Posts Tagged ‘human culture’

SERMON: “Seedlings of the Gods” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

It’s interesting to reflect that it is not only our biology that is shaped by evolution, but also our culture.

By “culture” I mean our language, our technology, our social codes, fashions and religions.  All of it.

I don’t think we generally recognize this.  I think we tend toward a conservative notion that there is a certain way things ought to be in our society — sort of an objective standard — and we ought to just get on with getting there.  The more “conservative” mind assumes that the questions (and therefore the answers to those questions) are limited and simple, the more “liberal” mind has a much higher tolerance for complexity, but still has an underlying belief that we humans are clever enough to figure things out.   In short, we all pretty much think that we (above all other animals) know how to run things.

In that regard, one of the more laughable aspects of our human character is the belief that we should –, with our wisdom and technology — be able to create even the smallest of a functioning ecosystem from scratch.

The scientific reality is that we are now able to assemble life, and will soon be able to “create” it.  The thing is this: that new life (or lives) that we create will then begin to interact with the real world (as it actually exists) and will begin it’s own adaptation as it becomes subject to the laws of natural selection (or will become an agent of the same, displacing other species with which it competes).  In time, a new equilibrium will be established, but no human on earth will have accurately predicted exactly what that will be.

We see the outcome of the sudden introduction of new life into old systems in the myriad exotic species that humans have transported from one ecosystem to another, whether it’s a rat that soon kills a dozen species of birds on a Pacific island, or a plant that takes over a forest unprepared to fight it.

This is what happens in the real world of competition for resources.  The ferocity of this competition is hidden from our view, perhaps, by the ecological balance that we often witness, where thousands of species of plants, animals and insects, in combination with climate, have, after eons, established themselves into a sort of stable order (this is the basis, I think, for much of the passive belief in Creation over Evolution).  But we know from geology and paleontology that such systems have formed over and over again, replacing earlier systems that were wiped away by natural catastrophes large and small.

Societies of humans are no different.  We, too, take our fairly stable American “social ecosystem” for granted, acting as if it has always been so and will always be just as it is, even as it continues to evolve before our eyes.  The utopians among us like to believe that newer, better human societies could be formed best from scratch, guided by this ideological bent or another.  But history has shown the seemingly natural course of every utopian society, and the result is generally a devolution into strife and collapse.

I would venture that there are certain constants in the collective human consciousness that draw us to certain states of living, and that we ignore these at our peril.  Such existential rip currents are the bane of every would-be social engineer.  Economists, it seems, are notorious for basing their predictions on the choices of a mythological “rational actor”.  Unfortunately, none of these “rational actors” seem to actually exist.  And politicians, for all of their demagoguery, are limited in power by the sheer unpredictable force of the masses of the governed.

It’s a funny state of affairs to ponder.  And it’s a state more clear to me, I expect, because I have worked so diligently to engage my own rational brain.  The result has been a new level of clarity about how we humans are partly rational and partly magical in our thinking, and that both of those aspects are our natural birthright.  And to the degree that we rail against one or the other of those two aspects of our selves may be the degree to which we add to our own unhappiness.  For the reality of our situation may be that we need both to be happy.

Now I don’ t take the view that the presence of this duality in our consciousness justifies the idea that “they must be there for a reason for it”.  Such a statement assumes a teleological, purposeful path for evolution.  Of course there is no such thing.  But what our dual nature does tell us is that there is strong evidence that our strange combination of reason and fancy has somehow aided us in our survival as a species.

But, then, one of the most basic aspects of natural selection that many people, I think, fail to appreciate, is that evolution can only work upon the raw material that is already in place (and the range of possible mutations inherent within each living genome).  Therefore, just because we retain a huge dose of magical thinking does not guarantee that it was that magical thinking that brought us through.  (The magical thinking part could just as easily be a side-show that was just never detrimental enough to get us all killed).

More likely, there is something to this imaginative part of our consciousness that has been crucial to our capacity to problem solve, and/or the development of verbal language, and that the rest is, well, extra.  We may never really know.  For now, it is enough to recognize that it is, and that this is the kind of animal we are.  We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, examples of perfection in natural design.  We are, however, examples of success in evolution, which requires only that the beneficial adaptations outnumber the detrimental ones to a certain critical degree.

The human organism exhibits all the complexity, nuance, confusion, mutations and mix of parts that one would expect from millions of years of evolution and natural selection.  Certainly no one sat down and designed us to be this way.  To borrow the creation myth: even the God of the Garden of Eden probably only meant to grow a pretty flower when he planted us.  But once planted, nature could not be kept out of it, and things got a bit out of hand!

Humanity itself feels to me like a sort of multi-cellular organism, pulsing and pushing and pulling against itself and against the limitations of it’s own existence.  And like in the rest of nature, parts of our population expand, rise up, gain education and prosper, even as others seem to be in a race backwards through history.  It’s a maddening thing to try to manage.  But our attempts at social (and self!)management are not entirely futile, for they can and do have effects on the course of human (and our own personal) social evolution.  And so we keep trying.  But as we try, it’s good to recognize that we are as powerless to re-make man according to our wishes as we are to re-make a rainforest from a genetically-engineered seedling and a chemistry set.

t.n.s.r. bob