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An Intermediate Form Looks Forward to His Replacement

Here is one of my favorite religious commentaries, from January 2009.  I throw a great long rope around everything in sight, and manage to tie it all together.  Enjoy!

AN INTERMEDIATE FORM LOOKS FORWARD TO HIS REPLACEMENT

By Jay Hartlove

OUR RESISTANCE TO CHANGE

Since we can’t dig up an intact specimen of every creature that has ever appeared on Earth, the timeline scientists have built for the evolution of life on Earth will never be complete.  But to insist that miraculous interventions occurred during those gaps is an embarrassingly weak argument against the patterns established by the multitude of data points we have.  So why would anyone be so desperate to disprove the Theory of Evolution?

The fundamentalist motivation is actually quite understandable.  If all those extinct animals were intermediate forms that evolved into something else, then that makes us just intermediate forms on an evolutionary pathway to turn into something else.  Our 200,000 years on Earth looking more or less like the people we are today is a very short period of time for a process that, even with the fits and starts that we have observed, still takes hundreds of generations for even the smallest change to become universal in a population.  Over such a small period of time, things look deceptively permanent. 

But permanence is comforting.  Permanence is seductive to people who lead overbusy urban lives filled with temptations and distractions and unwelcome change.  Change becomes the enemy.  And any theory that explains the universe in terms of continuous change is rejected as too disturbing to be embraced.

But intellectuals have been wrestling with the concept of change for a long time.  600 years before Christ, Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, became “enlightened” when he realized that everything is in a constant flux of change, and that all of our suffering comes from us trying to hold onto things as if they were permanent.  Best friends become worst enemies because what once was is no longer.  The person is still important to you, but now you hate him, because he took your friend away.  People become depressed when they face the pain of deteriorating health.  Even if they can deal with the pain itself, the fact that their youth and vitality changed is crushing.  The hard part of this philosophy is what to do about change.  Buddha taught the only way out of this suffering is to accept change as normal, to be genuinely happy with whatever you have after the change.  This is an enormous pill to swallow, and the reason why Buddhists have always been and always will be a very small fraction of the population.

Our Western traditions are grounded in mastering nature, and being agents of change.  While the Chinese see the dragon (nature) as a gift-giver to be revered, the Europeans see the dragon as something to be conquered or subjugated.  But even in Western religions, the world is supposed to belong to God, and we are supposed to be ever thankful that God gave us this world out of nothing more than His love for us.  Whatever unwelcome change happens to us, we are to trust that this is just part of God’s plan for us.

With Buddha saying be happy with what you get, and Jesus saying trust in God’s plan for you, aren’t Eastern and Western thought really saying the same thing?  The human condition is defined by whether we fight what we can’t change or accept it and move on to change what we can.  This is an important lesson for anyone resisting or accepting unwanted changes in his/her life.

So where does that leave us on that evolutionary timeline of big changes?  Current research says humans made our evolutionary split from the apes between 5 and 7 million years ago, we diverged from our last closest relative the Neanderthal about half a million years ago, got to our current body structure 200,000 years ago, developed language 50,000 years ago, started agriculture 10,000 years ago, and started building cities 6,000 years ago.  And we seem to have figured out how to free ourselves from suffering 2,600 years ago, even if we then decided it was too much trouble.  (If the time between these milestones seems to be compressing, it is.  More about this later.)  But how many of these changes are evolutionary and how many just reflect our progress as a civilization?

RANDOM GENETIC CHANGE

One of the more subtle and least understood parts of the Theory of Evolution is random genetic change.  Everyone knows the pretty shape of the DNA double-helix molecule.  What is not obvious is that it is actually a zipper.  It unzips and exposes a sequence of molecules.  The molecules around the DNA strand are more of the same bits that make up the strand.  So these bits attach to the exposed sequence and form a chain in the mirror sequence.  That chain then unpeels and is sent as instructions out into the cell for making, fixing, starting or stopping some process.  Each strand in every cell in your body is constantly unzipping, replicating, and zipping back up again thousands of times every minute.  When the cell starts to wear out, the strand completely unzips and duplicates its entire length.  The cell then divides and forms two fresh healthy complete cells, each with a full set of instructions.  Over the course of a year, every cell in your body is replaced at least once each, with many kinds of cells replaced much more often.  With this many “transactions” run by your DNA, trillions per year, it is no surprise that occasionally a mistake is made.

Most of these transactional errors are inconsequential, and are either corrected by further sequencing or accumulate to the wearing down of the whole organism that we call aging.  The ones that matter to evolution are the errors that happen during reproduction.  Tiny unseen changes in each successive generation, changes that are not just a recombination of existing traits, create a storehouse of potential adaptations for the species to draw on in case of any environmental change.

When the Ice Ages hit, the genes needed to narrow the bridge of the nose and to lighten the skin of Europeans were already present.  It only took a few generations of dark skies and bitter cold to force those adaptations to manifest and contribute to survival.  But the genetic pool had enough options for that population to change in time to survive the sudden environmental shift.  The vast majority of the genetic makeup did not change, which is why Europeans can still reproduce with Africans.

As a contextual side note, the idea that gene pools build up options that are then “pressured” into manifestations by environmental change is hardly a new idea.  The Hindu Vedas, written almost 4000 years ago, describe the universe in cycles.  Each cycle gains in sophistication from the successes of the previous cycle.  Individuals are encouraged to live good lives on the promise of a more sophisticated reincarnated form.  Each cycle does the best it can and the circumstances of the new cycle dictate what will be used from the last.  Now that we understand the mechanisms of evolution, this pattern looks a lot like the succession of species.

Scientists have now mastered DNA sequencing and can track these subtle changes across generations.  What is useful about this number crunching is we can predict how long it will take for these accumulated changes to start showing up as features.  One group of scientists recently predicted and then witnessed an adaptive evolutionary change in a bacteria colony.  (Yes, one of the tests of the validity of a theory is its ability to predict.  We have demonstrated that Evolution passes this test.)  We can also back calculate when a trait first showed up on an evolutionary pathway.

A lot of brainpower is being spent on this kind of molecular detective work.  Researchers are digging up scars in our genetic makeup left by ancient plagues.  Others have looked at the unchanging DNA in a factory-like mechanism within the cell called the mitochondrion and discovered the lineage of all humans alive today traces back to as few as one woman who lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago.  She has been dubbed the Mitochondrial Eve.  Even more exciting is research, using the random change sequencing I described above, that found there was a significant change in human brain chemistry about 6,000 years ago.

CHANGES IN OUR BRAINS

 The change was in how the brain produces and uses a certain group of proteins in the Limbic System.  We don’t know exactly what these proteins do in the brain, since no one alive today lacks them.  But mankind prior to 6,000 years ago did not have them.  Prior to 6,000 years ago, mankind lived in no larger settlements than small villages.  Tools found in these villages show almost no specialization of skills – everyone did everything.  Surely early man gathered into villages to pool resources, but it apparently never occurred to him to have each person focus on one thing and then share.  Of course we now know a village can produce a lot more goods and services in the same time through such specialization.  Villages after 6,000 years ago do show specialization.  And that was when mankind started building cities, which rely on such specialization.  No one has demonstrated that this change in brain chemistry resulted in this change in thinking.  But what a coincidence!

I find it also a fascinating coincidence that our fundamentalist brethren have chosen 6000 years as the age of the universe.  The fact that the literal biblical record reckons a 6000 year timeline is frankly further evidence of a change in our basic thinking at that point in time.

Even if we make the leap and say that this change led to urban man, we are still left not being able to predict the next big change.  If we knew what function was going to change, then we could do a tracing of that change over time and calculate a time frame in which enough of this change would be in the population to start showing up as a feature.  But we don’t know what is going to change next.

On the other hand, we can make a good guess what the next environmental pressure will be that forces the manifestation of such a genetic change.  If living in villages strained the sensibilities of the unspecialized early man, then what kind of strain are we under now in our pressurized world of telecommunications and enormous cities?  Our rapidly changing world certainly strains our sense of stability and permanence.  Alvin Toffler saw this coming in his 1970 book, “Future Shock,” in which he warned of people being subjected to “shattering stress and disorientation” from “too much change in too short a time period” and “information overload.”  Might the next change be to thinking globally?  Or thinking altruistically?  Will the next step be away from the law of the jungle from which we came?

Before I start sounding like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, let me point out the work that has been done on the evolutionary value of altruism.  Starting in the 70’s, evolutionary biologists started building models of how different behavior patterns would help the whole survive better or not.  This work gave us our first explanations for why traits that seem to be unfavorable have not bred out of the population, like what we call anti-social personality disorder.  Bullies, it turns out, are good for the whole because they ensure there will always be a reserve of self-reliance and leadership potential.  More recent work has shown that altruistic behavior, self-sacrificing for the greater good, also has the power to improve the survival of the whole.  It seems counter-intuitive that any kind of self-sacrifice would improve a gene pool, especially when able bodied individuals with traits that are good for the group are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way.  But the researchers worked out the numbers.  Heroism is an evolutionary advantage.

 CHANGING OUR MINDS

 For an individual to think about his fellows more than himself requires a broad view of what matters.  If we are hoping that future man will be wired to have a broader view, then can we identify a mechanism which gives people a broader view?  It turns out, the Buddhists (remember them, with the low expectations?) train their minds to see and accept things without any judgment by putting themselves in an ultra-focused state of mediation.  The breakthrough they seek is called Satori, and it is no less than a complete teardown of the barriers between the sense of self and the perception of the world around.  Once they have seen what the world looks like with no self to filter their perception of the world, they can then use this clarity to free themselves from suffering.

Brain researchers hooked up Buddhist monks to watch the electrical activity in the brains of monks who entered the Satori state.  They found there is a specific area of the brain that shuts down when this state is achieved.  So there is a spot in the brain that erects the wall in our minds between what is inside our sense of self and the outside world.

Monks who have become adept at entering the Satori state exhibit some interesting side effects.  They can’t be startled.  They have learned to take everything so much “in stride” that even the sound of a gunshot will not make them flinch.

In other seemingly unrelated research, Sociologists recently discovered that people who have a particularly strong startle reaction tend to be overwhelmingly conservative in their political views, and are generally more suspicious and adverse to change.  Suspicious thinking indicates a strong wall between the sense of self and the outside world.  This is in accord with the monk research that showed a weak wall around the self leads to a low startle response.

So if future man will have a more open mind capable of taking in the craziness of the world we have built, I postulate he will have a lower wall around his sense of self, a lower startle reaction, and therefore a quieter “self wall” center in the brain.  If this is true, then we have identified where we can look for the next evolutionary change in our brains.

Buddhism promises that anyone can train his/her mind to do this no-self trick and be free of suffering.  But since we have found a brain mechanism for this state, I suspect there is a genetic component that determines the ease with which one can complete the training and achieve the state.  And given what we know of how gene pools randomly change over time to load up for possible adaptations that are then pressured into surfacing by changes in the environment, I also suspect the gene for a low self-wall is already quietly propagating through the population.  We know a human brain could do the Satori trick 2600 years ago.  We could set the molecular detectives to finding this gene, and then tracing its growth over time, come up with a prediction of when mankind will make the next big change.

For the change to surface, though, it has to become important for the survival of the species.  And for a change to become that important, the environment has to change enough to exert enough “pressure” to force the change.  We are talking about abandoning selfishness and replacing it with thinking of the group before yourself.  How crazy would the world have to be that thinking globally becomes a survival trait for the individual?  We are not there yet.  And for those of us who are already having a hard time with change in our lives, things are only going to get less permanent.  But within a hundred years, every person on Earth will have their body wired for wireless Internet.  Computing power will be beyond our wildest dreams.  In the same timeframe we will have mastered genetic engineering, and the moral conundrums we will face will be staggering.  There will be only one world economy and it will change instantly and constantly.  There will come a point when thinking only of yourself will harm the group enough that you will be out-competed by those who do not.  And that will trigger the change.

HOMO ALTRUISTICUS

Personally, I would love to meet this future man.  Living in a world of selfless open-minded thinkers appeals to me at a very deep level.  But by definition, he will not come into being until the world has changed so much that I could not survive in it.

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