Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fear and Loathing on an Evolutionary Scale

Yes, I am drunk and I hope Hunter Thompson's ghost will forgive me again for stealing part of his famous title.

Few things can rile up good Southern folks anymore like the mention of Darwinian Evolution and how it clearly explains not only the existence of us Homo sapiens but also all life on the abused little planet we call Earth. In a weird way it is funny and sad at the same time, the opposition to evolution can be directly traced to back to such things as the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all the planets, the sun, and stars revolved around us. Thinking tongue and cheek for a moment on that bizarre, self-centered concept, I have to say that if humans ever open relations with some other intelligent life form from another star system we might want to keep that little bit of egotistical stupidity a family secret.

First impressions being critical to good relations in all facets of life we do not want a visiting extraterrestrial learning this and then flying off to tell everyone else in this region of the galaxy. Given that we have been leaking decades worth of Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, and other assorted old time gospel hour radio and television broadcasts out into space may mean the cat is already out of the bag. In fact, it may go a long way to explaining the Fermi's Paradox with starfaring aliens just too embarrassed for us right now to open communications.     

However, getting back on the subject but fundamental religious types just find something inherently wrong down to their DNA at the concept of being related to a common Chimpanzee. Since these people stick their fingers in their ears and start singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” at the first mention of evolution if anyone is ever able to tell them that we humans are not just related to chimps but all earthly lifeforms the resulting rabies-like fit is both funny and terrifying at the same time. Frankly, I find it reassuring on many philosophical and emotional levels that I am related not just to chimps, but lizards, crustaceans, jellyfish, and even bacteria. It ties us all to this planet in way that I find far more divine than some ignorant belief that God literally created us in “his likeness.”

If I am pushed, I can partially see a child-like reason why religious types utterly reject evolution with a few desperately clinging to the silliness call “Intelligent Design.” Evolution is cold and indifferent to the struggles all life faces in an attempt to survive. A species can do everything right, survive and adapt for millions of years like the dinosaurs and have it all end when some very inconvenient space rock slams into what became the Yucatan peninsula.

While I have been a serious science geek for all my life this fact was brought home for me again after I recently finished two excellent science fiction novels. The first was Stephen Baxter’s book entitled “Evolution” and the other was David Brin’s “Existence.”

Stephen Baxter’s book is a series of short stories spanning 565 million years of human evolution from our shrew-like ancestors who had to put up with the worst possible neighbors, the dinosaurs, to a post-human future were Homo sapiens become the ultimate in losers. If there is a theme in Baxter’s book, to me it is the reoccurring fact that any species that abuses it environment too much and does not find a way to work together is almost certainly destined for the ultimate finality of extinction.

In Baxter’s book, humanity is actually condemned to something far worse than extinction in the cosmic game show called Intelligent Life. It climaxed with Homo sapiens engaging in a very nasty global apocalyptic war with a relatively quick loss of sentience soon after and then a slow evolution over millions of years into such things as a tree dwelling primates, tiny mole people, and the worst for me, food pets for mice who evolved into a velociraptor-like creatures. (Talk about your suckass parting gifts, even worse than a year supply of Rice A Roni.) The seriously great Albert Einstein once predicted that after world war three humans would fight the next one with sticks and stones. Never once in all my life had I ever considered Albert’s dark forecast optimistic until I read “Evolution.”

It might be a stretch but Baxter’s book did have one bright spot. In the 2030’s NASA landed a primitive Von Neumann probe on Mars with the idea it could make copies of itself and ultimately build factories and settlements on the Red planet for colonists. Since humans went all suicidal on Earth that left the poor probe with nothing to do but continually manufacture copies of itself. Over the centuries little mistakes crept into the computer programs causing the probe decedents to evolve until they became intelligent creatures in their own right. On the face of it I call something like that a remarkable return on precious taxpayer dollars but since evolution is an anathema to your average whiny, uneducated American it is just another in the way of cosmic level jokes.

In David Brin’s recent book, “Existence” an astronaut finds a crystal floating in Earth orbit, which turns out to be a memory device containing virtual alien emissaries. Think the movie “Tron” meets your stereotypical message in a bottle washing up on some distant shore. Things very quickly become uber-complicated with the aliens being as trustworthy as used car salesmen and with the crazy humans down on earth getting all pissed off because the crystal represents something that confounds and spoils all their precious beliefs and agendas. “Existence “ends far more optimistically but circumstances still force the fictional humans in the book to adapt to the new situations that present themselves.

In a way I was somewhat depressed after reading “Existence.” Because in reality while the human race does not have to worry about galactic chain letters contained in memory crystals or heavily-armed robotic starships hanging out in the asteroid belt we do face huge problems here on Earth that at best are ignored.

Right now, over half the continental United States is suffering from a drought that even scientists hired by rich right-wingers to be climate change skeptics now say is caused by the obsessive burning of hydrocarbons. I guess the corn in the farm belt states will have to start popping off the cob before hardheaded deniers will even begin to reconsider. The rich elites who have a vested interest to muddy the waters on climate change and even pollution in general do not give a damn about how the rest of us folks get along. The crops can burn from heat and the ice caps can melt flooding coastal cities. They have the money to up and flee to a new location in some isolated part of the world. Just do not be a local when they start showing up.

On a recent documentary, I saw a Jewish zealot openly talk about blowing up the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem because it very inconveniently occupies the site where they want to rebuild their temple. For that Jewish dude, the resulting Third World War from the destruction of that beautiful Moslem shrine was worth all the trouble because after the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple the promised Messiah would come to Earth. While watching the documentary it quickly became clear to me that the twinkle of utter insanity in that guy’s eye was the real thing. Global destruction and the deaths of hundreds of millions were small potatoes as long as they got their temple, and to think some believe genocidal craziness is strictly reserved for fundamentalist Moslems and Christians.

Just naming two huge problems we face as a species is enough to get me to drinking. Numerous others hover over us like a dinosaur-killing asteroid with the greater mass of humanity striving just to stay alive over everyday matters. I really do not want to sound Pollyannaish because if I was an alien hanging out at some interstellar Las Vegas right now I would not bet on the human race surviving past the twenty-first century. However, when you look at all our problems rationally none of them are automatic show stoppers with Homo sapiens earning a one-way ticket to extinction. The big question is how to proceed, and there lies the awful rub.

I have written many times in my lack of faith in the ability of the American people and its institutions in being ready for the twenty-first century. Truthfully, this situation runs across all countries. In fact, in my ever humble opinion the entire nation-state arrangement is an outdated system since we are dealing with over seven billion people on the planet. With so many people, problems on one side of the world easily have a direct affect on those on the other side.

Referring back to Stephen Baxter’s book “Evolution” one common element of the stories as human evolved was our fear of the outsider. Those outside a small group or tribe were generally thought of as different and dangerous. Cooperation among different groups ultimately developed, even between different human species, but it was never as strong as the hard-wired fears inside our brains. In Dr. Brin’s book, the happier conclusion resulted when curiosity won out over our basic fears. That and a policy of inclusion believing everyone (no matter if they are based on carbon, silicon, or a combination of the two.) mattered and had something good to offer.

So, what is my point in all this crappy rambling? I have noticed that very few are happy with the current state of affairs in both this nation and world. The problem being that no one has any idea how to change things and even if they did the old power structures protecting the Elites somehow find a way to slide back into power. I have no answers myself and even if I did, I am not delusional enough to believe I could affect some basic change. What I know it will take to find these answers is that we are going to have to shed our old ways of thinking. Viewing everything in a Left-wing versus right-wing/rich versus poor/First World versus Third World are all debilitating to any effort of reform and ultimately self defeating. If you think too long on all this depressing stuff like me, you come to the conclusion nothing short of an evolutionary jump in how we view the world and each other will change any of this. Solutions will have to come from the bottom up side stepping those in the way.

Well, that is enough of my navel gazing for one day. Truthfully, we may not be up to the challenge, so I am going to get some more beer, listen to my Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley CD’s, and hope to God in Heaven my decedents do not end up as food pets to some hungry mouse evolved into a furry version of a velociraptor. I would even put up with a few murderous robotic starships to prevent that from happening.


Pixel Peeper said...

Hey, wait a minute, don't you be dissing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” ... that's the song our religion teacher would sing just before he taught us about evolution!

Somehow, this is a non-issue in Germany - evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive. I had never met a person who didn't believe in evolution until I came to the U.S. ... talk about a shock! I didn't quite know how to react or what to say, except something lame like, "...well, my God gave me a brain..."

JUDI M. said...

Unfortunately BRAINS are in short supply on this side of the Atlantic. Well, maybe not the actual brains...but the USAGE, CARE and MAINTENANCE MANUELS of such organs have been misplaced........

Windsmoke. said...

I've always believed that i'm a product of evolution not god.

Randal Graves said...

Not the San Francisco treat! And I'm wary of Dyson spheres; look what almost happened to Scotty.

The only solution, more drinking, of course.

Mike Williams said...

Nice to see Neil Degrasse Tyson in a music video.
@ Pixel peeper this should be a non issue everywhere and you are are right creation by evolution is so much more magnificent the the pretty myths handed down through generations. That to have a brain capable of reason that we share with Chimps and dogs and cats and other animals is magnificent.
@BB I'm so glad you brought Stephen Baxter and David Brin to this table you have layed out so marvelously.

Suzan said...

Great essay!

And don't miss "The Darwin Archipelago," a must for seekers on the latest Evolution info.

Love ya,


Mr. Charleston said...

"I have written many times in my lack of faith in the ability of the American people and its institutions in being ready for the twenty-first century." Imagine how Leonardo felt.

Akelamalu said...

Fabulous post Beach!

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: Don't look too hard, travel very far outside Greenville and you will run into people who actually believe the world is no older than 6000 years.

Judi: Now, now, Hannity assures everyone nightly on his show that we are the freest, greatest, most marvelous country god has ever graced this planet. He's as crazy as the Jewish zealot wanting to start WW3.

Windsmoke: Like I mentioned to Pixel, we get freaking crazy up here in La-la land. Dealing with people who believe their next vacation might have to be canceled because of the Rapture has a lot to do with me wanting to immigrate.

Randal: Out of all the supremely crappy Next Generation movies going back to that Dyson Sphere would have been a block buster. But no, we had to have Generations, Insurrection and Nemesis. First Contact was good but could have been better.

Baxter and Brin are two of my favorites. In fact way back in during the internet heyday of AOL I emailed Dr. Brin about his book Glory Season and the dude wrote me back! It was so cool.

Mr. Charleston: Being on the lower end of the social ladder but having a rather dependable source of state government scuttlebutt I'm ready to haul ass to some far away place. Of course I have said this many times but everywhere I look rich Americans have already gone and ruined the place. Once I was very interested in Belize but as I look closer it seems its been turned into an imitation of Miami Beach.

Akelamalu: Thanks! Just me having fun.

Beach Bum said...

Suzan: Will have to catch that one!

Marja said...

just read the first comment and I have the same experience. In Holland evolution is just a fact like 1 and 1 equals two.
I came across the first people who wanted to prove it wrong in NZ.
I usually don't comment but I found it a big surprise.
Also I can't believe that people ignore global warming. We want to visit the gletchers here soon again as they are slowly dissappearing. Slowly for us but comparing with the rate they melted a 100 years ago, they go fast now. Rivers will dry out, the land will...jeez

Life As I Know It Now said...

I have been thinking about all these themes myself and I end up being so depressed that I can't even begin to blog about it. I see my kids and my grandchildren and the kids they have eventually (since sex is a strong and good evolutionary force at work in us as a species)and I just get so depressed about where it is all leading too that I don't know how to respond anymore. I try to get some comfort from Zinn and Chomsky who tell us that if we work together we can effect change but when I look at the environmental destruction we have brought to the world I don't hold out much hope.

Beach Bum said...

Marja: Don't know how much is reported in your news but up here in the United States of the Self-Centered and Delusional Americans climate change is big trouble for the oil companies.

They do their very best to discourage alternate energy programs and efforts to curb climate change.

As for evolution its fun listening to people who believe the world is about six-thousand years old.

Life As We Know It: I have to figure something will happen to change the playing field. It probably will not be good but humanity is both like rats and a virus. Its probably damn near impossible to kill us off but Mother Earth will recover and as much as it seems the other way humans do eventually learn from their mistakes.

Robert the Skeptic said...

There was a great Star Trek Next Generation episode where the Enterprise encountered an old ship from the long past 21st century; three people in suspended animation were reanimated. One guy was really happy thinking his portfolio must probably be worth Billions of dollars by now in the 24th century.

Picard laughed at him; admonishing him that the concept of money and accumulation of wealth had long since been dismissed by current civilization as a quaint anachronistic concept. Replicators provide material comforts at a whim. Civilization freed from the primary pursuit of money, flourished and people found meaning in the advancemnt of society for it's own merit.

It was unfortunately stated in the Bible that the pursuit of money is the root of all evil - if there is one true statement in that collection of horror stories, that is it. Indeed you can uncover economics as the single primal driving force plunging Homo Sapiens into oblivion. The scant few places where economics are marginalized as a driving force we have people winning Olympic gold medals and unmanned craft successfully landing on and exploring Mars.

goatman said...

I love the happy dancers. Sometimes these band girls wear the same "fuck you" bland expression that the models wear.
I don't know how this image is supposed to sell clothes!