Evolution for Dummies

March 28, 2013

As Heidi Klum says on her TV show Project Runway, "One day you are in, the next day you are out."

As Heidi Klum says on her TV show Project Runway, “One day you are in, the next day you are out.”

Do the same evolutionary principles that drive life on earth fashion universal forces as well? 

In my recent Botany and Plant Ecology classes I have learned about the principles that guide evolution. Understanding these principles may help the human species survive.

Evolution is all about the future. The goal of each species is the survival of the greatest number of its offspring. The present matters only as a set of conditions in which the species must prevail. First, the organism must survive the conditions itself. Second, it must be able to produce offspring capable of surviving the conditions under which that generation finds itself.

Because of evolution, the conditions each generation encounters will always change, even if  environmental conditions remain the same. Each successive generation is at least marginally better suited to the conditions that existed for the previous generation. Therefore, if the environment remains the same for both generations, the offspring face better, tougher competitors than their parents faced. Each organism competes not just with its own species, but with all other species as well. Evolution is the ultimate Quality Assurance Continuous Improvement Program.

Evolution is both ruthless and intelligent. It requires death in order to operate. It is utterly objective or “fair,”no favorites or special privileges. Either you cut it or you don’t, same with your kids. But it is excellent at picking winners, rewarding only the most suitable organisms.

But the environment, nature, the universe does change both gradually and suddenly. How does evolution respond? As Heidi Klum says on each episode of Project Runway, “One day you are in, the next day you are out!”  Organisms that thrive in one environment may be utterly untenable in new conditions.  Moreover, it is not the present time or the individual organism that matters. The organism is only important insofar as it improves outcomes for the next generation.

As when the oxygen mask drops down in the aircraft, the parent must first survive at least long enough to insure its child will make it. After that, the child’s own adaptability is the key to its survival. A changing environment therefore favors variety, diversity. If all the organisms of a species are exactly alike, they may all do well in Condition A. But they may all die together in Condition B. The species with the greatest variety has the greatest chance that at least some of its members will survive Conditions B, C, and D. We must recognize the value of diversity and preserve it, not just to be “nice” but to make sure that we have the most different tricks up our sleeves to allow us to adapt to future unknowns.

So mutations, the new and the strange, are nonetheless good because they increase variety. Freak today, hero tomorrow. It is mutations that allow viruses and bacteria to survive each new vaccine and antibiotic we develop to annihilate them.

Humans are beginning to understand the ways in which we are just another organism on the planet. Yes, we may be the most highly evolved, but that only means we have adapted to previous and current conditions. Our cultures are extensions of ourselves and are part of our adaptation. They are a buffer between us and the external environment. Cultures evolve on their own too, as part of our species’ evolution.  But we can and often do make conscious changes to our cultures. Conscious, thinking, language-driven behavior is humankind’s distinctive competence.

It can also be our downfall. Our consciousness and ability to innovate often lead us into a trap…“the Titanic trap” or trap of hubris. We become deluded into thinking that we can control our own destiny. But we cannot. We are subject to the same external forces as all other organisms. It is scary to face this truth, a truth that is the basis of countless box-office thrillers. The cultures that survive may be the ones that have remained the most humble. Didn’t Jesus say “the meek will inherit the earth?”

In addition to humility, evolution teaches us that we must prioritize the future and our offspring ahead of the present and ourselves. American immigrants have always lived by this creed. But history demonstrates that wealth and comfort often lead to complacency about the future.

In an earlier post, I asked the question, “What if Evolution were God?” Do the same evolutionary principles that drive life on earth fashion universal forces as well? As science here and there pierces the veil of mystery surrounding the universe, isn’t each new discovery a revelation of an exquisite orderly omnipotent force inherent in both the most intimate detail and the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos?

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Passionate views on gun control epitomize America’s underlying cultural divide

What are we to think of America’s agonizing political stalemate? Scratch the surface and you will find a conflict born of the widely divergent cultural experiences that forged the convictions of the different constituencies. It seems that the country is at some great tipping point, a point of massive resistance just before certain elements that dominated the past succumb to the pressure of an emerging new ordering of cultural priorities.

The politically and economically dominant white males of the Baby Boomer mega-generation are ungraciously unwilling to surrender their power to more worldly, multi-ethnic, technology-driven, and environmentally-oriented younger generations. The youngsters’ world-views were shaped by more rainbow-colored influences than the black and white post-World War II culture that set the stage for the young Boomers.

The evolving future colliding with the vestigial past is the cycle of death and rebirth inherent in all natural processes. Competition and conflict are inevitable. Sometimes the rough waters of cultural cataclysms can be navigated with skillful political leadership. Teddy Roosevelt was able to usher the country through the post-industrial upheaval of the early twentieth century, in part because he embodied elements of both the elite and the common man. Lyndon Johnson’s consummate negotiations with Congress enabled him to legislate a new domestic cultural agenda in the turbulent 1960s.

It is appropriate that gun control is emerging as the iconic clash of the Great American Stalemate. Past irresolvable cultural divides in American history have resulted in our two great civil wars.

The American Revolution was the country’s first cultural tipping point. The political system devised by the Founding Fathers was a revolutionary break from the old European monarchy, the birth of a new society that explicitly valued individual freedom.  The new government was a manifestation of the evolving political philosophies of the Enlightenment, including the concept of government as a social contract between the people and their leaders. Religious leaders likewise urged a break from tyranny as part of a religious Awakening that “reached across socioeconomic lines to encompass rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants.” The precipitating factors of the military conflict, however, were economic, as the French and Indian War changed the economic dynamics between England and America. Colonial resistance to the autocratic imposition of new taxes to recoup British war costs culminated in the Boston Tea Party and eventually the declaration of independence from King George III.

The American Civil War was America’s second devastating culture war. The southern states’ secession and the ensuing bloody conflict ended slavery and the plantation-based southern economy spawned by colonial economic forces. American colonization had primarily been funded not by European governments, but by individual investors who expected a return on the large sums of money spent in this highly risky endeavor. The lucrative tobacco and cotton trade seduced both Americans and the British to accept a race-based rationale for enslaving the workforce needed to grow these labor-intensive crops. After the Revolutionary War, southern raw cotton was shipped to factories in an increasingly industrial north. The cultural differences between the more urban industrial north and the agrarian rural south heightened unresolved tensions over states’ rights and slavery.

The Confederacy was able to muster an army because of cultural solidarity between yeomen and plantation owners with very different economic interests. The perceived superiority of the white race, the desire for freedom from outside oppressors, and solidarity with the home state were some of the ties that bound a diverse southern coalition.

Our understanding of the underlying causes and motivations behind these great American cultural disruptions have developed and ripened with the passage of time. Our personal stake in the current crisis distorts our ability to discern its true nature. How does history enlighten us?  Economic interests are a primary factor now as in the past. The paradoxical conservative alliance of rural folk and the rich urban business class follows the pattern of revolutionary and rebel coalitions whose shared religious and cultural beliefs trumped divergent economic priorities. And a common insistence on the “right to bear arms” should not be surprising in a country whose most beloved cultural icons include colonial revolutionaries, southern rebels, and frontier pioneers.

President Obama quickly seized upon the gun control issue in the wake of the eerie concurrence of mass shootings that ended with the Newtown tragedy. He may be trying to use the emotional energy surrounding these events as a wedge to break apart the heterogeneous conservative alliance. After all, what more powerful symbol of the threat to the future of our country could there be than the violent deaths of children and their teachers?

Man in the Cave

April 4, 2012

Prehistoric cave art: my personal pilgrimage

In the beginning, Man and Nature were One. This oneness is an enduring truth, but the difference was that initially, Man felt at One with Nature. Somewhere along the way, we have lost our sense of oneness, or at least most people have, especially in “advanced” societies. But Nature herself is guiding us back into her embrace, which can be rather fierce at times, as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan so graphically showed.

Several years ago, when I was first thinking of myself as a writer, I wondered if I would ever write a book, and if so, what would it be about. I thought that I would want to write a book to my children about the importance of “religion” to their lives.  I knew that”religion” was important, because earliest prehistoric man had painted drawings of sacred animals on the walls of caves. Our “religious” nature was therefore an innate part of ourselves that we should not ignore.

I even sat down to write an outline of this book. When I did, I discovered that I knew nothing more than what I have just written in the paragraph above—that early man had painted pictures of animals on the walls of caves, and that this behavior seemed important to me. Period.

So I put my book-writing plans aside and went on with my life. It never occurred to me that my life’s activities were preparing me to write this very book. I noticed that the world’s major religions contained many similar messages,  so I read Huston’s Smith’s classic book on world religion to learn more. I read Elizabeth Lesser’s The New American Spirituality, described on the cover as an “account of a modern pilgrimage.” I explored mysticism, and learned that the mystic traditions of all religions all had Love at their core.

On my own blind pilgrimage, I became disenchanted with what I perceived to be the regular doses of guilt dished out by the Presbyterian church I attended regularly.  I explored the history of the Christian church and the integral role of the Roman Empire in shaping church dogma. Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing was ground-breaking for me, ushering in the understanding that the story of the garden of Eden was the story of Man’s divorce from union with Nature. In this story, not only was Eve subordinated to Adam, but all of creation was decreed to be under the dominion of man.

On a personal level, Inside Out by Larry Crabb made it clear that individuals must attend to the needs of their souls, especially to be successful in such rigorous interpersonal relationships as marriage and child-rearing. A personal breakdown made it clear that I had failed to attend to the needs of my own soul. During my recovery from that breakdown, the books that I needed to read seemed to literally fall off library and bookstore shelves into my hands.

But nowhere was my learning more profound than in my garden.

Tomorrow I set off on my journey to visit the prehistoric caves in southwest France. First, I will visit my daughter in Seville, Spain where Christian and Muslim religions have been intertwined for centuries, often catastrophically so. In France, Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens coexisted for a time, until Neanderthals failed to survive the evolutionary struggle.

The Neanderthal brain did not have the ability to articulate symbolic thought, which is what the cave drawings represent–a symbolic depiction of man’s interrelationship with the natural world. Ivory flutes have also been found in these caves. So our early ancestors even created music, perhaps the most transcendent, spirit-touching art of all.

I hope that I will bring back from these caves a spirit-touching message for our own times. 

Occupy Madison Avenue

November 11, 2011

As Luke and Mark say in the Bible “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In a culture with an economy comprised 70% of consumer spending, how and where we choose to spend our dollars is often more important than how we vote. So I was pleased to run across this article today in the New York Times pointing out that shoppers are pushing back against the latest ploy by big retailers to grasp for Black Friday sales. Power shoppers who go after the post-Thanksgiving sales have said “Enough” to retailers who have moved store opening times to midnight or earlier on Thanksgiving night and are starting to boycott the Black Friday frenzy. The marketers have finally trespassed too far into personal lives, as the earlier start times interfere with the Thanksgiving celebrations of both shoppers and employees.

The “rituals” that Black Friday shoppers say they have come to enjoy appall me. But I realize the many of these bargain-hunters are people (the 99%) doing their best  to meet absurd cultural expectations for making Christmas “merry” with their limited personal resources. Finally, as individuals, the boycotters are throwing off these cultural shackles and voicing their opinions with their credit cards.

In the article a Target spokesperson refers to shoppers as “guests”, a euphemism I find particularly insulting. How many of us would invite guests to our homes for an event that starts in the middle of the night after an already exhausting Thanksgiving Day? Recently, however, I heard an NPR commentator describe most American interactions as “mutual exploitations.” And David Brooks described Americans in yesterday’s editorial as “a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other.”

We don’t have to be that kind of people, however, if we choose not to. Each of us simply must raise our individual consciousness and realize in how many ways the big institutional powers in our society have usurped both our goodness and our individuality.

For the record, today (11/11/11) is viewed by some New Agers as “a gateway to a higher opening of consciousness on the planet.” Let’s hope so.


Finally. The people are speaking out about corruption and abuse of power.  The “Occupy” movement is here.

To learn more about Occupy and to see how technology is facilitating this movement, check out the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together web sites.

In my “Time for a paradigm shift” post, I commented that individuals “must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation.” I hope that the Occupy movement is the beginning of that change.

To people who remember the protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, Occupy may look familiar. A columnist in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel believes that is a misperception:

These “occupiers” are making a fundamentally different and more profound statement than has popularly been reported.

It is direct democracy. It is a new vision of change. It is community values in action.

It is also no wonder the media has had a hard time making sense of it. The “occupation” isn’t what we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t lend itself to the familiar narrative arc of a protest: “You meet these demands, and then we’ll go home.” Instead the occupiers are protesting our economic system by offering a direct alternative, by actively living out values of trust and representation and interdependence — values that the surrounding financial institutions obscure and repress.

Tea Partiers should take heart and journalists who don’t get what is going on should take note. The movement is not necessarily asking government to step in to solve all our problems. The corruption of government by monied interest groups is well understood to be part of the problem.

Instead, the movement is about “actively living out” what young people see as “new” values, and what older people should recognize is a return to individual responsibility, compromise, and consensus-building. The movement is promoting cultural change by acting it out in their people’s assemblies. Younger activists may not realize that the culture of greed and self-indulgence that became acceptable in the ’80s is very different from American mores of the preceding five decades.

Rapid technological change, government corruption, and consumer economy ethics are world-wide phenomena that have led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. So the Occupy movement is part of a global movement that includes the Arab Spring and activism across Europe earlier this year.  American young people (are) collaborating with young people around the world to invent a future that embraces a common good.” 

Just when mainstream American politics seems to many to have reached new depths, the pendulum of history has begun its inevitable swing back from right-wing extremism. But the arc of history is more than the simple back-and-forth movement of a pendulum. The shape of history’s movement is a spiral, ever pushing its way upward toward a higher plane of consciousness.

The spiral is repeatedly expressed both in nature and in the religious symbolism of many cultures from ancient to present times. To understand history’s spiral-shaped trajectory is to glimpse the divine. To trust that the unseen future will be better than the past is to have faith.


I don’t want my friend Thomas to become a cause—a poster child for what happens when someone falls between society’s cracks. But I fear this result if Social Security denies his disability application for the third time. Another denial will sentence him to a long continuation of his state of homelessness that I don’t think he can endure. The light of hope would be too faint, too far in the distance for him to continue to bear the coarse life in the men’s shelter—a life too rough for a man with the temperament of a gifted artist like Thomas.

Without hope, it is easy to imagine him erupting into a violent outburst that would land him in prison. Thomas himself frequently speaks of his own fear of such an outcome. Without hope, a relapse into drug use from which he would not recover is a real possibility. Without hope, he could choose to end his own suffering. The last time I dropped Thomas off at the homeless shelter I sensed that the thread of hope on which his life dangles has grown dangerously thin.

Over his lifetime, Thomas’s mental illness has caused him to ricochet from one precarious situation to another. In his fifties now, he has been homeless off and on for the last 10 years. Last spring, to escape the violence and regimentation of the shelter, he set up a tent camp by the railroad tracks. This attempt to take his life into his own hands nearly ended in disaster when an unwelcome visitor pulled a knife on him in his own camp.

A well-intentioned group of friends tried to help by providing temporary shelter and short-term employment until Thomas could “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” The friends underestimated the amount of effort it takes for a penniless person without transportation to get himself to sources of free meals. His well-meaning employer encountered the personality problems that no doubt have interfered throughout Thomas’s life with his ability to maintain steady employment.

Although Thomas has received mental health treatment in the past, the suggestion that his mental illness might be a disability that would prevent his future employment was a surprisingly uncomfortable confrontation for him. As I consider his reaction now, I see that if you are desperate and have only your self to rely on, facing a diagnosis of impairment due to mental illness would be devastating.

This is a warning to all those who want to dismantle government, and to all who stand idly by while this travesty of the American dream is foisted on a naïve and unsuspecting public. As long as you are of sound mind and body, America offers you great hope for a secure and prosperous life. But if you should suffer a misfortune that impairs your mental or physical health beyond what your own resources can provide for, you will find, as Thomas and I have, that the much-vaunted private sector offers you no safety net at all. With no resources and no safety net, you will find yourself in a hole with very steep walls. As a beggar, you will lose your dignity, your self-respect, and eventually your hope. You will become a permanent dependent or you will die a premature death from illness, violence, or simply despair.

If you measure life in monetary terms, you will be impressed that Thomas’s artworks sell for thousands of dollars. But is that really what life is all about—how much money you can make, how much stuff you can acquire? Ironically, a keen focus on money makes the most sense for those who don’t have any at all. But often it is people who have more than they need that maintain the most anxious grasp on their cash. What causes financially secure people to act like that? Could it be mere selfishness and greed, all wrapped up in a red-white-and blue political ideology?

Original Jogger

February 11, 2011

On the importance of the individual spirit

Just for fun, I used to tell my kids that I was the original jogger. It wasn’t until later that I realized it might be true, and it wasn’t until now that I realized there was something to learn from my silly jogging story.

What you do matters. It can even change the world. By now, we’ve all seen Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This little story shows the truth of his message:

The basketball bounced off my head when I briefly entered a game during my sophomore year in high school. Not allowed to be a quitter, it wasn’t until my junior year that I blessedly ended my abysmal participation in the sport. A passable field hockey player and swimmer, winter became my fallow season as far as exercise was concerned, and it wasn’t long before I noticed my weight starting to creep up.

So several days a week I began running laps around the circle of streets in my neighborhood, gradually increasing my distance to a mile, and then to two very slow miles. My mother told me the neighbors commented to her about seeing me in my solitary pursuit, because in the winter of ’70-’71 I had the pavement all to myself. I was serious enough about my endeavor that I bought myself some running shoes, the original Adidas Gazelles, track shoes with very flat soles because they were designed to be light weight, the only running shoes available at the time.

Indeed, when I continued my running around campus in college, people often suggested that I join the track team, because those were the only runners back in those days. In college I remember one girl friend who, like me, ran on her own; over the years a trickle of others started kicking up their heels.

In 1977, a year after I graduated from college, I was joined on an elementary school track near my apartment in Atlanta by several other joggers, all of them wearing some strange-looking shoes–the first wide-heeled waffle trainers! Jogging as a national fitness craze had been born. By then I had been running for 6 or 7 years.

Do I really think I was the original jogger?” Of course not. Did I unknowingly play a role in bringing about jogging as a popular activity in America? While waffle trainer inventor and Nike founder Bill Bowerman is widely considered the primary apostle of American jogging, early joggers like me played a role too by bearing witness to the sport on the streets and country roads around America. Who knows who I might have inspired to tie on a pair of sneaks and hit the road? As Olympic runner Jeff Galloway said about the running revolution in his 1984 Galloway’s Book on Running, “it seemed to be a natural evolution.” My early jogs were part of “the spirit of the times” that Galloway says were “reflected and magnified” by Bowerman and others like him, catalyzing a fitness running phenomenon that continues to this day

I want to point out that my original jogging was my own idea, drawing on my own sports training experience to respond to my own weight gain. Why does that matter? Because the creativity of our individual spirits is a divine spark waiting to be ignited within each of us so that God’s evolutionary  plan can unfold. Each one of us is responsible for helping to light the world with personal action that sets our own individual souls on fire.

Most of us aren’t going to set the world on fire. But it pleases me that I was part of the cultural evolution that brought an important healthy activity into the mainstream of American life at a time that was ripe for just such a change.

South African activist Desmond Tutu spoke at my son’s college graduation a couple of years ago. His exhortation to the graduating class still resonates in my ears. “Help me, help me,” he repeatedly chanted in a child-like voice during his speech. This, he said, is what God needs for each of us to do, “Help me!”

How does evolution happen? One creature, one person at a time. We all matter. How simply divine.

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