Evolution has brought about a spectacular abundance of plant and animal life that we are trying our very best to eradicate, perhaps so we can have the planet all to ourselves. Of course the interdependence of humans and the flora and fauna of Earth makes this behaviour slightly baffling. It sometimes appears we are like a cartoon character, sawing through the branch that it sits on. Or in our case chopping down the whole forest.
There are of course those who refuse to accept that evolution is real, and believe that all life on Earth was placed here in its original form. There are also people who believe we are ruled by evil alien lizard beings, and others who find watching cricket a form of entertainment. Go figure.
For those a little less strange, we can marvel at the process of evolution that has taken a few simple cellular life forms and over billions of years given us Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, but also Donald Trump and Christian rock music. Swings and roundabouts..
Nobody knows exactly how life first started on Earth, although there are a number of theories. Abiogenesis may have occurred in a ‘warm little pond’ or in hot ocean vents. Or perhaps it all kicked off via panspermia – meteorites bringing microorganisms from space. Of course it could have been a tall muscular alien committing suicide by a waterfall. (See Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus)
Our understanding of the processes that drive evolution is usually credited to one man – Charles Darwin. The fact that virtually the same ideas had also been developed at the same time, by another scientist who was just ‘pipped to the post,’ is probably less well known. We might have been celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace Day instead of Darwin day, if he’d been a little luckier. C’est la vie. Certainly Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is one of the most significant books ever written, a triumph of the scientific process. It’s hard to think of another book that has had a comparable impact on humanity, perhaps even greater than the Harry Potter series, or the works of E.L. James.
Of all the species that have evolved on Earth, there is one group that has risen to dominance. Abundant beyond imagining, they are now found in all corners of the globe (what a weird expression that is) Yes of course I’m talking about insects. There are so many insects on Earth, that if you invited them all to your birthday party, there is not enough booze in the whole of Scotland to get them merry. Their combined total weight is thought to be almost as great as that of the citizens of Arkansas, USA.
Smart, organised and very tough, insects will probably outlive us and go on to evolve over the next few billion years into a highly evolved species with all the trappings of any advanced race – money, daytime TV, microwave popcorn and funniest caterpillar compilation clips. Maybe they’ll be shown on the Anternet…
Our own civilisation may yet survive, perhaps by colonising the nearest habitable planets and star systems. It will be a huge challenge, greater than any we have ever faced. We might have to transcend our fleshy prisons and upload ourselves into super-advanced robots, piloting vast city-sized crafts to distant stars over many generations. There are certainly some advantages – being able to live for centuries with nothing more than a bit of solar power and a few cans of WD40 for starters.
It’s quite extraordinary to think how far we’ve evolved in the space of a few hundred thousand years, a mere blink of the eye in cosmic terms. It brings to mind that wonderful scene in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the pre-humans throw a bone up into the air and as it spins, the scene cuts to the space station floating in the heavens.
From a species of simple hairy apes, to a race of spacefaring naked apes with nuclear weapons, we seem to have unlimited potential for creation as well as destruction. It is the yin and yang, the counter-balance of opposing forces that appears throughout many ancient belief systems and philosophies.
Can light be said to exist without the darkness? Could we experience pleasure without pain? Can you make a truly great TV drama series without a disappointing ending? Such questions have troubled philosophers for millennia.
According to one theory, human intelligence developed at a phenomenal rate due to eating meat. Clearly nonsense as anyone who’s ever had a cat will attest. An alternative idea is that it was cooking that made the difference, or perhaps high-carb vegetables and tubers that made us smarter than the average ape. Whatever the cause, we are now in danger of throwing the whole process into reverse and turning into an idiocracy. (If you don’t know the movie, see it asap)
The Internet has the potential to make us all smarter, yet for millions of us it is becoming a source of mindless entertainment, misinformation and a school-playground of vicious behaviour that we’d never tolerate in the real world. The dumbing-down probably started long before the world wide web appeared, when the early printing presses started churning out Wheat Magazine – ‘Did farmer Jack plant his seeds where he shouldn’t have? Full story and lithographs inside.’
Fortunately there is cause for hope. There are millions of free courses and educational resources online, where one can learn about quantum physics, sustainable permaculture or how to knit a cosy Winter sweater for your dog.
If we are to continue evolving as a species there are many obstacles to overcome, not least the challenges of climate change, over-population, disease and Royalty. We will need to find ways to rein-in our baser instincts, so that the greed and short-term thinking of unrestrained capitalism do not leave future generations without a branch to sit on. It might be wise to start investing more effort in finding sustainable ways to live, and less in devising ever more elaborate ways to kill time, our ecosystems and each other.
Now where’s that kitten channel, I need cheering up.
*I stole this title from certain members of the religious community, who feel that evolutionary theory is the Devil’s work.
© Copyright J.Lennick 2016. All rights reserved.
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