Project, recording for the first time in history the location and sequence of every gene in the human body.
One result of the international project came as a bit of a shock. Scientists discovered that the body has only 30,000 genes, far fewer than the 50,000 to 140,000 they had expected to find.
Moreover, scientists learned that some less complex, less diverse organisms had more, or proportionally more genes than human beings. The rice genome contains 50,000 genes and the fly contains 14,000, to cite two examples.
Everybody gets hung up on the "we came from monkeys" thing but there are bigger more troublesome implications that our moral frameworks and emotional constructs may be inadequate to deal with.
Racism, sexism... prejudice of all manner spring from reactions to observable differences in appearance and culture. Reason ands science tell us that were all essentially the same and we should strive to treat each other accordingly. Civilized humans embrace this but would they extend it to all living creatures?
If rice is (at least) as complex as us genetically maybe we aren't so special after all. This is at the heart of the nagging, existential worry of nihilism produced by science.
The world we live in, experientially, is shaped more powerfully by our reactions to what we observe and how we describe it than by what is there. Those traps of the mind are hard to escape even when we have science and reason to show us the way.
It is a lot harder to think outside the bun than Taco Bell would have you believe. They're living proof.