A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim
War stories often relate extraordinary tales of soldiers who have survived the grimmest of odds. As we zoom in on a soldier hanging on for dear life in the belly of a landing craft headed for Omaha Beach we can hear the screams of those being blown to bits in the landing crafts around his. As the front wall of the craft drops to reveal hell on a beach, our soldier rushes out through a hail storm of high caliber machine gun fire that shreds the bodies of his comrades. Amazingly, he presses forth with the survivors of the other landings only to watch unknown soldiers around him being blasted into oblivion by landmines.
Death lays in wait for our heroic soldier at every turn. With every move he makes he narrowly evades the horrific obliteration of yet another comrade. And so the story continues, with morbid destruction looming over every step, all the way to Berlin. How can our soldier have possibly survived such a journey of death and destruction? The explanation is purely mathematical: fatalities did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that he crossed.
Our soldier could not possibly have known which turn was fatal and which was not. Many of his fallen comrades may have actually met literal dead ends without a survivable option being left available to them. Like many soldiers, however, our soldier was presented with non-fatal options at every step. Like a select few soldiers, as it turned out, our soldier selected the non-fatal path in every instance.
It boggles the mind to consider the odds of our soldier having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal selections all the way through. The fact of the matter is, however, that if he hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal selections all the way through then he wouldn’t have been the soldier we zoomed in on at the beginning of this story. Stories of anonymous soldiers who died three minutes into the battle are simply not very interesting. The interesting stories are those of the soldiers who survived, or at least those who survived long enough for the narrative to develop.
The selection of the soldier for this story began not in the landing craft but in Berlin. Had no soldiers survived to reach Berlin then the selection would have begun not in Berlin but in London, and the soldier would have been German. Soldiers did survive to reach Berlin, however, and it is from this pool that the selection was made. In point of fact, it is not entirely extraordinary that there were soldiers who survived to the end of the war. In point of fact, it is extraordinarily extraordinary just how many did not.
Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate the pool of soldiers in Berlin from whom we made our selection. How many stories ended in the landing crafts, on the beaches, in the trenches, or in catatonic states of terror? How many stories never got past the first page? How many never got past the first chapter? How many stories ended in obscurity? War does not generate heroic stories, it cuts stories short and heroic stories are simply those that remain where war has failed.
This is a useful analogy for evolution. Abiogenesis is the landing craft that delivers little self-replicating soldiers to hostile environments that make Omaha Beach seem like a children’s carnival. Natural selection takes the form of fortified machine gun turrets that fire automatically in the ever-changing, mindless patterns of environmental factors. In the absence of generals to call the shots, our little self-replicating soldiers can do no more than run back and forth across the beach; there is no map to Berlin; Berlin does not even exist. This process, therefore, is entirely non-cognitive.
In 99.9% of the cosmos, abiogenesis hasn’t even come close to the beach. On earth, abiogenesis hit the beach about 4 billion years ago. The earliest soldiers didn’t even have legs; the only option for mobility was self-replication. Soldiers that didn’t self-replicate died before exiting the landing craft. Soldiers that self-replicated perfectly only moved in straight lines and, as such, were cut to shreds. Soldiers that self-replicated terribly lost all course information and, as such, just circled about until they hit land mines. Only those soldiers that replicated with slight imperfections could retain course information while also changing course from time to time, and although they were mowed down without mercy, the odd one managed to survive for a few pages worth of narrative. It was an entirely non-cognitive process.
Environmental factors that are not harsh enough to destroy a particular organism today will change sufficiently to destroy it tomorrow. The errors that occur in self-replication may very well terminate the self-replicating process altogether - or might, against significant odds, result in attributes that facilitate survival through tomorrow’s genocidal environment. It is important to realize that every genetic change is the result of a mistake in the self-replication process: an error, not an adaptation. In this regard, every detail of every living organism represents an error in the self-replication process. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.
Every aspect of the environment represents an obstacle to survival: life continues in spite of the environment, not because of it – hospitality does not exist. Almost every line of self-replication has hit a dead end, run out of non-fatal options, and gone extinct. Because of all of this, it is inaccurate to say that evolution ‘solves problems’, ‘favours an adaptation’, or ‘reuses’ anything. Evolution is the filter through which imperfect self-replications pass or fail. The filter changes properties as the environmental factors change, but it is an entirely non-cognitive process.
The proof of the carnage lies in the fossil record and other, as yet undiscovered, genetic dead ends. Further proof lies in the vestigial genes that signify self-replication errors long past. The map back to our evolutionary Omaha Beach lies in our DNA, and binds every living thing together by virtue of having survived an horrific war that shredded almost all of our comrades.
It boggles the mind to consider the odds of us having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal replication errors all the way through – over a span of 4 billion years. The explanation, however, is purely mathematical: fatalities simply did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that we happened to cross. The fact of the matter is that if we hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal replications errors all the way through then this story wouldn’t be the one being written. Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate this one. Evolution does not generate survival stories, it cuts stories short at every turn and survival stories are simply those that remain where natural selection has failed. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.