Each of us makes sense of the world in one way or another, unless we don’t make sense of it, as for those whom my friend calls “angry white men.” The world was their oyster, but time is an arrow always pointing forward, and they are left with their outrage.
But let’s not bother with the troglodytes among us. This brief treatise is for thinking persons who are aware they view life through a filter of their choosing, be it religion, philosophy, science, or something-ism, whatever lens that allows us to view current and past events and make sense of it. For me, that filter is evolution.
The evolution lens imposes a long view, a very long view, not a bad thing when the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket. I can still be concerned about the notifications constantly popping up on my devices: global warming, racism, the Middle East, nuclear weapons, honeybee colony collapse…. But I needn’t think these problems have an immediate solution, or will even be solved in my lifetime. Without this longer perspective, I too might collapse under the weight of bad news.
Having explained how my mind works, here are my reflections after watching a PBS series called First Peoples, a report on current theories of human evolution and migration patterns based on DNA studies and archeology.
First off, there was little in the series I hadn’t heard elsewhere, either from reading Stephen J. Gould in my youth, or watching other science and nature programs on PBS over the years. And let me just say, I really don’t like the narrative technique that assumes we viewers retain nothing from one 15-minute segment to the next. Don’t even get me started on the soundtrack of obnoxious music so loud it drowns out the narration and forces me to run closed captioning. And am I the only one who gets dizzy when fifty images flash by in 3 seconds? Okay, setting gripes aside….
Today it is possible to tease out a coherent genome of Neanderthal humans and to deduce that 3% or more of modern human DNA derives from that particular line of pre-modern humans. (The film iterates the consensus among scientists that there were probably thousands if not millions of human types, pre-cursors of homo-sapiens, in the human tree of life, people who would be recognizably kin to us.) The film repeatedly wonders if our species annihilated those pre-modern people or inter-bred with them. I think it’s clear from history (oral and written) that we mostly killed them. Sure there was some inter-breeding. Even in war zones with murderous bands of men blowing each other to bits, there is raping and pillaging going on, and after every war there are half-breed children born 9 months later. The film did not say what percentage of modern DNA is indigenous American on this continent; Aborigine in Australia; Ainu in Japan, etc. In other words, how much inter-breeding occurred on other continents with other native populations.
The film skirts the question of why modern humans (and I mean even people alive today) want to exterminate tribes they perceive as different. My own theory is that this too is part of our DNA, the unpleasant side effect of evolution, the drive to out-compete, garner and protect the resources for one’s own tribe. It’s really the only explanation for racism today. There’s plenty of food for everybody, yet hatred of (so often) the socio-economic group on the rung just below ours persists.
The Japanese have achieved the most homogenous society in the world, and are known for intolerance of non-Asians in their midst. It’s almost impossible for a Westerner to go there and fully integrate into their culture the way foreigners do in America. I’ve not read much on the reasons the Japanese went a’warring in foreign lands in the 20th century, but I’ve heard it said they were seeking resources. But probably, on a cellular level, they were also motivated by the same dark animus that drove Hitler to kill as many Jews as he could: to eliminate other blood lines. Hitler was famously blunt about his motivation, and he led his tribe to be more successful at purging out this otherness than possibly any other person in the long scope of human history. Earlier tribes did not have bombs and airplanes to help them achieve their goal.
“Otherness” is most apparent in skin color, shape of the face, hair type, build of the body, and to the extent that otherness can be perceived, extermination, purging, genocide has been effective. But wars have also happened where there are no physical differences, wars based on differences of language, religion, culture. Ethnic cleansing continues into the 21st century among people with apparently a 16th century mentality. God bless America for her peace-making efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere, though we’re not blameless ourselves.
Our own vicious internecine war erupted between groups utterly indistinguishable from one another, except for one crucial difference: the South had slaves; the North did not. It may have been the first war fought over the right to oppress a people. Earlier in American history, the almost complete annihilation of Native Americans was carried out with apparently little contemporary examination of conscience. But the Civil War was preceded by 30 years of newspaper editorials, pamphleteering, sermons from the pulpit, an early and relentless media campaign to rally people around the idea that slavery was abhorrent and could not be tolerated in a modern society.
The idea of universal brotherhood, that no matter what a person looks like or how oddly they behave, is based on concepts first enunciated some 2000 years ago. Prior to the New Testament, there was the Old Testament, when war and blood and tribal conflict and vengeance was required by one’s god. But as enlightenment broke out around the globe, embodied simultaneously in different cultures by Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, the collective consciousness of our species was awakened to a modern sense of shared humanity. Ultimately we sent a spacecraft out to shoot a selfie and it dawned on us, we are family.
The study of evolution teaches that change does not happen evenly across the species, but is a gradual accretion of traits that favor survival. In order to judge success, you would have to be able to look back at thousands of years, now possible thanks to DNA studies and other modern scientific tools.
It’s clear we’ve been phenomenally successful as a species. Through agriculture and animal husbandry, we have enough to eat that we don’t have to ambush the neighboring tribe. Our brains continued to evolve, some say because of language. We developed writing, which led to books, to being able to amass the knowledge of previous generations, and thus harness the intelligence of those who came before us.
So that’s it for the PBS series, a good survey of current understanding of where we came from. Now I want to turn my lens on another media piece, from the New Yorker, July 7, 2015. The Really Big One, which describes in chilling detail (down to the dogs howling) the total destruction of Seattle and a large swath of the Pacific Northwest when our side of the Pacific Rim “Ring of Fire” finally releases, massively jolting and resettling that corner of the North American continent. My nearest and dearest live there, so my first thoughts were deeply personal. My second thoughts were how such a massive disruption might affect our nation, even to the extent that our enemies could use that moment of confusion to strike. Oh, the economy! After a while I took a deep breath and peered through my long lens.
As individuals, we are less than nothing, our lives so brief and what we leave behind so inconsequential that our exit will not cause the slightest disturbance on the web of life, except to our loved ones. We will merely have carried our bit of DNA and passed it along, or not, to the next generation. We speak of saving the planet, but dear ones, the planet will go on. It is we who are ephemeral.
We live with the knowledge that one day we will die. Sometimes we angst over the specifics of this fate, especially when we buckle ourselves into an airplane seat, but mostly we don’t when we get into our car, a place we are far more likely, statistics tell us, to meet our mortal end. But that is a familiar risk and besides, we need groceries. We buckle our children in, we buy the safest cars we can afford, we buy insurance, we minimize our risk as best we can. And live with the knowledge that shit happens and some of it is going to happen to us.
There’s almost nothing we can do to minimize the terrible effects of earthquakes and tsunamis and other natural disasters. If you don’t live in Tornado Alley, you see flattened neighborhoods on TV and wonder why those people don’t have basements. You see Galveston and New Orleans after a hurricane and you think, they knew it was coming, why didn’t they get out of the way? The fact is, natural disasters hurt people. Everybody cannot get out of the way. The human toll of a big storm can’t be mitigated 100%. Most people were able to avoid being killed. Some got into shelters or drove away from the coast. And for most people, the worst effect was being stuck in a massive traffic jam.
So you develop a philosophy to enable you to live with the knowledge that you are going to die. Everyone you know and love is going to die, and none of us know when. When we got off an airplane recently that had come through rough skies, three of the four in our group were limp and shaking. The fourth declared, “When your time is up, it’s up. It wasn’t our time.” And I said: “I wish I believed in something.” And truly I do. I wish that old time religion had taken with me. I wish I could feel utter security and unshakeable confidence that everything is going to be okay, no matter the disaster. What joy it must give to those people, to put aside their fears and believe that they are safe in the arms of Jesus, or whoever. I tried to buy that lens, but it just wouldn’t take with me. Instead I have to live with the certainty that I will not survive. My tribe will not survive. Our entire human family will return to the dust. We are here for a blink of time only, disturbing the planet, and then she will shake us off, as my friend says, like fleas off a dog’s back. It is cold comfort, but it is my truth.