Aug 3, 2008

Why does the Queen exist?

"Why are we so gullible? Why is our language so vague and ambiguous? Why are we so bad at sticking to plans, or keeping track of how we know what we know, or generally doing any of the things you'd hope to be able to do with a superlatively well-engineered brain? Because it was a kluge. Evolution doesn't, in fact, tend to perfection: it goes with what works and tinkers with it later. That's why the retinas of vertebrates seem to be installed backwards, giving us all blind spots in the middle of our visual fields. Eyes like that do the job well enough, and there's no way of flipping the retina while preserving decent vision across intermediate generations. So we're stuck with them. Likewise the mind: our meagre reasoning capacity is an afterthought, spatchcocked on to the ancestral systems that have the reins where practical decision-making is concerned. If only our higher mental functions could dominate; alas, the lizard- brain parts have seniority" — Ed Lake reviewing Kluge by Gary Marcus in The Telegraph.

It's long been a suspicion of mine. Even though I know evolution to be taking place, certain phenomenon — toes, The Royal Family, Ben Affleck's film career — seem to be granted existence, not because they have been naturally selected, but because they haven't yet been de-selected. They occupy a kind of evolutionary blind spot, tucked away from the push and shove of the Darwinian marketplace proper: the effort to get rid of them just about outweighing the reasons for keeping them. So until such time as someone can come up with good reason to get rid of them, they might as well just hang out. Much like certain corners of my apartment which I can never quite get around to cleaning. Or that weird seed thing my father gave me that I'm not sure I really like. Or the Queen. The applications of this idea strike me as endless.

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