The following article was written under invitation from the CommonGroundGroup, a website put together by some members of the Baha’i faith, for discussion of the common areas of agreement between science and religion. They seek to include alternative views and promote open discussion on topics of science, religion, and philosophy. I appreciate the invitation to contribute an article which is diametrically opposed to most of their normal postings.
I love evolution.
Just as biological evolution creates new species, information and knowledge and technologies also evolve – and in a very similar manner. Take the microprocessor that is running the computer on which I’m writing this article, for example. The electronic microprocessor isn’t the brainchild of a single brilliant engineer who just created it one day, without any prior information or knowledge. All modern processors are evolutionary offshoots of the Intel 4004, introduced in 1971. It was a huge breakthrough, but that milestone could never have come about without the invention of the transistor and the many simpler integrated circuits before it; and the core processing logic was built upon the mechanical and vacuum tube computers which evolved over the fifty years before that. None of these would have been possible without a working knowledge of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics – the secrets of which have been slowly uncovered, bit by bit, for hundreds (thousands!) of years.
Evolution tends to go in fits and starts, especially in the early stages. There are the agonizingly slow changes that take millennia – the spinoff of one species to another for example, or the adaptation to environmental changes that all early life went through as the Earth cooled; for almost half of the 3.5 billion years that life has existed on Earth, there was nothing more complex than single cell organisms.
But then, occasionally, some big event comes around which mixes everything up; the first creature to successfully crawl out of the sea and make its home on land spawned thousands of other new species in a very short period of time, and the impact of an asteroid drove almost as many into extinction, sending the course of evolution off in a completely different direction.
The microprocessor, along with its various offshoot technologies, is a recent “big event” with global consequences. If you don’t think that technological and biological evolution is intertwined, consider this: Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) and “fish finders” have made commercial fishing boats more efficient, which has changed the migration routes of many species of fish – and some species are on the brink of extinction due to overfishing with this technology. This has a direct impact on the evolution of all life on the planet.
How about humans? Are we the end all/be all of intelligent life, or just a stepping stone on the way to something better?
I have news for you: we are still evolving. Just as a school of sharks that leaves the historic breeding grounds in the Atlantic Ocean to find a new life in the Pacific will adapt to the new environment and soon become a different breed of shark, the first humans that made their way out of Africa changed as well. Early Homo Sapiens who went north, to Europe, developed paler skin and more facial hair in males, and became taller on average. The tribes that migrated into Asia developed a pigmentation more suited to their environment. And then some really adventurous folks made it all the way across the Bering Sea, traversing the Aleutian Islands, into what’s currently known as North and South America, where they developed a reddish hue to their skin (* see notes 1 and 2). Over time, the population in the north-eastern region of Asia lost almost all body hair, a trait which carried over to the Eskimos and the rest of the Native Americans. Not all evolutionary changes result in a new, genetically incompatible, species – but it is evolution just the same.
With our advanced reasoning abilities, evolution has created a delineation which separates humans from all other life. But it’s not that big of a difference. Almost all animals, in their own way, have a good memory and even problem solving skills. We had our dog with us when we went back to visit the old neighborhood where we lived over a year ago; she ran down the block, went right up to our old front door and scratched to get in! We’ve all seen examples of animals that have figured out ingenious ways to get out of cages, or solve relatively intricate puzzles. Animals show affection and compassion to each other and they teach their young how to catch food, clean themselves, and fend off predators. These traits are not mimicking human behavior; they are the evolutionary stepping stones that make human accomplishments possible.
As with all animals that develop what is needed for survival – better hearing, strength, eyesight, or the ability to camouflage themselves – Humans developed the capacity for advanced thinking and reasoning. The path we’ve taken to create the high tech world we now live in, however, has been a painfully slow process; but once we started developing written languages and passing reliable information from one generation to the next, a kind of “snowball effect” kicked in, which has been gathering speed since then. In a mere 30,000 years or so, we’ve gone from scratching stick drawings on a cave wall to watching South Park in glorious High Definition video and 5.1 channel surround sound.
Every fact that we know today, we’ve learned from developing theories, making discoveries, and painful trial and error – and handing down the knowledge to our offspring, for them to build upon. An exciting discovery of one generation becomes commonplace knowledge for the next.
Amazingly, we can encapsulate the important parts of all the knowledge we’ve learned since the start of human history, and pass it down our children via a structured education process – a process which has also evolved over time. Just as developing spoken and written languages were a critically important step in early humans, we now teach our children how to speak – and then read – at an early age, as these are the fundamental skills required for absorbing all the other information we need to pass along to our kids.
By utilizing the evolution of information, we can now go up in an airplane and see more of the world in a day than any single human ever saw 500 years ago. We can teach mathematical concepts, some of which hadn’t even been thought of 100 years ago, to ten year old kids. We can cure diseases that would have been fatal just 50 years ago. And we can post a blog on a website, instantly viewable to anyone in the world – an idea that was just a geeky novelty ten years ago.
Not all of our informational evolution has been in a straight line. As with the Dodo Bird, which was one of many an evolutionary branch that turned out to be a dead end, we’ve often come up with incorrect theories to describe ‘how things work’. At one time, humans believed in the idea of a homunculus (miniature men inside of a women’s uterus) because we did not know about sperm, ova and reproduction. At another time, we made up stories about a supernatural being (or beings) that controlled the weather, created the land and the sea and the sky, and even life itself! This rather absurd idea has been around for thousands of years and is only just now in its death throes. It’s kind of ironic if you think about it: god can easily be characterized as a by-product of the evolution of Man! But evolutionarily, god is like a Dodo Bird – a big fowl thing on a dead end branch.
To be fair, the idea of a god wasn’t all that much of a stretch for a creative human to come up with. We didn’t know that the world revolved around the sun, creating days and nights. We didn’t know about the Earth’s axis tilt that created the seasons, or the gravitational effects that the moon has on weather patterns. We didn’t know about tectonic plates that would occasionally shift, sending everyone in the area scrambling for cover. We just knew that these were powerful and sometimes scary things that we didn’t have any control over. Rather than wait to discover the real answers, we got impatient and made one up: god. It was a ‘one size fits all’ answer to everything!
As the idea of a ‘god’ spread across the land, people found that they could instill great fear in others by claiming to be able to communicate with god, and religions were born. Religion, it was found, is a powerful way to exert control over a large group of people, get them to follow your every command (no matter how immoral it may be), and cough up some money along the way. As ‘god’ is a convenient response to any question that doesn’t have an answer, religion is the promotion of god for political power, corruption, and personal benefit.
Ironically, religions are subject to evolution as well. In every religion on Earth, there has been some person, or a group of people, who disagrees with the way their leaders are running things. They want to be in charge. They want the power and glory, so they convince a bunch of other people that they have had a intimate conversation with this god of theirs, they write a bunch of mystical sounding verses, present it as a new sacred text (or a new interpretation of some old text), and a new religion is born – or a branch of an old religion. If you map out the taxonomy of different religions, it looks eerily like the evolution of life on Earth! (* See note 3)
Fortunately, not everyone has fallen into the trap of god and religion. The natural evolution of information and knowledge has provided answers, often times unwittingly, to many of the questions that religious leaders have historically said that ‘only god knows the answers’ to. And once in a while, as with any evolutionary process, some amazing discovery is made which answers some really big questions – like an influential scientist who defies the rulers of the day and claims that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around; or a restless biologist who turns the world upside down by revealing the simple fact that all life on Earth came from a common ancestry; or a lone patent clerk who realizes that there is a relationship between energy and mass.
There are still many outstanding questions of course – and many times the answers spawn new questions. But every day, humans diligently work to find solutions to whatever puzzle intrigues them ... Physicists in Geneva are looking for the Higgs-Boson particle. Paleontologists in Peru are digging up missing links between species that went extinct millions of years ago. Engineers in Beijing are building faster supercomputers which can run more accurate simulations of the big bang. String theorists at Princeton have done phenomenal work on bridging quantum mechanics with relativity. Genome mapping has provided many clues about why our brain is so similar, yet so different, from Chimps.
Some of the current areas of research may well turn into dead ends. But as other discoveries are made, details continually emerge. Through this non-stop evolutionary process, we are learning how the universe was formed, how life emerged on this rock we call home, and how we developed the self awareness which allows us to ask all these troubling questions in the first place. Bit by bit, like a portrait done with mosaic tiles, the picture is becoming clearer; it’s a very complex picture – beautiful, elegant, and intriguing.
And I love it!
1. For many years, there was controversy about whether Native Americans came across the Bering Strait, or across the Atlantic Ocean directly from Africa. Genetic tests have shown that Native Americans are more closely related to Asians than any other race, and a recent study shows a “single ancestry” for all Eskimos and Native Americans:
2. I am using skin color as a simple example of the differences between races, but there are other – more genetically significant – differences (like susceptibility or resistance to different diseases, etc.)
3. Not a graphical representation, but I did find a very interesting PowerPoint presentation from the San Jose State University on the Taxonomy of Religion