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?
Jonah Lehrer The Frontal Cortex