Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Taking Evolution Seriously

Back in 1904, sociologist Max Weber proposed that the modern period was witnessing “the disenchantment of the world” – a process which traditional mythic ideas that wove meaning into human experience were being replaced by the alienating and dehumanizing worldview of materialist science. There’s some truth to Weber’s thesis, but I’m not sure he anticipated the inevitable backlash: the Procrustean stretching and lopping of scientific ideas in the popular imagination that has turned many of them into substitute myths.

One example that has been much on my mind of late is the way the theory of evolution has been manhandled into a surrogate mythology. The reason it’s been on my mind is simple enough: whenever I discuss peak oil at a lecture, book signing, or some other public setting, it’s a safe bet that someone will raise a hand and ask what I think about the possibility that the approaching crisis is part of our transition to a new evolutionary level. I am always left wondering what to say in response, because this sort of question is almost always rooted in the notion that evolution is a linear movement that leads onward and upward through a series of distinct stages or levels – and this notion is a pretty fair misstatement of the way evolution takes place in nature.

Few things in the history of ideas are quite so interesting as the way that new discoveries get harnessed in the service of old obsessions. When X-rays were first detected in 1895, for example, one of the first results was panic over the possibility that the new rays might make it possible to see through clothing; the New Jersey state legislature actually debated a bill to ban the use of X-rays in opera glasses. Wildly inaccurate as it was, this notion was rooted in profound fears about sexuality, and so it took many decades to dispel – when I was a child, ads in comic books still claimed to sell “X-ray glasses” that would let you see people naked.

Something not that different happened to the theory of evolution, and thus nearly all of today’s popular notions about evolution are shrapnel from the head-on collision between Darwin’s theory and the obsessions of the era in which that theory emerged. Social class rather than sex was the driving force here; as religious justifications for the English caste system faltered, the manufacture of scientific justifications for social hierarchy became a growth industry, and by the time the ink was dry on the first copies of The Origin of Species, evolution was already being drafted into service in this dubious cause. The resulting belief system was very nearly a parody of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in advance – all living things evolve, but some are more evolved than others.

Now of course this is nonsense. A human being, a gecko, a dandelion, and a single-celled blue-green alga are all equally evolved – that is, they have all been shaped to the same degree by the pressures of their environment, and their ancestors have all undergone an equal amount of natural selection. We think of humans as “more evolved” than blue-green alga because Victorian Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer engaged in conceptual sleight of hand, transforming the amorphous outward surge of life toward available niches into a ladder of social status, with English gentlemen at the top level and everybody and everything else slotted into place further down. The concept of evolutionary stages or levels was essential to this conjurer’s act, since it allowed social barriers between classes to be mapped onto the biological world.

In nature, though, evolution has no levels, it just has adaptations. There is no straight line of progress along which living things can be ranked. Instead, evolutionary lineages splay outward like the branches of an unruly shrub. Sometimes those branches take unexpected turns, but these evolutionary breakthroughs can no more be ranked in an ascending hierarchy than organisms can. They move outward into new niches, rather than upward to some imagined goal. There are any number of examples from nature; the one I want to use here is the evolution of bats.

The ancestors of the first bats were shrewlike, insect-eating nocturnal mammals, related to early primates, who scampered through the forest canopies of the Eocene around 60 million years ago. For animals that live in trees, the risk of falling is a constant source of evolutionary pressure, and adaptations that will help manage that danger will likely spread through a population; that’s how sloths got their claws, New World monkeys got prehensile tails, and many animals of past and present got extra skin that functions as a parachute. If the extra skin bridges the gap between forelegs and the hindlegs, the most common adaptation, you get the ability to glide, like flying squirrels, colugoes, and the like; you’ve got a viable adaptation, and there you stop.

If the extra skin is mostly on and around the forelimbs, though, you’ve just jumped through the door into a new world, because you can control your glide much more precisely, and you can put muscle into the movements – in other words, you can begin to fly. Once you can do better than a controlled fall, furthermore, the trillions of tasty insects flitting through the forest air are on your menu, and the better you can fly, the more you can catch. The result is ferocious evolutionary pressure toward improved flight skills, and in a few hundred thousand generations, you’ve got agile fliers. That’s what happened to bats, as it happened some 200 million years earlier to the ancestors of the pterodactyls.

By 55 million years ago, bats almost identical to today’s insect-eating bats were darting through the Eocene skies. Sonar seems to have taken a while to evolve, and some offshoots of the family – the big fruit bats and flying foxes, for example – took even longer, but the basic adaptations were set and, to the discomfiture of countless generations of mosquitoes and moths, have remained ever since. As evolutionary breakthroughs go, the leap into flight was a massive success; bats are the second most numerous of mammal orders, exceeded only by the rodents, but it’s impossible to fit the breakthrough that created them into any linear scheme.

Applying an ecological concept to human social systems always takes tinkering, but there are good reasons to accept the idea that societies are capable of evolution; like populations of other living things, human communities face pressures from their environments, and adapt or perish in response. Here again, though, the evolutionary process moves outward in all directions rather than ascending an imaginary hierarchy of levels. Hunter-gatherer systems seem to have been the original form of human society, but other forms branched off as adaptations opened doors to possibilities that were likely as appealing at the time as the bug-filled night sky must have been to the first clumsily flapping proto-bats.

Where large herbivores could be tamed, therefore, nomadic herding societies came into being; where many food plants could be raised in intensive gardens, tribal horticultural societies were born; where extensive fields of seed-bearing grasses offered the best option for survival, agrarian societies took shape. As it turned out, grains could be bred to yield large surpluses that could be transported and stored, and so the agrarian system opened the door to large-scale divisions of labor and the rise of cities. These in turn made complex material culture possible, and ultimately drove the creation of the machines that broke into the Earth’s stockpiles of fossil carbon and gave the modern world its three centuries of exuberance.

Thus industrial society is not “more evolved” than other societies, for for that matter “less evolved.” It was simply the most successful adaptation to the evolutionary pressures that opened up once fossil fuel energy had been tapped, and it outcompeted other systems in something of the same way that an invasive exotic outcompetes less robust native organisms. As fossil fuels deplete and climate change unfolds, the balance of evolutionary pressures is shifting, and as the new reality of limits takes hold, selection will favor those systems that are better adapted to the new ecological constraints of global climate instability, energy scarcity, and resource shortage.

The fact that those new systems are better adapted to new realities, however, does not free them from the human condition. This is where the rubber meets the road, because the people who ask me about the prospects of a new evolutionary level are rarely asking whether the societies of the future will be better adapted to an environment of resource scarcity. They are generally asking whether societies on the other side of an imagined evolutionary leap will be free from problems such as poverty, war, and environmental destruction.

The best way to assess this, it seems to me, is to consider what happened the last time human social evolution yielded a breakthrough to a new way of living in the world: that is, the rise of industrial societies beginning around 1750. Agrarian societies suffered from poverty, war, and environmental destruction, and so did all the other “evolutionary levels” or, rather, adaptations, right back to the hunter-gatherers. Many hunter-gatherers among the First Nations in North America, for example, had sharp social inequalities, a busy slave trade, and a long history of fierce tribal wars. Their ecological relationships were less problematic, since those native societies that failed to find a balance with nature, such as the Mound Builders and the people of Chaco Canyon, collapsed long before 1492.

Just as bats faced the same experiences of hunger, social squabbles, and the unfriendly attentions of predators as their ancestors, the societies that took up industrialism experienced poverty, war, and environmental destruction just like earlier societies, and it’s hard to think of a good reason why the new societies that emerge in response to the evolutionary pressures of the deindustrial age should be exempt from the same troubles. Evolutionary adaptations can make things easier for living things – plenty of predators in the Eocene must have been discomfited when bats evolved the ability to flutter away to safety – but no living thing is exempt from the balances of the natural world. It’s a mistake, in other words, to see evolution as a movement toward Utopia.

When I’ve tried to explain any of the above in public, though, someone – and it’s not always the same someone who asked the original question – usually insists that this may be how biological evolution works, but spiritual evolution is different. Some of my readers just now may have come up with the same objection. All I can say in response is I know of none of the world’s great spiritual traditions that would approve the claim that people living extravagant lifestyles of wealth and privilege – this is, after all, a fair description of life in modern industrial societies from the standpoint of the rest of human experience – can expect a sudden leap to an even more comfortable and convenient life, just because they happen to want it, and would find it a useful way to avoid dealing with the consequences of their own shortsighted choices.

This may seem unduly harsh. Still, the notion that an evolutionary leap will extract us from the mess we’ve made for ourselves is as much a distortion of the realities of the evolutionary process as any Social Darwinist screed. If people want to believe that a miracle will rescue them from the predicament of industrial society, they have every right to their faith, but it would confuse communication a little less to call it a miracle, instead of trying to wrap it in the borrowed prestige of Darwin’s theory. Perhaps it’s the bias instilled by my own Druid faith, furthermore, but it seems to me that if we are going to use evolution as a metaphor, we need to start by taking evolution seriously, rather than imposing our own fantasies on the very different stories that nature is telling us.


RDatta said...
A little Googling ( Google Images: "The Evolution of Man") brings images that suggest that evolution might not imply progress. Improved adaptation to the immediate situation is the force behind all evolutionary Change™ (term in effect trademarked by the incoming Administration). What happens down the road has its effects, but is not the basic evolutionary impetus.

Nor does spiritual progress imply material comfort. Christianity, for example, predicates humanity's spiritual progress on a substantial price tag: God Incarnate's (not just some common criminal's) crucifixion and 3 days & nights in hell.

This may be why people feel that there will be no need for them to suffer, once "spiritual progress" (passage of the camel through the eye of the needle) is accomplished: seeking the Kingdom of God and its righteousness principally to have everything else added unto them.

To the extent that one resides within sense of personal identity, one will continue to filter and refract the external world to conform to that identity. One has to reach a level of spiritual "evolution" where one can think "outside the box".

12/4/08, 12:33 AM

Mrs. Jarvie said...
Hello John Michael,

First some copy editing:
first paragraph, first sentence
"a process which traditional mythic ideas that wove meaning into human experience were being replaced by the alienating and dehumanizing worldview of materialist science."

perhaps an "in" between "process" and "which"?

Twelfth paragraph, first sentence
"Thus industrial society is not “more evolved” than other societies, for for that matter “less evolved.”
I think the first "for" is suppose to be an "or".

Now, I do not think that your critique is unduly harsh. Privileged people are always finding ways to turn themselves into history's winners. They'll use science, spirituality, designer compost bags, organic chocolate, etc.. Thank you this post, and happy birthday to Darwin who turns 200 this year.

12/4/08, 3:23 AM

Robert Magill said...
We Ain't Hirsute No More, No More, No More

The folks way back when were very, very hairy. Life had been going along as usual for eons and eons with everybody just learning to walk upright and throw rocks until one day someone discovered fire.

Everybody was thrilled and excited but soon learned (upon bursting into flame) that this was dangerous stuff for extremely furry people to handle.

So nothing much happened with the new discovery until one day somebody started using an old gnu hide (skin side out of course) as a sort of apron for protection. Viola! The first clothing was invented. It was not used for modesty or for warmth but as a barbeque bib.

So the hunt was on. Everything that could be caught and tasted nice went onto the grill. Life was good.
One day much later on, the strangest little baby boy was born. Cute little guy, no doubt, but almost hairless.

Nobody knew what to do with him. One bunch said ," Leave him for the hyenas", but his mother was frantic so they said," ok ,but if the kid is a problem ,he goes."
Years passed and the little hairless boy grew into a big hairless man.

One day he astounded the gang by handling fire quite easily without even wearing an apron! This was a really big deal and he grew rapidly in status and prestige. So much so that this naked young firebug became the very first shaman.

Apparently he was hugely popular with the ladies because he left a great, long legacy...the rest of us.


12/4/08, 3:41 AM

Dougald Hine said...
One ingredient in the mix by which Darwin's theory was mythologised may be the linguistic ambiguity of his phrase, "the survival of the fittest". In its older, qualitative sense, the "fittest" is the "most appropriate", the best suited to a particular situation. In modern usage, however, "fittest" is more likely to mean the fastest over a hundred metres - an abstract, universal, quantitative criterion of success, by which all may be measured against all.

The evolutionary good fortune of your bats are the result of their "fitness" in the first sense; but, by the time Darwin was writing, Western culture was dominated by a quantitative understanding of reality, so that his ideas were bound to be heard in terms of a universal competition and resulting hierarchy.

Of course, this was - as you say - convenient to the interests of the Victorian English gentleman. Mind you, Iain Boal makes a provocative argument that 'Origin of Species' is itself shaped by those interests, through the influence of Malthus on the formation of Darwin's theory.

12/4/08, 3:45 AM

sudeep bhaumick said...
i have also come across this problem when trying to talk to people about the current situation of the world we live in. where the root cause of all the problems we face is a decay of our culture...

another good source on this topic that i came across some time back was...

Thirty Thesis by Jason Godesky

where he argues that...
# evolution is a result of diversity
# human beings are a product of that diversity
# human beings are neither good nor evil

in the fifth part Jason says something very interesting... "We are neither “good” nor “evil.” We are only inherently social."

personally i have a growing feeling to concur with the theme that Jason paints through the Thirty Thesis, which boils down to...

the civilization that we currently live in is going to collapse because we are not doing enough to stop the ongoing collapse and because complexity itself is a problem.

the people who will survive will be those in communities which have adapted to a more sustainable and less complex culture/lifestyle...

12/4/08, 4:13 AM

shaggy said...
The concepts of 'fitness landscapes' that change abruptly and 'punctuated equilibrium' may be more precise, such as I've tried to use here...
The Role of Policy in the Changing Fitness Landscape of Agriculture

12/4/08, 5:45 AM

Frank said...
Thanks Archdruid for your post. This sort of discussion is widely needed in our culture. Maybe the questions you get about a coming evolution are an example of the distortions that happen as information is passed around. Sort of like the game, "telephone". From the perspective of a group called ISHK, at, there is the possibility of a spiritual evolution for humans just now. ISHK is the current projection of a long line of people, including Rumi just to name one, and organizations working in this area. However, this work is not intended to lead us to a sort of post industrial utopia or nirvana, but rather this evolution would be conscious, and would provide us with perceptions so that we can better see what it means to be human and how that affects the world including all of life. If this "conscious evolution" can be effected widely, then maybe we can avoid what now appears to be a coming dark age. In our own small way, my mate Bonnie and I work in this area on our project, EntropyPawsed

12/4/08, 5:56 AM

ramps said...
Very interesting thoughts indeed. Astonishingly obvious too. Evolutionary progress is just a progression through time, and space. A pelican is not an under developed seagull, and a child is not an under developed adult. This just stills all my thoughts... a bit like imagining the end of the universe versus infinity. Very good. Thanks

12/4/08, 6:30 AM

James said...
Thanks for this post, I always find your work thought provoking. But here I think you might be wrong. If you take a look at some of the things that are happening today, in terms of bionic arms, body parts grown in labs, electronic eyes and so on, I would argue that humanity will change fundamentally in the next few decades. I'm sure you're familiar with the work of Ray Kurzweil, and his book, 'The Singularity is Near', where he discusses a lot of these developments.
Humanity doesn't seem to have evolved much in our short time span on this planet, but our tools have evolved considerably.
People always strive to give their offspring an advantage over others, and if you are rich enough you can buy carbon fiber legs, bionic arms, electronic eyes and so on. As you say evolution is not linear, but our understanding of biology and our ability to blend it with technology may go exponential.
The development that interested me particularly was the paraplegic man who had a computer chip inserted in his brain, so that he could send email.
Scientists have grown new ears on the backs of mice, they are attempting to grow heart valves. The ultimate goal of course would be to grow a new body and download your brain into it. How near we are to that is anybody's guess, but the first steps have already been taken.
Thanks again for all your posts.

12/4/08, 6:39 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
I am glad you pointed out the difference between the popular idea of evolution as a series of stages every improving towards some mythical "Golden Age" to come...and the fact that evolution is just continuing adaptation, not only to fit new niches, but also factoring in apparently random factors like genetic drift and unforeseen challenges like meteor strikes.

The only thing is that as a descendant of a moundbuilding culture and as an archaeologist, I beg to differ on one point...there was no one monolithic "Moundbuilder" culture that collapsed. That is also a popular misconception like evolution. There were multiple moundbuilding cultures from Late Woodland until Mississippian times (several thousand years-- about 3000 BC until the 1700s). Many of "the Moundbuilders" actually survived up until contact with Europeans, witness de Vaca and de Soto's encounters in the Mississippi region, and the Natchez, Mississippians who met French explorers in 1682. In fact, my tribe, the Ioway and Otoe, descendants of the Oneota Mississippians, still erects small burial mounds in traditional graveyards. The many Moundbuilding cultures lasted for thousands of years based on intensive agriculture and trade, and collapsed mainly due to epidemic diseases (we even had a new deity called Diseasemaker) in the 1500s-1700s. Not a bad record really.

12/4/08, 6:53 AM

galacticsurfer said...
Is spiritual "evolution" (development) sort of a separate matter to physical and social evolution? Evolution always has the connotation of linear progress towards humans although JMG'S post shows it is just "chaotic".

In spiritual evolution, according to East Asian philosophical schools at least, the personality of the individual is perfected over various incarnations of the soul, which could theoretically happen in bodies of different types, e.g. as a worm, mouse or monkey although most would stay in one form, say human. The point being we want to be released from the physical form entirely as this is a limiting factor in our development, needing sleep, food, etc.

Getting to some perfect society would be terribly boring and static of course and even for noncorporeal beings I would suppose that they are still hard at work on self development along various stages towards complete Buddhahood or whatever.

But getting back to the seeming point of the piece, Progress and Evolution are all just the same old Western religious concepts masquerading in new language of modern culture and science. Mythic concepts are just too deeply rooted in the brain as patterns. We see everything in terms of the old pattern like having certain glasses on.

12/4/08, 7:08 AM

nika said...
I think that people also lack an understanding that evolution as a semantic term can not serve the description of the concept of social or cultural development.
Also, the concept of spiritual evolution is a sad mis-appropriation of the word that hopes to apply some of the principles from evolution on a wholly subjective “system” based on the human psyche.
I would like to make one huge point that seems to be left out in any of these misguided conversations:
Evolution in biology is not backstopped. Retrograde changes to the genome that lead to a degradation in local and population fitness happens all of the time. Its part of the metagenomic exploration of the environment.
“Social or Spiritual evolution” is also not backstopped. You may wish for some higher plane of existence and may perhaps believe you are there but there is really nothing that says you may not revert to an atavistic type.
In Zen, we learn that enlightenment is not a goal nor is it constant nor is having attained some level of freedom from attachments and potentially enlightenment a constant or guaranteed state. Living a life dedicated to the principles of Zen Buddhism is certainly more humane and compassionate when compared to traditions such as the Church of Christian Identity or some such but it doesnt mean that it is more evolved or backstopped.
SIde note:
You may also note that there is no parity in % change of genomes between species.. Not all species have the same RATE of change too nor do they need it to be successful in their adaptation strategies. Also some species have MUCH more DNA than humans, some have less.
Man’s primacy is only in his mind and through his (mis)deeds. Western man obviously has not understood evolution (takes actual scientific education but thats another conversation) and, instead, has constantly looked for and warped ideas to bolster the concept of human primacy.


12/4/08, 7:32 AM

assystems said...
Thank you once again for your steady stream of insightful thinking. While you didn't say it, you could have: not only does evolution NOT propose to lift us magically from our mess, it's foundation is based on precisely the opposite process - just wait and see. There is no actor to act.

I think maybe it is our native spiritualism now thoroughly encrusted with many bits and pieces of science, co-option of various kinds, internal conflict of beliefs, monotheism, bigotry, group-think, mis-placed sentimentalism, etc. that somehow thinks there is an emotional being somewhere at the controls of the evolution machine. And of course all machines work for us, and hence this being will always play favorites, at least for us. Yes, we ARE the favorite.

Yet, I think there is another aspect - science has advanced quite a ways. Any coherent understanding of the world even on a fairly basic level takes quite a lot of effort, time, and also implies a fair amount of "spare capacity" in terms of personal leisure time that must be allocated to self-education.

Critical evaluation of ALL incoming data is a huge undertaking, and it is easier make the instant leap from data to information without this necessary step. I know that I do when I am not paying attention.

Our commercial economy works hard at diverting any leisure time AWAY from self-education and critical thinking. We are not SUPPOSED to pay attention. Besides, it is uncomfortable, so just forget it.

Hence, we have large world populations with no hope of having time to form a nuanced and critical understanding of the world that would allow proper triage of ideas. They spend their time surviving by making stuff for us - how many of my children's clothes were made by other children?

Then we have ourselves - the fortunate few (phew!). We do have the opportunity, but there are far to many conflicting societal pressures for most to undertake the daunting task of constant evaluation of all new information based on common sense and basic scientific principles. And here I do mean basic - just the conservation of mass/energy. Nothing more.

Hence, I think this anthropomorphism of the very idea of evolution is no surprise. We have already done the same with our idea of God - we are even sure know the precise genitalia of God. Next to this, a "mere" scientific theory is small potatoes, easily overcome.

Forgive me if I hold out little hope for a free ticket to the future.

12/4/08, 8:14 AM

John Michael Greer said...
RDatta, no argument there; a full treatment of the problems with popular mishandlings of evolution would take a book of its own.

Mrs. Jarvie, many thanks, and a happy birthday to H.M.S. Beagle's naturalist.

Robert, note how your fable assumes a sudden leap; it'd be more plausible if the population got gradually balder as its more flammable members got sorted out of the gene pool.

Dougald, of course Darwin's theory was shaped by his social context; all knowledge is socially produced.

Sudeep, I don't think that the root cause of our problems is the decay of our culture(s); the root cause of our problems is the way we've backed ourselves into ways of life dependent on resources that won't be there much longer. As for Jason, I'm not a great fan of his ideas -- while a great deal of contraction and cultural/technological simplification is a given, the options are much more diverse than I think his arguments allow.

Shaggy, good. Thanks for the link.

Frank, if you want to talk about moral improvement or the enrichment of one's spiritual life, why not use those terms, rather than tarting them up in evolutionary drag?

Ramps, you're welcome!

James, yes, I'm quite familiar with Kurzweil's work -- a rehash of current Evangelical fantasies about the Rapture, reclothed in the language of science fiction. What has allowed our technology to become as baroquely overcomplicated as it has is simply that we've been burning through half a billion years of stored photosynthesis in a few short centuries; now, as Richard Heinberg deftly phrased it, the party's over.

Lance, thanks for the correction.

Surfer, no argument; there are similar ideas in the Druid tradition.

Nika, good. Sometimes regress is the best evolutionary adaptation.

Assystems, well put. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

12/4/08, 9:31 AM

Blackbird said...

Great stuff. I wasn't sure where you were going with the discussion at the beginning - but I began to understand your direction towards the end.

One thing that I try to keep in mind with regards to living systems on our planet is that there will always be competition and overshoot. I might be so bold as to suggest that there is no such thing as an equilibrium in nature. Competition is a fact among all species; themselves and the others with which they share the planet. The only difference between mountain pine beetles and humans is that we can reflect on the fact that we consume at an unsustainable rate. As surely as there will be a massive die-off of pine beetles (70% of the pine trees in British Columbia, Canada are now dead or dying), so too will humans reduce in numbers and have to learn to live with less in the coming decades.

Evolutionary advances are either done in response to an environmental change or as way of out competing a friend or foe. With every success comes overshoot when the population that is successful does too well. If a species develops an advantage it is natural that the advantage will first play itself out among its own species. But then, as the advantaged creatures out compete their fellows, they will shoot past the ceiling of the carrying capacity of their particular environment. Following that is the usual Malthusian curve until an event or a change takes place to shuffle the players somewhat. It is neither good, nor bad. It just is…

We do the same thing within our economic evolution. The recent free-trade globalism is collapsing and something else will surely take its place. It is possible to imagine a day when trade is done on a much smaller scale and at a local level. Does this mean that it is a more evolutionary advanced way of doing commerce? Or course not, this was done before globalism was every a concept. Evolution is not a ladder towards heaven, it is just simple adaptation to situations and circumstances.

I am sure I saw a shirt somewhere that summed it up pretty well: “Adapt or Die”


12/4/08, 10:03 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
Well, first, congrats to our resident druid for one more fine piece of text.....

About the theme..... well, I'm a biochemist of formation and my life has been plagued with misconceptions about the "evolution" of the people around me.

First, darwinian Evolution is not Science. It is not a fact, we can't do a experiment to disprove ( Popper style ) Evolution and it has more very peculiar circular reasonings in the core ( "The survival of the fittest..... but how to define the fittest? They are the ones that survive..." ). At most, Darwinian evolution is a core Hipothesis of the modern Biology, a paradigm. If the facts do not fit there, honest scientists will abandon it.

Second, evolution is not progress ( in any sense of that word ) and evoluted is not the same as complex. Evoluted in darwinian terms mean simply more able to withstand change ( "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change", Charles Darwin in Origin of Species ), a thing that most of the times is not coincident with complex. Likewise, evolution in darwinian terms is just a movement to less dissonance between the enviroment at that moment and the living , and that can pass by simplification ( like happened with the underground creatures that lost the use of the eyes and so many other examples ). I think that the fact that people confuse evolution with complexification accouints for much of the bad ideas around the darwinian evolution.

Third, yes, unfortunately this theory was dragged to a very sad role of defending the English "gentlemen" role in the distopic society of the Industrialising England. The fact that some family members of Darwin were strong defenders of a caste-like human society to avoid overproduction and overpopulation by the ones they called "meek" ( also known as eugeny ) certainly had accounted for that, but that is not the fault of the theory in it self....

To end, the mythification of the darwinian evolution brought obviously a mutilation of the theory . Darwinism in itself does not promote reckless individualist competition or the depredation of the surrounding enviroment ( in fact, it defends the exact oposite: cooperation between individuals most likely will increse survival odds and the simple definition of adaptation rules out stupid delapidation of the resources as a good strategy ). In fact a good deal of real Darwinism would seriously help mankind: biologists have collected a lot of examples of what happens to species that ,for some reason, get to live above the support ability of their ecosystem ( that normaly ends with the destruction of the feeding grounds and the death of most of the population ) and there is probably a lot to learn with it. The failure of the mankind to see that, despite all the buzz with "evolution", "survival of the fittest" and a lot more of hollow words has much more to do with the fact that people prefer to believe that, by some deus ex machina, they are exempt of the laws of the nature, than with darwinism ( or any other frontface myth that is in fashion in the moment .... as far as people are concerned it could be Marduk slashing Tiamat skull to create Earth , like says the Enuma Elish ). Greeks had a good word for this feeeling..... Hubris

12/4/08, 10:58 AM

Conchscooter said...
I'm evolving a theory that perhaps the best way to cope is one day at a time, one after the other and let the crises come as they may.

12/4/08, 12:51 PM

bryant said...

One minor point. The Eocene Epoch is generally considered to stretch from 54.8 to 33.7 mya. I think the origin of bat species is during the Paleocene, 65-54.8 mya. though I might be mistaken. Sorry to nitpick.

12/4/08, 12:57 PM

hardhead said...
For a good understanding of the theory of evolution and its ramifications, I recommend Daniel Dennet's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."

Unfortunately, evolution - like all serious ideas - is not reducible to sound bites or visual images, and so will not be accessible to the vast majority of people, whose contact with the wider world is only through TV, movies, and comic books. Take every opportunity you can to educate those eager to learn, certainly. But realize that it will be a long, hard row to hoe to do so.

To the extent that we have choices - and I submit that genus Homo has far fewer, and that "lower" life-forms have more, than we presume - it could be possible to guide (maybe "nudge" would be more commensurate with the reality) our own evolution, especially in the cultural and spiritual realms. It's worth exploring the idea, in any case, given how poorly we've been doing following the path of least resistance. As an agenda to follow during the "Long Descent" we're embarking upon, it offers a possible avenue to avoid making the same mistakes again.

But yes, we certainly need to be clear about what's actually the case and what's just fantasy, as you said.

12/4/08, 1:09 PM

Geoff said...
We have a capacity that we currently don't make proper use of, being that we are able to adapt in advance of physical feedback. We are able to make use of anticipated or calculated feedback, and so cease activities before we reap unavoidable physical consequences.

For example, seeing a farm slowly being degraded by overproduction we can anticipate that it will get worse and we will not be able to feed ourselves at some time in the future, so we can take action now to ameliorate that future state. By not using this mechanism we must suffer the consequences before we change our behaviour.

It is unfortunate that we do not make better use of this predictive feedback mechanism for the things that really count, but instead seem to rely on physical consequences and "after the horse has bolted" change.

I appreciate that there is a fine line between predicting feedback and anticipating a future and working towards it (per your last piece) but it would seem to be a valuable tool that we could make much better use of in the right situations.

It does not fit as a prescription for managed social "evolution", for actual events and real feedback will always trump any such speculation, but it would seem we would stand a better chance of matching fitness for external conditions if we were able to shift the momentum of society in advance of reaping the consequences.

That we have not made proper use of this ability is why we are where we are today.

12/4/08, 5:14 PM

Frank said...
Hello again JMG,
Thanks for your response to my comment. Sorry I was not able to make this link work the first time. ISHK If you follow it, you will see the term "conscious evolution" used. If anyone really wants to understand why that term is used, it will probably take more than a cursory glance, and it might even take some self observation. I can say that it is a term that has been used for some number of centuries by humans who also understood physical evolution long before Darwin. Robert Ornstein is the Executive Director of ISHK, The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge. He is probably best known as the modern originator of the idea of the bilateral brain, and at one time had the most widely assigned book in college psychology, "The Psychology of Consciousness". He also has one called, interestingly enough, "The Evolution of Consciousness". Both are fascinating and informative reads. I am sorry for my rather inept way of using a term that by those who know is used in rather precise and specific ways. Best wishes, Frank from EntropyPawsed

12/4/08, 7:06 PM

DIYer said...

Another thought provoking article. Examining my own evolution mythology I see a variety of creatures as I turn the pages. There is a large assortment of relatives of the horseshoe crab; a stunning variety of shelled cephalopods; and oversized reptiles with scary teeth.

Today, we have the horseshoe crab itself, with quite a few spiders and scorpions; mostly naked cephalopods, with one or two surviving shelled species; and chickens.

So, looking into the near geologic future, perhaps some descendants resembling H. floresiensis? A stressed ecosystem and all...

12/4/08, 7:33 PM

Stacey said...
The peppered moth in England is a good example of evolution not progressing along a hierarchy.

Peppered moths hang out on tree trunks, and rely on camoflauge for protection from predators. Before the Industrial Revolution, most peppered moths were light colored and they blended in well with light-colored tree trunks. As coal soot accumulated on the trees during the nineteenth century, the population of dark-colored peppered moths increased dramatically. The dark moths were much less visible to predators on the soot-darkened trees. In the twentieth century, pollution controls evenutally resulted in light-colored tree trunks once again. As a result, light-colored moths became more abundant.

Light moths/dark moths: one isn't 'more evolved' or 'less evolved' than the other. It all depends on the particular circumstances of a particular moth.

12/4/08, 7:37 PM

JimK said...
Not only do the great spiritual traditions doubt that wealth accumulation is conducive to spiritual progress... most traditions view history as mostly a steady decline from some better times in the past when spiritual insights were fresher.

A major element in any quest for truth must be a mechanism to correct self-deception. Science is externally focussed and uses experimental measurements to stay on track. Our knowledge gets closer to truth as our pile of lab notebooks gets stacked higher and higher.

Spirituality is internally focussed and relies on the guidance of a teacher to nudge the truth seeker back on the path. As time goes by, qualified teachers get harder and harder to find. So the general view in spirituality is of a steady decline. Of course, every now and then someone connects back to the undying source - a prophet or whatever. So rejuvenation is possible. But these events are outside the general social dynamic.

Anyway, it's fun to look at trajectories of individuals, societies, and species as they traverse the various realms and levels of freedom and constraint, clear vision and confusion.

12/5/08, 5:58 AM

Chris said...
I enjoyed the symmetry between last week's entry and this week's. Just as we can't plan our way through a change we don't fully understand, proto-bats could not plan their way through extra folds of skin on their forelimbs. We just have to start flapping and see what happens!

Thanks for your writing.

12/5/08, 10:35 AM

Bill said...
Dear JMG,

Thank you for yet another most thought-provoking post.

Several comments have touched on spiritual evolution and I’d like to add my two cents worth. It’s helpful for me to think of it on an individual basis rather than a societal one, though there is always a connection. How to describe a spiritually evolved person in a way that would be inclusive of wide-ranging wisdom traditions? Perhaps one could say that the extent to which one has extinguished selfishness in oneself is a barometer.

12/5/08, 11:12 AM

wylde otse said...
what I think I'm getting from all of this is that we are most likely mere products of adaptation; with nothing to lean some 'evolutionary ladder' against.
Reluctantly... contemplating the carnage of past and present life forms feeding upon each other, I find it difficult to convince myself things will much change soon. Even supposing we do all meet in Rumi's fields " beyond good and evil " will someone be spreading a feast?
What most of us may be doing on some level or other, is to seek pleasure and avoid pain;
however far we look ahead or prudently mitigate.
Yet the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness is also (for me, anyway) a form of pain.
Sooo...I will continue to climb the (spiritual) ladder of evolutionary success, urging and cheering on, my fellow climbers, while dodging the bullets of those that want my rung.

12/5/08, 4:37 PM

FARfetched said...
JMG, two thoughts occurred almost simultaneously as I read this:

1) Evolution is a response to external pressures.

2) Resource constraints due to overpopulation is an external pressure, but it doesn't seem to result in evolution. If it did, population over a long period of time should resemble a dampened oscillation as the species respond better to the boom-and-bust cycles.

Perhaps the periods occur over too many generations to create the right kind of pressure. That's unfortunate, really… if we're going to do better next time, we'll have to make a conscious effort to create a better human.

BTW Nika: living a life dedicated to the principles of Christ can be as humane and compassionate as it gets. There are radicals and violent folk among Buddhists (a friend from India tells me) as well as Christians.

12/5/08, 7:48 PM

Dwig said...
Well done and much-needed clarification of evolution, and debunking of the various simplistic misunderstandings of it..

Two other important aspects of evolution (and ecology) that are often missed or dismissed in such misunderstandings: the role of cooperation, and the need for diversity to provide resilience. Also, Darwin's concept of "fittest" is relative to a particular environment at a particular time, not an absolute linear quantity. Given this, "more evolved" could be a meaningful concept, but only by meaning "more fit" to a particular time and place.

On biological/mental/societal/spiritual evolution: Gregory Bateson put quite a lot of effort into working out the relationship among these; one result was a book titled "Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity" -- he meant seriously every word in the title. Toward the end of the book, he introduces aesthetics and the sacred.

To me, it appears that he was working toward a unification of what I consider three fundamental ways of understanding the world: the scientific, the spiritual, and the artistic. If there is such a thing as "more evolved" in an absolute sense, I suspect it lies in that direction -- come what may, species and societies that are better able to combine and interrelate these ways of understanding will, other things being equal, tend to be more able to adapt to the challenges of Mind and Nature, and thus prevail in the long run. (Of course, other things are seldom equal...)

12/5/08, 8:20 PM

RAS said...
JMG, as I read this post I could not help but remember a montage of human evolution that was in one of my science textbooks way back in middle school: it showed the 'progress' of man from ape to modern man and actually ended with a man in a spacesuit walking on another planet. I think that is a pretty good illustraion of the evolution=progress myth.
There are those who have turned evolution into (basically) a religion, and I was wondering what your thoughts on this are.

12/6/08, 3:34 AM

anagnosto said...
Origin of Species makes a great read. Darwin is at pains of course of how to present his ideas to Victorians, rather than by being one.

He has good points in his chapter on systems atrophia, like the mole loss of sight, for showing evolution should not be taken as a betterment.

Something very few people (outside of molecular biology) have noticed is that since we have full genomes sequences from a variety of organisms, evolution is not any more a theory, but something clearly observable. Taxonomy trees are now corrected by molecular data on protein evolution and the separation between branches can be quantified in measures that can be roughly translated into time.

Another thing we have to be aware is that cultural evolution is often backed by genetics. The neolitic stablishment of fixed communities now seem to be supported by the appearition of variations of a brain behaviour neurotransmitter receptor. The "keep quiet and farm" variety is present in more than 90% of japanese. The "go and search" variety could be in as much as 40% of US citizens, what corresponds to immigrant descendents.

Science is finding however, something that seems to contradict Darwin and support Lamarck. Epigenetics (check wikipedia) is a way for the organisms to "choose" how their descendants could be better adapted to their environment. But it is rather like giving evolution
a bit of free play.

12/6/08, 4:53 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Blackbird, the equilibrium in nature is always a moving equilibrium, never static, and embraces conflict and competition as well as cooperation. The old Taoists had a good grasp of that, which may be why I find them so congenial.

Ricardo, well put, and hubris is a central theme of what I've been trying to discuss here. (For those who don't know Greek, the best translation of that word is "the overweening pride of the doomed.")

Conch, stay tuned for next week's post. You may find some things of interest.

Bryant, thanks for the correction.

Hardhead, I like to recommend that people go ahead and read Darwin's The Origin of Species itself. As for our role in evolution, I think it's possible -- indeed, inevitable -- for us to participate in the process; the extent that our intentions will shape the result is another matter, of course.

Geoff, for the last three hundred years prudence -- which is an old but by no means inappropriate term for what you've discussed -- has not been cost-effective. As I see it, that's why it dropped out of use -- and it will come back into use as the costs of imprudence exceed the costs of prudence.

Frank, I'm aware that there are versions of evolution older than Darwin's -- 18th century Welsh Druid literature has fascinating examples, which are still part of Druid teaching today. Still, watch out for the leakage by which the contemporary faith in progress decks itself out in evolutionary drag.

DIYer, good! Exactly -- a chicken is less complex than a tyrannosaur, and tomorrow's human societies may be a great deal less complex than ours. As for H. floresiensis, it's not at all uncommon for human beings under severe subsistence limits to end up very small -- look at the studies of the Greenland colony, whose stature shrank steadily as their resource base dwindled.

Stacey, thanks for an excellent example.

Jim, spiritual traditions always look backwards, either to the lives of their founders (in the case of prophetic religions such as Christianity) or to the deep roots of their traditions in nature, history, and culture (in the case of natural religions such as Druidry). It's always a matter of holding on to a living presence that might slip away if neglected.

Chris, thank you and keep flapping!

Bill, my take is that every spiritual tradition has its own distinct endpoint, its own kind of realized humanity, and this is how it should be; diversity is as vital in the ecology of spirit as it is in the ecology of a forest or a field. The world needs as many different kinds of holiness as it can get.

Wylde, in the field beyond good and evil, some of us will be the feast for the rest of us. Chickens eat worms, I eat chickens, and worms will eventually eat me. "For all things have died that you may live..."

Farfetched, what if the cycles of boom and bust are an evolutionary advantage to the species?

Dwig, I'm still absorbing Bateson's ideas; once I'm sure what of them works for me, and what doesn't, I hope to make use of them.

RAS, I know the chart! The faith in progress is a religion, the established religion of the industrial age, and progress has been dressed up in evolution's clothing often enough over the last century and a half. Linear progress or linear "evolution," it's equally ahistorical -- and, from my perspective, equally imaginary.

Anagnosto, Darwin himself was open to Lamarckian possibilities, and epigenesis is certainly compatible with an evolutionary viewpoint. In many ways I'm hoping to encourage social epigenesis with these essays.

12/6/08, 10:51 PM

EntropiansRUs said...

(BTW, I tried to post this a couple of days ago, but wasn't sure if it had accepted it - obviously the "post" button after the "preview" needed the "word verification" to be done too? Anyhow, here goes again:)

Thanks for your blog - I've been reading it for a while, after finding it linked from EnergyBulletin. This week you hit on some thoughts that relate to some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while - this may be off at a slight tangent, and maybe not as organised as I would like, but here goes:

I wonder if it's just human nature to aspire to some higher plane of existence – either individually or collectively. The whole concept seems to be so ingrained in our language and thought patterns that I suspect it's almost subconscious. “Progress” seems to be taken for granted, and often seems to be an almost interchangeable term with “Evolution”. And for other groups of people, there is an afterlife which is (at least according to the brochures) something of a Nirvana …

With the ongoing argument over Evolution vs Creation, of course, I suspect both sides are so caught up in defending and building their respective cases that there isn't too much thought applied to alternative concepts.

As a “computer nerd”, I guess I'm looking at the whole thing as a sort of “information system”, and drawing parallels in some areas.

What I've had an issue with is the idea that “random” mutations come up with new “features”, i.e. causing life forms to “evolve”. This seems just too much like monkeys at typewriters (not an original analogy, I'm sure) – not only would most of the output be useless dreck, but to actually get any useful output, one would need an army of people (or at least intelligent life-forms who knew what was useful) to review the output. And they'd be up to their necks in banana skins and industrial waste from the manufacture and maintenance of so many typewriters! (If evolution works anything like this, then where are all the “failures”? I mean, there would have to be a mind-boggling number of random mutations – many totally fatal, but enough more just irrelevant – to achieve the result. If so, why don't we seen them?)

In fact, the concept seems almost as absurd as trying to improve a computer program by flipping random bits and seeing what happens. Mostly, it'd probably just crash – sooner or later. Some changes may be more or less harmless. You'd never get anywhere by this approach, at least in our universe as we know it.

In my early days as a programmer I was introduced to the concept of an “object library” - precompiled routines which were stored in a way that they could be linked into a program as needed.

Now, suppose that “evolution” occurs by some type of similar (but obviously much more sophisticated) process? E.g., what if the so-called “Junk DNA” is actually some sort of pre-programmed repository of patterns, from which the various “mutations” can draw.

In this scenario, all the stuff is sort of pre-tested components, just rearranged in various patterns as required. What might trigger that, of course, is anyone's guess. (Perhaps there's just some type of signal, or condition, or maybe each species, or even the whole ecosystem in an era, has it's day, and then it's time to move on?)

I recall reading a news article some time back about how some scientists had created a modified mouse that apparently (if I recall correctly) left out a lot of this “Junk DNA”, and they seemed pleased that it functioned as a normal mouse. Obviously, the thought must be that the stuff wasn't actually useful. I'm wondering if perhaps it wasn't, to that particular mouse – but may well be, to whatever it's distant descendents may have “evolved” into. Gives a whole new twist on the concept of extinction!

Of course, I'm not sure that the implications of this concept would be very popular. Then again, I have visions of mad scientists beavering away trying to crack open this Pandora's box, and who knows what unintended consequences that could have? But it does seem to fit with your concept of just alternative adaptations, instead of some “constant progression” to a higher level, or such like.

Of course, this could just be a product of my misunderstanding the whole theory! And it also has interesting implications regarding what form of intelligence may have created this thing (I don't feel any particular religious inclinations). It must have arisen somehow – but at some point, not created willfully by some other intelligence. Arguing that we were created is all very well, but just seems to defer the question.

(I'm struggling with the plausibility of all this of course. But then, plausibility could just be another one-trick pony, sort-of like reality? I mean, I exist, I spend the best part of five days a week tapping away at a keyboard in order to eat, and sometimes wonder how plausible all that is, really. What butterfly had to not die that this all came bout? While observing the world as I know it prepare to self-destruct. So I haven't got any particular axe to grind here – I'm just trying to figure it out.)

But anyway, regardless of what entity may have “designed” us – I can only conclude that is more plausible (notwithstanding the above dislclaimer) – my first question would have to be: “What's in it for you?”

12/6/08, 11:06 PM

Jason said...
Thankyou Mr. Greer for this article. It has given me language with which to answer and discuss the very same questions of evolution and adaptation that I get asked with the people I speak to. Mainly, 1. That new systems are not inherently free of the human condition, and 2. The not dealing with consequences of choices via spiritual vehicles.

12/7/08, 11:04 AM

nika said...

Your profile seems to say you are here in the US but you do not seem to know what "Christian Identity" is, hmm.

I was not referring to christians who actually remember one of Christ's main messages, love, love, love.

No, follow this link on Christian Identity

12/8/08, 7:17 AM

FARfetched said...
«Farfetched, what if the cycles of boom and bust are an evolutionary advantage to the species? »

Interesting thought there, JMG… the bust leaves the stronger or healthier or luckier (or more food-efficient) individuals behind to spread their genes further.

Nika, I missed the capitalized "Identity." I live in the southeast — plenty of racists here, but we certainly don't have a monopoly — and (if I remember right) most of those churches are out west. In the wiki article, it mentions that "Most Americans are unaware of the Christian Identity Movement" so it shouldn't be that big of a stretch even if I hadn't heard of them.

12/8/08, 7:39 PM

yooper said...
Excellent article John! "Taking Evoloution Seriously", I'll just bet, for those that have had to endure the decline of the Detroit inner city neighborhoods have learned of this first hand. As this once great industrial city evolves into the deindustrial...

I've been very busy lately, this past weekend I've done a photo shoot of these neighborhoods. With well over a hundred pictures to choose from, I'll present my case of catabolic collapse to the present and might even attempt to envision of what this might mean in the future of this area.

I'm also taking a "crash course" (completed by the end of the month), on, "The Decline of the West" by Oswald Spengler, Volume One Form and Actuality...(I am learning a lot of the become and the becoming...)

Thanks, yooper

12/9/08, 5:47 PM