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Some pop-science discourse on evolution and human minds for your Friday

February 17, 2012

I came across the following picture on reddit today, and I really like it as a way to demonstrate to evolution deniers what the theory actually states.

This is, to me, a much more significant challenge to lay at the foot of people who don’t believe in evolution than simply rattling off scientific facts to them. Facts are tricky things, you see, and I find they’re generally not very convincing to anyone who isn’t already pre-disposed to believe what they are shown to illustrate. The picture above is more an analogy than a fact about evolution, yet it’s much easier for people to understand.

Human minds tend to easily understand analogies because analogies quickly link information we are just beginning to receive with information we already know. And we need this because, above all, humans are what I like to call “shortcut machines.” The mind simply can’t process all the data it takes in from second to second, so it discards most of it and uses internal shortcuts (such as habits or even “beliefs”) to focus on the important stuff and get us through to the next day alive and well.

It can be really hard to change these habits and beliefs though, because the mind isn’t really built to process facts like a computer would. If you run a particular program in a computer, you often only need to input different data to get different results. But in humans this doesn’t always happen. Often we’ll take in new data which would reasonably suggest a new action, yet we’ll still keep doing them same things we always have; because instead of processing that new information, we simply discarded it when we couldn’t make fit with what already understood.

There’s lots of scientific data to support this, but we don’t need that. Just think about your worst habit, the one you’d most like to change. You know intellectually that you shouldn’t be doing it, but you do anyway; and all the data in the world suggesting that you shouldn’t do it won’t change that because the only thing that will change it is a new habit (a new shortcut). Now think about a good habit you have, and use that as an analogy for changing your bad one to a good one. It’s easier said than done; but if you keep at it, it will work better than all the facts in the world to change your behavior.

Analogies are one of the most effective tools for learning anything, and using these to focus people on new shortcuts – not listing pages of facts – is the best way to convince people of new ideas.

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