Does Evolution Want You to “Become Crab”?

Hello, friends!

So as far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists noticed that crab-like animals were oddly commonplace.  It seems that, for one reason or another, evolution favors crab-like body structures over other crustacean body types.  Well, maybe “favors” is the wrong word.  I wouldn’t want to imply that evolution plays favorites or that evolution has any sort of intended outcome.  That would be misleading.

When I read articles in the popular press about carcinization (the surprisingly common process of evolving a crab-like body), I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding at work, not just about carcinization itself but about evolution in general.  Evolution doesn’t “prefer” this and it certainly doesn’t “intend” that.  There is no end-goal to the evolutionary process.

Evolution works by trial and error.  Organisms have problems, problems like “how do I find food?” or “how do I avoid becoming food?”  Some organisms manage to solve these sorts of problems; others do not.  The ones who solve their problems get to live, and they have the opportunity to pass their genes on to the next generation; the others?  They do not get to do that.

There are a surprising number of crab-like animals out there.  That must mean that being a crab helps you solve certain problems.  It does not mean that you’re evolution’s favorite, that evolution “wants” to create more crab-like creatures like you, or that being a crab is some sort of evolutionary end-goal.

All that being said, I have to admit it’s hard to avoid anthropomorphizing the concept of evolution just a little bit.  I mean, look at the stuff I do on this blog.  I anthropomorphize everything from atoms and molecules to planets and stars.  I imbue all sorts of things with wants and needs and strange personality quirks.  It’s only natural for me to say evolution “wants” this or “prefers” that, and I totally understand why so many other science writers fall into a similar trap.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: whenever you hear people talk about evolution’s “preferences” or “intentions,” bear in mind that those words are really just shorthand for something else.

15 thoughts on “Does Evolution Want You to “Become Crab”?

  1. It’s hard to avoid anthropomorphizing. Hydrogen “wants” to bond with oxygen. On a cold morning when my car won’t turn over, I promise it a new battery if it’ll start one more time. Perhaps you’ve read about worry that AIs may be becoming sentient… that’s not what worries me. I suspect people already believe and act as if their computers and algorithms are sentient… and if machine learning is using social media and the internet to train programs, that’s going to cause a lot of trouble. Will all AIs turn into trolls and bullies?

    Liked by 3 people

      1. True. Although to be fair, the AI was learning from the example set by humans on Twitter. Maybe if they’d done this on a different social media platform… actually, never mind. The same thing probably would have happened.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. in psychology fields, projection is well known phenomenon. We project our inner turmoil, needs, and our ways of seeing these fit into the world into others. So we give our AI the qualities of ours unwittingly, unconsciously. This and the need to be close to someone on cold, grey days…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a lot easier to talk about evolution, and biology overall, if we allow talk about what it “intends” or its “preferences” and other anthropomorphic language. Most people mean that talk metaphorically. But there are some philosophers and scientists who argue that we shouldn’t apologize and hedge about the teleology in evolution. Some of champions for this are surprising, such as Daniel Dennett.

    But the creationist and intelligent design policy battles leave many gun shy about going there. I suspect that’s why the term “teleonomy”, the appearance of purposes and goals, exists. It’s sort of a way to have our cake and eat it too. “I’m not talking about teleology, just teleonomy.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard that word before. That’s a useful one!

      The creationist/intelligent design stuff certainly makes me more cautious with my words. There are also New Age-y people who talk about evolution as if it were a god-like force.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The analogy you make here, the crustacians are so many, makes me think of us hardening our shell around our inner pain, insted of experiencing it. Seems much easier at the time of some discomfort, and maybe that’s why so many crastacians as you say.
    But we chose to experience, and I believe that is what evolution favours and that is how we grew into humans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but that is a neat analogy. I know when life gets tough, I sometimes slip into a “crabby” mood—a form of emotional carcinization, you might say!


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