Youth Evolving

Picture a picture.  A photograph.  I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen.  Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best.  Your teenage years.  The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine.  It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam.  I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism.  In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty.  Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.

Why am I asking you to think of old pictures?  I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth.  I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution.  We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth.  As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively.  Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment.  The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce.  Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point.  Mission accomplished.

As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years.  Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal.  There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth.  We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age.  There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal.  I’m oversimplifying, I know.  Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems.  I know this because I have a photograph of a young man.  It matters not if it is of someone I know or me.  We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.

Was I ever that young?

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Express

Full sentences.  They’re underrated.  If, like me, you receive many tersely-worded emails—an inevitable result of the txt generation—you make know that disoriented feeling of not knowing what’s being said.  Sure, in caveman grunt style, you get the gist, but what of the tone, the context, or the art of polite human conversation?  Some colleagues think me quaint for beginning each email with a greeting, followed by a body, and a closing.  I try to articulate the purpose of my communication using full sentences, often explaining why I’m asking.  Sometimes I ask questions.  Sometimes multiple questions.  When I get an answer answer stating just “Yes” am I to assume that’s to all of the questions?  What if one of them didn’t accept a “yes or no” answer?

Scientists often suggest that it’s our ability to communicate vocally that set us on a different evolutionary track from other animals.  Our large brains, we’re told, were to accommodate the complexities of speech and the abstract thought that followed it.  Seems a pity that now that we communicate constantly we seem to have lost the ability.  Well, not so much lost it as have allowed ourselves to be completely distracted.  I get busyness.  There are times when new emails arrive every few seconds and everyone wants an answer.  At those times I try to envision the half glasses and green eyeshades of a telegraph operator.  Dots and dashes and a good deal of waiting and still business got done.  And I wonder what this cryptic email before me, not even a full sentence, was meant to convey.

Cave-dwellers, I imagine, had some pretty vital information to communicate.  Things like, “I just saw a cave-bear go in there, I’d avoid that place if I were you,” or “Do you think that saber-tooth cat looks hungry?”  The more precision they could put on their grunts the better advantage they would have.  Syntax wasn’t invented for the fun of it.  And yet, here we are.  No time.  Full sentences might serve to avoid confusion and mistakes.  None of us would have these jobs had we not the ability to communicate.  Would you apply for a job using anything less than full sentences?  In our rush to be more efficient we create situations where more information will be required further down the line.  A pity.  If we’d only take the time.  You know.

Moving Plans

I’m moving. I’m seriously considering Enceladus. Oh, you haven’t been? One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus was discovered to have the basic elements of life as Cassini plunged to its death in Saturn’s shroud. But why Enceladus? I want to make space great again. You see, in my native country all sense of fair play has fled one of the political parties, of which there are unfortunately only two. There haven’t within my lifetime and many decades before, been any contested wins by Democratic candidates. There have been two by Republicans, among the last two elected, and yet they keep changing the rules about who can appoint Supreme Court justices. When I was a kid stacking the deck got you kicked out of the game. What’s fair’s fair.

I hear that on Enceladus they are open to actual intelligent life. You see, they’re evolving and they know it. Unlike my native planet, they believe representative government should be, well, representative. There should be some account taken of the majority. There are no Fundamentalists on Enceladus. See, there they realize that an outgoing president has the legal authority to appoint a judge, bypassing the senate. They believe, I hear, that the senate is controlled by a being called “the adversary.” One of their recruiters told me that the phrase translates, in Hebrew, to “the Satan.” They believe the adversary should not be able to change the rules every time. They’re not Fundamentalists, but they believe in Hell. They say it’s three planets from the sun, make a left at Lisbon.

Of course, they don’t see the sun much on Enceladus. They orbit Saturn, which doesn’t emit any light of its own, although it has the coolest set of rings in the solar system. It’s icy there for a reason. But the employment situation favors the workers. They believe in rationality there. They don’t put children in cages. Their scientists have studied the primates on our planet and have found that all species of them, except one, will reject leadership by individuals who bully the group. They have documented studies—for they believe in science there—that show chimpanzees will drive out an abuser of power because even they have a sense of fair play. Of course, chimpanzees don’t have a senate, but on Enceladus, some joke that it’s hard to tell the difference some times. They have a sense of humor there which, I think, goes a long way toward balancing out the chill. I’m moving, and Enceladus is firmly in the running.