I’ve been thinking about evolution the past few days—how life found its way on Earth, the code which governs its flourishing, how life came back after near-eradication after asteroid strikes or runaway climate change.
I also thought about the missteps along the way (which I include homo sapiens, the leftovers in our bodies from earlier evolutionary trails, like the tail we lose in the fetus, muscles we used to pivot our ears or raise our fur, wisdom teeth, the appendix. We carry humanity’s earlier departures like exist signs along the road which brought us here.
Leaving evolutionary theory aside—I wonder at the grand sweep of geologic time and life’s miniscule occupation in it (eight billion years of Universe, half a billion years of life as we so far can gaze clearly back). Long time before those single-celled organisms started swirling around.
Even longer time for those swirly dots to grow up into homo sapiens, 497 million years to get to the past 3 million years—and then, the haul from 3 million years to the past 12,000 years in which human civilizations raced to the present.
In our lifespan very little biological evolution is evident, and that’s a problem. Life probably won’t have time to put the brakes on us before we or our kids destroy everything.
In our moment, the cumulative effects of the past 200 years of human civilization has baked the planet with carbon emissions so robustly that the age we are on the precipice of—who knows how long, the next 300 years for sure, perhaps 3 million—is a dizzy upward jaunt into dramatic climate events, including coastal flooding, mass extinction and hothouse Earth, where the Arctic will turn tropic and the mid-latitudes will be a zone of swelter where very little life can sustain itself.
If humanity survies, it will be because its technology builds a sufficient carapace to keep human life comfy and somehow reverse the carbon soak in the atmosphere. I live in Florida, a ridiculous notion given the summer’s incessant blaring heat: But with the advent of central air conditioning in the 1950s, my summers pass in cool stasis. My windows suggest an outside very different from within, but who cares? Suburbia is an early draft of that ultimate carapace. Naomi Orestes and Erik Conway give us a look at this future in their science-paper-cum-novel The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future, where in 300 years half a million humans survive in stilt houses in the Arctic Circle, the only temperate zone left on earth.
Such spooky predictions don’t seem all this crazy this morning, with the Gulf Coast reeling from Hurricane Laura, California’s wildfire season just beginning with ore than a million and a half acres already up in smoke and worst-ever monsoon flooding continuing unabated in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Two more depressions on the way across the Atlantic, and it’s raining hard here this morning because a third system has formed weirdly just north of here, a pattern which has repeated several times this year.
As fast as humanity rolls out new inventions of dimensionally powerful and blind consequence, it’s another thing altogether when it comes to slamming the brakes fast enough when things go bad. In the short while since climate change became a driving global issue, very little of substance has been done to stop it. We don’t have sufficient cerebral mechanism for forward thinking, and next to none for reversing course. Got us out of the savannah and safe from cave bears maybe, but here at the crossroads of evolution and human revolution cross paths, life will have to engineer a governor for our overdrive or the universe will. (Wonderful parable for pandemic response in the United States, especially here in Florida.)
Perhaps it is a mistake to equate the speed of human civilization with the biology of evolution. There may be a great fault in thinking the rules of one apply to the other. I’ve been reading Hugh Brody’s Maps and Dreams, an account of sub-Arctic indigenous hunters in in the path of a British Columbia oil pipeline and how all the maps created by an invading white technocracy have no use or value for the tribes who have hunted there for millennia.
Brody notes that where agricultural societies have for the past ten thousand years evolved into carefully planned and engineered to produce a maximum yield, indigenous hunting practices are at least a million and half years older and suggest how an evolved mind truly works. When he is invited to join in a tribal hunt, he is startled by how devoid of planning there is in the operation.
But then he watches—and learns.
The way to understand this kind of decision making as also to live by and even share it, is to recognize that some of the most important variables are subtle, elusive, and extremely hard or impossible to assess with finality. The Athapaskan hunter will move in a direction and at a time that are determined by a sense of weather (to indicate a variable that is easily grasped if all to easily oversimplified by the one word) and by a sense of rightness. He will also have different ideas about animal movement, his own and others’ patterns of land use … But already the nature of the hunter’s decision- making is being misrepresented by this kind of listing. To disconnect the variables, to compartmentalize the thinking, is to fail to acknowledge its sophistication and completeness.
He considers variables as a composite, in parallel, and with the help of a blending of the metaphysical and the obviously pragmatic. To make a good, wise, sensible hunting choice is to accept the interconnection of all possible factors, and avoids the mistake of seeking rationally to focus on any one consideration that is held as primary. What is more, the decision is taken in the doing: there is not step or pause between theory and practice.
As a consequence, the decision—like the action taken from which it is inseparable—is always alterable (and therefore may to properly even be termed a decision). The hunter moves in a chosen direction; but, highly sensitive to so many shifting considerations, he is always ready to change his directions. (17)
Staggeringly backward if you’re planning to lay an oil pipeline, and yet a million-year success: And what have we to say of our two-hundred-year thirst for limitless oil?
And besides, if evolution did not gift us with merciless precision, then how is that a downside for the rest of life?
So perhaps we need to look at evolution with a different eye, certainly when it comes to the species who jacked the code.
OK, ‘nuff said. For this week’s challenge, consider evolution in the world immediately around you. How did we get here, and where do we go from here? In that “world” include your own—kids, cats, pangolins, Donald Trump, wisdom teeth, poetry and cetaceans who returned to the sea 50 million years ago. How do the rules of life mix and contrast with the engines of human civilization? Do extinction events belie what comes next? What has our 3-million-year evolution equipped us with, and what makes modernity so difficult? (Why are we all so fat?) Can evolution be scaled down to the course of a life? Do poems evolve? Does natural selection determine our aesthetics?
I’m really curious to see what you have to