The purpose of this site is to answer one question: Are We Evolving?
The tags are fed into an algorithm and plotted, providing a snapshot of the State/Fate of Humanity.
Are We Evolving?
Science tells us that every living thing is the way it is because that is the way it evolved. Harvard University professor Howard Berg summed up the process neatly in National Geographic in 2006:
“The idea is simply that you fiddle around and you change something and then you ask, Does it improve my survival or not? And if it doesn’t, then those individuals die and that idea goes away. And if it does, then those individuals succeed, and you keep fiddling around, improving. It’s an enormously powerful technique.”
It’s a powerful technique, and a powerful concept that has taken hold in our collective consciousness, to that point that we see almost everything as a product of an evolutionary force — TV shows, economic theories, political ideals, social norms, beauty care products, musical tastes, athletes, and so on. These have survived in the marketplace and on the playing field because they’re tougher, faster, or smarter. In short, because they’re better.
This notion that ideas, products, art, and athletes all are battle-tested and improved in a contest of survival of the fittest surely sounds familiar, but it is strikingly at odds with the scientific view of evolution. For one, most scientists see no direction or purpose in evolution. There is no going forward, or getting better. Not only that, but just the idea of improvement via evolution abhors biologists. As Stephen Jay Gould once put it, “Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.”
We, like all living things, will adapt to our environmental conditions. We will not adapt for beauty or cleverness, or sound long-term plans, or the good of future generations. According to biology, we are what we are because chance mutations merged with circumstance to allow those cells, animals, and people that came before us to survive at least long enough to pass along their genes.
The implication is that these same forces will decide whom we will become. Our evolution has nothing at all to do with getting better. It has to do with random adaptations that suit or do not suit given circumstances. If the adaptations suit the circumstances, life persists. If not, it doesn’t.
So what is life?
How about this: Life is perishable matter that seeks.
Every living thing eventually perishes. And different life forms seek different things: sunshine, nutrients, mates, spawning grounds, and so on. But at the very least they all seek things that sustain themselves, at least for a while.
As a part of nature, we’re like every other living creature on Earth in thousands of ways, but in many ways we’re different. The most important is that we seek and we know we seek. Our awareness is a peculiar trait whose story is told in the evolutionary birth of consciousness and in the Garden of Eden. It is a blessing and a curse that has given us the best efforts of Socrates, Descartes, and Sartre, to name a few, and all the while lent each of us any sense of “I” in our lives.
As biological creatures we seek to fulfill our basic biological needs. But having become wildly (though unevenly) successful at doing so, we have the luxury — and more importantly the desire — to seek more.
What is the “more” we seek?
It’s tempting to fill in the blank with “know myself” or “find meaning”. There are, of course, many far less noble things that we can put in there, too. But despite the worst that we do to ourselves and our world, we do seek nebulous and ultimately more fulfilling things like joy, beauty, understanding, and purpose. Our pursuit of these sets us apart from other living creatures and helps explain the ways we tell stories, strive for greatness, imagine the future, wallow in pity, and much in between.
In short, what we seek is an answer to why?
We seek a reason
Many, perhaps even most, scientists will say that they can’t answer our question why? But that doesn’t stop some from trying to explain the question away. Some — along with a growing number of philosophers — tell us that our self-consciousness doesn’t exist. Others argue that it is an unnecessary evolutionary bi-product. According to such theories, now that humans aren’t forced to hunt and forage every day, we have the leisure time to toy around with the dreams and wonderings that our self-consciousness concocts, thus producing the artwork, music, theoretical physics, and so on that we are known for.
Other scientists will assert that there are at least some survival benefits conferred by the self-consciousness that prompts us to ask why? They can provide a cause for our asking why? and a cause for that cause, until the cells and atoms we end up peering at bear no resemblance to the person posing that simple question.
But these explanations are causes masquerading as reasons. A reason presupposes intent and purpose. Science loathes them both.
Why so popular?
If there’s such a gulf between the scientific and popular views of evolution, why has the concept of evolution achieved such power in our culture?
The 20th century rise in the status of science has helped. Climate change deniers and creationists aside, most of us now regularly take a scientist’s claims as the highest authority. Importantly, against the backdrop of science’s increasing claim to truth, some scientists have been lax in how they apply the concept of evolution.
Thus, we have scientists telling us that the flat nose of golden snub-nosed monkeys evolved to withstand extreme cold, or that our ability to experience happiness evolved to strengthen our willingness to cooperate. These are enormous simplifications of the processes involved. Such simplifications have their uses, but unfortunately they lead to misconceptions about how evolution works. Even Howard Berg’s description above implies that purpose and direction have roles in evolution: “You keep fiddling around, improving” he writes. This prompts us to ask “Who is the you?” and “Improve relative to what?”
Now Berg doesn’t mean to suggest that some being is intentionally “fiddling around”. But his statement and many others like it are crucial because the implication — intended or not — cracks open the door for the rest of us to at least fancy the idea of directionality and even intentionality at work among evolutionary forces. For doesn’t the word “improve” suggest intent?
So if imaginations are pumped up by such sloppiness, they skyrocket when scientists apply evolutionary analogies to non-biological topics. And once they’ve done so, non-scientists are happy to join in, finding an evolutionary cause (ie, an answer) for everything under the sun.
The story of evolution
Among Earth’s creatures, we are unique in our love of stories.
So the idea of evolution — developed by scientists and adopted (and sometimes misapplied) by the rest of us — has enjoyed wide acceptance in no small part because it has the structure of a good story. Specifically, given the chance (again, in part due to scientists’ sloppy application of the theory of evolution), we have given the theory the structure of a good story. A good story has a theme that helps explain the changes that take place over the course of the narrative. And a story implies progress, from beginning to end, a goal, and therefore a purpose.
Why are we eager to frame evolution as a story?
Because at its core a story is the both question why? and an answer — even and often only a tentative one. But an answer is what we seek.
Science cannot dismiss the question
Scientists can find causes for our affinity for stories. Science can offer a survival benefit to explain why we like a good yarn. Science can dismiss our stories as evolutionary figments.
But a survival benefit isn’t necessarily our reason for telling stories or asking questions. And attempts to deem our stories (our search for reason and purpose and meaning) evolutionary flotsam and jetsam are irrelevant.
Because regardless of the how we have come to tell stories and ask why?, the fact is we do. And in doing so there is a common ground between the popular and the scientific views of evolution. And that common ground fits into a story. Our story.
We are the common ground.
What is our story?
To start, ours is a story of evolution. And whether directed or not, evolution has a direction. The evolutionary direction within a species is guided by whatever adaptation enhances survivability. But the evolutionary direction of all life — of perishable matter that seeks — is toward complexity.
Second, in the words of Teilhard de Chardin, in the movement of the cosmos towards the highest level of consciousness, “Man is unquestionably situated at the topmost point; and it is he, by his emergence and existence, who finally proves the reality and defines the directions of the trajectory — ‘the dot on the i’…”
There is no denying some of de Chardin’s pronouncements were too far-reaching, and some of his science is now outdated, but that does not take away from the fact that he brilliantly and often beautifully put man in his place in this world: “Man, the last-formed, most complex, and most conscious of molecules.”
Man, in other words, is the most complex thing in a universe ever moving toward complexity.
Third, increased complexity does not equal increased survivability. We need only look at the simple organisms that have survived eons in underwater volcanic flumes, or the peril in which we’ve put ourselves and other higher mammals. So the drive of life toward complexity is not necessarily propelled by a drive for survival.
Fourth, our view of the world is a product of evolution and life’s movement to complexity. Specifically, our experience of our existence as self-aware, story-telling, answer-seeking creatures is due to our minds: supreme examples of emergent phenomena. By emergent we mean that the function and output of our minds became possible only when they attained a certain level of complexity. Only then could we conceive of things like self-consciousness, mathematics, and time.
To sum up: we have in humans the vanguard of life’s movement toward complexity. That complexity is born of the physical world. But in us it leads to and produces powerful non-physical phenomena: love, beauty, irony, and questions, to name a few. While each of us has a mind that is at times guided by instinct and our genetic codes, neither instinct nor genes (nor our environment) are in themselves or collectively sufficient to account for all that we do. These non-physical phenomena play a role. Rationally or irrationally, we are also directed by our need for a story and for answers.
And unlike other animals, we act in pursuit of those answers.
The next chapter
Nature, and the propensity for “seeking” that is inherent in life, has written much of our story. This will continue. But in the evolutionary timescale there is a relatively new wrinkle in the authoring process. Helped by our minds, our numbers, and our technology, our evolutionary future increasingly depends on:
- Adaptations, which, on a rising scale, we affect via our effects on the environment.
- Self-directed interventions, such as healthcare technologies and genetics.
- Our decisions, which are based on instinct, reason, feelings, and a longing for an answer to why? A desire, in other words, for a purpose.
We are, therefore, self-recognized evolved beings who ask questions hoping to find an explanation for our existence. What’s more, we are beings who can now direct our evolution, and do so, if we choose, based on our need to find that explanation.
Make no mistake: as a part of life on Earth, we are moving with that great tide of life toward increased complexity. But we humans, by our nature, have added another element into the evolutionary process: choice.
Choice binds evolution and progress
Our power to choose introduces two ideas to into the realm of evolution: progress and value.
These don’t seem to jibe. Evolution is blind. Progress is defined by improvement. Evolution is valueless. Progress has value.
But when talking about our evolution, and our choices that affect our evolution, the two are joined. We can talk about our progress. And then we most definitely can judge our choices and our progress, and we most definitely can ascribe value to them.
This opens new realms of discourse — ironically, by bringing us back to our original question: Are we evolving?
There are such things as good and bad evolution
If we see that our evolution is now intrinsically linked to our values and choices, we can restate the question “Are we evolving?” as “Are we evolving or devolving?” More importantly we can look at what that question implies.
When evaluating where we’ve come from and where we might be going, do we mean:
- That we are increasing our chances of survival because we’re better adapted to survive — no matter that better adapted could mean we might now be slower, fatter, and dumber than our ancestors?
- Or, do we mean that we are we progressing? That is, that we are getting better as a species?
The second point looks problematic. How do we define progress for our species? Can we answer questions about progress if we don’t know our purpose?
Yes, we can. Because when we ask “Are we evolving or devolving?” we are asking:
- Are we increasing or decreasing our chances of survival? And,
- Are we moving toward or away from what we value, to our purpose, to finding our purpose?
To put it another way, we can ask: Is it a good thing that we’re adapting? Or more bluntly: Is it worthwhile that we’re going to survive? Why? What is it we’ll bring to the world of 200 years from now? Will we be more civil? More refined? More enlightened? More fulfilled? Or more barbaric? More superficial? More lost?
Judging our present and future
Can we decide if events and choices today are helping or hurting our future? Yes. Events today are signposts and routes, pointing and leading to possible fates. Our choices affect our chances of survival, our civility, our ability to search for and find meaning.
How do we evaluate those choices? By determining if our actions and choices:
- Increase our chances of survival
- Help us find our purpose
- Help us find answers to our questions about the meaning of our humanity
- Increase our civility
- Increase our empathy
- Increase the value of all human lives
So, “Are we evolving?”
That’s what we’re going to find out.
 Importantly, the relationship between this supreme biological machine and the rest of the physical world remains confounding, paradoxical, and rich with mystery. On the one hand, on a quantum level there does seem to be an intrinsic link between fundamental physical phenomena such as quantum states and the presence of a mind. The former does seem to require the latter, for reasons that remain unclear.
At the same time, since Copernicus modern man has undertaken a vast endeavor to at once cast himself as a minute, inconsequential, contingent being in this universe, and yet, ironically, one who is the measure of all things. We have gone to extraordinary lengths to show that the meanings we see in the world are our anthropocentric projections, nothing more than figments of our subjectivity. They do not reflect the objective reality outside of our minds, a reality that has functions to be understood, but no meaning. Over the centuries our successive advances in science have shown that our then present understanding of those functions was clouded by our biases.
This process of revealing our world views as biases has gotten us a long way. Science is responsible for the longevity, technology, exploration, and understanding we enjoy today. But there is growing sentiment that this long-successful approach is not sustainable if we wish to continue to uncover new insights and understandings about the universe and ourselves. There is, for one, the problem in quantum physics. Meanwhile, philosophers such as Thomas Nagel argue that subjectivity is integral to knowing the universe. Physicist Lee Smolin makes the case that time — which on some level is linked to our minds — must be accounted for in physics of the early universe. And Richard Tarnas has pointed out that our ultimate anthropocentric gesture is our insistence that all and any meaning in the universe is simply our projection upon it — in other words, that there is no meaning outside of us, or in the world’s relationship to us.
 For many of us, progress is considered a given. Physics and astronomy professor Adam Frank typifies this when he states that following the Cold War “the triumph of Western science led most of my professors to believe that progress was inevitable.” On the financial front, “Americans always expected their children to face a brighter economic future.”
Faith in these particular inevitabilities was waned, but most of us still consider progress a real thing. Yet we’d be wrong to assume that holds true for everyone. In fact, the idea of progress has moved in and out of vogue over the years. Recently, John Gray counted himself among its deniers. He is specifically dismissive of the idea that history is the story of human advancement (that is, progress) and our ever-improving rationality. “Science and the idea of progress may seem joined together, but the end result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilization,” he writes in “The Silence of Animals“. Still, Gray is in the minority. Aided by technological change, decreasing violence, and a growing global middle class, the concept of progress remains alive. It is a hope.
Meanwhile, although our relativistic, politically correct culture has diluted shared values to the point that many of us share very few values, in the end we still display our individual values in our choices: of right versus wrong, smart versus dumb.
Thus, while both progress and value might seem to be on the ropes, they are still standing.