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.

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. 

Freedom evolves in Egypt

February 11, 2011

Today is historic. Thirty-two years to the day after the Iranian revolution deposing the Shah, the Egyptian people have successfully overthrown repressive dictator Hosni Mubarak.  The Iranian revolution resulted in the rise of fundamentalist Islam across the Arab world. Could today’s revolution mark the beginning of the end of that Islamic fundamentalism and all that it entails?

Today’s events are a celebration of the power of the individual spirit. The Eqyptians were inspired by the Tunisians, who were in turn inspired by the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit vendor in their country. Contemplate for a moment the unlikelihood that a fruit vendor in Tunisia of all places could change world events.

Have you seen the movie The Social Network? The movie may distort the truth in some ways. But Facebook, the social networking phenomenon that has spread around the world with breathtaking speed, is undoubtedly largely the product of another unlikely world hero, brilliant but socially inept Mark Zuckerberg. Today, the leader of the Eqyptian uprising asked on CNN that Mark Zuckerberg phone him, even as placards to Facebook are raised amidst the celebration in Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Young people may not know that CNN itself is the brainchild of another American innovator and misfit, Ted Turner.)

Older people often voice wonder at where the explosion in technology is leading us, as the world they knew and felt comfortable in disappears before their eyes. But this is the way of the world, and always has been, that for every new thing something old must fall away. Even in our discomfort with the new technologies, the power of these technologies to bring about positive change must be acknowledged and embraced.

Lastly, we are reminded that young people lead revolutions. Just as the young men and women of the 1940s earned the designation “The Greatest Generation” for making the world safe for democracy, so young people today have unprecedented power to bring about positive change in the world. To those who worry about the decline of America, remember that Zuckerberg and Facebook were made in America, the birthplace of political freedom and enduring hotbed of innovation of all kinds.

Going forward though, expect to see American young people collaborating with young people around the world to invent a future that embraces a common good. Today is a powerful example that history is indeed the story of  unfolding human spirit.

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?

A recent Google search of “spiritual evolution quotes” led me to a brilliant mind who spoke specifically about the focal point of this blog, the intersection of spirituality and history. I was led to the words of none other than Albert Einstein. Einstein believed in following his intuition (the spirit moving in the individual), and he understood our interconnectedness with one another and with the universe.

Many people believe that Einstein was an atheist, but this is far from the truth. Rather, he saw the Divine in the order, rationality, and harmony that he found while searching for the underlying principles of the universe. After making his ground-breaking discoveries, including the general theory of relativity, he spent the remaining decades of his life trying to discern what he called “unified field theory, a single law that would encompass all the fundamental forces of nature. Einstein himself had this to say about his unfulfilled quest, which many of his contemporaries considered foolish:

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”

The search for a unified theory continues. I can profess to only the most superficial understanding of  Einstein’s work and of quantum mechanics. No matter (no pun intended!). It is Einstein’s thoughts about society that interest me:

“When considering the actual living conditions of present day civilised humanity from the standpoint of even the most elementary religious commands, one is bound to experience a feeling of deep and painful disappointment at what one sees. For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in the school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.”

Einstein made this statement in 1948, but it seems to me that it describes today’s political and economic scene rather well.

I am repeatedly disheartened when hate- and fear-mongering political dialogue comes from people who cloak themselves in the garb of religiosity, and who apparently believe that we are incapable of rising above greed as a motivating principle to live by.

Einstein had similar sentiments in his day:

“There are pessimists who hold that such a state of affairs is necessarily inherent in human nature; it is those who propound such views that are the enemies of true religion, for they imply thereby that the religious teachings are utopian ideals and are unsuited to afford guidance in human affairs.”

I believe that humans are destined for more, for better than this, and that in time we will learn to support, rather than break down one another. It will not be religious dogma, but the human spirit, harbored within each individual soul, that will take the world to this better place. All in good time…

Apocalypse Now

June 7, 2010

“Apocalypse Now” the cartoon jeers, satirizing the cuts in local government services. If only it were funny. But can we afford to laugh as we are forced to make dramatic cuts in the school budget, even as we fail to educate all of our children? We must drastically reduce library hours, cutting job-hunters off from the computers they need to search for jobs in a stubbornly sluggish economy. If you play tennis in a public park rather than at a country club, who will maintain your tennis court when the Park and Rec budget is cut? When the new budget year starts the first day of sizzling hot July, will the children who rely on public swimming pools to escape the heat be disappointed?

Listening to public radio in my car, I learn that AIDS activists in poor countries are angry that America is reneging on pledges for treatment of people who will die without our help. Americans are angry too, and are throwing tea parties to protest…what? That their taxes are too high, even as governments around the country are unable to provide even the most basic of services?

Forgive me if I seem confused. Because in truth I am not perplexed at all. An economics major in college, I have feared this meltdown for a long time, although I confess that I am stunned at the reality of my wealthy and beloved country faltering in such apparent disarray.

Economics, you see, is all about resource allocation. Where did all of our wealth go? You might start by looking inside the oversized houses located far from workplaces that no longer exist, houses that no one can now afford to heat or cool. Check out the kitchens where families eat their McDonalds take-out on granite countertops amid state-of-the-art appliances. Look in closets and consignment shops and yard sales and even in landfills for the purchases we made when 70% of our country’s annual spending went for consumer goods and services. Purchases of goods and services that were not necessary, and that I knew would be easy to forego when times got tough. But then, where would such belt-tightening leave our economy?

It left us right here, with bridges in our highway system no longer safe due to our failure to fund infrastructure maintenance. With a health care system capable of the greatest medical miracles on earth, yet unable to efficiently deliver basic care to tens of millions of uninsured citizens. With a government no longer able of to govern because its participants are incapable of compromise, the underlying principle on which this country was founded. With an oil well spewing millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the environment, while the people we trusted with our vital natural resources scramble about helplessly.

We have let each other down. We have let the world down, as we have allowed ourselves to squander our resources, exploiting one another in the process. We have even failed to take care of the planet that sustains us. We are indeed the “foolish school of fish on wheels” that James Taylor dubbed us in his elegy for the earth “Gaia.”

I am nonetheless optimistic. Technology has brought us a new world order, one in which the individual is empowered as never before. And some of those individuals, people who seem motivated by a different ethic than the ethic of greed that has for so long been condoned in this country, are creating enterprises that I believe will take us in a new direction.

I see this trend at the Apple computer store, abuzz with customers who paid only $100 for a vast array of resources to help them learn to use their computers, customer-friendly resources hard to imagine coming from any PC vendor. “We want our customers to know how to get the most out of our products,” an Apple trainer said sincerely. I see it in the human services organization Common Ground, started in 1990 by one woman in her twenties, now mobilizing resources worldwide to end homelessness. I see it in the revolutionary use of technology that helped to elect our current president.

It may look like an apocalypse now, but economics calls this a “dislocation.” Like a dislocated joint, this is a painful experience, confirmed by the yelling and screaming of those most fearful of the new day coming.  But from among the ruins, I expect to see new leaders with a new morality arise to mobilize the vast human capital now lying fallow. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways.” May this fulfillment be a world in which we take care of our planet and of one another. Or we will be destined for Apocalypse Anew.

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