Saturday, January 2, 2010

Some Wonders of Evolution

(c)2010 Connell J. Maguire

The wonders of evolution amount to a story still too little told. My uncle used to marvel that, as he put it, "Everything comes out of the ground." He neglected to give due credit to air, water and sun. His concentration was on houses and cars. But much greater wonders abound than any he ever contemplated, and more are yet to be discovered. And to think that the potential to evolve was latent in matter billions of years before the process began on our planet.

Advances in discovery and an appreciation of evolution, its amazing process and influence, have been hindered to a degree by an adversarial relationship between religion and science. Those who interpret the Bible literally have rejected evolution. This has perhaps been an influence in luring some scientists outside their area of competence to interpret their findings with an anti-religious bias. Patently, open minds all around are imperative for progress.

Evolution has amazingly produced many feelings, now innate to us, that serve personal and social, even ethical purposes. The answers to how evolution does this will be found in nature, not in divine interference. It is ultimately to the advantage of scientists, philosophers and theologians alike that evolution be allowed to be purely scientific. Even though religious teaching and culture may influence the development of behavioral genes, evolution still is in control of making it all happen. Besides, a deity who had to tamper with a process he designed in order to make it work would be a rather ludicrous figure.

A short essay cannot of course tell the story of many wonders of evolution. Starting with the "shoe strings" of air, water, sun and earth, it has produced our eyes, ears, our genome and the brain we use to study their parent.

Natural selection has been adequate to explain development in elementary science, but there are indications that there may be more to nature than natural selection can explain. The totality of nature does not seem to be as passive and stimuli dependent as natural selection suggests. Besides, natural selection has not as yet even explained irreducible complexities, cases where parts of an organ develop separately and later join to fulfill its purpose. Also instinctive self-sacrificing behavior in some species for the purpose of benefiting others is counter to the thrust of natural selection toward survival. For example, termites and ants have "soldiers" who sacrifice themselves to prevent an intruder from harassing the rest of the colony. Birds and mammals draw attention to themselves to save others. Socio-biologists attribute this to protection of the gene bank of the species, but how did evolution bring this about?

The evolution of the structure of the family rivals that of the genome and brain as an object of wonder and awe. Evolution implants different kinds of affection between parents, siblings, and parents and children, affections we did not need to learn. There are also feelings in part of us for preserving the unity of the family. Couples fall in love. (Freud considered this a sub-conscious desire for the reproduction of the species. Not a song writer he!) The yin and yang charm of opposite sex company plays a role. Disobeying evolution's plans can be measured. Like lying, the disturbance within us of infidelity can be measured as unnatural. Also moderate jealousy keeps the slate clean of beginnings that threaten unity.

The family became the ideal structure for the emotional, rational, and behavioral development of young humans. The needs of the young for development are so subtle that the human mind can identify only a few. However, the design of family has the capacity to cultivate the desired qualities of the child, automatically it seems, in a family of loving parents. The child, when the ambience is favorable, has qualities that sprout "out of the ground," as from fertile soil, qualities that the parents did not teach explicitly or plan. Goodness and charm blossom as nature in springtime in this proper climate. Just as the structure and functioning of the brain is to a great degree beyond our understanding, so too are the influences that tend toward desired early human growth and development.

We can influence the family but we did not form it any more than we formed the eye. The question regurs: How was this great work done?

In light of the family structure can it be said that evolution teaches ethics? Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that we are under the influence of inherited "programs of behavior that are more strict than many psychologists would have us believe." However, we are free beings and not so rigidly pre-wired that we cannot disobey. We do so at our peril, however, and the peril of society.

Paradoxidally, evolution also bequeaths us with tendencies that can lead to unethical behavior. Its needs in a pre-historic era, and its disinterest or past promotion of feelings or acts now proscribed, task us to cope with its negligence and "misbehavior," however excusable or even necessary these may have been at the time.

Hominoids were tender at birth as are we. A newborn calf can survive by itself on day one if nourishment is available but not our progenitors or ourselves. To gain a foothold on earth for the species, aboriginal males were programmed to impregnate as many females as possible, and females to be decorative to attract the males. Vestigia of aboriginal behavior survive. The male today has a tendency to be promiscuous. The female to attract indiscriminately. Sex shows are directed at men, sex shops at women.

There are other discrepancies in our nature that evolution has tolerated or promoted. They differ little if at all from what we identify as the principal sources of evil -- a self-centered lack of compassion, excessive acquisitiveness, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, and lack of courage from excessive fearfulness.

Can our religious culture change the generic underpinnings of these tendencies? Our process of civilization did not come from a sudden learning of facts, but from an evolution of the genes that favor civilized behavior, a gradual process of course. There is no evidence that our genes are not still malleable. This allows ethical norms from religion to influence their evolution. The spiritual and physical meet, but note that evolution has the last word.

Emmanuel Kant said that two things filled him with wonder, the moral law within him and the shining stars above him. He had no idea of a wonder already here and soon to be discovered.

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