25. Two ways of knowing: instinct and conscious thought

(continued) Chapter 3.           Long Evolution: Life Emerging



More context

We continue our exploration of the important context within which life evolves.


You may be wondering: Why give so much attention to background? Because, important as it is, “context” is the most poorly understood aspect of the poorly understood subject of evolution. If popular public understanding of evolution can be generalized as semi-illiterate – and it can (how many people do you know well enough informed, and willing, to discuss evolution in anything approaching this chapter’s scratch-the-surface details?) – agreement on the scientific context of evolution among scientists themselves may rightly be called “limited” (especially down at the neo-Darwinist end of eminent mindsets).


This telling accordingly emphasizes understanding the significance of the background context in which life evolution occurs before we finally arrive at a quick run-through of life’s evolutionary history per se. Understanding evolution requires first understanding the context within which it takes place. The history of life’s evolution on earth is the easy part – e.g., the simplistic image of a “tree of life,” or, popularly, a long line of creatures evolving from microbes and worms on the left, ascending to knuckle-dragging pseudo-apes and tall humans striding nobly to the right. To attain some genuine understanding of evolution, so grievously lacking in American society, the hard part is all context.


Rocks don’t die

Every plant and animal can die, and sooner or later does so regardless whether it reproduced itself during its window of opportunity. This dying property very clearly distinguishes living plants and animals from non-living elements, minerals and rocks which cannot and do not die even though they may weather and chemically degrade away to the finest sand over time. The dying phenomenon raises yet again the question of what life is, since in both cases – living and non-living – the constituent atoms are quite unaffected by life or death; e.g., after the rock has weathered away and the body has died, all their respective atoms go right on as if nothing had happened, uncaring, to eventually join up once again as parts of some other temporary material constructs.


Dying may happen to terminate a particular line of living tissue that has been handed down through millions of generations from that unknown ancient first life, but a particular dying does not terminate life itself. The late dinosaur kingdom is a splendid example – the extinction of these great beasts merely opened up a huge environmental empty space for mammals to move into and multiply fruitfully, just as Genesis 1 directed.


Despite earth’s five great extinctions preceding the new sixth one we’re now causing, none ever eliminated all life. True, species were vastly reduced – especially the more intelligent ones with larger braincases – but each extinction event left plenty of life to reproduce on. In evolution’s ceaseless continuum, the children of individual plants and animals go on, reproducing again and again in unending fullness everywhere on the earth. Life itself (as found on planet earth) will not completely end until biosphere and earth itself perish in long evolution’s cosmic scheme of things. Astronomers see this sort of thing happen all the time as stars grow old, eat their planets, explode and join infinity.


But not yet for our star. Life in our local solar system is what we’re concerned with here – life itself. Established so far is that 1) morphological organization (template-based, ascended from that first life), 2) survival (danger avoidance and throughput of energy-providing food) and 3) exponential reproduction constitute observable and distinguishing characteristics of every entity we can all agree is “alive.”


The instinctive urge

There is a fourth characteristic which is seldom discussed, even by those who understand evolution well, and so we shall now discuss it.  I have spoken above of each living organism’s inner “urge” to accomplish the three characteristics of life: organize, survive, reproduce. It is clear that this urge exists, otherwise the brand new infant still inside its egg would not bother to peck its way out.  Why bother? Because “the urge” compels it to bother. Without this compelling urge none of us would bother to get out of bed each morning. But we do. We all have a compelling urge to get up and go. This urge in each and every one of us is another definer of life. Get up! it commands, do something!


And we comply – right down to the humblest worm and spider, clear up to the laziest slob and the meanest thief – we rouse ourselves and start our day of…doing something. When mental illness robs us of this fundamentally life-defining inner urge, we lapse into apathy, lassitude and purposelessness, and die of something psychiatrists call, for want of a better word, ennui. Ennui is often seen in laboratory animals confined in small cages or too-small caged areas which prohibit their every urge to get out, go, do something. Denied freedom to respond to their compelling instinctive urge, they soon die.


Some folks might call this urge to do – to be active – a manifestation of the spirit of God within us, mandating a purposeful reason for our existence and evolving life experience. But no fair jumping ahead to conclusions so fancy as that yet – we have to establish more fundamentally the background context for what lies deep, deep, within our living evolved selves.


This urge is “built in” – it came with the genes. When spoken of at all it’s commonly referred to as “instinct,” though that word fails to explain anything at all. It’s easy to observe instinct in the animal kingdom, where “animals” are things that, mostly, can move about from one place to another, unlike “plants” which mostly cannot. The new mammal mother turns her mammas toward her new babies, they struggle to grasp the mammas with their little mouths, and then they suckle – the path to survival…so they can grow up and reproduce. Nobody taught the mother or the babies how to do this, they just know. Equivalent knowledge is instinctively present in every animal species – no exceptions. So what is it? What is this irresistible primal urge, enabling us to do and do well what we have not learned how to do, which we call instinct?


It goes by many names. These are poorly defined and include words without any real meaning, such as “life force” and “consciousness.” Such words are in common and widespread usage – spoken without thinking. For example, we all agree that something called consciousness exists, because we know we ourselves have it – on a most personal level we experience our own consciousness. “Life force” is a little shakier because nobody can say what it really means, though many agree it is real. Bearing comparable uncertainty is “intelligence,” that indefinable something which is plain to see in our own children but not in the neighbor’s heathen whelps. And what if I said “spirit,” or even “soul.” How about photosynthesis? Is “life force” any fuzzier than these other ill-defined words?  Is your mindset open today?


Right before our eyes

Have you ever looked deep into your dog’s eyes and seen intelligent, unconditional love looking back? In certain circles it is widely said that “unconditional love” is the prime descriptor of God (at least among those who believe in God). Have you ever watched a half dozen deer younglings at play – leaping, twisting in midair, frolicking joyfully in a great huge pile of leaves, mama deer standing sedately nearby, nanny watching the kids play? I have seen both these things, and am the richer for it.


These and many similar examples present an interesting question to our reasoning minds: Where does innate instinctive knowledge end and thinking begin? Thinking – right now, in the present moment – thinking about how to respond to some situation that has arisen in the surrounding environment… Some examples can make instinct and thinking seem like two alternative paths to knowledge on how to successfully survive and reproduce.


For instance, have you watched a crow use a stick-tool to pull in some tasty edible it can’t otherwise reach? Seen grieving elephants solemnly laying branches over the body of their kin, lying there newly dead, the life they knew for so long now departed from them? Talked with a parrot that clearly understands and uses syntax, an undeniably sophisticated feature of human language? Seen a chimp mother crying over her dead baby? Observed a worm learn and remember its way through a maze? Seen what dolphins can do, how they act, seen the evidence of how smart they must really be if we could but understand them? Have you read how potted plants made a lie detector meter jump off the scale when told, by the experimenter’s unspoken thoughts, that they would be harmed by a knife or a flame? Most of us encounter hundreds of stories like these, anecdotally or as random articles in science magazines and other credible writings. But we mostly do not pay attention. We do not connect the anecdotes and articles into a pattern, or notice the many ways in which the instinctive urge attending life is evident and all around us every day.


The examples just cited do not represent instinct, they represent thinking. And everywhere it occurs, in any species whatsoever, thinking does not rely on instinctive built-in knowledge. It uses the mind’s capacity to attain knowledge, ponder on it, and create new knowledge, all on the spur of the moment. In any animal species we may consider, instinctive knowledge is present in its full range from the moment of birth (though the range is greater or lesser in different species), ready to take over and guide behavior whenever the need may arise, right down to the specific details on whatever behavior is needed.


Not so with thinking. This ability too is present at birth, but it is a generalized ability, undeveloped – no instinctive details, just a mere potential, awaiting development. All our fellow animals do indeed develop their thinking ability as far as their brain capacity allows, as do quite a few of the human animals. This is good, because thinking is far more powerful than instinct, even though it lacks the powerful drive of the instinctive urges. No instinct told the crow to use a stick as a tool – the crow thought up a way to reach that tasty morsel and necessity was the mother of invention. No instinct tells the grieving elephants to grieve – they clearly are saddened, as would be you and I, to have lost one of their relatives with whom they have shared years of daily living. Likewise the chimp mother who knows – understands – that her baby is dead, and the new life she had looked forward to raising, sharing life with, is no more. And so she visibly and audibly weeps, as you and I have done while thinking in our sadness over loving loss.


Tell me: How can anyone carry around a mindset so closed that it feels compelled to mislabel as instinct such clearcut evidence of intelligent thinking? And yet there are many who deny any animals but humans think. Does anyone actually believe Alex the loveable blabbermouth African gray parrot learned to use human linguistic syntax by instinct? Even the lowly worm, with its little dab of consciousness and intelligence is not guided through that maze by instinct. The worm must learn, and remember, after many times of traveling through to the food, to stop turning down the wrong paths, to retrace the shortest and quickest path to the food which, after many tries, it learned with its rudimentary little version of thinking. Worms are low thinkers, dolphins are high thinkers. Can any observer of creative, proactive dolphin behavior, making choices in every moment, actually doubt it? Here is the message: They all can think, and they do.


And how shall we account for those potted plants which were in fact observed to make a polygraph meter jump dramatically when the experimenter, Cleve Backster, drove out to the edge of town, miles from the plants, and there stopped and thought about what the plants’ reaction would be if he cut them with a knife or burned them with a match? And the precise moment at which he had these thoughts, duly timed and coordinated back at the lab, was the same time at which the needle of the polygraph machine attached to the plant jumped off the scale. Backster’s extensive work on recording plant behaviors with  a polygraph have been pooh-poohed by proper science which says he didn’t have the credentials, he didn’t follow proper scientific method, he didn’t do this or that, he violated certain closed scientific mindsets…


In point of fact, Backster’s serious plant experiments, carefully conducted, well recorded and well publicized over a number of years, raise fascinating deep questions about plant cognition that have never been addressed since. His findings suggest at least the presence of instinct in plants as well as animals, and hint at deeper questions such as telepathy and – yes – thinking. Not to mention one of the greatest mysteries still not solved by science after a hundred years of failed attempts:  to understand simultaneous action at a distance, as in quantum physics.


People with skeptical mindsets are standing in line to denounce these poignant examples as meaningless, to tell us terms like “life force” are ridiculous (though they don’t hesitate to mention “instinct”). Misguided or not, such people are not without significance. I have read in professional publications the words of directors of animal experimentation laboratories pronouncing their great certainty that “animals don’t feel pain,” that “animals lack anything we could call feelings or consciousness.”   …Mygod…   Have such people never witnessed with their own eyes a dog limping from the pain of a thorn in its paw? Or loved that dog after it leaped joyfully, proactively, into its person’s lap, seeking love?


But no – be assured, gentle reader, such unfeeling closed mindsets are still with us unto this very hour, set in their troglodytian certainty that our fellow creatures which evolved right along with us “have no feelings, no consciousness.” This mindset actually exists, in many quarters – scientific, religious, unthinking – and accordingly causes much pain and suffering among captive animals which most certainly do feel pain. In its abject failure of understanding, this mindset fails to respect life. Failing to see humans and the rest of the animal kingdom as products of a common process of long evolution – an effect set in motion by Cause beyond human imagining – this mindset is itself not fully conscious.

*          ©          *


…to be continued in one week…


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