Natural Selection and You – in 3 minutes

This is my 3 minute presentation from the preliminary round of the Greek 2010 FameLab competition. Even though the judges were impressed, I never attended the finals because I wasn’t allowed out of Greek Army boot camp. If you liked the rainbow presentation, this one is much, much better.
The deer vs human bit was borrowed from Douglas Adams (a speech I have linked to on this blog on at least 3 different occasions). I was also heavily influenced by an article titled Human Evolution Has Stalled which, while quite incendiary, posits some interesting points. Mainly, that society currently holds two contradictory views:

1. It is wrong to attempt to create better humans through selective breeding, forced sterilization, genetic manipulation, or any other form of eugenics. (We should not play god).
2. Genetically inferior humans who would surely die if left to fend for themselves should be given whatever aid they need to survive, and should have the right to reproduce if they so choose. (We should play god).

I would also like to thank my very good friend Dimitris Plexidas for his invaluable help in choosing a topic and brainstorming the idea. Props to Panagiotis Theologou, as well, for finding the video of the entire event, which I had no idea existed.

The video is in Greek, but I’ve translated the text into English for posterity and the satisfaction of all my friends. Ελληνικό κείμενο εδώ.

Everyone, more or less, knows about Darwin’s theory of evolution, about natural selection.
The idea, roughly, is that if you take 10 deer, throw them in a colder climate and come back 10 generations later, the deer you find will have thicker fur. And the reason for that is that some of the original deer had slightly thicker fur than the rest. This gave them slightly higher chances of survival and slightly higher chances of sex, thus allowing them to spawn offspring with even thicker fur and so on and so forth.
So you can see that evolution is, in a way, much like vaccuuming.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the mechanism of evolution, what interests me is the way it has influenced the human species.
Evolution has been especially generous to us. We have been gifted with logic, language, opposable thumbs and armpit hair. We could have been like the platypus, which has neither logic, nor language, nor thumbs, nor armpits (they can’t carry watermelons, they can only nudge them forward with their beaks).
In fact, I suggest to you that evolution has favoured us so effectively that we have surpassed it. We have transcended the very process that brought us to where we are.
Because if you take 10 humans and throw them in a colder climate, they’ll look at the deer and say “Hey… that fur looks thick and warm. I’ll take it.”
Modern technology, modern medicine and modern prophylactics have resulted in our exclusion from the process of natural evolution. Their very purpose is to provide the same opportunities in life to everyone, regardless of their genetic predisposition, whether they be diabetic, high-risk for cancer, or Olympiakos FC fans.
All of this makes us very nervous. We’re nervous because we’re aware that all this knowledge hasn’t been internalised. It’s not in our DNA. There’s no gene for building cars, cell phones or the Internet. If something goes horribly wrong, if, say, the ocean were to rise by a meter, or we get hit by an asteroid, 10,000 years of technological progress will be reversed overnight. We realise this whenever there’s a sudden power failure, or if we find ourselves in a strange neighbourhood after dark: not much has changed in the last 10,000 years. Our chances of survival are pretty much the same.
Fortunately, evolution has left us with one last present. A sort of parting gift: Foresight. The ability to predict the consequences of our actions and to act in order to avoid them.
Now, it’s up to us to use it.
But even if we don’t, we’ll be taken care of by natural selection.

You’ll find a transcript of the judges’ comments right after the jump.

Panel of Judges:

George Zarkadakis: Chair, automatic systems engineer, writer, AVGO Publications
Stathis Gonos: Head of Research, Institute of Biological Research and Biotechnology of the National Hellenic Research Foundation
Antonis Kafetzopoulos: Actor
Ioanna Soufleri: Biologist and journalist

George Zarkadakis: I’ll hand you over to Kafetzopoulos.
Ioanna Soufleri: He didn’t tell us about himself, though.
Antonis Kafetzopoulos: Dimitris, tell us a bit about yourself, first of all.
Me: I’m studying Electrical Engineering.
AK: Electrical Engineering?
Me: Yes… I’m in the 7th year of my 5 year studies. (laughter) At the same time, I perform stand-up comedy in Monastiraki… I’ve got lots of hobbies… the internet… sketching… drawing.
AK: And you chose a subject outside of your studies.
Me: Yes, a subject that I thought was interesting rather than… I mean, if I was interested in my studies, I’d have graduated by now. (laughter)
AK: I don’t want to add anything else. It’s not that I don’t have anything, I just don’t want to.
GZ: We have two Biologists in our midst. Let’s hear them. 2 and a half.
Stathis Gonos: So, Dimitris, ok, clearly you have charisma, that was very obvious. Perhaps –and considering that your studies are not in Biology, so obviously there’s a different level of specialization– the only thing I would like to have heard, to be serious for a moment, is the whole gigantic issue concerning determinism or lack thereof. And evolution is very much based on randomness, so I would have liked for there to have been a note of…
Me: About creationism, you mean… or…?
SG: Yes, I mean it was nice, we liked it, but I think we could have included a few more…
Me: The point I mostly wanted to get across, because it’s something that puzzled me, and, ok, creationism specifically, in the sense of whether God just created us… poof… I don’t think it’s a valid theory, so I needn’t bother with it at all. Besides that, though, because it’s something I thought about a lot, otherwise I would’ve gone even further, talking about transhumanism and eugenics and so on. But since I wanted it to be complete, with beginning middle and end, this is what I ended up with.
SG: I agree, and also, since we’re almost done, when was the Year of Darwin? Last year? We had unbelievable –not presentations– but questions and objections from audience members. We live in a country were some things, unfortunately, are not self-evident, so having the ability to communicate them correctly…(video jumps)
Me: In any case, we have a higher percentage of belief in evolution than in America.
IS: Well that’s not difficult.
AK: And Turkey, as well.
IS: Well, I have to tell you that you impressed me for 2 reasons. First of all, I agree with you completely about creationism. I spent an entire year, last year, writing about Darwin every week. Every week. And I had also decided that I won’t acknowledge creationists precisely because all they want is attention and I refuse to validate something which has no scientific…
Me: And by acknowledging them, you end up helping them.
IS: You help them, I think so too. In any case, we agree on that. I have to say that the ease… I was impressed that you know the subject matter so well, that you can even joke about it.
Me: Well, ok, the example is kind of stolen from Douglas Adams, I mean he used to say it but… thank you.
IS: Ok. So. I don’t know if you could also have fitted it determinism, but even without it, I liked your presentation.
AK: I would like to add, before handing the mic over to Mr. Zarkadakis, who might smite you, that for the first time in my life, as far as I can remember these past 4 years, I disagree with Stathis. The subject of how, thanks to healthcare, sociability –and not just healthcare– and the advancements in health technology everyone is given the same opportunities to survive is something which halts evolution, I find to be extremely deep and incredibly interesting.
Me: I thought that was going somewhere negative!
AK: … and cutting edge.
GZ: Dimitris, I have no smiting to do. I liked your presentation very much. I definitely think it is a very effective way of talking to someone who has never heard about evolution. Or possibly heard about it but never really understood it, or possibly heard about it, never understood it and decided that it didn’t suit them. To explain some things in the way that you did so that, at the very least, they will stop fearing it, first of all, right? And to make them a bit more interested in finding out what all these people are talking about and, anyway, what’s going on in this world. So, yes, thank you very much for a very nice presentation. Goodbye.

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