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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lichtenstein_gun

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?

Love and survival

May 1, 2012

Male deer licking gestating doe

Love and survival: Male deer licks doe giving birth in prehistoric cave art

What really matters after all?

Money is not God. Greed is not good. Neither is the big pile of stuff that you can buy when you have a lot of money, because it gets in the way of what is good. It makes it harder for you to see what is important. It trips you up.

God is the divinity that lives within each individual. Each individual is unique, like a snowflake. Why? Because each person has something to contribute to our collective good.

God is also the natural process that propels life, evolution, what we call nature, the universe. Stuff fell from stars onto earth to make life possible. We are stardust. That makes us one with the universe. This is a fact, not some philosophical belief. It’s science, not religion.

Now here’s one that we hear so often it sounds trite. God is love. It almost embarrasses me to write it. But you know, for a long time, I didn’t understand what those three words meant. Maybe because it was so obvious, right in front of me like the nose on my face. Or maybe because I hadn’t experienced enough true love in my life to understand what love really is.

But turn on your radio. I bet the first song you hear is about love. And the next song. Count how many songs you hear before you hear one that isn’t about love. Longing for love. Getting turned on by a loved one. Being willing to do anything for, give everything to the beloved. Missing a lover who is not near. Thinking about a long lost love. The love between parent and child. The things a spurned lover wants to do when their soul has been crushed by their beloved.

Let me say that again: love is about the soul, the spirit.  And souls are all we really care about, whether we know it or not. We don’t write many songs about our stuff, about how much we care about our granite kitchen counter tops. How many times have you heard a survivor of a natural disaster, someone who has lost all of their material goods, say that they would be okay, because, thank God, their loved ones survived? The material things survivors care about the most are pictures of loved ones or sentimental family items. Hearts are broken when beloved pets, worthless mutts or generic cats, are lost. But people don’t grieve for clothes and furniture bearing impressive designer labels, for useless knickknacks tossed to the winds, or for the swimming pool that Mother Nature ripped out of the ground, having decided it was no longer needed.

Some people do grieve when big old trees are lost. Or when a place of natural beauty is ruined, usually because a bulldozer comes and turns it into one more generic monument to greed and materialism.

I have just come back from seeing prehistoric cave art that was drawn, painted, etched on cave walls in southwest France, some created as long as 25,000 years ago. I am still thinking about what I saw, trying to grasp its meaning.

But that art told me that God is also the struggle for survival, the continuation of the spiraling upward trajectory of life. God is an ever-higher consciousness. God is working collectively, intricately, harmoniously with all that exists in the universe, so that the story of life continues.

Some parts of the storyline play supporting roles for a while, then die out. Neanderthal man is an example.  Countless species of plants and animals did their part to generate a sequence of DNA, then exited stage left. The earth has passed through many geologic stages to create what is here now. Those eras ended, their story recorded in the earth, creating the set for our act in the drama of life.

I think the culture of greed and materialism that arose as a byproduct of industrialization is one of those story lines with a dead end. Money and the stuff it buys is a false god. Striving for our collective survival, trying to love whoever and whatever crosses your path, is the story that will go on. Christians, you have read the New Testament haven’t you? I am pretty sure that is the plot.

If you are young, prepare yourself to audition for a role in the Survival of the Species. Be careful, the Survival of Me is a knock-off, and we all know how that story ends. If you are not so young, regroup, retrain, rethink what you are doing. It ain’t over ’til its over. And we never know when that is going to be.

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. 

How does my garden grow?

February 26, 2012

Mother Nature is a gentle teacher

I have acquired what I think of as wisdom by observing and thinking about nature, including my co-evolution with my garden.

I grow a lot of native grasses and wildflowers from seed. Each year, some plants take over more ground and some recede. I can choose to intervene and change the mix more to my liking, or I can let nature take its course, que sera sera. I have an overall plan for my garden, but within certain boundaries, serendipity plays a big part.

I like it that way. For one thing, it is a lot easier to work with nature than against it. In the end, nature usually seems to win, but not always. For instance, by relentless pulling of  a certain invasive weed, I succeeded after a number of years of ridding my property of that particular intruder. More often, though, I allow desirable plants to expand their turf if they are prospering, and I simply observe the effects as the mix of grasses and wildflowers changes each year, a garden kaleidoscope. But it is totally within my purview to give a favorite an assist, like when I moved some black-eyed susans so the summer phlox could spread its wings.

Plants that make me happy one year because they have spread quickly become a nuisance in following years when they become overgrown and must be divided and moved.

I learn a lot about evolution, and about life, working in my garden. I have learned that evolution is an iterative process, and that it is not possible to reach your goal all at once, but only through a series of small steps. Moreover, fixed goals are hard to reach in an ever-changing environment. Nature can seem to conspire against you, but sometimes in the end, the results are even better than you could have imagined.

Some of the iteration is between my garden and me. I know a little more each year because of what happened the previous year.  I know which plants flourished and floundered, and sometimes I’ve figured out why. I have a better idea how much sun and shade each spot gets at different times of the day and as the seasons proceed, an important factor that is constantly changing as leaves come and go and the trees grow.

I give unknown plants a chance to show their stuff before yanking. I admit that this policy has sometimes had undesirable results, such as colonies of weeds that must be purged. But the prettiest thing blooming in my yard right now is a wild arugula, returned to its natural state from the hybridized plant I grew in my yard last year.

Vibrant and full of promise in May, overgrown and stressed by the August heat, refreshed with late bloomers and a little pruning in the cool of fall, structural and quiet in the winter, a garden is a cyclical thing. It refreshes me to participate in this natural cycle.

And, as with our spiritual selves, nothing degenerates more quickly than a garden that is left untended.


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.

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.


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