The world in which human beings evolved was enormously different from the one we live in now. Our ancestors didn't have to sit in an office for 8 hours a day, mostly interacted with others like them, and weren't presented with high fat, high-sugar fast foods or potent recreation drugs. It is no wonder that we are so susceptible to addiction, anxiety, depression, mutual suspicion, and inter-group hostility.
Recognising the mismatch between the world we are adapted for and the one we live in is important. It gives us the possibility of adjusting in ways that can make us happier, kinder, healthier, more effective, and more satisfied. We will explore how our inner cave-people can learn to manage better in the 21st century.
Why We Tell Stories, by Lisel Mueller
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe they can fly,
an instinct retained from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees
Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently
and none of us tells it
the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and
Message by Andy Pakula
There’s something surprising and very touching about Major Tom.
We don’t usually think of astronauts as gentle or tender. With his military rank, I imagine Major Tom as a kind of tough-guy alpha male who never cries - Someone who is above the sort of human frailties the rest of us know so well. Someone who might buy a round but never really reveal anything about himself.
And then Major Tom seems something else entirely - a human being stuck a hi-tech tin can thinking about love and loss. A small human being adrift in a universe too big for us to comprehend.
We’re continuing to talk about Science today. It’s our theme until the end of September.
Today, I want to talk about evolution.
Learning about evolution was - for me - one of those special moments in life where things just clicked. It was like that moment when riding a bike or driving a car becomes natural rather than a shaky set of directions to remember. It was like having the code to understand what had previously seemed mysterious. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
When I grasped the idea of evolution, a whole range of disparate facts and observations fell into place. I knew I didn’t believe that any kind of supernatural being created us like the old stories said, but then how did everything get its form? How did so much that looks like it was designed come into being without a designer?
Evolution was a way of seeing the world that - while it didn’t provide all the answers - gave me a structure to understand what was going on. I could then apply it to ask questions about new observations.
And evolution is simple and obvious and doesn’t take any magic. Take a bunch of individuals with random genetic variations, the beneficial variations get passed on more, and - given enough time - you have flowers and viruses and horses and trees and human beings and all the other living things.
I was savvy enough to know that evolution doesn’t explain everything about human beings, but it stood as a system I could use to understand much of the biological part - or at least make some very good guesses.
Of all the various clashes between science and religion, one of the biggest sources of conflict has been over evolution.
And we can easily see why. Traditional religion presents itself and its beliefs as THE system for understanding why things are the way they are.
Evolution and God are two conflicting organising perspectives on the world. We have all these questions about how and why things are as they are and the traditional religious answer is God. God did that.
If we accept that random variations and natural selection and time could make living beings what they are, there’s less room for the supernatural. And whatever room is left also starts to erode. Creating the universe? Providing ethical truths? Natural disasters? Should we invoke the supernatural? We didn’t need to for how living beings came to be as they are, so we start to suspect there might be natural ways of understanding and answering these questions too.
I mainly want to talk today about how evolution made us and how understanding that can help us live better today.
First though, I need to clarify just a bit about evolution because there tend to be quite a lot of misconceptions.
Imagine a population of humans living with food shortage. In this population, some individuals die from hunger-related disease before they can reproduce or are just too unwell to have children that themselves survive to adulthood. And then, one of these humans is born with a random genetic change that allow them to digest and get nutrition from a plant where other cannot. That individual then has more children, those children are more likely to survive to reproduce, and this variant becomes increasingly prevalent in succeeding generations.
That variant gene won the evolution lottery. By enabling its carriers to have more children, it becomes the new normal.
It’s important to note that the key is reproduction. If a gene variant does good things that don’t affect reproduction, that is irrelevant to evolution. So, variants that make people feel happier, live longer, feel a greater sense of oneness, earn more money, have fewer allergies, or sing beautifully have no impact on evolution if they don’t also affect reproduction positively. It’s all about reproduction.
One wrinkle to remember is that what matters is reproduction but not necessarily of everyone carrying the gene variant.
Imagine now a population where the shortage of food means that parents have to spend lots of their time foraging to survive. Because they can’t take adequate care of their children, few survive to be able to reproduce. Imagine now that an individual is born with a gene variant that makes its carriers extraordinarily good babysitters. This individual mates, has children, and they also carry this variant.
When the eldest children reach reproductive age, the babysitting drive kicks in for the younger siblings and one or more of them devote themselves to caring for their nephews and nieces who are also likely to carry the same gene variant. They never have children of their own.
Did the gene variant win or lose? You might think that the gene variant lost because the babysitters didn’t reproduce, but the variant actually won. It will become more prevalent in the population because it makes more of itself by causing more reproductive success in closely related individuals.
I say all this because there is a tendency to think that any attribute can evolve - that we are evolving to be more spiritual, smarter, better coders, more compassionate, less warlike, or more loving. Unless these attributes cause greater reproductive success for a gene, they are traits that are evolving biologically.
Of course, culture can change and has changed for the better in many ways. But that change in culture doesn’t change who we are innately. It is not biologically heritable.
In most ways, the biological basis of our behaviour is unchanged from our ancestors who lived in small tribal kinship groups and focused on food, reproduction, and surviving attacks from predators and enemies. They evolved traits that would increase their reproductive success under these conditions.
Some of those traits made them adaptable and compassionate and intelligent since such traits helped them adjust to new challenges and to get along in their kinship groups. Nonetheless, they did not directly develop traits that would make them better emailers, coders, or internet searchers. They were not biologically prepared to kiss up to their bosses, to be productive in front of a computer screen for 8 hours a day, to bear the stress of crowded tube carriages with grace, to fear only serious dangers, to treat everyone equally and fairly, or to love their enemies.
The world we live in is a very different world whose challenges guided our ancestors’ evolution. We will not evolve biologically to suit these new challenges unless new gene variants increase our reproductive success - and there’s little evidence that great coders and commuters have more children.
So, here we are - living in a very different world from the one we evolved for. We have all the other aspects of how we are together - our culture - to influence how we are together. And that is extremely important - crucial to the progression of our world. We cannot change - at least not yet - the part of our genetic makeup that makes us trust people who are like us more than those who seem different. We have to do that despite our biology.
One of the teachings of Christianity is that we are born sinful - deeply flawed - and that we must be saved from that sin.
It’s a doctrine that I doubt anyone here has any time for, and yet there is a naturalistic equivalent that I think can help us. We are born the way evolution made us - optimising our reproductive success in a world drastically different from this one.
And so, we are born - not with sin - but biologically unsuited for being the people we want to be in the world we inhabit today.
We are not biologically programmed to survive nearly constant low-level stress without becoming what we call mentally ill
We are not biologically programmed to react fearfully only to real dangers
We are not biologically programmed to be happy.
We are not biologically programmed to treat people fairly and equally.
We are not biologically programmed to be kind to strangers.
We are not biologically programmed for peace
It helps to know, I think, that it is not our fault that we are not perfect. And it helps to know that we are not going to become perfect. Our biology is working against it. And this is good to know because it means that we know what we need to work at. We can be happy and kind and fair and courageous and peaceful despite our genes, but anything that doesn’t come naturally is harder.
It doesn’t help us to think we’re impervious perfect people in full command of our ways of being in this world. Let’s recognise what we are - human beings - with all the imperfections that implies. Imperfect human beings floating together in a vast universe on our shared, endangered, planet.
And then - only then - can we work to be the people we want to be and make the just, loving, peaceful world of our dreams.
May it be so
We are imperfect people
In search of our best selves
And a better world
Let us know ourselves and one another as we are
And with honesty and humility
Move forward together
Toward the future of our dream