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?

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.

The spirit within you

February 16, 2012


I forwarded this blog post to my children, suggesting that they cultivate their intuition because it is God within them. By quoting this post in my own blog, I forward this important message to my readers as well. Credit goes to fellow blogger Yogaleigh whose blog is listed in my blogroll as Journey to Higher Consciousness. Enjoy:

When I decided to try yoga in 1986 I was living in Chicago. Although there were a number of studios there wasn’t the plethora that now exists and I quickly realized that the long travel times to many studios would lead to skipping lots of classes. As soon as I decided I wanted to find someplace closer I parked across the alley from my apartment building and when I stepped up on the curb I found myself starting at a sign on the door in front of me: “Hatha Yoga, Tuesdays 6:30 p.m.”

Well, that was close enough! I didn’t know enough about yoga to know that there are different styles (less then than now) or how to distinguish whether one might suit me more than another and it didn’t occur to me to research the teacher (for you young ones, I couldn’t have googled it, most people didn’t even have a computer then and the internet barely existed).  It just felt right and I showed up the next Tuesday and began my love affair with yoga.

The teacher was Bill Hunt, who’d practiced for about a dozen years at the time and taught on the side from another job. He was studying with Goswami Kriyananda (Temple of Kriya Yoga) and became a swami while I studied with him.  I’ve taken other classes—including a then-famous Yoga Journal teacher (my least favorite ever)–and followed various TV teachers like Lilias and picked up many tapes and DVDs. Bill Hunt has remained the best yoga teacher I ever encountered.

I attended his classes faithfully for five years, even twice a week whenever he offered a second class, including through the nine months of teacher training at the Temple of Kriya Yoga (he taught some of that too).  If I hadn’t moved away I’d still be taking his classes. Bill is now the director of Oak Park Yoga in Oak Park, IL.

I feel the universe sent me the perfect teacher at the perfect time and place and it changed my life.  My instinct, when I saw that sign on the door was that I’d found the right class.  If I’d second-guessed myself and searched for more classes or hesitated I might have turned off to yoga or have never started.  When instinct and all the elements come together, magic happens if you pay attention and say yes.

 

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.

Time to Get Real

June 5, 2011

Political dialogue has become an endless repetition of Bill Clinton’s famous quote “that depends on what your definition of “is” is.” Politicians at either end of the spectrum, the ones who tend to dominate media coverage, seem to believe that only their ideology contains the “truth.”

I don’t believe that real Americans are foolish enough to fall for this false dichotomy.

Wikipedia says that “reality is often contrasted with what is imaginary, delusional, in the mind, …what is abstract.” In other words, reality is that which is tangible, as opposed to the intangible.

We describe reality in terms of a multitude of polar opposites such as big or small, pretty or ugly, black or white. But just as no one on our planet actually lives at the North or South Poles, reality is very rarely found in the extremes, but exists somewhere in the middle of the opposites we use to describe existence. In the middle, where we find reality, is where we should be looking for solutions to our problems.

The obsession with polling tends to obscure rather than illuminate what real Americans think. This is because survey questions, often absurdly dumbed down, give respondents a choice of a polar position that they can only choose to agree or disagree with in varying degrees. Polls tell us nothing about people’s preferences when faced with a set of facts in a real situation.

Ideology doesn’t solve problems. Only real, tangible, on-the-ground, practical, pragmatic, nitty-gritty hard work solves problems. Let’s stop arguing about theories and face the facts. It’s time to get real.

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.

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?

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