Back to the swamp

Liana Finck in the January 6th New Yorker, with a seasonal evolution cartoon:

(#1) Going back: devolution + home for the holidays

Two, two, two themes in one. Devolution, reversion — going back — to more primitive forms over time; and going (back) home for the holidays.

Devolution. From NOAD:

noun devolution: … [b] formal descent or degeneration to a lower or worse state: the devolution of the gentlemanly ideal into a glorification of drunkenness. … [d] Biology evolutionary degeneration.

Sense b describes a regrettably common occurrence, but it’s sense d that’s illustrated in Finck’s cartoon. From Wikipedia:

Devolution, de-evolution, or backward evolution is the notion that species can revert to supposedly more primitive forms over time. The concept relates to the idea that evolution has a purpose (teleology) and is progressive (orthogenesis), for example that feet might be better than hooves or lungs than gills. However, evolutionary biology makes no such assumptions, and natural selection shapes adaptations with no foreknowledge of any kind. It is possible for small changes (such as in the frequency of a single gene) to be reversed by chance or selection, but this is no different from the normal course of evolution.

In the 19th century, when belief in orthogenesis was widespread, zoologists (such as Ray Lankester and Anton Dohrn) and the palaeontologists Alpheus Hyatt and Carl H. Eigenmann advocated the idea of devolution. The concept appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos, which portrays a society that has evolved backwards to have small brains.

Dollo’s law of irreversibility, first stated in 1893 by the palaeontologist Louis Dollo, denies the possibility of devolution.

… The idea of devolution is based on the presumption of orthogenesis, the view that evolution has a purposeful direction towards increasing complexity. Modern evolutionary theory, beginning with Darwin at least, poses no such presumption, and the concept of evolutionary change is independent of either any increase in complexity of organisms sharing a gene pool, or any decrease, such as in vestigiality or in loss of genes. Earlier views that species are subject to “cultural decay”, “drives to perfection”, or “devolution” are practically meaningless in terms of current (neo-)Darwinian theory.

So the devolution in #1 is not so much a real possibility as a kind of ghastly nightmare vision of what could happen: the withering-away of cultural knowledge and abilities in a gradual return to the primal ooze. (The comics often come with a sting in their tail.)

Earlier on this blog:

— in my 8/1/15 posting “Bizarro devolution”, this cartoon illustrating the “ascent of man” as a biological species and then his descent (devolution, sense b) into a polluter of his ancestral waters:


— and in my 12/15/15 posting “The evolution of nostalgia”, Liana Finck’s touching “The Beginning of Nostalgia”, in whch self-awareness has evolved to such an extent that Man is able to look back in regret (every advance is also a loss):


Home for the holidays. In many parts of the world, certain regular cultural occasions are viewed as “family times”, in which people are expected to gather with their families (rather than other subcommunities), perhaps in some ancestral location. Some people then go home for the holidays.

For example, as described in my 9/24/18 posting “Sleep on, harvest moon”, on the Mid-Autumn Festival in China:

we are now experiencing a harvest moon — which means today is the Mid-Autumn Festival in China and other East Asian countries (and elsewhere), so it’s the prime day for mooncakes / moon-cakes / moon cakes, paper lanterns, and family reunions.

Even more impressively, in China (and many other places), people travel in great numbers to go home for the celebration of the lunar New Year (often referred to as “Chinese New Year”) — this year, January 25th, inaugurating a Year of the Rat.

In the US, many people go home for Thanksgiving or (especially) for Christmas, or both. So Finck’s cartoon is indeed appropriate for the season (Epiphany still being three days away).


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