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10:12am on Sunday, 27th November, 2005:

Why is there an answer?


This year's unexpected Christmas best-selling book is Does Anything East Wasps?, a book of 102 questions sent to, and answered by, the readers of New Scientist over the years.

Several of the questions in the book carry with them annoying implications. The answer to "Why do people have eyebrows?" and "Why do millipedes have so many legs?" should actually be the same: "Because that's how they evolved". Asking why about such things implies that there's some rationale behind some decision to give people eyebrows or millipedes legs, ie. that there's a higher power (deity or manipulative space aliens) somehow involved.

The answer, "Because that's how they evolved", is not satisfactory. Oddly, the corresponding answer if the questioner believes in a deity is also not satisfactory: "Because your god(s) made them that way". The questioner seems to want to know more than that: what design problem does having eyebrows or lots of legs address?

What exactly is it the questioner wants to know? Would a better way of finding out that information be to ask "what would be the disadvantages of not having eyebrows?" or "what advantages do millipedes gain by having so many legs?"?

I beat to death 22 wasps individually in the space of an hour once.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).