To change the world, change the stories humans believe.
HomePosts Tagged "Evolution"

Evolution Tag

Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business right here in East Africa.

In the following millennia, it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.

Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens and usually caused immense misery to other animals.

In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in a lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of.

Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea of what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Our ancestors understood origins by extrapolating from their own experiences. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother God and a father God, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.

We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominant hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the King of Kings. In every culture, we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.

Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, and that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.

And, again, if we’re not important, not central, not the apple of God’s eye, what is implied for our theologically based moral codes? The discovery of our true bearings in the Cosmos was resisted for so long and to such a degree that many traces of the debate remain, sometimes with the motives of the geocentrists laid bare.

What do we want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe—which seems truly pointless—but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.

Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign. Its conclusions derive from the interrogation of nature and are not in all cases predesigned to satisfy our wants.

We recognize that even revered religious leaders, the products of their time as we are of ours, may have made mistakes. Religions contradict one another on small matters, such as whether we should put on a hat or take one off on entering a house of worship, or whether we should eat beef and eschew pork or the other way around, all the way to the most central issues, such as whether there are no Gods, one God, or many gods.

If you lived two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.

We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident.

Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunking of our conceits:

  • We’re Johnny-come-latelies
  • We live in the cosmic boondocks
  • We emerged from microbes and muck
  • Apes are our cousins
  • Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control
  • There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere.
  • On top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.

The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course, we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.

Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors:

  • We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang and plumb the fine structure of matter.
  • We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star.
  • We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth.
  • We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects.
  • We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death.
  • We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions.
  • We communicate at the speed of light and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half.
  • We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars.

To our ancestors, there was much in nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, drought and long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of nature.

How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit? There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming swords were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.

There is in this Universe much of what seems to be designed. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—the collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none.

The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a parent to care for us, to forgive us for our errors, and to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

Feeling, in mammals at least, is mainly controlled by lower, primitive, and more ancient parts of the brain. And thinking, by the higher, more recently evolved outer layers. A rudimentary ability to think was superimposed on the pre-existing programmed savage behaviours. This is the evolutionary baggage we carry with us into the schoolyard, into the marriage, into the voting booth, into the lynch mob, and onto the battlefield.

So, what does that tell us about our future? Will it be nothing more than a series of callous conquests – dreary repetitions of our past – with no escape for our children?

I know a story that gives me hope. A tale of a man whom I deem as the greatest conqueror who ever lived. To date, he remains one of, if not the only, powerful leader in world history who tried to conquer by way of morality. He’s the only person that I know of who lived on both extremes of the good-evil spectrum; From blood-thirsty to tranquil. His life’s saga means we can change:

About 2,200 years ago, much of the world was in the grip of absolute rulers. Their armies rampaged across the planet, bringing torture, rape, murder, and mass enslavement wherever they went.

A young man came out of an obscure backwater called Macedonia and, in less than a decade, carved out an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to beyond the Indus river in India. Along the way, Alexander the Great crushed the implacable Persian army.
At about the same time, King Chandragupta conquered all of northern India.

King Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara, assumed the throne after his death. As Bindusara’s own death approached, he intended to bequeath his empire to a favoured heir.

Legend has it that another son, one who had been rejected by Bindusara, was so ruthless in his quest for power that he murdered every one of his 99 half-brothers and in a fiery pit of coal, he burned alive the chosen successor.

Dressed in the finery that only an emperor was entitled to wear, the hated son stood before his dying father and declared contemptuously, “I am your successor now!”

This was Ashoka … and he was just getting started.

In the 2nd century BCE, the Indian emperor Ashoka initiated a reign of terror known for its new heights of sadism and cruelty. When Ashoka’s ministers baulked at his command to cut down all the fruit trees surrounding his palace, Ashoka said, “Fine, we’ll cut off your heads instead.” He did.

His fiendishness knew no bounds.

Ashoka built a magnificent palace for his unsuspecting victims. They did not know until it was too late that deep inside the palace were torture rooms designed to inflict the five most painful ways to die. It came to be known as Ashoka’s Hell.

But that was not Ashoka’s greatest atrocity.

He now set out to complete the conquest of India that his grandfather had begun.

The nation of Kalinga, to the south, knew no peace could be made with such a madman. They courageously stood their ground as Ashoka’s army besieged the city. When they could bear no more, Ashoka sent his troops in for the kill in what was one of the most gruesome wars in all of human history.

As Ashoka surveyed his triumph, there was one vagabond who dared to approach him, saying “Mighty King, you who are so powerful you can take hundreds of thousands of lives at your whim,” bringing forth a toddler’s corpse from under his robes, he presented it to Ashoka, “Show me how powerful you really are. Give back but one life to this dead child.”

Who was this fearless beggar who dared to confront the vile Ashoka with his crimes? His exact identity is lost to us, but we do know that he was a disciple of Buddha, then a little-known philosopher who had lived almost 200 years before. Buddha preached nonviolence, awareness, and compassion. His followers renounced wealth to wander the earth spreading Buddha’s teachings by their example. This monk was one of them. And with his courage and wisdom, he found the heart in a heartless man.

Ashoka was never the same again.

He erected a pillar, one of many, on the site of his greatest crime. Engraved on it was one of the first edicts of Ashoka: “All are my children. I desire for my own children their welfare and happiness, and this I desire for all.”

It wasn’t that Ashoka was violating the laws of kin selection – the evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a fatal cost to other distantly-related species’ lives – It was that his definition of who was kin to him had expanded to include everyone.

Ashoka would govern India for another 30 years, and he used that time to:

  • Build schools, universities, hospitals, and even hospices.
  • He introduced the education of women and saw no reason why they could not be ordained as monks.
  • He banned the rituals of animal sacrifice and hunting for sport.
  • He established veterinary hospitals throughout India, and he counselled his citizens to be kind to animals.
  • Ashoka saw to it that wells were dug to bring water to the towns and villages.
  • He planted trees and built shelters along the roads of India so that the traveller would always feel welcome and animals would have the mercy of shade.
  • Ashoka signed peace treaties with the small neighbouring countries that had once trembled at the mention of his name.
  • He instituted free health care for all and made sure that the medicines of the time were available to everyone.
  • He decreed that all religions be honoured equally.
  • He ordered a judicial review of those wrongfully imprisoned or harshly treated.
  • Ashoka sent Buddhist emissaries to the Middle East to teach, compassion, mercy, humility, and the love of peace; transforming Buddhism from a small philosophical sect into a global religion.

The temples and palaces of Ashoka’s reign, and most of the pillars he erected throughout India, were destroyed by generations of religious fanatics, outraged by what they considered to be his godlessness. But despite their best efforts, his legacy lives on:

  • Buddhism became one of the world’s most influential religious philosophies.
  • Ashoka’s edicts were carved in stone in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, a couple of hundred years before his birth.
This is one of the few temples of Ashoka that survived the vandals, a cave in the hills of Barabar in India. It’s famous for its echo. Inside the temple, the sound waves of your voice ricochet off the walls until they’re completely absorbed by the surfaces of objects, and there’s nothing left at all.

But Ashoka’s dream is different. Its echo grows louder and louder with time.

Who are we? You tell me.