EVOLUTION & TECHNOLOGY
cass0167 at elan.rowan.edu
Mon Jan 25 12:34:47 EST 1993
COMMENTS ON THIS ESSAY WOULD BE APPRECIATED
EVOLUTION, TELEVISION, AND A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR HUMANKIND
There's a hole in the ozone layer. The ice caps may be melting. Agricultural lands are shrinking, deserts growing, and refugees are on the move around the world. The list of ills facing humankind is long, yet amid these growing disasters a dramatic change is occurring, and as a result, THE WORLD IS GETTING BETTER!
In the last century, Darwin sent a shock wave through western society with his theory that humans were not a separate creation of an almighty god but simply one creature among the myriads inhabiting the globe. More than a hundred fifty years later, while some people still disagree, biologists feel comfortable in tracing our human ancestry back to, and beyond, a point where the designations, "human" and "humanoid" become fuzzy.
Scientists today believe life began on earth in a rather hostile environment several billion years ago. With that environment in a constant state of flux, to survive generally meant to change. Initially, adaptation occurred through chance recombination of the basic building material of living matter as it passed from one generation to the next. In this wasteful process, thousands of organisms routinely failed for any that survived. Nonetheless, for eons chance was the sole force driving the engine of life,
with useful adaptations "hard-wired" into an organism's system through its DNA. This information, acquired over the millennia, remains locked within the genes of all living things today.
A major evolutionary change occurred as brains developed, permitting the storage of information outside the DNA. Animals could alter their behavior immediately in response to changes in the environment. Through education, this information could be passed on the next generation.
Today, many humans pride themselves on being separate from, or at least greatly superior to "animals". Scientists are cautioned against anthropomorphism. The problem however, isn't a tendency to attribute human traits to non-humans, but rather a general failure to admit the extent to which we share "animal" characteristics. We like to think for instance that love, marriage, and devotion, are uniquely "human," while ignoring the evidence of wolves, geese, seagulls, and other non-humans that also join in lif
e-long relationships. We fail to see that things like the drive to language aren't learned but are innate in humans. We could no more prevent a child's learning to speak than we could keep him or her from eventually walking upright. Underlying all our behavior, this set of encoded instructions influences our range of choices. We laugh, cry, climb, throw stones, chase small animals, mimic our elders, make love, and kill, all without the necessity of parental instruction. To a great extent, we are free to al
ter our behavior, but only within the limits imposed by millions of years of genetic development.
Rather than being superior beings possessing some few traits in common with "lower" animals, humankind is simply one among many. Like all our fellows, we adapted specific characteristics which permitted us to carve out a niche in the environment. We possess an opposable thumb, a driving curiosity, a complex social structure, language, and a brain capable of abstract thought. Only the opposable thumb seems to be uniquely human.
Anthropologists believe humans evolved several million years ago on the African continent where we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Initially arboreal, we left the trees for the greater dangers of the growing plains. As relatively weak creatures, we should have been easy prey for the large carnivores there, but our communications skills, social structure, and ability to make and use weapons permitted us to thrive instead.
As Darwin noted in the last century, any geographical area can only support a limited number of individuals, too many and they will outstrip the food supply. Throughout most of our history as a species, the amount of food available, and thus the size of human communities, was defined by the distance we could travel on foot in a few days. The further from our home base, the greater the chance that another group could install itself and successfully defend its borders. The young men in each village were driv
en to spend a good deal of their time patrolling the community's territory in an effort to remove humans and other animals presenting serious competition for the area's food supply.
About ten thousand years ago, our ancestors developed the concept of deliberately cultivating desirable plants rather than relying on chance to provide them in sufficient quantities. Agriculture permitted a much greater number of individuals to survive within the same territorial boundaries and changed the nature of human societies. Large numbers of people permanently attached to specific parcels of land could not afford to simply pick up and move in response to pressure from other groups. To lose control
of the land meant starvation for a significant portion of the population. Societies increased in complexity as farming communities organized to defend themselves against neighbors eyeing their land, and nomads who would take their growing riches. Border skirmishes became true warfare with catastrophic ramifications.
Today, only a blink in time away from the ape climbing down from the african trees, humans straddle the globe. Those early communities, numbering in the hundreds at best, have grown to millions. Genetically however, we have changed little. It has been suggested that if we dressed a Cro Magnon in a three piece suit and set him down on Wall Street, he would be indistinguishable among the crowd of bankers and stock brokers. Inside that suit however, we retain the drive to protect our territory.
When we try to overcome the push of our genes through education, the result is ambiguous at best, and a dismal failure at worst. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is an imperative of many of the world's religions, but we need look no further than our own city streets to see how successful we have been at suppressing that ancient drive! Los Angeles for example, is estimated to have some seventy thousand gang members. These young men, driven in part by their genes, roam their "territories", protecting them against encro
achment by neighboring tribes! Nations too feel this same need to protect their borders and will kill and maim on a massive scale to doso. Indeed, even racial suicide isn't beyond consideration, as can be attested to by the "Mutual Assured Destruction," or "MAD," doctrine that was the strategy behind warfare for more than a generation.
Biologically, humans tend to divide the world into "Us" and "Them." The proscription against killing "Us" is compatible with our genetic imperative. We are driven to protect our own group, our village, against encroachment by "Them". Who "They" are however, is culturally determined. If we extend the "Us" to include an ever larger, more diverse group, we can eventually achieve the cultural admonition, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" on a global scale. The story of "The Good Smaratan" is an early attempt at this. The
process toward this goal has been greatly accelerated during the present generation, and the driving force behind it is television and its world-wide linkage through satellites. The communications explosion of the late twentieth century is an evolutionary development comparable to that of the brain.
A few years ago, this incredible network brought pictures of starving Ethiopian children to a significant fraction of the human race, and suddenly "They" became "Us". During the Gulf War Americans could identify with grieving Iraqi relatives as they watched the bodies of women and children being pulled from the wreckage of a Baghdad bomb shelter. Thanks to television, millions of people saw Scud missiles blasted from the skies over Israel even before the national leadership could confirm the event. Sadaam
Hussein and Dick Cheney watched with millions of others around the world as events unfolded on CNN.
Meanwhile, crushed under the weight of waging an economic war against the West, the Soviet Union began disintegrating. Eastern Europe was permitted to break away and the Berlin Wall to collapse. Today, the mind of the Cold War veteran is boggled by the sight of "the West" turning to lift "the East" to the higher economic platform on which it stands. One more step has been taken in humankind's expanding vision of "Us".
With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the crushing of the world's fourth largest army during the lightening war in the Persian Gulf, the United States stands as the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the world, the five hundred pound gorilla that can sleep wherever it wants to. But while we beat our collective chest, Japan and the European Common Market are emerging as the world's new economic superpowers.
The Cold War" was a war of economics. A contest to see which side could waste more if its resources preparing for a conflict that, if fought, would have destroyed us all. In the end, capitalism proved superior to socialism at producing guns and butter. Now, with the end of the Cold War, and world-wide communications blurring the ditinction between "Us" and "Them," we are witnesses at the beginning of the end of war itself. As the "Third World" watches Dallas and Dynasty, its people clamor more and more fo
r cars, refrigerators, and CD players. "They" are rapidly becoming "Us" with an increasingly shared vision of what constitutes "the good life" and how to achieve it. Absent the need to slaughter "Them", we now have the freedom to bring "the good life" to all. We are at a pivotal point in human history with the turn already begun.
THE WORLD IS GETTING BETTER!
"They" are rapidly becoming "Us" with an increasingly shared vision of what constitutes "the good life" and how to achieve it.
(c)Del Cassidy 1991. 142 Wilmer St., Glassboro, NJ 08028. (609) 881-3969
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