Evolution: Physical, Cultural and Spiritual 2009
Evolution Again: One People, One World
Recently I watched a 3 part series on PBS about human evolution. Public stations seem to have most of the best shows nowadays. I believe I have seen the entire series on evolution now, and after seeing it, feel compelled to take yet another detour from my education topic to discuss human evolution once again in light of what I learned from this series.
Of course, this series was about the physical evolution of the human species, but the most crucial aspect of our physical evolution was the development of our mental capabilities. The first significant finding for me was that our ancestors over a million years ago grew large at young ages and apparently matured at an early age. At least, that was the conclusion drawn from the analysis of "Turkana Boy" who died in east Africa at the age of 8, 5 feet, 3 inches tall, 1.2 million years ago. There was not much of a childhood. This makes sense, as the more one must learn, as in modern society, the more of a childhood one needs, but when thrown into a dangerous, primitive world, the emphasis is on growing up quickly. Childhood is a luxury that those struggling to survive cannot afford.
The most startling finding of those researching human evolution, in my opinion, is the finding that we are the only surviving branch of hominids out of several species which evolved millions of years ago. Some of these species, such as Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals, and the newly discovered so-called Hobbits in Indonesia, left Africa long ago, over 2 million years ago in some cases. The Neanderthals and the Hobbits died out very recently in evolutionary terms. There is evidence of Neanderthal occupation at Gibralter in Spain from 28,000 years ago. The Hobbits of Flores Island in Indonesia apparently died out within the last few thousand years. Not much was said about Homo Erectus, but they left Africa over 2 million years ago, were widespread, and survived (and presumably evolved) for a long time before finally going extinct. Fortunately, there is no evidence that these other species of hominids were killed by Homo Sapiens. The Neanderthals appeared to eat exclusively land-based animals. They were large and had very high energy requirements of 5,000 calories per day, equivalent to racing in the Tour De France. Their refusal, or requirement, to eat only land-based animals such as large game, combined with the rigors of the ice ages and the reduction in available prey for them to capture, resulted in their demise. They also were apparently not very clever, as their weapons were limited to hand-held spears, not thrown ones, so they had to risk life and limb to bring down a large animal. Virtually all male Neanderthals had evidence of numerous scars from encounters with large animals, and Neanderthals of either sex rarely lived past the age of 30. Homo Sapiens, in contrast, adapted to changing conditions much better than the Neanderthals, by gathering and eating nutritious plants (and eventually farming them), learning to catch or collect seafood, and also creating better implements such as throwing spears. Our ancestors were smaller and more efficient than the Neanderthals, requiring about 2,000 calories per day, usually avoiding injuries, often living to ages similar to that of modern humans, having lots of babies, probably communicating better than other species of hominids, and generally using our brains in more productive ways than our relatives did. The Hobbits are still an enigma at this time. Their remains have only been discovered by scientists in recent years, and only on Flores Island. However, there are legends among the people of Flores Island of having seen Hobbits, perhaps as recently as a few hundred years ago. People did not kill them, but viewed these miniscule, 3 foot tall hominids with curiosity. They were reportedly shy, would run away from people and avoid contact with them. (Some of this information is from another PBS show about the Hobbits of Flores Island.). Analyses of their bones seems to indicate that they were a separate species of hominid, not Homo Sapiens, and probably had branched off from Homo Erectus in Asia. Their ancestors had most likely left Africa over 2 million years ago. Apparently, they could not compete with the more intelligent humans who came to occupy their homelands, so they appear to have gone extinct, although some hold out hope that some Hobbits still survive in the wildlands of Flores Island.
The other really informative finding presented in this series on evolution, is that all of us Homo Sapiens are descended from a group of merely around 600 breeding individuals in Africa around 140,000 years ago. This was a period of extreme climate adversity, and as a result, a genetic bottleneck occured. The ice ages were at their worst in the world's colder areas at this time, making things difficult for other hominids outside of Africa, but our ancestors were in Africa. Even in Africa, climate change caused extreme drought which made most areas of the continent uninhabitable for our ancestors. According to researchers, there were only six small areas where it is thought that our ancestors could have survived. All of these were near coastlines in Africa. Our ancestors seemed to be eating lots of shellfish and fish, along with hunting/gathering during this period. Whether all 600 breeding individuals (300 couples) were in the same area, or spread out across these different areas, and got back together when conditions were better, remains unknown. The show did present evidence such as mounds of shells dated to that period, that humans were living at one of these sites, in South Africa, at the time. Other sites are probably covered by water now since the oceans were much lower at the time. (I guess the ones in South Africa were living well above the ocean, but went there to collect shellfish at low tide.) As a result of the genetic bottleneck, despite the radical distinctions we make between the various people's of the world, humans are a relatively homogeneous species, genetically, with all the peoples of the world sharing about 99.9% of the same genes. In other words, we are actually relatively lacking in genetic diversity, because we are all rather closely related to each other, despite our differences in appearance!
Our ancestors did not leave Africa until relatively recently, perhaps 60,000 years ago or so. It is in the time since then, that Homo Sapiens has managed to spread around the globe, apparently outcompeting other hominids and perhaps causing them to to extinct. Meanwhile, all of the current races and subraces of humans have evolved during these past 60,000 years. Furthermore, those who study human evolution claim that the evolution of our species has actually accelerated in the past 10,000 years as culture has evolved. Thus, while culture has short-circuited some types of evolution, such as having physical characteristics or personal problem solving skills needed to survive in a harsh environment, it has resulted in both cultural evolution, and even additional physical evolution of our species. The statement that human evolution has increased over the past 10,000 years was a statement made in passing by researcher Simon Wells, without any explanation. However, it would be easy to speculate that culture favors people with certain psychological or physical characteristics. With a larger group, the dynamics of life change. More sociable people who are more inclined to cooperate, even conform, to a larger group than the small groups that their ancestors lived in, and who are better communicators, would be more likely to survive and leave descendants. Persons viewed as physically attractive would be treated better even as children, by the larger society, and be more likely to survive and have offspring than the less attractive.
The broad conclusion regarding our evolution is that we are all one people, closely related, occupying one world. Frankly, our ethics should not be influenced by our genetic resemblance to each other. Even if humans were composed of different species, even if we had evolved independently on different planets, we should respect each other as sentient beings and treat each other according to a universal code of ethics. However, the relative transience of our races, religions, lifestyles, languages, culture and various institutions makes our conflicts -- whether between individuals, or between larger groups such as nations -- seem all the more absurd. I wonder what our 600 ancestors eking out a living during the worst of the ice ages, 140,000 years ago, would think about our propensity to turn petty differences into tragic and deadly conflicts. We should honor our common ancestors by living in peace.
Evolution Part 11: Religion-Free Spirituality
To finish this series about evolution, I wish to discuss my speculations about where spiritual evolution is leading the human race.
Readers and watchers of science-fiction are probably familiar with such concepts as little green men with gigantic heads, or living, disenbodied brains connected to machines, or even disembodied entities without so much as a brain, who say their ancestors used to have bodies, but they found them burdensome and no longer needed, so they mentally outgrew their bodies, so to speak. I doubt that our descendants will ever resemble either of these outcomes, in particular, as our physical, cultural and spiritual evolution proceeds, but change is inevitable. Perhaps our heads will grow larger, but we are not likely to turn into huge-headed, hairless "little green men" (and women). As physical beings, it is difficult to envision how we could physically evolve in such a way as to become brains-only entities or turn into some sort of bodiless energy field, although the bodiless energy field does resemble the concept of a spiritual entity which might exist, but not likely as a result of physical evolution.
Rather, what I envision is a growing awareness of our spiritual side independent of religious precepts. As discussed in the previous post, I believe that science will ultimately inform us regarding our spiritual essence. This is what I call "rational spirituality," and my own spiritual orientation is something I have tried to capture in an acronym, PLURISM, which stands for Peaceful Loving Universe Rational Intuitive Spiritual Mentality. Okay, I am sure that to most people, this seems like pie-in-the sky thinking, but our understanding of the universe and our place in it has "evolved" so to speak, in a positive direction over recent human history much faster than nearly everyone would have predicted. We could have endless debate about whether or not there is an intrinsic caring and loving core to the universe. It is clear that as individuals and as species, we are involved in a struggle for survival. Some win that struggle, some lose. Nature goes on with seeming indifference as individuals consume each other, and species are born and extinguished. However, there is an order, a direction to this struggle, a direction toward complexity, intelligence, understanding, and yes, love, compassion and spirituality. I see these as the directions in which evolution leads us. In the beginning, it may be about physical evolution and the physical struggle for survival, but in the end, it is about learning.
Some day, it is my hope that all of humanity can overcome their predilections toward jumping to conclusions, toward claiming to know the answers prematurely, and toward conforming with tradition for the sake of social harmony, while sacrificing truth, virtue and the ability to understand and accept those who are different. It is my hope and belief that spirituality will free itself from the grips of religion, bit by bit, so that people are free to explore spiritual possibilities and truths in their own way. Science will be a partner in this endeavor. Perhaps it will become clear that some people can communicate with the spirits of the dead, or that they attempt to communicate with us. (Witness my experience with car speedometers, gas gauges and horns which go wild on a particular drive, then fix themselves, or ceiling fans which go on by themselves, or lights which mysteriously flicker and linger after being turned off, or clocks which suddenly read a different time, all of which subsequently function normally. The change in clock time happened again to me this morning. All of these experiences make me wonder whether these are ways in which some spirit is trying to communicate with me, who it is, and why.) Perhaps certain psychic phenomena will go from being a ridiculed topic and source of skepticism, to being accepted as fact, as it is demonstrated more clearly. Ultimatley, I believe we will recognize that there is some spiritual connection between all humans, between all living beings, and even all of existence, as evidence accumulates -- a spiritual essence of the universe which makes our existence possible and which nurtures evolution and learning.
Moreover, once the yoke of religion, or for that matter, the yoke of mechanistic non-spiritual scientific thinking, is lifted, peoples of the world will be able to join in true understanding much better. One more huge impediment to mutual understanding will have been lifted, one more preconception shattered. Perhaps then, we will finally be able to approach our potential for learning and spiritual understanding as sentient beings, for which evolution was intended.
Evolution Part 10: True Spiritual Understanding
I wrote a post about a similar topic recently (Love is Progressive Part 8: The Science-Spirituality Connection), so I will try to prevent repeating myself too much. This is an extremely important topic to me, however, which probably explains the fact that I keep finding myself compelled to write about it. In the previous post on this topic, I wrote about universal love, empathy and compassion, how science shows its relevance, and also, about how research over the past few decades has been gathering evidence of spiritual and psychic phenomena -- that the mechanistic non-spiritual explanations of the universe are not adequate.
Last night, I saw the last part of a Nova program called Darwin's Darkest Days. It was about his reluctance to formally write his theory of evolution, given its implications that the Bible's creation story is sheer mythology, and by extension, the entire Bible is likely to be essentially false. Darwin was raised in an agnostic family, so for him, not thinking like a Christian, and not believing its stories, would have come naturally. His skepticism and search for some greater truth also ran in his family. However, he was aware that believers of the predominant religions of the world, especially the Christianity of the people around him, as well as the other monotheistic religions, were likely to demonize him were he to publish his theory. Furthermore, his wife was a devout Christian. Darwin was always honest with her about his attitude toward religion, against his own father's advice, and his wife still accepted his feelings and loved him. However, he was afraid to hurt her, as well. In the end, his wife actually encouraged Charles to write his theory, and supported and defended him until her death. (By the way, she was a first cousin of Charles Darwin, and they had at least two children who died at young ages from probable genetic defects, although they also had four children who survived. I find it ironic that Darwin married his cousin, given that he was the author of the theory of evolution. He should have known that outbreeding and genetic diversity works better than inbreeding.)
In my view, Darwin, if anything, is actually a hero of not only physical evolution, but also spiritual evolution. Ultimately, I believe that people such as Darwin will be seen as leaders in the spiritual evolution of the human race. Darwin was a skeptic, and an evolutionary scientist (concurrent with Alfred Russell Wallace, although Darwin gets most of the credit), but he was also an intelligent man with spiritual interests and feelings. He spoke of the wonders of evolution, and how he could see that it could be the work of God. He also spoke of how understanding of things which religion addresses, such as the idea of an afterlife and the nature of the soul, may be beyond human understanding, like a dog trying to understand Newton's theory. My answer to that is that someday, the descendants of dogs could evolve Newton-like intelligence. With the wonders of evolution, intelligence, and science, we should not place limits upon our ability to understand this universe.
Albert Einstein is another hero of spiritual evolution. He believed in a higher power, a God, and frequently said that he was trying to look into the mind of God as he did his work in Theoretical Physics. Rather than believing in a particular religious orientation, Einstein kept an open mind. He was a thought and spirituality explorer. Jews, Pantheists and even Christians have attempted to claim Einstein as one of their own, but it is my view that he was really none of these. He was simply a spiritual person with a remarkable mind, whose life had given him a remarkable opportunity to explore the nature of the universe around him, with a relatively open mind. Actually, Einstein did come to some conclusions to which he rigidly held, which turned out to be false, so his mind was not always completely open. He held a static view of the universe, in particular, which has been "blown away," so to speak, by the Big Bang Theory and that theory's "enormous and growing" evidence. That just goes to show that nobody is perfect, but progress continues to be made. Darwin also had some shortcomings in his theory, although it appears to be accurate by and large. Darwin's main shortcoming was that he saw evolution as more continuous than it really is; evidence is growing that evolution happens in spurts. Also, it seems he falied to recognize the importance of genetic diversity and the need to avoid inbreeding -- thus, the marriage to his cousin. However, Darwin's theory was not only largely true, but has helped transform our view of nature and our role in it. Of course, had Darwin not introduced the world to the concept of evolution, somebody else surely would have, probably Alfred Wallace.
It is my view that anything which adances our understanding -- of ourselves, nature, the world around us, and the universe -- advances our spiritual evolution. Religion attempts to explain these things, but in a non-scientific way. Older religions are primitive, naive attempts to do so. Newer religions are rather more sophisticated attempts to do so, but still, rely too much on particular, unsupported views of their founders. It is only with the application of science that we can gain true spiritual understanding. Science will ultimately inform us -- perhaps incompletely, but better than any non-scientific approach -- of how we are all spiritually connected, and of the spirituality which pervades this universe. If a spiritual essence is there, it will leave a trace which is measurable -- of psychic phenomena, spirits of those no longer physically alive, God or Goddess him/her/itself, etc. (The female analogy of "mother nature" or a Goddess who "gave birth to the universe" actually seems more appropriate to me than the male one.) If there is no spiritual essence to the universe, the preciousness of this life will be more fully understood. But from what I have learned, there is a spiritual essence, one which is concentrated in sentient minds such as ours. Thus, we are fully aware of our existence, and use science to ask the universe to explain why. Science is indeed a spiritual endeavor.
Evolution Part 9: Progressive Spirituality's Progress
I have written before about the progressive nature of history. That applies to spiritual evolution, as well. Older religions are relatively primitive attempts to explain the nature of the universe, the world, and our place in it -- attempts which largely rely upon mythology and miracles. They also incorporate cultural attitudes of the time. For example, Christianity, Judaism, and as far as I know, Islam, accept slavery as a proper aspect of life. The Hindu religion does not seem to accept slavery, but at the same time, instead assigns entire large groups of people to menial stations in life. Bhuddism focuses on how miserable life is, and people's quest to escape their misery, a most likely somewhat apt and very sad commentary on life in India at the time. Antiquated views about various topics abound in traditional religions. They may say homosexuality is wrong (monotheisitic religions, at least), masturbation is wrong, parents have the right to do whatever they want to their kids, polygamy is fine, killing infidels in the name of religion is good, the death penalty should be a standard punishment for minor crimes, and so forth, depending upon the religion.
The fact that traditonal religions are still predominant owes to several factors. One is that many people have a strong need for tradition. Another is that many people have a strong need for certainty and a promise of a happy afterlife, which traditional religions most conveniently provide. This is combined with people's tendency to be "cognitive misers" in the words of Social Psychologist Shelley Taylor -- most people avoid any more mental effort than is necessary to get by. The biggest reason, however, in my opinion, is that traditional religions, much like a long-established corporation, a hereditary monarchy, or an extremely rich family, wield undue power by the fact of that they came first. Cultural change is a fact, but so is cultural inertia. Large religions, having the most members, also have the greatest opportunity to recruit new members, and to manipulate public policy, even. Despite these factors, long-established religions have been losing members in recent times. In fact, the most quickly growing religious demographic in the United States is "no particular religion." Similar trends appear to be occuring around the world, but in different stages of development. Europeans largely lost their religion first. Now it is the turn of other industrialized nations. In addition, established religions have adapted to some degree over time. Christians during the pre-civil war era found ways to make abolitionism a Christian cause (although at the same time, other Christians were using their religion to justify slavery). Islam is struggling with adapting to the modern world, with both fundamentalist and antifundamentalist factions vying for the souls of Muslims. My guess is that the antifundamentalists will win this competition. Bhuddists and Hindus find new topics to discuss and sources of wisdom to be found in modern life. Sometimes I see a Bhuddist segment on a Chinese television station, which often philosophizes about modern life. Of course, other religions do their best to apply to modern life, as well. However, adaptation of religion to a changing modern world can only go so far.
Another trend over time has been the development of new religions which are more spiritually progressive than the older ones. I did a search of world religions on wikipedia a few months ago, for another post I wrote, and was surprised by how many relatively new religions -- ones with millions of followers -- there are around the world. Most of these were religions I had never heard of. There were religions which have developed in the past couple hundred years in all parts of the world where people live. As I recall, Asian nations such as Vietnam, Japan, and China, are relative hotspots for new religions. So is the United States, not surprisingly. Also, the Sikh religion of India, a well-known religion with millions of adherents, is relatively new. (One of my best undergraduate college friends was a Sikh, by the way.) This post is not about describing the newer religions, but I can draw some general conclusions about them. What do these newer religions have in common, by and large? Well, they emphasize peacefulness, for one thing. (So does the ancient Indian religion Jainism, by the way, whose adherents refuse to kill or eat any animals.) For another, they emphasize human rights and equality (much like the American Constitution). Thirdly, they emphasize the personal quest for enlightenment (much as Bhuddism, Hinduism, and for that matter, the Humanistic Perspective of Psychology does). The fourth trend is that they emphasize social enlightenment and the need to take care of each other. Lastly, they emphasize the incorporation of scientific knowledge into their approaches, representing a strong progressive trend. Some of these emphases can be found in older religions as well, especially peacefullness, personal enlightenment and the "we society" approach emphasizing taking care of each other, but the newer religions do so more unambiguously, and combine that with newer progressive ideas about human rights and equality, and newer knowledge to make a more complete package.
Going beyond religion, to sheer spirituality, we also see progressive trends. More and more people do not see the need for religion in order to follow their spiritual path. Personal and social enlightenment are increasingly seen as spiritual concerns which are better dealt with by ignoring the baggage of organized religion. Progressive minds everywhere are learning about the society, world and universe around them in a spiritual way, encouraged by enlightenment ideas from religion as well as Humanistic Psychology. In fact, naturalist and spirtitualist John Muir, whom I mentioned in the previous post, had written on the outside of his notebook which evolved into his formal writings, wrote, as I recall, "nature, world, universe." In his time, John Muir was a real eccentric, and indeed, some of his behavior was eccentric. But now, it is common for people to think, if not behave, much as John Muir did, which was not the case in his time.
As time goes on, just as with science, a refinement of our knowledge, beliefs and feelings is inevitable. We can see this happening in the world in terms of spiritual ideas. Combined with the incorporation of scientific ideas and knowledge into spiritual thinking, the future of spirituality looks very good and progressive, while the future of traditional religion, perhaps all religion, with its many promises, looks, well, unpromising, with diminishing influence of religion over time (unless a religion which does not rely upon any false beliefs somehow forms and becomes predominant). My next post on the evolution of spiituality will examine the influnce of science upon spirituality.
Evolution Part 8: Spiritual Melting Pots
Recorded history has a long record of contact and mutual influence among the cultures of the world. Of course, there are many types of interactions among cultures -- intermarriage and friendship on the prosocial side, war and domination on the antisocial side, but ultimately, more prosocial and antisocial, with the exchange of foods and food preparation techniques, exchange of technology and building techniques, and exchange of language and ideas, to name a few. Here I am concerned with the exchange of a particular type of idea -- spiritual ones.
I have always found it odd that several major religions are primarily found, not in the region where they originated, but in some other part of the world. This is clearly a case of the cultural spreading of ideas. Christianity began in the Middle East, but had long since relocated to Europe, before the early white settlers brought it to America. Bhuddism went east rather than west, spreading from India, to east Asia. Meanwhile, Islam replaced Christianity in the Middle East, while Hinduism remained the predominant religion in India. I saw a show on television a few days ago which was filmed in India. On the show, the host was asking an Indian Bhuddist why there were so few Bhuddists in India. He indicated that the kings and other upper caste people disapproved of Bhuddism, obviously, being happy with their high station accorded them by the Hindu religion. Thus, being in power, they effectively quashed any movements toward Bhuddism, viewing it as a threat to their power. Such a social structure did not exist in East Asia, so that Bhuddism was better able to take root there. The oppression of Bhuddism in India reminds me in a way of the present situation in the United States (or perhaps the entire world now), with conservatives resisting any change which might reduce their wealth and power, as well as various other historical examples, such as slaveowners resisting the end of slavery. In any case, what people believe, and where they believe it, often seems a result of historical accidents and circumstances, as well as what family they are born into. In many cases, the conversion of a king to a particular religion, sparked the conversion, or purported conversion, of the populace over which the king ruled, an example of the undue influence of royalty in past times.
There are also hybrid religions. It is very common for anthropologists, or any observers of foreign cultures and history, to note this phenomenon. Bhuddism combined with Taoist, Confucian, and Animist beliefs in Asia to evolve to its modern forms. Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa have often been noted to have combined their native spiritual beliefs from Western Africa, with the Christian beliefs imposed upon them, resulting in Rastafarianism, Voodoo beliefs, and so forth. Native tribes in the Americas, also often combined native beliefs with Christian beliefs which missionaries pressured them to believe. The same has happened in many Pacific Island cultures. Even when religions are not forced upon a people, they tend to be transformed to some degree by the converts of another culture. I have seen this myself with Chinese Christians that I know, including my wife and stepdaughter. My wife manifests one form a Chinese style Christianity, one which is thankfully tolerant of diverse beliefs, or lack thereof, recognizing that most people are not Christian, including myself. (I am definitely not expecting the triumphant return of Jesus, ever, if you know what I mean.) Eunice even seems to believe in the Eastern religion concept of reincarnation. She says we may have been a couple in previous lives, and hopefully will be again in future lives -- yet another reason to love her. My stepdaughter manifests another form of Christianity, one which is very evangelical -- unfortunately, the most zealous of Baptists got to them -- which is very literal in its interpretaion of the Bible, and which believes the entire history of the world -- a severely shortened past, present and future -- is found in the Bible. What both approaches have in common is a rather literal interpretation of Christian scripture, but my stepdaughter's church is more extreme and ready to condemn nonbelievers to eternal damnation. I find that not only disconcerting on its own, but also disingeunous intellectually, and a certain cause of great cognitive dissonance among Chinese believers, since most of them have many family members who are Bhuddist, Taoist, Agnostic, Atheist, etc. It makes me wonder why anyone would believe that, how they gain any converts, and what type of person is susceptible to such messages. In my stepdaughter's case, she was a relatively new immigrant to the U.S. at the time of her conversion, had, and still has, a tendency to think in absolutist terms, with a strong sense of conscience, and at the time, needed something both Chinese and offering a sense of certitude to cling to, in order to quell her insecurites. Her Chinese, evangelical church offered precisely those qualities. Thus, I can see how it appeals to many new Chinese immigrants to allay their sense of insecurity. Of course, this discussion is really about the non-spiritual aspects of religion which allow the gaining of converts, due to psychological factors, rather than spiritual teachings. However, along with the religion -- whatever the reasons for peoples' conversion -- come ideas about spirituality.
An example of a general spiritual idea which has been spread through intercultural contact, is the notion of monotheism as the monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Islam, and Judaism -- have spread. Along with that, are certain notions about the nature of God, largely anthropomorphic -- and masculine -- ones. More specific instructions about such aspects of spirituality as prayer, and how to do so properly, are also spread from culture to culture. The influence is not one way, either. For example, beginning around the 1960s, the United States has seen increased interest in Eastern religions and spirituality. It is ironic that, while I have a Chinese Christian wife and stepdaughter, I am more fond of Eastern (makes some sense, works with nature, concerned with creating balance, tolerant and compassionate, egalitarian) spirituality than Christian-style (nonsensical, nature-dominating, imbalance creating, nonbeliever hating and damning, autocratic) spirituality myself. I am sure Christians will not agree with this assessment, but it is based upon a lifetime of observation and study. That does not make me a Bhuddist, Hindu, Taoist, or Animist, but it does reflect my sympathies. Many Americans also have adopted native American spiritual ideas over the years. For example, environmentalists have come to view the world around us as sacred, as do many native American tribes. John Muir, whom I greatly admire and some of whose books I read as a child, is most famously a nature worshipper. He is also credited with originating the concept of the National Park, for which he is being prominantly featured in the current televison documentary about the United States' National Parks. It is clear that the makers of this documentary did not know as much as they should have about Muir, prior to making the documentary, and found his life story a revelation. By the way, he was raised in a very strict, Christian home, where he was forced to memorize the Bible. He spent the rest of his life, it seems, running away from this kind of autocratic religion. (John Muir would make a great topic for a feature movie; he was a brilliant and gifted scientist, even before becoming a naturalist, eccentric, a nearly miraculous survivor of his many adventures, a wonderful author and eventually, husband and father.) Such beliefs of the environment's sacredness, as well as thankfullness to nature and to those creatures which we eat, are native American spiritual ideas which have since become part and parcel of the environmental movement. Thank you, John Muir, and all of our Euro-American predecessors who were open-minded and thoughtful enough to appreciate these ideas.
I am sure there are many other examples of how the world has become a spiritual melting pot. The examples I have given are ones which are personally meaningful to me. I am sure that readers of this essay have their own examples. The exchange of spiritual ideas is perhaps the most significant form of communication among cultures. It opens our minds up to new world views and ways of understanding this life and the universe which created this life.
Evolution Part 7: Spiritual Evolution's Beginnings
I turn my attention now to spiritual evolution. I am not referring to an individual's spiritual development as life goes on. I am referring to a progressive change in human consciousness and spiritual thinking which pervades all of human society. Since this concept may be unfamiliar to others, and I probably have my own ideas regarding what it means, let me start by defining what I believe spiritual evolution is and is not.
Spiritual evolution is: 1. Not an individual's spiritual growth;
2. Not deciding on a religion;
3. Not the growth of a new religion.
Spiritual evolution is: 1. A growth of spiritual consciousness which pervades all of society;
2. An outgrowth of cultural and technological evolution;
3. Overcoming archaic ways of thinking about spirituality and the nature of the universe and our place in it;
4. Leading people to think more openmindedly and broadly about spirituality, the nature of the universe, and our place in it;
5. Based on people's spiritual feelings and needs to understand our universe;
6. A recognition of our spiritual nature and that of the universe in which we live;
7. Non-traditional, and indeed, always open to modification and correction of misconceptions.
Biological evolution laid the groundwork in human beings for the development of culture and the commencement of cultural evolution, and in turn, cultural evolution lays the groundwork for spiritual evolution. Thus, culture plays a significant role in spiritual evolution.
In order to understand what I mean by spiritual evolution, we need to take a look at the history of human spirituality and religion. Archaeological evidence informs us that ice age and stone age humans mourned their dead and performed some sort of funeral ceremonies for deceased loved ones. They also showed an interest in the world around them which transcended simple observation of other creatures. They often seemed to revere life and certain species of life, in particular. In spite of the limited nature of the evidence, it is clear that spiritual feelings and accompanying questions regarding the nature of the universe and our place in it, pervaded the lives of our distant human, or even prehuman, ancestors. By the way, a few years ago, I saw a nature documentary in which a group of Hippos seemed to mourn the death by Crocodile of a water Buffalo, and appeared to be honoring this other animal in a sort of "funeral" in which they all encircled and faced the dead animal and showed contemplative sadness for about 1/2 hour, an example showing that spiritual feelings are not limited to humans. In any case, it is not clear whether these early forms of human spirituality constituted actual religion or not, nor is it clear when the first religion appeared. It seems likely that spirituality preceded religion by quite some time in human evolution. People "wondered what it's all about," perhaps had ideas, perhaps debated those ideas, but since they were living in relatively small, isolated groups, probably had no formal religion at first.
Over time, religions, well, evolved -- in virtually every culture. I view the development of religion as a step in cultural evolution, as well as spiritual evolution. Religions are belief systems which attempt to explain the world, the universe and our place in it in spiritual terms, which have authorities who teach the belief system to others, and which belief system is culturally transmitted from generation to generation. Religions either have Gods, human prophets (loosely defined) or both, and are used not only to explain the universe and our place in it, but also as a means of moral instruction, using the Gods and/or prophets as examples, and in the case of Gods, as all-powerful figures who can pose an eternal threat to non-believers and non-behavers. Although religion has a spiritual element, the content of longstanding religions departs drastically from spirituality in that it invariably absorbs cultural values and beliefs, thus becoming a conveyor of conformity producing behavior in accordance with cultural biases. Religions often find a way, for example, to label anything which is out of the ordinary as evil, including homosexuality, left-handedness, and so forth, even though these have nothing to do with true evilness. Even worse, religions tend to find ways of reinforcing the powerful as the most deserving, for example, putting only men in positions of power and asserting that men are superior to women, and thus, closer to God. Worst of all, religions find ways to reinforce their own power over the people; we must obey what the religious authorities say or face eternal damnation, or some other fate worse than death; as good members of the religious community, we must tithe a significant portion of our income to the religion, and so forth. Religions may even play a significant role in influencing politics and who is in power, or, as is the case in the United States, who is an acceptable candidate for power. (What would have been Barack Obama's chances of being elected President had he not conveniently made the conversion from his earlier agnosticism to Christianity?)
In short,the older religons offer a mixture of spiritual and moral instruction, along with power-mongering, self-serving behvior, and the transmission of cultural biases and beliefs. Moreover, the longstanding, traditional religions are primitive, ill-conceived attempts to explain what it means to be human, how our universe originated, and what it all means. But, they were probably much better than not having any religion as a means to explain these things to people, at the time that they originated.
Over time, however, religious ideas have evolved -- there is that word again -- and religions have responded by modifying themselves in some cases, rejecting any contradictory ideas to their original vision in others, and by forming new religions in still other cases. Factors which have driven the evolution of religions over the centuries include, contact with people of other religions, the spreading of progressive, humanitarian ideas, such as human equality for all and the abolition of slavery, and technology and scientific discovery. At the same time, these same factors have driven people in their spiritual progression, and in many cases, driven people away from religion even as they explore their own spirituality. My next 3 posts on spiritual evolution will look more specifically at how each of these three factors has influenced spiritual evolution over the centuries.
Evolution Part 6: How to Outmeme Conservatives
This topic isn't really a new one. Basically, it is another way of framing the issue of how to effectively respond to conservatives. Hopefully, it is an effective way to frame this issue. I must admit that I, for one, have not been particularly effective at talking to conservatives, at least not ones with whom I only have occasional contact. Well, if getting into full-blown arguments, or keeping my mouth shut for the sake of peace is effective, then I have been. But at least I can write about the larger issues of how progressives can help culture and its memes, progress. That is something I can do, as a progressive writer of a progressive series of progressive essays about progressivism.
Remember, conservatives have had certain memes for many years which they have pounded American society with. In fact, I would say that they have had both major memes, and minor memes -- the existence of major and minor memes being another difference between memes and genes. For example, major conservative memes would include:
1. Government is bad; it interferes with our self-made lives;
2. Taxes are bad; that is how liberals in government steal our money and give it to do-nothing slackers;
3. Foreigners are bad; we must keep them out of the land that God gave us White People;
4. We are a biblically based, Christian nation, and that makes us better than other nations;
5. We must be obedient citizens; dissent is blasphemous un-American hippy commie stuff;
6. True Americans are proud, self-reliant, self-made people who victoriously defy any efforts to control us;
7. The Republican Party is the party of the Truth and the Great American Way, of family, God, the divine rod of Justice, and the Great American Military Machine;
8. The Republican Party is an oppressed minority of Rich White Folks who through divine will and their unique goodness happen to wield most of the world's power (and so is the Christian Church, by the way);
9. American is uniquely good and placed by God to rule over the rest of the world (although we won't admit that); American exceptionalism means we do not have to follow the same rules that other nations do.
Did I miss any?
Never mind that these memes make no sense and conflict with reality, and never mind that some of them conflict with each other, such as small government and low tax rates conflicting with the reality of America's huge war machine, as has become increasingly evident in recent years, or obedience conflicting with defiance and self-reliance. The reason that these memes have been effective, is that they appeal to the baser hedonistic impulses of many Americans, who can accept these ideas uncritically, then build loopy rationales around the presumption of their truth.
Minor memes are more the political news of the day stuff. They are more-or-less applications of the major memes to current political situations. You know the stuff -- Barack Obama isn't really an American, health care reform is going to kill grandma, etc.
The first thing we can do to counteract these untrue, destructive, conservative memes, is to use reason to point out their falseness. For sure, conservatives who are convinced of their truth will deny your reasoning, but do not be dissuaded. Remember, you may not be able to change the minds of your political adversaries, but you may be able to educate and influence in a positive way, others who are listening, perhaps young, more open minds who represent our political future. And remember, a large percentage of the American electorate, unfortunately, is rather uninformed regarding political matters. The more honest education they receive, the better.
The next thing we can do is use reason, again, to promote positive, progressive memes. My own example, not to pat myself on the back too much, is the promotion of love, evolution and education (the next series in my progressive series of progressive essays) as progressive forces. We can discuss progressive issues rationally with others who are interested, or when related topics come up. We can also provide living role models of our own ideas by putting them into action, acting out of love, educating ourselves, working toward cultural and spiritual evolution (what Humanistic Psychologists might call self-actualization).
Third, we must emphasize what we all have in common as human beings, or for that matter, as inhabitants of this planet, in an ecological sense. This is the basis of progressive thinking. It is "we" thinking, while conservative thought is "me" thinking, as Thom Hartmann elaborates so well. Notice how self-oriented the conservative memes are, and how they also encourage their believers to think of themselves as exceptional, not like other human beings. We must encourage people to get away from that type of thinking, and point out the dangerousness and falseness of such thinking.
Fourth, we must encourage laying the groundwork for progress, not only technological progress, but cultural and spiritual progress. The substrate for such progress is built through education, science, economic fairness, infrastructure building and representative democracy in which the people's ideas count. We need to insist that all of these factors be priorities in society, always. On a personal level, that means concern with our own education and that of our family. It means being an educated consumer of science (or being a scientist). It means being concerned with economic fairness, perhaps joining a union, and so forth. It means supporting the building of schools, maintenance of roads, making high speed internet available everywhere, etc. (DSL is still not available where I live.) Finally, it means being an active participant in our Democracy, whatever that means to you. (How ironic that a Republican candidate for Governor in California was revealed yesterday to have never registered to vote until she was 46 years old in 2002.)
Finally, take a long view of the world, not a myopic one. Know that history is on your side as a progressive. Live with a sense of purpose. (I know my internet activities really help me in that respect.) Know that succesful memes in the long run will be adaptive, progressive ones. The future will be ours. Gradually, the "genes" of culture -- our cultural memes -- will be shaped by people who think as we do, and people who think as the intellectual progeny of people who think as we do, must.
Evolution Part 5: Future Memes
We live in a big world -- a big world with a big and growing population. A big world has big nations, with big governments. (Big is not an acronym for "Bet It's Great," either.) In a sense, a world with a large population is analogous to a large human-style brain, with its billions of neurons, all of which interact, though not directly. Each neuron receives input from numerous other neurons, and sends messages to numerous other neurons, on the order of a hundred or so. Out of the many billions of neurons that we have, communicating with a couple hundred other neurons is a very limited number. Basically, it is just a local community, like a village, or a Facebook page with a couple hundred friends. But each community of neurons communicates with other communities of neurons. Ultimately, all of the neurons in the brain communicate with each other, directly or indirectly, information is integrated, ideas are formed, and decisions are made. The larger the brain, the more it is capable of. Similarly, all the people in the world indirectly interact. The more people there are, the more ideas, or memes, result. Thus, in the modern, crowded world, there is an accelerating proliferation of memes. If anything, cultural evolution is accerlerating, although we may not be aware of it in our everyday lives.
The main area where the brain analogy breaks down is that, in human society, we do not act as a single unit. Rather, there are many different competing cultures, and subcultures, with competing memes. Peoples from all over the world do not usually get together in order to come to a single decision which applies to all of humanity. Rather, we have a hodgepodge of different subgroups which advocate different memes. There is both cooperation and competition as memes are made, spread, and decline.
However, the brain analogy may be more accurate in terms of final outcome than first appears. Does humanity really fail to act as a unit? Do our neurons all cooperate in producing a single outcome? The answer to both questions is no. As time goes on, we have more and more international governing bodies, such as the United Nations, and many others, which form rules, goals and guidelines which cross international boundaries. This is a major aspect of cultural evolution. The role of institutions which cross national boundaries will continue to increase. Consequently, the hold of nations on its citizens -- the ability of individual nations to indoctrinate their own citizens with memes specific to their own culture -- will diminish. Global memes are not new, but their importance is increasing. In fact, basic morality as taught by cultures, religions and spiritual traditions around the world represent the first global memes. Modern cooperative international organizations serve to reinforce and add to these memes. However, many of these organizations are concerned with economic issues, and thus, frequently promote corporate memes more strongly than morality memes.
Neuroscientists say that our brains are competitive organs, in that our neurons compete for activity. Neurons which fail to generate enough activity die off, and are replaced. Neurons which are very active actually grow and form more connections. If what a neuron is doing is useful, its prognosis is good, because it should remain active and growing, even. Neurons which seem to find no use are doomed to be designated for deactivation and replacement. Of course, there are many functions performed by our brains, and thus, many ways for a neuron to be useful. But generally, if a neuron's actions lead to adaptive ideas or realistic and appropriate reponses to one's environment, the neuron is likely to see much use and be able to keep its position in the brain. Also, any neuron involved in a frequently used pathway, such as a thought or memory which is frequently brought to mind, whether adaptive or not, will be kept longterm. Cognitive therapies work by changing such overused, maladaptive thought patterns. Changing the thought patterns means changing which neurons are being used. This is a corrective process, much like false cultural ideas fading over the period of a couple of generations, when people by and large come to realize that something is wrong with the old, traditional beliefs.
Thus, a second future trend in cultural evolution that I foresee is that, despite some people's best efforts to maintain the old traditions, along with the cultural memes which go with them, many traditional ways of thinking will no longer serve much of a purpose, other than to connect people to their past and give them a sense of tradition, something which some people seem to need, but not others. (This is probably related to the traditionalism trait which the "Minnesota Twins" study of identical twins raised in different families has found is one of our most heritable traits.) Most traditions, unless they continue to play an integral part of a culture, will be relegated to a minor role only practiced by certain persons -- a sort of hobby. There will be plenty of new memes to take their place, in any case, as technology advances, and cultures mingle and evolve.
Since we are in an era of worldwide, fast communication, barriers between peoples of the world are slowly but steadily breaking down. Thus, a third prediction is that memes will more freely cross international borders on a personal communication level, especially through the use of the internet. Memes will become more worldwide, at least in many cases. We can already see this effect in popular culture. In fact, it may be said that popular culture, along with militarism, have become the United States' main exports. For example, in recent years, I see Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, etc. rappers on television (which bothers me, since I don't care for most rap music and it tends to have negative messages, although there are exceptions). Along with the form of music, come urban-American attitudes, basically spreading cultural memes. The same is true of American movies, which have been spreading American cultural memes -- many of them unrealistic, stereotypical, and counterproductive -- for many years. Anything "cool" and new tends to spread among the world's youth rapidly, especially in this modern, internet age. The influence is not one-way, though. Many Americans who would have never thought of eating raw fish in the past do not think twice before downing a plate of sushi or sashimi, and more and more Americans seriously consider studying a language such as Chinese, recognizing the importance of China and Chinese culture in the modern world.
Finally, I predict, as always, that a positive trend of cultural evolution will predominate, much as it has in recorded human history to this point. Just as with our brains, cultures are designed to be adaptive. Cultural memes which turn out to be "viral" and destructive will tend to be "weeded out," much as neurons which lead to bad outcomes tend to be "weeded out," one way or another. (A person may have to change his/her way of thinking, or in the worst case scenario, the person's maladaptive thought patterns may lead to his/her own death.) Nonetheless, harmful memes, much like genetic disorders do occur -- I am full of analogies today -- and can do much harm while they are present. The topic of my next post on evolution will be how to promote constructive, progressive memes, and discourage the spread of destructive, harmful memes.
Evolution Part 4: The Evolution of Culture
As a sentient species, we have undergone a transformation from physical evolution to cultural evolution. This post examines how this has happened. This topic largely concerns anthropology. I am not an anthropologist, but have studied some anthropology, so I will try to use my somewhat limited anthropological knowledge to the best of my ability.
Early humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups. They lived a hand-to-mouth, subsistence existence. When they wanted something to eat, they went to get some fresh, naturally grown food. They built shelters in the most convenient and safe places they could find, such as home-sweet-cave. They made simple tools and weapons from available materials, and learned to use fire to cook. As the seasons and their environment changed, they often found themselves on the move by necessity. The challenges to their survival that they faced promoted physical evolution, primarily intelligence, and the ability to use our intelligence in the physical world through the use of our hands.
Eventually, the survivors were successful and smart enough to figure out how to grow their own food. It was this agricultural revolution which led to the building of nations and large-scale culture. Once people began to grow their own food, plants such as grains which could be stored, as well as amimals such as cattle and sheep whose milk could be harvested at any time, or chickens whose eggs could be harvested at any time, people were able to begin having a surplus of food, and were able to store food. Consequently, a population explosion occurred. People no longer had to stay on the move. They settled down in their favorite spots, and built societies and technologies. Towns and cities sprung up, and people had time to pursue arts, literature, and leisure activities. As the population grew and settled in, so did culture. Of course, these events did not happen all around the world simultaneously. Some parts of the world lagged behind others, although by now, contact of dominant cultures with more primitive ones has transformed the primitive ones so that they at least have knowledge of the modern world.
No one knows how old human language is, but it clearly has had a transformational effect on human society. Language is not only a conveyor of thoughts and ideas, but also, of cultural memes. As humans transformed themselves from being hunter-gatherers to users of agriculture and raising animals to provide for their subsistence, culture became an increasingly complex and powerful force. Cultural memes proliferated as culture evolved complexity. Languages, customs, technologies, foods, religion, political systems, cultural beliefs -- all of these proliferated through the use of cultural memes. Survival was no longer the issue, but rather, whose culture was better (or whose leader was more powerful), what we believe, what traditions we follow, what language we speak, became the relevant issues. Cultures began to compete and cooperate, using memes as weapons or as methods of conciliation, whichever suited a culture's purpose. At this point, memes became the dominant force of evolution, rather than genes.
It is important to note that, just as we do not have a clear indication regarding the origins of human language, but know that it has existed in one form or another for many thousands of years, culture and memes which are culturally transmitted have existed for many thousands of years, in hunter-gatherer societies. There is evidence of artwork and belief systems which engendered burial ceremonies, and most likely weddings as well, and so forth, in these pre-technological cultures. However, the main point that I am making is that memes have become the predominant driver of evolution, as culture has evolved over time in size and complexity while humans have learned to better control their environment, and while our population has grown. This process of cultural evolution continues to this day. In fact, cultural evolution is probably accelerating, if anything. Along with it, changes in spiritual awareness and understanding are beginning to drive a third evolutionary process, spiritual evolution. My next post on evolution will examine my speculations regarding the future of cultural evolution.
Evolution Part 3: Memes versus Genes
Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term memes to refer to ideas which are culturally transmitted. This term has gained traction over the years, and with good reason. A thorough examination of the cultural transmission of ideas reveals the validity of the meme concept. Beliefs, ideas, habits, language and tradition are all memes which are culturally transmitted -- the thought equivalent of genes. In a case of fortuitous circumstance -- or is it synchronicity? -- I saw Dr. Wayne Dyer talking about memes on his new program on public television last night. Wayne Dyer is a Psychologist and spiritual teacher for whom I have great respect and liking. He was saying that memes are like viruses in the way they spread, which does not make them sound very good.
Actually, memes can be like viruses, and very harmful, but they can be good, as well. I think they are better compared to genes. Some of them are good ideas which serve us well and make humanity better when spread. Dr. Dyer's work is an example of that. I hope that mine is as well, and that of all good thinkers. Good new ideas are like beneficial mutations in the genetic structure of culture. They lead us closer to the truth, giving greater and broader understanding, leading us to feel love for each other, and build constructive lives amid a more constructive and fair society. Other memes are like defective genes caused by bad mutations. They lead to false beliefs, hatred, war, misunderstanding, animosity, greed, and selfishness which destroys lives.
Each culture propagates memes through the generations, but also changes when new memes appear like thought mutations. Thus, the concept of the meme accounts for both the continuity of culture, as well as cultural changes over time. When discussing evolution, naturally, we are referring to changes. The most obvious way that a culture can change is that a new, mutant meme, good or bad, can appear and spread through the population. The other way that a culture can change -- actually a mechanism which has had great impact on the world over the past few centuries as cultures meet -- is the transmission of pre-existing memes from one culture to another. Cultures influence each other in various ways, which result in traditions, habits, beliefs, ideas, and even language to pass between cultures. Thus, cultural evolution is a result of both the spread of pre-existing aspects of culture, along with the devolopment of new aspects of culture as time goes on and new ideas and technology arise, and new information becomes available.
Of course, the concept of the meme is just a convenient way of referring to the cultural transmission of information. The actual mechanism of cultural transmission is through cultural exposure and training, which involves the use of language and actions to express and reinforce cultural ideas. Much of this training is essentially brainwashing, but not aspects such as learning a language in order to communicate, or learning basic skills at home or in school. It is the brainwashing aspects of meme transmission which are most dangerous. Destructive memes can come to be believed by many through consistent exposure and reinforcement, no matter how ridiculous they may be in the light of objective evidence. Destructive memes generally have in common that they appeal to people's more selfish impulses, which makes them easy for the unexamining mind to accept. Good memes, on the other hand, basically sell themselves. They stand up to the light of scrutiny, and objective evidence informs us that they work as a whole -- for humanity, for the world.
A basic difference between memes and genes is that, since memes are not genetically transmitted, people essentially have a choice concerning which memes to adopt. Although social pressures to adopt a meme may be great, each person makes a choice regarding which memes to accept. When a person does not accept a meme from his/her culture, there may be a hefty, and grossly unfair, price to pay -- a price paid in unpopularity, social isolation, ridicule, or even ostracism. Nonetheless, we do have a choice, and it is clear that free thinkers througout history have defied their own cultures by refusing to accept popular ideas to which they have been exposed. But this very process of rejecting aspects of one's own culture often leads to new "mutant" memes which are improvements over the old ones. It is usually the outsiders and outcasts who come up with the big new ideas. Another way that new memes develop is as a consequence of science. New technology and new scientific evidence lead to new memes, ones which are generally improvements over that which they may replace.
A second basic difference between memes and genes is that unlike genes, people are not born with memes. Memes can be acquired at any time during the course of a life, although most of the basic and most influential ones are typically learned during childhood and adolescence. It takes a person with a very open mind to develop a whole new world view or way of thinking as an adult. Nonetheless, there are such people in the world. Memes can be transmitted, or reinforced, whenever people communicate with each other. In that way, they do spread somewhat like viruses. Also, memes do not have to be permanent properties of an individual. They are malleable and can change. Interestingly, genetics research in recent years has developed the concept of epigenetics -- the idea that, while our genes themselves do not change, their expression does change as a result of our experiences, and our own willful cognitive and emotional processes. That is, we can willfully influence the expression of our own genes! Also, though, the expression of our genes (which genes are turned "on" or "off" at which times and where in our bodies), is influenced by aspects of our environment over which we do not exert control. In any case, recent understanding of genes themselves makes them appear more memelike in that their expression is malleable.
In upcoming posts, I will discuss the history of cultural memes in human societies, and my speculations about the future of cultural memes.
Evolution Part 2: One Human Race
This is a difficult topic to cover. I have thought about it from time to time for many years, but it is still perplexing. I am referring to the future physical evolution of the human species, assuming we are around long enough to evolve physically.
Of course, anything specific about our future physical evolution involves much speculation. However, there are some conclusions which follow from logic. After much thought, the main conclusion is that the most important thing is that we remain one human race with a common fate. Anthropology shows us that the various peoples of the world in all of their diversity and different races, have developed fairly recently. At the same time, geneticists inform us that the differences between peoples of different races are very small genetically. A few mutations and differences in a few genes can result in very different appearances, and thus, the so-called races. Now that culture has gone global, people of different races are intermarrying at increasing rates, anyway, so that racial differences are being dissipated, at least from a genetic standpoint. Actually, intermarriage among different peoples has occurred for thousands of years, but seems to be accelerating. Thus, it is fortunately unlikely that humans will ever diverge into multiple species, despite the best efforts of corporate imperialists to create a worker bee class of intellectually inferior laborers.
My second conclusion is that once culture goes global, the rules of natural selection are short-circuited. Selective pressures favoring or disfavoring certain genes are far diminished. Being of superior intelligence is no longer a major advantage. Nor is being a fast runner, or any other such physical trait. Even being good looking does not afford any particular genetic advantage. Even the homely are generally able to find someone to have children with, if that is their desire. It is difficult (but not impossible) to think of a trait which would offer a clear genetic advantage to modern humans.
I have thought about this issue from many angles. I do think there will be physical evolution, but not dramatic changes. My overall assesment is optimistic. As a progressive force, despite fears of humans somehow devolving, changes in our gene pool which take place through natural selection processes will largely be for the better. Yes, I have thought of things from the paranoid perspective, but ultimately realized that this was unrealistic thinking. You know the type of thinking -- racist, xenophobic, elitist. The thinking goes "Oh my God, the dumb people are having more babies than us! Irresponsible people are having a bunch of babies, and letting other people raise them! Are we going to turn into a race of irresponsible, stupid slobs who refuse to take care of our own?" I don't think so. Those traits have a tendency to lead to self-destructive behavior, which counteracts any tendency they might have toward careless procreation. What about the race factor? Some elements in society have the meme: "The Brown people are taking over, and the Yellow people, and the Red people, and the Black people. They are all outbreeding us" (White people). Of course, the White People and the Pink People, and whoever, still continue to have children as well. The fact is, birth rates are declining worldwide, but ironically, our population continues to increase far too much. Given how fickle skin color and race itself seems to be, as well as the interbreeding among peoples which is taking place, genetically, people's descendants after several thousand years may bear little racial resemblance to their forebears, anyway. If anything, changes which will take place genetically may lead to a propensity for greater longevity, since lives are not being cut short so frequently anymore. People with resistance to what are now, but were not during our evolutionary history, the most common causes of death, will be favored. Thus, genetic resistance to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, fatal infections, and so forth will be selected for.
On a behavioral level, I see postive changes coming as well. In the past, there was no formal justice system, life was difficult, and the brutal often prospered. That is no longer the case. One of the great advantages of culture is that we become a peole of law -- law which encodes a system of morality. This means that wicked behavior is punished, and censured socially, so that opportunites for such people to dominate their peers and leave more offspring are reduced. What does this have to do with genetics? According to genetic studies of the heritability of personality traits and intelligence, such as the "Minnesota Twins Study" which examines identical twins adopted to different families at birth, these are essentially a nature-nurture interaction, being about half genetic, half environment and free will. Traits such as dominance, impulsivity, or even lack of conscience most likely have a significant (about 50%) genetic component. When such traits lead to reduced chances to reproduce because of our social structure, the genes which encourage these traits should become less common in the population.
A caveat to all of this genetic discussion is that there is a tendency to overestimate the importance of genetics. Even though we know that studies show that personality and intelligence are around 50% heritable, being sentient beings, we have the capacity of free will to defy our own genetic tendencies. We can learn from our mistakes, and, even if we don't have the best genetic codes, capacity for intelligence, or behavioral tendencies, we can learn to compensate for these problems. This involves cultural and spiritual evolution, which has now become a more predominant factor than physical evolution in our advancement as a species.
Another wild card in all of this is the intentional element in determining which genes are propagated -- genetic engineering and social Darwinism. An example of the later is the sperm bank in which all of the donors have won Nobel Prizes. Many of the resulting children, not surprisingly, are indeed very talented intellectually. It is difficult to know where this intentional element -- playing God, as it were -- will lead. Much of that depends upon attitudes and policies regarding our role in consciously shaping our own genetic future. One can only hope that if the intentional propagation of traits is done, it is done with public support, openly, wisely, and with proper restraint.
Evolution Part 1: Physical, Cultural, and Spiritual
Evolution is a progressive force. Our planet's history attests to that. However, the evolution which biologists study is essentially the physical evolution of species. I assert that there are 3 types of evolution, not 1: physical evolution, cultural evolution, and spiritual evolution.
Studies of physical evolution show that life not only adapts to its environment, and fill niches in the ecosystem, but also, diversifies over time, becomes more complex, and most importantly, becomes more intelligent. A logical result of this process is that if allowed to continue for a sufficient period of time, an intelligent species will result. That is us. Once intelligent life develops, the dynamics of the entire system changes. An intelligent species can dominate the planet, as we do, change the environment for its own purposes, and also throw the ecosystem out of balance and destroy the previous environment in unintended ways, as we have.
One consequence of the vast changes to the environment engendered by the human race, may actually be an evolutionary one. Evolutionary biologists inform us that when the environment changes, evolution is accelerated. Furthermore, evolution occurs in spurts, rather than being a steady, gradual progression. Some species have remained virtually unchanged for over 100 million years. They fill a niche which has existed for a very long time, and there is no evolutionary pressure for them to change. Other species, and even classes of species, appear in a relative blink of an eye, in geological terms. Great environmental changes, such as the die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, create opportunities for surviving species, such as our early mammalian ancestors. As a result, relatively rapid evolution occurs for a period of time as new species repopulate the planet and fill new niches. Now, due to human activities, another widespread extinction event is occuring. As a result, new species should evolve. This will not be likely to happen very noticeably in the span of a human lifetime, but over many thousands of years or a few million years -- still a very short time in history of our planet. (Naturally, this evolutionary process will prove that evolution is for real, disproving evolution's naysayers, but it will take many generations to become evident.)
Another consequence of the development of intelligent life is the advent of complex culture. Cultures also evolve. Human history shows a progression of culture over time. Technologies advance rather predictably. Cultures become more inclusive and incorporate ideas and techniques from other cultures. Cultures go from the rule of the powerful to the rule of law. People's behavior becomes by and large more humane toward each other, though still far from perfect. Government goes from autocracy toward democracy. Finally, people embrace philosophical and spiritual ideals which encourage further advances. Most importantly, as a species we become an agent of our own evolution. We play a collective role in directing the evolution of our own cultures and spirituality. In fact, we even have developed the capability of directing the physical evolution of life, to some degree, including our own species. Talk about playing God -- with our success, such issues are facing us.
The final consequence of being an intelligent lifeform, is, I believe, that of spiritual evolution. Religions can be viewed as attempts to explain the universe, the world, and our place in it. They depend upon the culture of the period during which they are formed, what kind of beliefs and knowledge the people had at the time, or have. In that sense, religions are a part of culture. Religion, however, is not the same as spirituality. Religion represents a belief system, while spirituality represents our human need to understand and connect to whatever makes this marvelous universe what it is. Spirituality can be played out within the context of a religion, but it can also be agnostic, or represent a belief system not found in any established religion. Even people who consider themselves to be atheists can have spiritual feelings of connection with humanity, the world, or the universe in which they find themselves. Recent surveys indicate that the percentage of Americans who do not believe in any particular religion has been increasing dramatically. For the most part, the same is probably true of the rest of the world (or has been, or will be). Some people decry such findings as indicative of a loss of spirituality, but not I. Rather, losing one's religion, or never having one, does not quash one's spirituality. If anything, it reawakens a person's spirituality, resulting in a new search for spiritual understanding, and connection to the spiritual presence of the universe. As a result, new forms of spirituality develop, more open minded ones, and ones which take into account what we have learned scientifically over time. Early forms of religion are more traditional, more conformist, more filled with mythology, and unfortunately more popular than modern forms of spirituality. However, over time, the forms which spirituality takes evolve to reflect our improved knowledge and more accurate world views. Even long-established religions need to make concessions to the times and even to science in some instances.
Spirituality is the final frontier of evolution. Eventually, we hope to have a much greater understanding of the universe, its spiritual presence, our relation to this presence, and our place in the universe. As long as we are spiritual beings, our spirituality as a species will progress.
The Continuum of Life and Our Place in it
When I was a child, I would often wonder why I was a human, not an animal. That is still a good question. It is a question which gives us humility and brings us closer to our animal relatives. The best answer that I have been able to come up with is that I am asking these sorts of questions and having these sort of thoughts because I am a human. A human being has human intelligence, including human thoughts and feelings. In other words, only an intelligent, sentient being can think as we do, or feel the kinds of emotions that we do. In this universe, my guess is that there are innumerable life-bearing planets, some of them with intelligent life. Perhaps I could have found myself as one of these other intelligent life-forms, but I never would have found myself being a bacterium, or a sea urchin, for example.
However, it is clear to me that life exists on a continuum. Regardless of the whatever creation story is found in a particular religion or culture, the story of this planet seems written plainly for anyone with the intelligence and curiosity to investigate it, and this story tells us of a planetary history spanning several billion years, and an evolutionary history of life on this planet which spans much of this time. Geologists and biologists continually add to our knowledge of earth's history and the history of its life-forms as they unearth and analyze more evidence. It is clear that we are products of evolution. Apparently, we are the first life-form on earth to be intelligent enough to engage on a species level in such large-scale systematic acquisition of knowledge, and transfer of that knowledge across generations, that we are able to use that knowledge to transform our own environment. Our ability to communicate complex ideas to one another and to transform our environment has resulted in human domination over other life-forms on earth. Despite this domination, it is clear that life exists on a continuum. The animals we share this planet with possess intelligence, to one degree or another, just not human intelligence. Many animals are capable of systematically acquiring knowledge, and even teaching it to their offspring, but this ability does not approach that of humans. Many animal species are capable of communication, but not the sophistication or creativity of human language.
Furthermore, it appears that through the miracle of evolution, all of us are related. We share a past in common, and we continue to be linked inextricably. Through the process of evolution, life becomes ever more complex, including the evolution of more intelligent species. Therefore, I say, Thank God for Evolution! Even the changes which we humans are unwittingly foisting upon this planet's climate and ecology are probably accelerating evolutionary processes. Life is nothing if not adaptive.
The reasons above explain the intellectual underpinnings of the strong empathetic connection that I have with animals. I am sure that there are many other educated persons who share a similar philosophy toward our relatedness with animals, although not everyone may have fully articulated this position. A more basic reason for my love of animals goes back to childhood, and the basic development of empathy which extends to animals. I largely learned empathy for animals through having pet cats, but also through many other experiences with animals. Such empathy building experiences with animals are shared by a great many of us. Empathy is an extremely important development, and makes us better people, both in our treatment of animals, and our fellow human beings.
When I was young, my mother bought several "Sensitive Plants." These are plants which respond by closing their leaves when touched, which makes them seem as though they have a nervous system. Of course, they do not. In fact, no plant does. But my experiences with Sensitive Plants and my musings made me wonder. Do plants enjoy some sort of experience of their lives? Do they enjoy growing, blooming, and reproducing, or is it just people who enjoy watching them do so? I do not really have any solid answers to those questions. However, my cumulative understanding of the nature of reality informs me that our entire universe consists of energy and energy fields. Even what we know as matter is really concentrated, constrained energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. It is eternal. Thus, plants share part of the same like force which we do, something which is an inherent property of the universe. As I have heard Thom Hartmann, the progressive author and radio talk show host, relate several times on his show, a turning point of his early life was when he was around seven years old, and went to visit a farm. The farmer pointed out all of the things he could see -- trees, clouds, the breeze moving the trees, the ground, and so forth -- leaned over and whispered "I have a secret; it's all alive." This may seem a bit farfetched to many people, but it certainly is "food for thought." In fact, I had a similar experience around that same age, except that mine was a sudden awareness of a universal consciousness of which I was a part. Even the most skeptical person would have to admit that our universe is structured in a way which makes life possible. And since, and all life, is part of this universe, and are composed of the same elements found in inanimate objects, and the same energy forms, there must be inherent possibilities of life in all matter and in all energy. Thus, I do not really know whether plants are capable of having any sort of awareness of the process of living or not, but they are definitely part of the continuum of life.
It is important to remember that we are indeed animals. We share a common heritage, genetic basis, and physiology with them. Even if we view plants as inert and inactive life-forms, it is clear that all animals are active and have some sort of nervous system. As implied in the beginning of this essay, I surmise that the intelligence of an animal correlates with its awareness of and experience of life. Simpler, less intelligent animals can be presumed to have little awareness of their existence, in fact, probably no awareness of the sort humans experience. A common question asked by those concerned about animal ethics, is "Do these animals feel pain?" Eunice was talking to me yesterday about the cruelty of cutting off sharks' fins, then throwing them back into the ocean. She asked me whether i thought that sharks feel pain. I replied that they are probably unaware of their own existence, at least not in the sense that we experience awareness, so they would not experience pain in any form that we would recognize. Nonetheless, thoughtless practices such as these with animals are disturbing.
Since we are animals, we must rely on other life-forms for sustenance. We are all caught in the same web of life. Some people choose to be vegetarians, based on ethical concerns, which is admirable. However, I disagree with the idea of converting people to a vegetarian diet for several reasons. One is that we are physiologically built for an omnivorous diet, so that it is difficult for vegetarians, especially vegans, to receive adequate nutrition. This problem is more severe in the early, formative years of life. A second reason is ecological. Were all humans to eat only plants, with the great numbers of humans on this planet, the strain on the plant resources would be enormous, we would probably have difficulty growing enough food, and the ecosystem would be thrown out of balance, even more than it already is. Anyway, we would be removing food sources from vegetarian animals, while leaving predators alone. Thus, vegetable eating animals would be besieged by both lack of food, and by predators. We would really be doing animals no favor by restricting our diets to plant matter. Furthermore, we would have to ignore the major seafood sources found in our oceans, lakes, and rivers, further stressing the lands ability to provide for our nutrition needs. The third reason is that, as already discussed in this essay, the assumption that animals "feel pain" and experience life in much the same way as humans, seems a form of anthropomorphication. Presumably, more intelligent animals do experience a sense of pain as well as pleasure which begins to more closely approximate ours, but not so with more simple-minded animals. On the other hand, even plants may experience life in some way.
My conclusion is that the best solution to the dilemma of what to eat is to have a balanced and ecologically sustainable diet consisting of mostly vegetable matter, supplemented by some animal matter, but preferably avoiding eating the meat of the more intelligent animals -- certainly no dolphin, whale, or monkey meat for me. Actually, eating the meat of mammals such as pigs, cattle and sheep may be morally questionable as well, but these meats are so commonly eaten that they may be difficult to avoid in our culture. I admit that I do eat some of these types of meats, but not very much. They may be used as a source of milk and cheese, for example, while chickens may be used for their eggs, without eating them, in order to be more humane. Seafood, including various fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, are very instinctive creatures with relatively simple brains. They probably "don't know they are alive" (to quote myself), at least not in the sense we are accustomed to, so they make a good food source. Furthermore, seafood takes advantage of a sustainable resource which does not tax our land resources. Another underutilized ocean food resource is seaweed, which is actually quite good to eat. Commonly eaten birds such as chickens and turkeys, with their small, instinctive brains, also make a good food source. (Some kinds of birds such as parrots are pretty smart, though.)
Of course, such considerations depend on value judgements and guesses, so as with many ethical questions, there is an element of subjectivity. "Where do you draw the line?" Different people will answer this question differently, and it is important to respect that as long as people act reasonably and in good conscience. What we must all keep in mind, though, is that we are all in this together, not just we humans, but all life-forms on this planet. Thus, even as we use and rely on them, we should honor and respect other forms of life, and when we can, we should love and nurture life of all kinds.