From the yearly archives:


Evolution Hurts

by Maraya on July 23, 2009

When I was growing up, my father’s spiritual teacher predicted that humans would evolve to the next level of consciousness within 20 years. “The transformation of the human species,” she called the much-anticipated event. This was in California, in the late 1970s and early 80s. The teacher was enthralling and charismatic, and for my part, I couldn’t wait to evolve.

The teacher was echoing a popular misreading of Darwinian evolution as progression toward a goal, as if all of Creation were on a path toward the summit of a mountain. While lesser species tire out and languish on benches near the parking lot, or distractedly wander off on dead-end side trails, the thinking goes, humans march doggedly on toward the summit of perfection.

It isn’t really like that.  There aren’t any  predefined levels to evolution, no graph of accomplishment, no summit of greatness.  There is only our changing environment, and life that adapts.  In fact, you might say that the most perfect species are those that haven’t changed much at all over many millions of years, like crocodiles and dragonflies, because they’ve hit on a body design that seems to do well no matter what.

But the thing that’s really weird about the spiritual teacher’s prediction is not so much the idea of evolution as progress — that pitfall is hard for a self-congratulatory species such as ourselves to escape — but the notion that a big leap in the evolutionary history of humankind is something to look forward to, a celebratory moment of initiation into a new and improved society — some kind of party.

The product of evolution, the glorious diversity of life, is wonderful to behold.  But a moment in which a lot of evolution occurs is not a moment you really want to be around to witness.

Big leaps in evolution happen right after mass extinctions. The extra-terrestrial rock that crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula, wiping out the dinosaurs and a lot of other creatures, cleared the land of large predators and allowed mammals to diversify and prosper. Long before that, 500 million years ago, a massive extinction of unknown cause made way for the famously productive Cambrian period, when complex life apparently emerged.

In the cycle of destruction and rebirth that is evolution, the terrified survivors pick their way painfully through the carnage, probably wondering if survival was even worthwhile. What kind of disaster would precede the evolution of humans to our next incarnation?

Even small changes require a lot of death — death by starving or getting torn apart by predators — in order that certain individuals pass on their sharper teeth or more cautious disposition. If you’re one of the few who’ve survived an epidemic to contribute your genes to the evolution of the species, your family and friends have most likely perished.

And yet, rosy misconceptions about evolution abound. ‘Evolve’ has become one of those fashionable buzzwords, connoting advanced ability, increased stamina, high-mindedness, a universal outlook, a more refined palate.  You might want to hone your fitness through exercise or meditation, but as far as evolving?  My advice is to avoid it if you possibly can.