Posts Tagged ‘nature’

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Accidentally Right” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

The first sermon I ever gave on Evolution had in its closing statement the line “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  At first blush that can seem a bit grandiloquent, but it is actually a reliably true statement.  Before Darwin (used in the inclusive sense of the important ideas that he famously made widely known) we were guessing at how life had become so varied and strange.  Before Darwin, even our scientists turned (with understandable consistency) to metaphysical explanations for natural phenomenon.  After Darwin, we had a means of seeing life as it really exists.

The reason we still hold Darwin in such high esteem (and the reason that creationists revile him so completely) is that his ideas turned out to be grounded in testable knowledge, and the scientific work that was able to follow and build upon his ideas has turned out to confirm the essential “rightness” of his theory of natural selection.  The same cannot be said for the medieval alchemists, the medical theories of the ancient Greeks, nor, I should say, the creation myths of any ancient religion (at least when taken literally).

Like the biologists that were (and are still) able to begin their research from the solid foundation of Darwin’s theories, I have found that same knowledge consistently helpful in making sense of my own experience of life.

For it turns out that there is, after all, a certain “harmony” to life.  From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense, as every process that exists tends, over time, to create a sort of balance between the forces that are in competition for space and resources.  Resources are a part of that balance, as are a myriad other factors from climate to geology to storms on the sun.  Though there continues a constant cycle of expansion and extinction of populations, both large and microscopic, and though the earth has experienced several global, mass extinction events, life itself will inevitably settle into some semblance of stability.

We understand the forces that create weather on our planet, but still find it incredibly challenging to predict it!

Stability is, of course, nothing but an impression — a perception that is available only to us humans (and other cognitively complex animals) when we observe the world we live in.  The sun rises, the sun sets.  December is cold (here in New Mexico, anyway), and June is hot.  The rains come on the fourth of July, and apples and chile are harvested in the fall.  But these are simplistic perceptual shorthand for the cumulative effect of uncountable ongoing processes both vast and microscopic: patterns of weather that are shaped by the rotation of the planet, fed by the heat of the sun that pumps solar energy into the vast ocean currents, and which then determines whether we’ll have floods or drought.

To the mystically-minded, the weather is an act of God.  (It might as well be for all the power we have to “change” it).

The fact is that life on earth (including our own lives) persist because we — like all life — are adaptable and able to change (either through genetic mutation through sexual reproduction or, in the case of humans, through the use of technology to alter our living environments and landscape).

I read an article once stating that most economists seemed to accept evolution from the neck down, and therefore failed to take human irrationality into account in their predictions of the behavior of markets.  I think most of us do this:  we fail to see that the “harmony” that we observe on the planet is really just a sort of a snapshot of a moment in time —  a stop-motion glimpse of the ever-renewing natural product of the living processes that create stasis only in the balance between competing forces.

Because we humans have the ability to observe and analyze our world, we frequently come to believe that our brains have somehow found a way to transcend their biology — that they are not subject to these natural forces.  They haven’t, and they aren’t.

There are many that hold that such a materialistic view of human nature degrades us to the level of animals (as if that is, a priori, a bad thing).  Nevertheless, I hold just such a view of my own (and others) behavior.  And I go further in believing that holding a falsely elevated view of ourselves is the root of many of our discontents.

Going into any situation with the conviction that our brains are the perfected product of a divine creative intelligence can be a set up for disaster.  How can we (and our poor brains) but fail to live up to that sort of performance expectation?

For if I’m honest with myself (which I always — in the end, anyway — want to be), I am wrong about something almost all of the time.  And when I’m right, I am right — as it were — by accident.

How can it be that I have survived this long (with as many loving, business and social relationships as I have) being so wrong?  Well, because the social relationships that we have — that are so essential to our own survival — are no different than the profligate and messy nature that surrounds us.

Let me explain my meaning:  Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we understand that being right all the time is not at all essential to the survival of a species — being right just a bit more than the other poor son of a bitch is.  Mostly our “false positives” are fear-based (which is another way of describing “survival” or “fight or flight” responses).  What this comes down to is that it is far better for us to be wrong and run away a hundred times than to be wrong and not run away the one time we were right!

When I stop and look at the first impressions I get — the initial reactions my monkey-mind comes up with — they mostly get things wrong.  Now sometimes they can be just a bit “off”, but other times they can attribute the absolute opposite meaning to something someone has just said to me (it is a standard joke of mine that a woman can turn anything a mans says to her into an insult, and a man can turn anything a woman says to him into a compliment).  If you examine your own thoughts, I’m certain you won’t have to look very far to find your own examples (if you don’t, it likely means you’ve got an added layer of self-delusion in your particular mix — also a very standard bit of human perceptual bias).

It’s humbling for me to realize that even when I do the right thing with another, my actions are motivated by my perception of a situation that forms the basis a sort of predictive mental picture of what outcome my actions will produce.  This is how our brains work: they constantly make “snap” decisions and “predict” the short-term future, and then give us our marching orders (for more on this, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).  It is only afterwards — when things have gone wrong or not turned out as we imagined — that we have to do the forensic work to understand the “why” of the failure.  But I am finding that even when things turn out right, I was wrong in almost every way imaginable about the reasons that the other person went along with my idea!

This is startling to realize.  It makes me wonder how in the world we ever make satisfying connections with each other when we are seeing things so differently!  But of course we do find satisfying connections, so clearly getting things perfectly “right” is not the most essential component of our social relations.

We humans are wired by our evolutionary past to seek out relationships with each other.  Therefore we are motivated to make the allowances for the errors in our perception and communication with each other.  The greater the desire for connection, the wider the target we present to the arrows of Eros (in the case of romantic attraction): the lesser the desire, the harder we make it for another to “get it right”.

So what’s to be done about this?  Our brains are able to take in information and reach conclusions about hundreds of situations each day with incredible speed.  This processing takes place in a mid-level of our brain just below the more recently-evolved frontal lobes (the seat of our reason).  This mid-part of the brain is the part that makes most of our quick decisions and only afterwards sends a memo to the conscious, analytical mind (more as a sort of courtesy, to let it know what the body is already doing based on the snap decision it just made).  As Malcolm Gladwell points out, in many ways the conscious, analytical “we” are the last to know what our deeper mind and body are up to.  To expect perfect accuracy from such a system is pointless.  We operate, by nature, on a sort of two-stage system of cognition, and it is the second step of that process (the rational, analytical part) that we tend to place our confidence is as the be-all and end-all of the evolved animal brain.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the frontal lobes.  I like that I can analyze my actions and (after some years of practice) actually observe my middle-brain in action.  This does not, of course, liberate me from that mid-brain (and the emotional roller coaster ride it sends my body on at times).  But it does allow me to put just that tiny bit of distance between my instant reactions and the actions of my body or voice.

I, like many others, have long carried a secret belief that I could be just that much closer to perfect in my thoughts and actions than the next guy.  And though we like to talk about the problem of “perfectionism” we always do it in a way that is really aimed to get the spotlight off our behavior as quickly as possible so that we can get back to making ourselves “better”.  This makes sense: our fears and our instincts are what have kept us alive for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Do you think that a few centuries of social progress and civilization are going to make all of those instincts go away?

Now I have to say that our brains are good at certain kinds of prediction: I often know when someone is about to cut me off in traffic, or not stop at a red light.  In such cases my predictive brain is responding to cues and signals of a kind that would also help me stalk my neolithic prey.  But when I take that next step and try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the jerk driver I want to flip off, I can be pretty certain I have no friggin’ clue as to what that other individual’s actual thoughts or motivations were.

How can I?  Human behavior and thought is as complicated as the forces that combine to make weather, and I can’t predict that very well either.

The reality we find ourselves in is a complicated one without potential for actual resolution: we are alive because we are fearful animals, but that fear can actually interfere with our essential social relationships with our fellow humans.  In the end, the best we can truly aim for is the same sort of harmony that exists amidst the struggle for life in nature: a perception of stasis, a modicum of predictability and a dash of temporary permanence.  All of which are only imaginative approximations that allow our predictive brains to plan the next step or the next words we speak.  Even if they are only accidentally right!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Dislocation of the Self” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Snake in the Garden” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This week there was a serpent in my evolutionary Garden of Eden.

I caught part of a PBS program that documents a bunch of scientists being let loose to dissect some of the largest animals in nature (a whale, a lion and some rather huge pythons, for example).  It’s a tough program to watch (a high “ick” factor for me), and yet it is a fascinating and unusual opportunity to learn about these animals’ (as well as our own) biology.

At a point in the program I was watching, they showed the way in which the windpipe in the python was configured in such a way as to extend out the front of the mouth while the animal was swallowing another creature (such as a gazelle or an alligator), but then snugged up against the back side of the nostrils on the front of it’s skull when the animal was swallowed and the mouth was closed (imagine that your windpipe could extend all the way out to your lips along the top of your tongue, but when you closed your mouth it would angle up to form a seal against the back opening of your nostrils).  How the hell — I wondered — did that come to be?

In that moment I was seized with a troubling feeling that suddenly made me see evolution the way so many of my fellow humans see it: challenging to comprehend.  Improbable, even.  An uncomfortable feeling lingered with me for days.

Snakes alive! (From a street painting by Bob Diven)

It’s scary to allow oneself to contemplate such unsettling ideas, but perhaps it is the only way to, well, know anything.  The high school students I worked with last semester had as their “essential question” the following: “Can you know a truth without challenging it first?”.  Though awkwardly worded, I think there is something worthy in that idea.  And so I challenged my own evolutionary “truth”.  (This is sort of recurring practice of mine: I let my mind “go there” — in this case allowing it to drift freely to a world in which some sort of other force — perhaps even intelligent — made that snake thus).

The trigger for my discomfort about that damn snake has as its genesis, I think, the sort of social dualism we have built up around science and religion.  Science states that if something is not yet explained or understood, it is likely that further investigation (or the development of new technologies) will, eventually, allow us to understand it.  Religion says that any thing that science cannot explain fully must (MUST!) be evidence of the mystery that is somehow supposed to prove the existence of God.  As has been pointed out many times, the latter is what is known as an argument from ignorance.  It’s default-style construct is: I don’t know how this happened, therefore God is behind it.

And so I allowed myself to question how the process of evolution and natural selection could have possibly created the “break” between the nostrils and windpipe of that damn snake.  I could not visualize or imagine just how such an anatomical oddity could have come to be (though I’m well aware that the animal world is nothing but a catalog of anatomical absurdities — most of which I can comprehend).  But the further I let myself go toward the idea of an intelligent god designing the snake, the deeper into the quicksand of absurdity I sank.

Truly — why would an all powerful God “design” such kluged-up machinery as that snake’s anatomy?  Almost everything about animal adaptation reflects not efficiency of design, but sheer, brute adaptability (whose practical functionality then mimics a sort of “design”).  Nature does not cry out perfection.  Not in the slightest.  What it screams from every detail is the power of the living impulse that makes every living thing make the most of whatever genetic inheritance it was blessed (or cursed) with.

And we must also consider this: we only see the “experiments” that worked — the results of accumulated advantageous traits.  The others simply do not survive.

And so whatever my doubts (based purely in my own ignorance of a particular process of evolution in the case of the snake), there turns out to be no answer at all in the hollow intellectual shell that is creationism.

What I’ve ended up learning through my week or two of discomfort and doubt is this: we may, indeed, never know the exact how and why of every detail of evolution (it’s pretty certain we will never know the “all” of anything), but no matter how massive our ignorance of nature may be, it can never match the sometimes willful ignorance of those that preach creationism.

The resort to an intelligent designer is often the default knee-jerk response to anything we cannot (yet) explain in nature.  But the introduction of the possibility of such a divine agent is, fundamentally, a non-answer.  Where is the explanation for why this intelligent designer used natural means at all for any of this?  Why an exploding, expanding universe over billions of years so that one tribal shaman could be crucified by an occupying Roman authority and thereby usher in a couple thousand years of human religious enlightenment before God the Father intervenes and — in the final act — makes earth the way He intended it to be in the first place?  Why have animals breath and eat and poop and reproduce at all?  Why give humans earthly bodies when their heavenly bodies are clearly ready to be assigned?  Why put vestigial hip bones in a whale and in the snake whose progenitor — one can assume — troubled Adam and Eve in the Garden?  (A snake that might have been capable of breathing out of a tube in its mouth while swallowing a large animal for supper)!

The notion of God, then, is a tool — an effective trick to spare us from thinking about the unfathomable that surrounds us.  When it comes to explaining the world around us (or the odd anatomy of a python) God is not the answer: it is the decision to not ask the uncomfortable question.

t.n.s.r. bob

(To see the python anatomy I saw, visit PBS on-line.  The breathing apparatus appears at about 31 minutes into the program.  http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants/)

SERMON: “The Real Story of Creation” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

There is one, huge, honking reason why we humans have trouble with the idea of evolution, and it is a reason that I think we give scant attention to: it is the fact that we exist.  Because we exist and — more importantly — are conscious of our existence, we can’t help but examine ourselves, find ourselves wonderful, and think that somehow our wonderful existence must — on some level at least — have been the point of everything that has come before us.  We are the reason for, well, life.  “Clearly” we think, “the universe had us in mind from the very start?”

"Why" the reverend asks, "should it make us feel less 'special' to have evolved from earlier life forms?"

This sounds silly and overblown, but is it really?  Don’t we start any consideration of our origins with the premise that we must find a system of “creation” that would clearly lead up to us?  In other words, the process of evolution must be as complicated as we see ourselves to be, which, under the influence of our natural solipsism, means there has to be an intelligence behind it all that is at least as clever as we are (but only more so).  And suddenly, we have replaced the idea of “life” having had us in mind from the start with the idea of The God of the Universe (who, apparently, had nothing better to do with 13.75 billions years of his eternal existence, and decided to run a grand chemical experiment to see if he could turn mass and energy into living hominins who would, occasionally, tell him how great he was).

This is not, I’m afraid, an understatement of the self-centeredness of our species, nor of the absurdity of the proposition of our own divine creation.  The truth is that we can only hold such irrational ideas because we are a natural storytelling (and believing) bunch of hairless apes, and there remains much mutual support for such beliefs among us profoundly-social primates.

But the problem is this: we have built back from the end of the story, assuming that the story began as a tale with us as the ending.  Even more fundamentally, we assume there was a story in the first place.  There wasn’t.  There was (and is, if you want to be absolutely clear about it) only nature.

By nature I mean purely natural forces, and the biological, geologic and meteorological products of those forces.  For there wasn’t even “nature” (at least in the sense that we understand it today) 5 billion years ago.  Only the cosmic beginnings of what would coalesce into our planet.

Seriously.  We now know this.

Our planet formed from dust and debris and matter and gravity and atoms and elements born in other exploding stars (that “made” the stuff our planet is made from).  This is how all of the planets and stars were formed — each of them “local” events (when compared to the vastness of the expanding universe).  And, after untold millions of years of “forming”, the mix of solid crust, liquid water (and the chemical composition of that water), the fact that we had a solid core to produce a magnetic field to hold our atmosphere in place against the forces of solar winds, and time (lots and lots of time — about a billion years after the earth “formed”), something began to stir.  Or maybe not even stir.  In the beginning it was simple photosynthetic bacteria that began to occupy the earth.

And for the next 2 billion years that was it.  That was the only life on the planet.  For 2…billion…years.  What kind of creation story is that?  What kind of intelligence is behind that?  There is the popular (perhaps apocryphal) quote that says “If there is a God, he must be inordinately fond of beetles” (having created hundreds of thousands of species of them).  But perhaps we should change that to God being “Really, really fond of simple photosynthetic bacteria”.

Here’s the rundown of the history of the evolution of life on earth as laid out by Jerry A. Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”:

“If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.  The golden age of Greece, about 500 BC, would occur just thirty seconds before midnight.”

Most creationists either do not know the evidence for all of this, or are actively resisting it.  I expect more of the latter than the former, for even the ignorance is fed, at some level, by an innate resistance to the notion that we aren’t special in the way we prefer to imagine.

But of course we are special, and by any measurement pretty damn amazing results of a non-random process of selecting random mutations in living, reproducing species.  But we have to be clear that this is what happened.  All it takes, it turns out, for evolution to occur is the presence of DNA that is exchanged and re-combined through (often sexual) reproduction.

Mutations in DNA happen all the time, all over the genome.  But no-one is deciding what mutations will occur.  This is truly a random process — there is no predicting when and where it will happen, nor what the result will be.  Mutations are often the result of biological “copying errors” (take that, perfection of design).  But whatever the cause, those mutations are then expressed in the developing individual, and, once expressed, have entered into the race for survival, living, reproducing, competing and dying on the stage of life where natural selection exerts its unforgiving force on every living thing.

Yet despite what every creationist seems to believe, natural selection is not an intelligence (though it creates an outcome that mimics an intelligence).  It is simply describes the process whereby the reality of climate, food supply, competition for resources, competition for mates, and an animal’s innate suitability for a specific niche in the world place that animal under selective pressure.  Those that are better at surviving tend to survive and pass on their particular set of mutations.  Those that aren’t, don’t.  But conditions are always changing, so today’s winner will not always be the winner.  Dinosaurs were winners for 160 million years, but then they lost.  Big time.  Right now, we’re the winners.  Right now.

Once you take the time to understand what evolution is, and what it is not, the arguments against it are shown to be what they actually are: nothing.  I mean it — there are no valid arguments against evolution.  There are only dodges based in fear, ignorance and credulity (because of the things we want to believe about ourselves).

The reality is that there was never any plan or system in place.  Everything that we see around us is the eventual balance of forces that tends to come about over time.  Earth settled into its shape because of the materials it is made of, which set the levels of gravity where they are.  The dominant cosmic lement of carbon became the building block of all biological life.  Our bodies took the shape they did because of the mix of air we evolved in, and the gravity that gives us weight.  Our eyes evolved to work well in the kind of light we experience, our guts to the kind of food we can eat.

We are constantly taking in nutrients, feeding the bacteria that still makes up half of our cellular weight.  We carry in our DNA huge collections of genes that have been switched-off by random mutations (left in the “off” position by the selective pressures of natural selection).  In many ways, our complex and inspiring bodies are nothing more than the result of a survival “arms race” (as Dawkins put it) that began with the first bacteria competing for a place in the sun.

And DNA, it turns out, builds up entire bodies by completely local actions.  There is no blueprint, but each gene and protein does it’s own little thing and, before long, voila, there is a new living being.

How can this be?  It can be because we evolved from the simplest of life forms that gradually grew more complex (even incorporating other organisms, and turning them to our own use).  Every step of our evolution was built upon the life form we were before every mutation.  Nothing about us ever simply came into being out of “nothing” (that is, ironically, the creationist view of what God is supposed to have done).  We did not go to sleep one night as a bacteria and awake the next morning a fish, or dream our fishy dreams to awake as a primitive ape.  Evolution posits no such thing.  However, the inescapable evidence of our DNA shows the “indelible stamp of our origin” (Darwin’s famous words) — it is a record of the many different animals we were.  There is no other plausible explanation for this than that which evolution supplies.

This drives creationists crazy: it simply cannot be — it sounds too improbable and impossible.  There has to be a plan.

Why?  Who says so?  Who can say to reality “You cannot be thus” or “You must be this”?  No one has that kind of power.  Not you, not me, not the scientist (for this is the implication — that scientists are simply making this stuff up to disprove the God they hate so much).  The scientist reports what is true, what is actual, what is declared by the evidence.  And the evidence tells us that we evolved from bacteria — every one of us representing that unbroken chain of life back to the very beginning.

As Jerry Coyne puts it in “Why Evolution is True” (reviewed this week): “The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”

We humans are a rather, um, late arrival on the scene of life.

Inevitable, yes.  Designed?  No.

But how could an entire human body evolve from a single cell?  As has been pointed out by another: you did it yourself in nine months.

No wonder Darwin said “There is grandeur in this view of life”.  For there is.  But in order to find it, we have to first let go of the diminished, narrow, ignorant view of life as having been created by a divine intelligence.  Then, and only then, will we see, face to face, the true story of our creation.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “How God Makes Nature Cruel” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

A friend asked me a question — an interesting thought experiment: If God were to make a 30-second announcement to all of humanity at once, what would he (or she) say?

The future-predicting part of my brain had already prepared a response to what I thought my friend’s question was going to be (if God did such a thing, how would I — as an atheist — feel about it?  My answer: pissed).  So at first I wasn’t certain I would have a decent answer question he actually asked.  But then it came to me.

I thought that God would say to us all: “Every one of you evolved from earlier life forms that were created through completely natural processes.  So relax.  There are lots of other life forms out there in the universe, but you’ll never meet them.  Be nice to each other.”

Today I’m thinking about my two reactions, both to the anticipated question and the actual one.  I’ll talk about the “pissed” response first.

Despite what most believers might expect, I wasn’t angry that God existed.  As one who puts his confidence in evidence, were there to be actual evidence of the existence of God, I would naturally bow to the obvious.  (I’d want to be sure, however, that there was actual, testable evidence, and not merely a mass hallucination!).  No — I wouldn’t be angry that God actually existed: I would be angry at God for being such a bastard son of a bitch.

Why?  Because if God were to say what I suggested he say to his creation, he would be acknowledging that every shred of evidence that we’ve found on this planet was, in fact, correct (and that you religious fundamentalists could stop beating up on the poor scientists, thank you very much!).  That would mean that God was, in truth, a distant commentator (of a deistic sort) who perhaps touched off the big bang and let the rest just happen according to physical laws.

Or perhaps not even that, for the questions inevitably multiply: was God, then, created by those natural forces?  Did he design the natural forces themselves?  If so, could anything so created really be called a natural force?  Which brings us back to the uncomfortable fact that God had turned out to be, essentially, an evil trickster sort of god (with a lower-case “g”).

As soon as one inserts the actions of a supervisory intelligence into nature, you suddenly have to confront the question of intention and, hence, morality and ethics.  So, when you bring God to a nature fight, that is when nature becomes cruel, wasteful and just plain mean.  Without God, all you have are blind, mindless, unintentional natural forces that do the “picking and choosing” that are the process we call natural selection.  And natural selection operates without thought or intention, which means it is also without malice or cruelty.  Evolution, because (as a theory) it is essentially a description of the process by which species adapt into more or less successful creatures (through the non-random selection of random mutations — as Richard Dawkins might say it) it does not play favorites the way an individual with a mind would.

Okay.  so let’s look at the alternative view (the one that is, essentially, put forth by young earth creationists), that God planted the evidence of evolution (all those pesky fossils) and deep geologic time to test our faith.  In essence, he made sure that there was no direct evidence of his existence, and set humanity loose on a life-or-death scavenger hunt for clues that he cleverly decided to hide so deeply that no-one (or, at the least, only a chosen few) would ever find.  And that even those sparse clues would be so vague and ambiguous as to be really, really tough to have faith in, even for the most faithful.

That’s the kind of God I could be really, really pissed at.  That is the son-of-a-bitch God that would fit the model of the spoiled kid that thinks the servants in his rich parents household are his playthings and not equal human beings.

Am I being unfair to God?  No.   Not really.  And I find that I have accidentally come upon another fundamental problem with the whole idea of God, and it is a paradox.

We believe that God is good, and the source of all that is good (and, therefore, the creator of the universal standard of human morality).  We blame the Devil for all of the cruelty and evil in the world (the result of humanity’s famous fall from grace in the Garden of Eden).  And so we modern humans are left to struggle upon the earthly venue for the heavenly battle between these two unequal (and yet somehow “allowed” to be nearly equal in this “world”) forces.

The paradox is this:  it is the introduction of the idea of God itself that stains all of creation with the stamp of good or evil.  It makes a moral problem out of the parasite that hijacks the brain of its victims so that its hatching young can eat the poor victim from the inside out, or the bleating of the young gazelle as it is torn apart by hyenas, or the disfigurement of an innocent human infant from a genetic mutation that lead to a birth defect.

Because of God we humans are called upon to make declarations about the morality of essentially amoral, natural events.

We humans are the moral animals, and our morality is a byproduct of our social natures that are, themselves, an evolved trait that we share with many other primates and mammals (think of whales and dolphins).  We understand intention because we are intentional animals, with large brains that have several layers of function piled by evolution on top of our (more ancient) instinctive and reflexive brains.  We are able to critique our own behavior and, therefore, have a set of semi-flexible standards for that which is the behavior that we tolerate, welcome or condemn in others.

The problem is that we project our own natural intentionality into a universe that has no idea what we’re on about.  A universe, in fact, that has no idea at all.  A universe that is open and vast and completely empty of any sort of God we can imagine.

Or at least it better be, or that poor God is going to have some answering to do for every act of cruelty that will end up being charged to his (or her, or its) account.

And this is why seeing nature for what it is proves to be better than the religious/mystical view that many of us grew up with.  It turns out that it is God, in fact, that makes nature cruel and capricious.  Evolution lets the world be what it is: natural.  Which, in turn, frees up a good part of the contents of our brain case to deal with the very real ins and outs of our social interactions with our fellow animals, where intention and morality actually do exist.

Nature is not cruel.  It cannot be: it has no mind or heart with which to form any intention at all, whether it be good or evil.  Only we higher life forms, and the Gods like us that we imagine, can do that.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Japan’s Killer Quake” NOVA/PBS

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I watched this program when it first aired, and it was everything I’ve come to expect from NOVA and more.  It ran in two parts, with an addendum made up of more personal stories from the survivors.

There were several things that struck me in this show.  One was amateur video of a phenomenon geologists have described, but that I’d never seen: liquified soils squirting up from fissures in pavement.  It is an amazing thing to see, and not a little disquieting.  The other was the animated timeline map showing the location of all of the earthquakes and aftershocks that made up the totality of this event.  They appear as red dots along a series of fault lines over a period of two months.  It is a stunning overview of an earthquake event the likes of which I had not seen before.  It is also a testament to the forces of geology that so many are willing to dismiss as “acts of God”.

The program can be viewed on-line.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

 

SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Bill McKibben calls “The World Without Us” “…one of the grandest thought experiments of our time…”.  Take the world as we know it — all of our technology, our structures, our fabrics and copper pipes and fired brick — and leave it all alone to the ravages of nature.  What would happen?  And how soon would it happen?

A lot of what we’ve built would crumble pretty damn soon, according to author Alan Weisman.  It turns out that just about everything about the infrastructure of our modern life is only kept spinning and standing through an astounding amount of effort that most of us (myself included) can comprehend only with the aid of a book like this one.  I had no idea the amount of electricity and pumping it takes to keep the New York subway system from flooding in a matter of hours.  I didn’t know that without workers to blow out the debris that can accumulate in the expansion joints of major bridges the power of heat expansion and contraction from subsequent cooling would shatter their massive pre-stressed, reinforced concrete spans in a very short time.

But not everything of us would vanish so quickly.  We have labored hard to bring to the surface of our planet vast quantities of heavy metals that will take a very, very long time to migrate back underground.  Our plastics and polymers will linger for millennia until bacteria finally evolve to eat them, or until they are driven underground by the forces of geology and melted into nothingness.  The animal kingdom, if they take notice at all, will breath a sigh of relief and rapidly re-occupy abandoned urban landscapes.

The most satisfying (and compelling) parts of this book are the descriptions of just how the things most familiar to us will come apart.  In this the author is clearly aided by talking to people who would know: the very engineers and scientists responsible for the creation and maintenance of these things.  But there isn’t enough of that to fill an entire book, so the author takes us on side trips into the ecological history of our human presence on the planet.  In this he takes a definite view which will be distasteful to those who think of the earth as our god-given garden to exploit.  (Weisman even gives a few pages to describing one group that endorses the voluntary self-extinction of our species — an intriguing but, I think, flawed exercise in self-loathing and mis-placed hyper-morality).

Aside from the terribly sobering reality of just how powerful an effect a single living species has had on their home turf, I was also struck with a certain admiration for both the power of nature to return every molecule back into the materials box and the human knack for engineering ways to stave off that eventuality and make our pipes not rust and our houses not fall down around us (at least while we’re still living in them).

This book is such a fine collection of facts and perspective, that I can’t help but recommend it.  It’s also a smooth read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “The Nagging Difference” by the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

It occurred to me this morning that we live with a dramatic incongruity so evident and glaring that I, at least, seem to have paid it scant attention when — or if — it had ever crossed my mind before.  This particular incongruity feeds, I believe, a great deal of the doubt around the veracity of Theory of Evolution.  Now the evidence is clear and overwhelming that we humans evolved from earlier forms of life, and that we share varying shares of our ancestry with every other creature on the planet.  However, the dramatic incongruity I refer to is the (apparent) reality that we humans are so much more highly evolved than just about any of the other animals.

Now, I say “more highly evolved” in a qualified way: for it could be argued that we are not that much more highly evolved than some other primates, whales and the like.  The vital difference may be that we have beaten out other animals in a particular niche in our evolution, the niche that led to our capacity for verbal language and technology.  Add to these the other advantages we posses: opposable thumbs, walking upright and large brains, and it could be said that we represent — in truth — more a suite of “advanced” adaptations than a single potent differentiating quality.

That being said (and my terms being properly qualified), it remains that the differences between the way that we humans and our closest primate cousins live our lives is startling.

No wonder we think we are touched by the finger of a designing god!  For how could a pre-scientific human mind even attempt to explain the bald unfairness of it all?  What did we humans do to deserve all the good stuff?  And what did the poor animals do to not deserve it (think of the snake in the Garden of Eden). Even today, living as we do in an age of (true) scientific exploration and a (generally) rational examination of actual evidence, the way that Evolution is most commonly understood by those that have heard about it in school makes it even more incredible to accept that such a vaguely defined process could make humans out of fish.

To accept the validity of Evolution requires — at the minimum — both a working knowledge of how the process works and a grasp of what the theory actually states.  And, frankly, most people don’t have a working knowledge of it.  (Those of us that do are in a definite minority — somewhere in the family tree of arcane geekdom).

Forget, for a moment, the disparity between the fortunes of other members of our own species (which are enough to make about anyone question any sense of fairness in the universe): It is the incongruous leap from a chimp using a stick to fish termites out of an old log to a human being strapping on a helmet, jumping on a fast motorcycle and zipping along a smooth freeway while talking to another human miles away via a signal bounced off a satellite that is the more disturbing example of nature’s whimsy.

For as much as we are both fascinated and troubled by the spooky similarities between our own and other animals behavior, I think it is this cultural/technological chasm that separates us from other primates that begs for a justification.

Choosing to believe that “God made it so” is terribly convenient, and can effectively kick that existential can down the road for a bit (or up into heaven, as far as that goes), but it doesn’t really illuminate anything or answer the dilemma in a satisfying way.

For the social/ethical primate in us wants to ask: Why us?  Why not whales, for crying out loud, that began life in the ocean, evolved for life on land and then managed to evolve their way right on back into the ocean, from whence they cast curious but knowing eyes upon us hairless bipeds?  (Did they know something we didn’t???)

Then there is the sense that there is all of this beauty, wonder and abundance around us that only we humans are capable of appreciating.  So naturally we wonder how there can be such a profligate nature existing (it would seem) just for us…unless it was created just for us!

Again, such a leap of imagination makes the heart skip and the eyes widen, but it doesn’t really answer anything.

For we make a classic human-centric assumption in that leap: because we are intentional, we assume that nature is as well, and that Evolution is an intelligent process (and therefore personal, capable of making value judgments as it works — as if chocolate exists because nature knew we would really really enjoy eating it and, of course, we deserved to have a treat!).

In the reality of Evolution, it is much more likely that we humans have learned to like the things that we are able to eat (and that don’t kill us or make us puke) and have, over time, linked those flavors and textures to pleasure in an ever-reinforcing cycle.   (Think about this on a smaller scale: who every loved the taste of beer right off the bat)?  It is like the story Christopher Hitchens tells of his childhood Sunday School teacher who pronounced that Science has shown us that green is the most pleasing color to our eyes, and isn’t it lovely, then, that God made so much in nature green for our pleasure (and ease upon the eyes).  The young Hitchens understood immediately that it was the other way around: our eyes are adapted to green because we evolved on a green planet, and those of our ancestors that had trouble spotting dangerous things in that green world were often eaten by the dangerous things that they spotted too late.

This is where a half-understanding of Evolution serves, (as best I can tell), only to make Evolution harder to comprehend.  A certain wall of understanding must be broken through and once that is behind you it all starts to make sense.

Well…it becomes understandable but no less incongruous.  But then, the more we understand nature, the more we understand that fairness was never part of the equation of biological survival.  Fairness is a social value of us social animals.

Roses are red because red roses have attracted enough pollinating insects to survive and propagate (and humans like to breed and tend them!).  We are upright and blabbermouths because a) we had the anatomical bits and pieces that were adaptable to those activities, and: b) both adaptations proved beneficial to our own survival.

The fact that we can sniff a red rose and derive pleasure from an evolved trait in the rose (from which the rose gains absolutely no benefit from us in return) is a consequence of Evolution, but not the point of it.

Maybe our ability to extract joy from visual stimuli, scenery, smells and what-have-you has also contributed to our success as a species.  Who can tell: maybe happy animals live longer, want to live longer.

I can’t fault humans for wanting to thank someone or something for the capacity to experience the pleasures of living (especially in those transcendent, numinous moments when nature, beauty or emotion overwhelm us), but both the sources of the stimuli (be they plant, animal, scenic or human) are really “just” mutations, adaptations and chance outcomes to which we have become lovingly attached.  (If roses smelled like poop, maybe we’d give bouquets of turds to our loved ones, and sniff them with delight…okay, probable not).

What is most obvious (and therefore somehow most difficult to really comprehend) about the fact that we are so often perfectly fitted to our life on Earth is the reality that we have evolved in Earth’s environment for millions of years: everything about us from our biochemistry to our body shape, from the way our optic nerves work and our DNA replicates has been shaped by the mix of gasses we breath into our lungs, the gravitational pull of the Earth’s molten core, and the myriad forms of cellular life that formed us in the vast, ancient nursery of life.

There is a reason we feel so at home here: and it is the one reason — and the billions of reasons — of Evolution and Natural Selection.  (These reasons — and the processes they describe — are certainly no less wondrous to contemplate than Bronze-age creation myths, and certainly far more interesting!)

For all the attendant problems our big brains have gotten us into and the terrible destruction our technology can (and has) unleashed on nature and our fellow humans, It does, nevertheless, seem terribly unfair that we have so much when other creatures don’t.  Nature doesn’t give it a thought.  But it is one of those things that we humans are still learning to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob