As I put down my thoughts in narrative here, I will embed links to my various essays and will mention specific books so anyone interested in going deeper can do so easily. As my date approached, whenever I timed myself honestly I could not nearly roll through my address in 45 minutes, so I invoked what most people call natural selection, evolution, or survival of the fittest; it is simply the process of elimination. I jettisoned whole chunks, distilled others, and then I cut even more to allow myself some digression -- to switch it up a bit with something spontaneous if the mood struck. After all, innovation is an essential part of evolution too.
I must admit I was a bit outside my comfort zone as this was the first time I was to speak on evolution in a formal setting. I worried, as is normal for me, that something might go terribly, crashingly wrong. I teach cartography and GIS, and while I’ve been designing a class on biogeography I haven’t nearly rolled it out yet. But I have plenty of raw enthusiasm, quite a few thoughtful perspectives, formal coursework, and my heavily annotated science books which are listed to the right. This was quite a welcome opportunity too. By now I’ve exhausted my family members on the topic. To be fair, they are still receptive to my ruminations -- but only in small doses.
A little background about Ethical Humanists. A few years go when I took an online survey to determine which religion best matched my views, I hadn't known of ethical humanists but it turned out I was one. I’m no authority, but Humanists seem a bit like Unitarians I’ve known and many liberal Quakers I grew up with -- keenly interested in knowledge, goodness, and community -- and pointedly light on the supernatural talk. Like the Unitarian church I briefly attended in Southern Illinois, these Ethical Humanists bring in speakers. I recently saw Dan Barker, author of Godless, address this very group; he is a former evangelical preacher and is now an articulate, lighthearted and very effective spokesman for those who have shed their religious beliefs.
And as I was milling about before the talk I picked up a little card summarizing the mission statement of the parent organization: American Humanists. Excerpts from their manifesto include
"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."I found that refreshing; clearly I could expect a kind and educated audience and the last bit was particularly helpful with my last-minute jitters. Here is their web site -- they have events all through the week, and for children, too.
"Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis." …
"Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change."
still don’t know.
Then I rolled out the story of how I traced my own DNA, using National Geographic’s Genographic Project and 23andme.
As I was preparing my talk I very much wanted to comment on 3.5 billion years of life, not just the last 200,000 years in which humans have existed. Here's how I did it: first I described ring species, using the example of the circumpolar Laurus Gull, all the way around at 80 degrees north. Laurus characteristics vary only slightly everywhere; they satisfy the biological definition of a single species by producing fertile offspring, with neighbors. However, where the ends of this ring meet the gulls won’t have anything to do with one another. The Herring Gull and the lesser Black-Backed Gull are therefore different species if you face east, but the same species if you're looking west! And here is where it becomes relevant to humans. There is a similar and utter lack of species breaks when you trace humans all the way to the first spark of life; it’s incremental variation, all the way down. Never would one generation be unable to produce fertile offspring with the next generation and this is true not only going down but back up the trunk, branches, and twigs, to all living things today. You can travel from the woman to the ladybug on her shoulder if you crawl from one leaf (her), back through time, all the way to the junction, then back up another branch and twig to the bug. You'll never step from one species to another.
So, to understand humans it only makes sense to start 3.5 billion years ago when all life began. And we know life only started once, because all genetic code from protozoa to great blue whale is written in the same language with the same four letters: nucleotides A, C, G, and T.
When I was practicing this next bit, which is really the only new thing I had to offer, I always ran long so I created a graphic to help me skip through it. My thesis is that plants and animals were driven by four essential needs (gathering food, finding mates, evading predators, and protecting young), and in response evolved patently spatial strategies: improved perception and control of the environment, and improved navigation through it.
I've ruminated before about first life. From there forward, the strand which would become human usually opted for complexity, given the option. There is nothing shabby about simplicity -- bacteria took that route and ... how does that saying go: "He who laughs last, last best." We tooled up, while they stripped down. They hunker. We lumber. You might summarize that our ancestors were both imprudent and lucky. Good fortune and has blissed us with brains and consciousness.
Digression: It is simply awesome to be self-reflective; it's spectacular, really. Dumbfounding. I must add that I also feel like a spectator;; I don't presume to think I am independently charged. On the topic of free will I’m with Sam Harris -- we only feel that we have free will because we can’t predict what we are going to decide next! But it makes sense that we feel so self-directed. As Robert Wright clearly explains in The Moral Animal, self delusion has some clear evolutionary advantages.
Now we come to the meat of this story. Several brilliant authors have elucidated on live from its origins to modern day. Richard Fortey's Life, Matt Ridley's Genome, Nick Lane in Life Ascending, Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, and of course Richard Dawkins' The Ancesters Tale... they all take us on a long long journey to the past.
The amniotic egg about 200 million years ago allowed us to have young in even where there were no ponds. This is a spatial explosion! Next came the secondary palette and we could run with food in our mouths, still breathing. Larger meals, greater territory still.
There is a short period in our history 145-65 mya, where we reversed our general trend toward complexity and territorial expansion. There were dinosaurs about; they better at eating than we were. So we hunkered down for nearly 100 million years, burrowing, developing timid habits, in a spatial sense constricting ... until that wonderful astroid landed east of theYucatan Peninsula, causing rains of buring sulfur and effectively removing our opressors. It was suddenly safe not only to emerge from underground, but to take to trees, and we did, thereby improving our stereo vision and building up bony eyesockets. The process of elimination (by fatal falls) certainly helped with these new innovations.
We were never destined to greatness, remember. It's not fate, but luck.
Eventually homo habilis (the handyman) started making tools: first, a stone knife, which was simply an improved, replacable tooth and nail. This cleverness paid off in food, as man attacked beast, and no doubt in mates -- as man attacked man. Lots of animals make tools, but this was a particularly good one. Not as good as the spear, though, and I’ve recently read that the spear may have spurred a social revolution. Prior to the spear and bow the behavior of hanging back, whenever a group tried to take down a large animal, paid off in survival tokens; so everyone tended to be a little tentative. Then spears made cooperative hunting possible by limited the personal risk. it built community; it's the prisoner's dilemma, pure and simple.
But then came the big leap -- language -- 100,000 years ago. We had been getting smarter, no doubt -- in the previous 2 million years our brains had tripled in size but with language we could suddenly tap into the brains of others. My 16 year old son recently observed that language is a lot like telepathy, and it's true. When we developed written language we could access the thoughts of people far away (and those of some dead people too). Language was not the first wireless network, however; it was probably second to mirror neurons. It is commonly believed (among scientists) that mirror neurons allow one to actually experience the experience of others. I watch you grasping a coffee mug, my brain feel grasping -- my grasping neurons fire. Some have speculated that this is how fish school, birds flock, and why yawns are infectious. Mirror neurons may very well have been the dawn of empathy.
Then just 600 years ago movable type printing press brought an immense knowledge base to the literate commoner, and it allowed the literate commoner to share his intelligence too. Do you see how this leaps and stretches across space?
Each bar in the diagram represents a much shorter time frame, reflecting the acceleration of change. The bar on the right, spanning just 5,000 years, might as well have focused on innovations in transportation -- wheel through boat, horse, horseshoe, steamboat, bicycle, locomotive, car, airplane, helicopter, jet, and rocket ... but I’ve chosen instead to emphasize communication.
I ended my talk with a little fun, speculating about ideas, which are virus-like replicators and therefore also subject to evolution. Much like genes, ideas duplicate, imperfectly, and they are filtered by the external world. A good joke, bad news, and useful information is repeated, while other noise fizzles out. Like genes, concepts can also team up to duplicate more reliably.
For example, think of this. Combine empiricism, conjecture, hypothesis testing, evidence based reasoning, statistics, peer review, transparency, and a few more concepts and you have the scientific method, which has spread. To carry it further (in my way of thinking) science often comes up against religion, which have at their core just three little ideas: 1. there is an invisible, mysterious entity, 2. it can and will hurt you if you don’t follow its rules. And 3. the first rule is believe in it. This circular core could not withstand scrutiny by itself, so is protected by its own cell: faith, of the sort that means belief without evidence. Now comes the hat-trick: this faith is presented as a virtue. And then distractions are attached, such as ritual, song, cathedrals, art, diet, dress, scripture, etc. hence the mad, circular, core concepts are sufficiently insulated that the whole package replicates, most asily in the lesser educated minds, and those of children -- imprinted, like a duckling for a lifetime. And that's all you need but if becomes lucrative there will be those to promote and defend it for other reasons as well.
This idea of ideas having their way with us -- whether it’s science, religion, or neighborhood gossip -- well I find it ... er .. infectious.
Looking back on my hour, there were two big surprises. The first was that while I was arguing that human evolution can be seen as a series of advances in spatial awareness and control, I nearly stepped off the stage. The humor in that was not lost on the crowd, I’m happy to report. Secondly, when someone asked me if I’d written my thoughts down, and I said I’d probably do it in my blog, there was actually applause! This, recall, is the same blog my vigilant statistics tracker regularly reminds me that almost no one reads. That encouragement probably pushed me over the edge and I actually took the time to do it. Everyone, but particularly if you are an Ethical Humanist, and if you've read this far ... bliss you.