Evolution has not stopped. And it won’t—it is ongoing, forever. Constant change will happen so long as there is anything that can change. What we call modern humans will in due course be supplanted by…whoever it is that we eventually evolve into. Homo futuris? Homo divinus? Homo stupidus?—maybe we won’t further evolve at all if we continue toward self extinction by utterly fouling the environment our lives depend on.
Never doubt extinction as real possibility—the precedents are there before us in those twelve other Homos who no longer walk the earth. And if you doubt we have the power to make ourselves extinct, just have a chat with the CEO of any corporation in the business of making a profit out of fossil fuels. Ask him (they’re all male) if he’s willing to cut back on profits sufficient to attain a whopping two percent (2%) reduction of the carbon/methane pollution that’s destroying our environment and driving hundreds of species to extinction. Fat chance.
But we might survive. And if we get smarter than is presently the case, and with some luck, and given the clearly observable upward trajectory of long and fast evolution, something “higher” than us can reasonably be expected to follow us in time to come—a future Homo smart enough to not burn coal, or oil, or gas. Or even firewood, much less whole forests. At this point in human evolution there’s a whole lot of dumb out there.
The determined NDE skeptics. The ideological free trade true believers. The evangelical true believers. The communist Bolshevik true believers. The global warming denialists. The redneck goodoleboy gun righters. The militant atheists. The ignorant lashing out in egotistical false pride of their own ignorance; The jihadist terrorists. The raving hellfire-and-brimstone preachers. The Neo-Darwinists (Who?). What have they all in common?
Natural selection has been operating on planet earth for more than three and a half billion years. It is fully functional today, and is widely hailed among biologists who have learned quite a lot about it and are still learning daily by the barrelful. It is exuberantly hailed among that sub-subset of biologists who self identify as “neo-Darwinists,” thereby falsely implying some special connection of themselves to the illustrious legacy of the master, Charles Darwin. In my opinion Darwin, a fully open-minded man, would object.
Neo-Darwinists stoutly announce their absolute conviction that natural selection is the one way and the only way biological evolution occurs. They commonly decry—in overloud voices and writings seething with ridicule—all points of view that differ from their own. They speak insulting of fellow biologists whose research leads to other viewpoints, and they speak atrociously of all persons gullible enough to believe in—or even consider—any religious or spiritual possibilities. Like that sixth-century revisionist in Genesis chapter two, they KNOW the truth. And they seem to enjoy pissing people off.
“Knowing certainty” has been previously mentioned in this book, usually with the special disdain I harbor for all its disagreeable forms, every one. Neo-Darwinists speak with knowing certainty of “determinism.” By this they mean that you and I and all other living creatures have no such thing as “free will” because of their religion-like belief that biological evolution—like the initial conditions of physics before it—determines everything that happens. It’s all inevitable, they say; you’re just deluding yourself if you think you have any freedom of choice. Neo-Darwinists write whole books about how free will, in humans and all other species, is a will-o-the-wisp. They know this. They know absolutely that in a world governed by natural selection, free will does not, cannot, exist.
Neo-Darwinistic determinism is the scientific fundamentalist version of predestination, the same as the religious fundamentalist’s equal certainty that everything that happens was pre-decided and made to happen by God, and therefore—obviously—you have no free will or choice about anything whatsoever, including whether your immortal soul, your everlasting Self, will eventually wind up agonizing in the fires of hell because that, too, was predetermined by God, long before you as an innocent infant were born into your fully predestined life. Sometimes it’s hard to tell these peoples’ mindsets apart.
But: by the self-initiated free exercise of what I believe on both visceral and rational grounds to be my personal free will, I hereby conclude that Neo-Darwinists reside at one extremely far end of a bi-polar divide in biological science where they have self segregated themselves from their more open-minded scientific brethren, and they do not seek or tolerate any third options. Their mindsets, one may reasonably say, are as closed as those of fundamentalist preachers and fanatic apologists for unregulated capitalism—another closed-mindset gang we’ll presently get around to. I advise ignoring them all.
On human exceptionalism
An important distinction: Many experts on biological evolution object to a widespread misconception generally called “human exceptionalism.” For example, Henry Gee, senior editor of the British science journal Nature, has described exceptionalism as “the tendency to see ourselves as the inevitable culmination of a progressive trend of advancement in evolution.” He goes on to say: “…an untenable view of human evolution [is] one that can only admit to a single pathway of evolution in which human beings stand at the head of a single line of ancestors, each one progressively improved compared with the one before. Proponents of this view tend to be both passionate and argumentative, and become more so as evidence mounts to discredit it. This suggests that the argument is…an attempt to shore up a view of the world that is fundamentally mistaken.”
Gee accurately notes—and objects—that so many people believe humans are the pinnacle of a rising chain of evolutionary links proceeding, inevitably, from “lowly” first-life viruses and bacteria all the way upward to primates and hominids, human hominids being at the summit of a single, ascending evolutionary line. Versions of this view are held not only by religious mindsets convinced that God made Man to rule over the rest of the animal kingdom including wo-men, but many science-minded folk also assume Homo sapiens to be the “culmination” of inevitable rise in evolution’s upward directionality.
They may all happen to be right, even if for wrong reasons, but this view does not represent biological evolution through natural selection. “Human inevitability” in fact was never inevitable at all. Each individual step—via mutations, symbiosis or whatever influenced life evolution—in the apparently upward “direction” produced by evolution has occurred by chance and chance alone. Random natural selection could have produced an infinite number of different scenarios. The one we have arrived at as of today is a product of evolution’s central feature: change by sheer chance. Like God rolling dice.
If you could rewind the tape of life’s evolution on the planet earth, re-playing it over again and again, it would produce different paths and different end products with every replaying. Only a single one of those paths would culminate in the humankind we know. Other paths could produce furry humans, tiny humans with bushy tails, no humans at all—or very brainy dinosaurs, which in fact almost happened. And, don’t forget, humans are merely the outermost tip of one particular branch on a multi-branched bush of life seen in top view. Many other branches are there too, on both sides of our branch and all around the bush, still evolving in their own upward (outward) directions.
But one thing would not change. Regardless of perspective, the overall trend of all branches is “upward”—from less to more complex, lower to higher—and the self organizing and emerging is a constant, unchanged, in every scenario that can be imagined. Life started as a molecule, advanced through sponges and lizards until we got brains big enough to make Twinkies. These guiding factors of evolution do not change.
Though informed evolutionists accept that natural evolutionary change occurs by blind chance and exhibits de facto upward direction, many feel it necessary to insist that the upward direction is not “intentional” even if it is de facto. Moreover—they feel it necessary to add—said de facto upward direction cannot be called evidence of “purpose.” But hold on there—how do they know it cannot? How can they possibly “know” this?
Anyone caught insisting that evolution’s upward direction is not intentional, or does not reflect purpose, reflects nothing more than a closed mindset. Those who so insist have no more grounds to back up their opinions than do those who insist that Biblical holy words absolutely do constitute proof of Godly intention and purpose. These insisters represent a bipolar argument with closed minds on both ends. Opinions abound, but nobody knows anything—unless they’ve had a near-death experience involving the features described earlier. Any certainties about evolution’s directionality—or lack of it—were not handed down to Moses along with the commandments. The question of intentionality and purpose are important matters to which we will return.
True emergence versus exceptionalism
Notwithstanding materialistic scientists’ unease that emergence might unacceptably imply the existence of “a” God, the fact of evolving upward direction is more than obvious to anyone willing to look with an open mind. The same Henry Gee who so objects to popularly “misperceived” directionality in evolution’s unfolding admits:
“…such progressive and inexorable improvement seems to have been precisely what has happened. Over the eons, living things really do seem to have become more complicated. Simple creatures consisting of simple cells, such as bacteria, evolved into complicated creatures consisting of trillions of cells, such as human beings. If “improvement” can be equated with “complexity,” then there seems to have been a general trend, throughout the history of life, for complexity to increase.”
(Henry Gee, The Accidental Species)
Nevertheless, Gee then spends the rest of his book intent on disproving the fact he has just conceded. In his own words, he waxes “passionate and argumentative.” What really exercises him is that so many are the people who misperceive evolution as one straight line of ascent from amoebas up to man, with perhaps a missing link here and there. He doesn’t like religious belief, he doesn’t like ignorance, he doesn’t even like that anyone can be less informed than his own high plateau. Unintentionally, he ranks himself with the misperceivers by filling so many pages raging that it’s all more random than that. Indeed it is more random than that, but methinks he doth protest too loudly. Gee’s unstated agenda, his closed mindset, simply cannot abide the implication that where there is direction there might also be purpose. And that purpose might be God’s. Yes, it might.
Various other scientific mindsets, like Gee’s, are so turned off by popularly misconceived human exceptionalism that they feel compelled to disagree with every conceivable trace of evolution ‘s long upward sweep, regardless how obvious and undeniable the upward direction of that sweep may be. Upward evolutionary direction can in fact be readily observed and has in fact been carefully documented in detail for the better part of two centuries now. This is not human exceptionalism, it is observable facts accurately reported. Nor is it too subtle a distinction to be easily understood. Only closed mindsets would deny the distinction—and of these there are a great many, equally on display, in the establishments of both religion and science as we increasingly have seen.
It is popularly mis-conceived that the term “evolution” refers only to the origin and rise of life on earth. This is incomplete understanding. Yes, of course life’s unfolding story certainly is included in the grand sweep of evolution, but it is only the most recent part—the tail end, so to speak—of evolution’s grand long story that science has revealed to us so far. Evolving life on planet Earth was preceded by the evolving of the earth itself, after prerequisite evolving of cosmic structures of many kinds across the universe since the big bang. Those events are called “cosmological” evolution, the subsequent unfolding of life is called “biological” evolution, but it’s all evolution and should be so taught in schools.
One often hears the angry fundamentalist complaint: “I don’t believe Man came from monkeys!” Beyond the abysmal ignorance betrayed by the statement itself, that such sub-kindergarten miscomprehension can still exist in this modern world reminds how miserable is our failure to educate our own kind at every level from kindergarten on up. If we hope to understand even minimally the reality in which we live our daily lives and pursue our various purposes, we must first comprehend that everything happening everywhere is a manifestation of evolution. The word is as much verb as noun.
Properly understood, evolution includes absolutely everything that has ever happened or ever will—then, now and forever—on earth and across the wide universe. Evolution so far has been unfolding for nearly 14 billion years, a “long evolution” indeed. And ourselves within it, integrally part of it, we’re all swimmin’ to the other side—together.
For those who don’t already know, the concept of evolution is not just a fantastic interpretation of biology thought up by Charles Darwin—a good and thoughtful man of great humility and utmost integrity—to promote Godless atheism. Such contemptible religious fundamentalist reaction is unknowing of the deep inner struggles over which Darwin anguished in attempting to reconcile his own religious foundation, and his beloved wife’s deep religiosity, with his clear-minded reasoning over the fossil and living evidence that lay so compellingly before his eyes—in the barnacles he so painstakingly studied, even in the evolving traits of the generations of pigeons he raised, studied in his pigeon house, and changed by the un-natural selection called selective breeding.
The difference was that he looked, he paid attention and wondered, he pondered what he saw, while others did not and still don’t. Charles Darwin had that rare attribute—a fully open mind linked to a compelling curiosity about what is real. His contributions to human knowledge and advancing understanding are in full rank with humanity’s most notable thinkers from Socrates to Einstein. And his life’s work ran true to the simple, noble, mandates that can reasonably be called human purpose:
While you’re at it help others attain knowledge, so they can better help others.
People of open mindset do not need to be told that understanding evolution is essential to informed, literate, participation in modern civil society. Every mindset opposed to this brilliant, clear reality called evolution is in some measure dragging us all down, holding us all back. Like the non-learners of The Lesson, they’re distracted by useless stuff, useless mansions, useless ideas, useless vile politics. How sad. Let’s move on.
To understand biological evolution’s long track, i.e., simple life forms constantly changing in ways that facilitate emergence of increasingly complex forms up to and including humanity—so far—we must first be informed of the physical elements and their environment from which those simplest, original forms of life emerged. Then, after achieving rudimentary beginnings of understanding the biological phase, we’ll be a tad better prepared to understand the even more complicated cultural phase that follows.