We regard human beings as the present “end of the line” of human animal evolution, even though we know that that’s not exactly true–we believe homo sapiens to be the end of one line of primates, but we also know that the animal kingdom branches off in many different directions and continues to evolve among each of those.
So how and why exactly do we place ourselves at the culmination of all evolution?
1. Yes, I know, we have created edifices and technologies that are unparalleled among what we know other creatures to have made, but do we ever consider that we’re mostly inwardly focused and we are creating things that serve our own interests and therefore these creations are obviously going to seem to us to be greater than anything any other animal does–because what we do serves what we want or need to do? Have we considered that, for example, functions of certain viruses can be regarded as technological? We have taken advantage of advanced engineering of the HIV virus, as an example, to use it as a vehicle to deliver drugs to treat cancers. We didn’t invent the technology; we discovered it, already fully formed, after it ravaged our species for decades and we scratched our heads trying to figure out what this thing was that had outsmarted us. Are we really the crowning glory of evolution, or is this attitude a holdover from Chruch-based teachings that we’re the crowning glory of creation?
2. We’re intelligent, but are we really that smart? Are we smart enough to overcome our animal instincts? Not collectively, not usually. Our intelligent minds tell us that overpopulation causes population crashes and decimates species. Related to overpopulation is the overexploitation and contamination of resources. We know this, but we will not stop as we head in that direction. Our culture has disdain and disregard for indigenous cultures (“primitive”) that understood resources are limited and that human beings should–no, must–live in balance with available resources, not try to outsmart them, because in fact they are limited. So we apply intelligence to trying to win battle with natural resources that isn’t a battle; they are finite, and contaminating them will only serve to harm us, and yet we would rather take a gamble (doomed in my opinion) and try to force their unnatural evolution rather than temper our own behaviors and actions. How smart are we?
3. We’re the apex of evolution. We recognize that all living creatures evolve constantly as a result of mutations. We recognize that we don’t really understand the driving forces for all evolutionary changes: some are almost certainly due to survival of the fittest, and some seem to be due to random programming changes. Either way, all living creatures evolve as a matter of course. Well, no. All but human beings, right? Because, despite many or perhaps most American people believing we’re science-minded, we are actually Judeo-Christian church-minded when it comes to this. We’re the best. We’re the end of the line. It doesn’t get better than human beings. No, no, you laugh; we don’t think that. Except that we do. If we didn’t, then we would ask whether illnesses, behavioral changes such as autism, and other trends that are due to unknown causes could be a kind of evolution compelling us toward becoming a different type of further-evolved animal. But no, everything must be “cured” so that the evolution of the human species stops here and now. The only potential change we can fathom is that of integration with artificial intelligence, and we fear that. But why do we believe that our biology is not continuing to evolve on its own, as well?
4. Further to the point of 3, we still continue to believe that genetic disorders are faults. Obviously these can cause serious illness and great suffering, and so it is a hallmark of human compassion that we want to resolve that. We can work toward that and simultaneously investigate whether these so-called disorders might be serving the purpose of collective metamorphoses, of becoming a different type of being. New CRISPR technology enables scientists to edit genetic sequences in such a way that is, as one scientist said, “almost as easy as editing a Microsoft Word document.” To that point, the scientist said the technology is a great thing because scientists now can, for example, extract a genetic defect sequence and replace it with “junk DNA,” thereby eliminating the disease. It’s basically a miracle, said the scientist. To which a genetic ethicist replied that having the technology to do something like that doesn’t mean that we should do it. She said that we ourselves are primitive when it comes to understanding DNA. We can correlate sequences with characteristics, from eye color to genetic disorders, but we don’t understand what most of it does. She reminded her audience that nature is elegant, not wasteful, and that what we call junk DNA is junk to us only because we can’t yet understand what it’s good for, and so our egos drive us to dismiss its importance. That doesn’t mean it’s useless; it means we resent that we don’t know what it’s useful for. And, she said, we don’t know first of all how all chromosomes interact on a greater scale, and whether cutting out what we consider to be a defect will affect the whole sequence in ways we don’t understand, potentially causing an even greater problem that may not be immediately apparent; and, secondly, we don’t know whether so-called defects are actually important mutations that are co-evolving with nature and whose disadvantages today may be necessary adaptations tomorrow. So in the end, the ethicist’s observations (as I heard them) basically said that we are very intelligent, but we’re not really very bright or thoughtful. We can’t think beyond the immediate moment and payoff. And isn’t that a characteristic we attribute to lower animals? Hmm.
5. Plants. This whole long blabberfest was triggered by a Science Daily headline I saw this morning stating that scientists are close to developing technology that would allow human beings to perform photosynthesis–to get energy directly from the sun to power ourselves. The results of this could be truly transformative to a species whose wars in many cases have been fueled by competition for food, and whose economies are based largely on production and sale of food (and weapons of destruction). Now, photosynthesis is a characteristic of one of the lower forms of life as science teaches it. Plants are, to most of us, a basic common denominator of life. They are ancient overall, having been on the planet far longer than animals. They were a stepping stone toward becoming animals and then, ultimately, [insert that ahhhhhhhhhhhhh heavenly choir song here] becoming human! They are for growing, engineering, eating and building useful things. They are to be taken advantage of, and taken for granted. So-called primitive cultures see plants differently. Some American Indians from the Great Lakes region whose podcasts I have listened to call rice their cousin. It’s not a charming turn of phrase; they actually see rice as a close relative and a part of their community, and the culture has been rocked by the industrialization of rice cultivation because they see it as a horrific abuse of a spiritual being. Shamans throughout the world but perhaps particularly around the Amazon view various plants as teachers. This, too, isn’t a quaint turn of phrase, nor is it said in a symbolic way like the supposed conversion of wine and a mass-produced cracker into Jesus parts good for eatin’. No, these shamanic cultures believe that many plants are actually teachers and healers–intelligent beings that hold wisdom and knowledge, and which hold the intention to convey lessons to other knowledge-seeking beings. This sounds silly to us, doesn’t it?
But if we change our perspectives, instead of assuming that plants as a whole are primitive because they have been around for so long and because they don’t wiggle around and construct things as we do, what if we look at them this way: We say we believe in evolution. Evolution occurs over time. It is a process of constant refinement, changing toward a more self-sufficient and more intelligent way of being. Some scientists have proposed that as human being evolve with technology of our own creation, we will make greater use of our minds and less use of our physical bodies. Machines will do the heavy lifting. As this happens, our bodies will evolve as needed and we may end up before too long resembling the common “grey alien” type creatures: bigger heads, small, spindly bodies. This of course doesn’t comport with our presently growing bodies as nutrition improves. But what if we were able to develop the technology to photosynthesize nutrition? And then millions of years went by? How would our bodies evolve?
Is it possible that instead of being primitive because they are so ancient, evolutionarily speaking, some plants are actually more advanced than we ever thought, containing or tapping into intelligence that is beyond us instead of behind us? No, many people would say, because plants don’t have brains and brains are necessary to intelligent thought. Are they? Or is that an incredibly limited and narcissistic way of thinking? Relatively recent research has shown that trees have their own “internet” underground, using the fine hairy roots of fungi as a fiber optic-type information highway through which they send chemicals to communicate, and through which they actually can and do transport nutrition. A study showed that some older trees sacrifice nutrients of their own, sending them through these systems to saplings that are deprived of light on the forest floor, until those saplings can reach the light and photosynthesize their own food. Not only can they do this, but they’ve been shown to do this across species–to care for forest communities beyond their own individual-serving interests. Is this analogous to breast feeding and to adoption? Is it possible that what we might be inclined to dismiss as “just chemical” communications could be as sophisticated and intelligent as our own communications in ways that are either too advanced or perhaps just too different for us to decipher? Does a creature need a brain in order to possess and convey intelligence? Is the brain really the locus of our entire life experience? How different are the vast branching networks of trees’ root systems as compared with the neurons inside of human brains? What if human beings learn to photosynthesize? What if we find a way to connect our neurons to one anothers’, not just have them in these isolated balls of neurons that we call brains, and what if our physical bodies become less useful for serving our needs? How might our bodies change then? We could lose strength and mobility as we become more adapted to using manmade machinery to accomplish physical tasks. Our brains might continue to evolve to become larger. What if they evolve beyond the confines of our skulls and millennia and then eons pass? Could we turn into plantlike beings? Is it possible that so many ancient cultures worshipped trees of life, and believed that these great beings are ancient, wise spiritual entities not because that was a nifty thing to do but because they were right?
Nah, that’s not possible. Trees are for paper, furniture and firewood. I was just kidding!