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?

Advertisements

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. 

The World on Pause

February 2, 2012

The year is 2012. Lots of people worldwide are more or less aware that something significant is supposed to happen this year. The Mayan calendar …yada yada yada. Many think it is probably a bunch of wacko nonsense. But the world scene is nonetheless both unsettled and unsettling.

America and the rest of the West are certainly cowed, weakened by the financial debacle of 2008 and unable so far to recover. American politics is a farce, and the European Union plays hot potato with debt crises. In the East, the China tiger has been temporarily tamed by a lull in demand for its products, and Japan still reels from tsunami and nuclear fallout.

Have you noticed? The news scene seems kind of quiet to me. No recent uprisings, wars are winding down. The biggest recent disaster  is a cruise ship foundering and lying on its side in shallow water. Metaphorically, that image seems appropriate for this moment, a bloated luxury mega-machine, undone by the hubris of its captain, lying helplessly on its side, threatening the environment.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in college is that socio-economic events are propelled through time by a pendulum-like momentum. Newton’s third law–for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction–applies to human behavior as well. As political and economic behavior reaches an extreme in one direction, forces come into play that begin to shift the momentum in the opposite direction. Thus, the conservatism that began in the 80s and seems to be reaching it most extreme at the present time, is a reaction to the extreme liberalism of the 60s and 70s.

When a pendulum is at its apogee, or farthest point from the center, it holds the greatest potential energy for change. Is there a momentary hesitation at the apogee, before the pendulum begins to move in the opposite direction? Because that’s the way the lull in world news strikes me–that we are in a momentary pause before socioeconomic energy begins its inevitable retreat from the extreme, and swings through the middle before, sadly, moving toward extremism in the opposite direction.

Don’t be surprised that the laws of physics–the laws of nature–apply to human behavior as well. Mankind is most definitely a biological creature, despite all the technological advances that often obscure this important fact.

Also take note that the apogee is a moment for optimism, as the potential for change is at its maximum. The nature of socio-economic change is determined by people, by us.

As the great ship lies on its side–an image that I find very compelling–people worry about environmental damage from fuel spilling from its tanks into a pristine and vulnerable eco-system. I am an avid environmentalist myself.  But I have heard learned nature lovers point out that our worry about the planet is in some ways myopic.  The planet will be fine, they point out, as it has immense powers with which to take care of itself.

People, on the other hand, are not so invulnerable. We need to worry about and take care of people. And at this moment of apogee, we have the greatest possible potential to direct our energies toward doing just that.

I trust that evolution will deliver humankind to a sustainable future. Does that mean I have faith in evolution rather than in God?

What if evolution is God?

First, understand that cultural evolution picked up where biological evolution left off. Biological evolution got us to where an infant’s brain is as big as it can be and still allow the baby to pass through the mother’s birth canal. But to bring a human being to full maturity requires a lengthy period of gestation outside the womb while the child grows to adulthood under the care of adult providers.

Because of this lengthy period of child development, human beings were designed to live in communities where people work together to provide nourishment and protection for their offspring and for one another. Accepted norms of behavior are necessary for people to live together with some degree of harmony. We call these norms and customs “cultures.” The organization of early human cultures was directly related to nature and its cycles because it was obvious to people who lived off the land that human survival was directly dependent on what the earth and sky provided.

Fast forward to the 18th century AD. Many diverse cultures have risen and fallen around the world, but until just 200 years ago human communities continued to be organized around the primary activities of agriculture, resource extraction, manual fabrication, and trade.

Industrialization, or machine-based manufacturing, began in the textile industry in the British Isles in the late 1700s, later spreading to Europe and North America and gradually around the world. With industrial technology came an unprecedented creation of wealth, improved standards of living, and dramatic increases in population. All of the above have contributed to the climate change that now threatens our future.

The implications of industrialization to human life have been staggering and continue to unfold today, as this monumental cultural revolution is only now reaching many parts of the world.  Relative to the period of time since human beings first appeared, the industrialized world has existed for a mere blink of an eye.

The most disturbing impact of the industrial/technological revolution is the increasing separation of humankind from the natural world. When America gained its independence from Britain, we were a nation of farmers. Today, the farms themselves have been industrialized, with all the related ominous consequences to our food supply that worry many people.

When I was a kid in suburban America in the 1950s and 60s, I was so removed from the farm that I thought mushrooms were meat. Many people today, both children and adults, think food comes from grocery stores, and give little or no thought to how it got to the store. It’s just not a top issue in many people’s manic, stressful lives. In our culture it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that we are still dependent on the earth and the sky for everything that sustains us.

But just when the developed world is losing its psychic connection to the earth, nature confronts us with evidence that our activities have altered the earth’s protective atmosphere, our cosmic security blanket. We have changed the sky and there will be consequences here on earth. Reminds me of an old commercial from the 70s “it’s not nice to fool (with) Mother Nature.”

Nature’s order and power exert a kind of discipline on us. Rapid technological change allowed mankind to seemingly slip out of nature’s protective grasp, with disastrous consequences. Look at the unprecedented slaughter wrought in the twentieth century, including two world wars and the unleashing of the atomic bomb.  I think of the sinking of the Titanic, the ship that industrialists of the day described as “unsinkable”, as a parable about mankind’s hubris when we think we can supersede nature’s power over us.

What does it mean to trust evolution to deliver us from the mess that we have evolved ourselves into? What drives cultural evolution, which has taken over from biological evolution to allow humans to adapt to environmental changes? Does evolution just happen—nature takes its course? Or do we have a role in directing the course of cultural evolution?

The failure of communism taught us is that centralized decision-making is an ineffective way to allocate resources to meet desired goals.  So yes, we must allow free-markets to operate. Aren’t free markets just a form of economic evolution?

The American experiment with democracy shows that freeing individuals to exercise their wills results in unprecedented creativity. Unleash the human spirit, and the creativity of the human mind seems to know no bounds. Now we must marshal human creativity toward our collective human survival challenge.

To effectively direct human creativity, we must align human value systems with the laws that govern the natural world. I have learned some of these laws while working in my garden. Nature uses or recycles every iota of matter. In an ecosystem, everything works together and must remain in balance. Diversity helps to provide balance and makes for a richer environment.

Can we really trust that natural laws, the creativity of the human spirit, and free market resource allocation can somehow work together to evolve mankind into a sustainable future?

Do you believe in God?

%d bloggers like this: