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

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.

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…

%d bloggers like this: