Tag Archive 'evolution'

Sep 18 2021

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Wildness and Being Human

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What makes us human? Most people living in a civilization of one sort or another assume that being civilized has something to do with it. But those still living beyond the reach of civilization, as hunter/gatherers, are no less human than we are. Being human predates all the trappings modern life. It predates towns, agriculture and all the related social structures. Human beings are, first and foremost, a part of natural world.

I start from this position while delving into what it means to be human in my latest book, Wildness and Being Human. I recount my own relationship to the natural world while tracing the story of humanity from the earliest hominid beginnings to the emergence of global civilization in the Digital Age.

There is a wildness within us all, I think, that civilization has not yet completely destroyed, even though the disconnect between us and the natural world is becoming more pronounced. And this wildness is essential to our humanity.

Along with my experiences in wild places and my thoughts regarding human nature, I touch upon the contributions to this subject made by scores of scientists, social scientists, philosophers and naturalists. One thing is for sure: there are as many different ways to define humanity as there are worldviews. Yet there are certain facts about our nature that we ignore at our peril.

You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I trust that this book will shed new light on the question at hand.

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Aug 25 2021

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Looking Deep into the Past

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A few days ago, I revisited Fisk Quarry in Isle la Motte, where there are all kinds of marine fossils in full view. Then I stopped by the Goodsell Ridge Preserve to see even more fossils etched into stone over immense periods of time. I’ve been reading a lot of natural history recently and wanted to look with my own eyes deep into the past. After all, seeing is believing.

The fossils didn’t exactly jump out at me. At first all I saw were strange shapes in the rock that seemed more like hallucinations than anything real – projections of my own thoughts onto stone. But when I reached down and touched them, yes, that made them very real.

Gastropods, cephalopods, stromatoporoids, bryozoa – the names of these ancient creatures are as strange to me as what I was seeing. Or at least they were. But if you say such names frequently enough they become commonplace. The brain makes room for them, and for what they represent.

Chazy Reef it is called. Not a reef in the strictest sense, since the mound of life forms that built up there over time contained only a smattering of corals. It dates back 480 million years, and was located back then where Africa is today. The tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust move a couple inches each year, so now Chazy Reef is in Vermont. Pondering that alone is enough to make my head explode.

480 million years… That’s a long time. Back then marine life was all the life there was. Amphibians, reptiles, and land-loving mammals like us came along much later. It’s difficult to fathom that passage of time, and even more difficult to think of the natural world as something much different from what it is now. We take so much for granted. But this world of ours, all the stars and galaxies, the entire universe has been evolving for 14 billion years. And it will continue evolving long after you and I are gone. That certainly puts things in perspective.

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Jan 07 2009

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Evolution Reconsidered

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A few weeks ago, I posted a rumination called “Evolution is Religion” at this site, drawing fire from those who don’t wholeheartedly agree with me.  My friend Andrew’s criticism of my take on evolution and religion, at his site: http://evolvingmind.info/blog/ , is as good as any.  Check it out.  For those of you more interested in the hard science of evolution, which speaks for itself, there’s a big spread on it in this month’s issue of Scientific American.  For those of you still interested in trying to figure out what the hell I was saying in last month’s blog, read on.

Where did the first living cell come from?  In a sense this question is rhetorical because there’s no possible way for us to reasonably answer it.  I emphasize the word “reasonable” here to dismiss all wild-eyed theories about how it could have emerged, as well as all assertions based upon sacred texts.  A similar question is: What existed before the Big Bang?  That question has the time-bound word “before” in it, thus making it patently absurd to any serious student of cosmology.  I trade in these paradoxes and absurdities on purpose to illustrate how little we really know about nature.  We’ve filled entire libraries with the particulars of the natural world, but the whole of it still confounds us.

Knowing what we do about the particulars of the natural world, I don’t see how anyone can reject the mechanics of evolution outright.  It appears to be written in DNA itself, not to mention the multitude of fossils we’ve collected over the past couple centuries.  But all this suggests that nature as a whole is organized – a concept which begs the existence of some kind of organizing force.  Call that force what you will.  I call it God.

I understand the scientist’s natural revulsion to any kind of Godtalk.  One only has to conjure up images of Copernican heretics burning at the stake to see why men of reason cringe at the mere mention of anything remotely religious.  I also cringe when folks whip out their sacred texts, knowing that there’s a noose and/or torture chamber somewhere waiting for the likes of me, as well.  But that doesn’t change what I see in wild nature.  I see order as well as chaos at work in it, and I can’t for the life of me explain this.

As many people have pointed out to me over the years, my version of God is weak indeed.  I doubt it would hold up in any court, be it religious or secular.  But the wild keeps telling me that I’m onto something here.  And for that reason, I will follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion.  I just hope there isn’t a cup of hemlock waiting for me at the end of this road.

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Dec 17 2008

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Evolution is Religion

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Every time I go deep into the woods, I am astounded by the fecundity of nature, by the myriad life forms taking root all around me.  Living things abound, even in the dead of winter.  The planet is teeming with them.  The oceans are soups chock full of plants and creatures great and small. Even in the coldest, most inhospitable regions of our world, colonies of bacteria thrive.  Others live on the hot rims of volcanic eruptions.  Life is everywhere and thriving.

While engaging in a series of mundane tasks the other day, it suddenly occurred to me that evolution is religion.  The great debate between Creationists and Darwinists is a contrivance – an artificial argument where the parties involved conspire against the reality manifest both in this planet of ours and in the stars.  This is clearly evident to anyone paying attention to the march of living cells: one splits into two, two split into four, and so on until everything living comes into being.  This sequence explains the seemingly endless variations found in nature, but it also begs the question: Where did that first living cell come from?

A genetic code is just that – a set of instructions by which a specific living organism takes shape.  Any self-respecting atheist will insist that the rise of the first cell was purely happenstance, that the animate sprung spontaneously from the inanimate after an incredibly long series of random events.  At face value, this appears to make sense.  But the stars refute it.

The evolution of inanimate matter draws attention to the problem of the first living cell.  Because we have become a species of specialists, the vast majority of us do not see the paradox here.  Biologists break down living things to long chains of proteins, naturally assuming that the building blocks of life have always existed.  Physicists study subatomic particles and see randomness at work in all things physical without giving much thought as to how this extends to their own living, breathing selves.  Cosmologists compile more and more data pointing to the emergence of the universe from an infinitely dense point in spacetime 14.7 billions years ago, offering no explanation as to how the physical world can be both random and organized.  Meanwhile natural historians present hard evidence that complex life forms have evolved from simpler ones, but stop short of explaining life’s origins.  Everyone assumes that the other specialists hold other important pieces of the puzzle, and that together these pieces will reveal a mechanistic world that’s mathematically comprehensible.  But the math never explains how that first living cell came to be.

The universe consists of countless stars organized into galaxies over eons.  We know that before there were galaxies, stars, planets, atoms, or any kind of organized material whatsoever, there were subatomic particles running amok in white-hot plasma that was the direct consequence of the Big Bang.  So again, I ask you: Where did the first living cell come from?  Where did this urge to live and reproduce originate?

A logically consistent atheism must deny the existence of nature altogether.  Both the laws of physics and genetic codes must be seen as mere accidents.  There is no room for natural laws in any worldview that denies a Lawgiver, unless the universe itself has always existed.  But we know this isn’t true.  We know that everything points back to the Big Bang.  We know that all matter can be reduced to four basic forces, and that a fraction of a microsecond after the Big Bang there were only two.  What happens when we go back in time and reduce that two to one?  Then we are standing eyeball-to-eyeball with God.

A true atheist must deny evolution because that seemingly scientific description of nature assumes a certain order to things that an utterly random universe cannot support.  Hence, evolution is religion.  This is so obvious that I don’t see how anyone can miss it.  But we are a species of specialists, so the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.  When this fact is taken into consideration, it is amazing that we can figure out anything at all.  Too much information.  The particulars obscure the generalities.  We can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Aug 28 2008

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Gap in the Old Stone Wall

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Is the environment currently undergoing revolutionary or evolutionary change? I sat down this morning to answer this rather provocative question but drew a blank. So I did what I usually do when thoughts and words don’t come easy to me. I stepped away from my desk and went for a walk.

A few miles outside town, I parked my car at an overgrown turnout and tramped into a stretch of woods I’d visited before. I followed a logging road until it turned sharply eastward, then bushwhacked north from there. That’s when I realized I had forgotten my compass. I continued bushwhacking north, anyway.

The occasional glimpse of a beaver pond on my right kept me oriented, but I was a little concerned about missing the trail that would eventually lead back to the logging road. I was navigating by memory and that’s always a dicey proposition. Just then I remembered a gap in the old stone wall running east-west through these woods. I could pick up the trail there. Finding that gap would be tricky, though. I didn’t know this area that well.

A few vaguely familiar landmarks cropped up along the way: a half-dead maple tree, a soggy crease in the earth, a huge boulder. None of these things had been on my mind when I stepped into the woods, yet somehow I recognized them. Together they led me to the gap in the old stone wall and then to the trail. Amazing. I couldn’t have done better with a map.

That is how evolution works, I think. Wild nature winds through the material world and, by virtue of trial and error, eventually gets to where it needs to be. Nature itself has memory, reaching beyond the memories of the countless individual plants and animals in it.

When great change occurs, it occurs suddenly, so we are tempted to think it is the result of some obvious set of circumstances rooted in the present. But we aren’t seeing the big picture. That is why humankind has a hard time grasping the causal relationship between, say, the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries and global warming. We expect things to develop in a time frame that we can readily comprehend – one corresponding to our lifespans. Yet sometimes it takes many, many years for things to reach fruition. What we perceive as a revolution in nature, a dramatic event, is but a snapshot in a long, drawn out evolutionary process.

The great changes we are seeing in the world around us these days were set in motion generations ago. Consequently, it’ll take a while to set them right. And to do so may require a significant change in our own way of thinking and doing things.

I picked up a game trail on the other side of the old stone wall and tagged the logging road shortly thereafter. The rest of the outing was an easy walk back to the car. Funny how some part of me knew the way through these woods even though I had no conscious memory of it. Still, I’ll make sure to carry a compass the next time I go for a hike.

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