Did Evolution Make it Difficult for Humans to Understand Evolution?

It’s well known that people are dreadful at comprehending and visualizing large numbers, such as a million or billion. This is understandable in terms of our development as a species, as grasping the tiny numbers of, say, your clan compared to a rival one you’re about to be in conflict with, or understanding amounts of resources like food and game in particular places, would aid survival (pace George Dvorsky). But there was little evolutionary reason to adeptly process a million of something, intuitively knowing the difference between a million and a billion as easily as we do four versus six. A two second difference, for instance, we get — but few intuitively sense a million seconds is about 11 days and a billion seconds 31 years (making for widespread shock on social media).

As anthropologist Caleb Everett, who pointed out a word for “million” did not even appear until the 14th century, put it, “It makes sense that we as a species would evolve capacities that are naturally good at discriminating small quantities and naturally poor at discriminating large quantities.”

Evolution, therefore, made it difficult to understand evolution, which deals with slight changes to species over vast periods of time, resulting in dramatic differences (see Yes, Evolution Has Been Proven). It took 16 million years for Canthumeryx, with a look and size similar to a deer, to evolve into, among other new species, the 18-foot-tall giraffe. It took 250 million years for the first land creatures to finally have descendants that could fly. It stands to reason that such statements seem incredible to many people not only due to old religious tales they support that evidence does not but also because it’s hard to grasp how much time that actually constitutes. Perhaps it would be easier to comprehend and visualize how small genetic changes between parent creatures and offspring could add up, eventually resulting in descendants that look nothing like ancient ancestors, if we could better comprehend and visualize the timeframes, the big numbers, in which evolution operates. 16 million years is a long time — long enough.

This is hardly the first time it’s been suggested that its massive timescales make evolution tough to envision and accept, but it’s interesting to think about how this fact connects to our own evolutionary history and survival needs.

Just one of those wonderful oddities of life.

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