Monday, January 11, 2010

Totally Evolved

I can't remember the first time I saw the words "pet" and "peeved" together. I guess we all understand language based on our own psychologies but I think I was in junior high school and those words simply didn't go together in my mind. I loved animals so pets were always a good thing; and while I didn't know what "peeved" meant, it sounded like something slightly dessicated, squeezed out a crabby old virgin's asshole.

In a sense I was right. A "pet peeve" is a gripe you drag around with you. You don't have to be a crabby old virgin, but I imagine it helps. My pet peeve is the misuse of the word "evolution." Specifically when someone informs me that they used to be a certain way, but now they have "evolved."

Individuals do not evolve. They may mature. They may change their minds. They may even accrue wisdom and mellow. But they do not evolve. Only biological systems evolve.

Contrary to popular belief, evolution does not mean from bad to good or from mediocre to better. It means increased suitability to an ecological niche. That's all. To say for example, that a dolphin is more evolved than a shark is wrong. What we mean when we say these sorts of things is that its physiology is complicated, maybe sophisticated. First of all it's a mammal and secondly, it has a big brain.

When the average person says something is "more" or "less" evolved, what they're really saying is that that thing is more like us. For example, people tend to look the other way when it comes to practices like that of Chinese fishermen routinely catching sharks on longlines, cutting off their dorsal and pectoral fins for soup, and throwing them back into the water to die lingering deaths by blood loss and starvation. However, if this method was routinely practiced on dolphins, there would be an uproar. I'm not complaining. To not love dolphins with their complex societies, languages, and cute smiles is freakish, while sharks, with their nasty teeth arranged in seemingly infinite rows inside mouths downwardly curved in the very definition of dissatisfaction and malice, seems entirely natural.

However a dolphin is not "more evolved" than a shark. Sharks simply got it right hundreds of millions of years ago and there has been little reason for change. They've got heat and motion sensors, rows of exquisitely utilitarian teeth, and a physiology uniquely suited for the ecological niche they occupy. Granted, there have been changes in shark physiognomy over the millenia: size, for example. Several million years ago sharks were much bigger, but other than that they haven't substantially changed.

Dolphins on the other hand, have. They started off as land mammals resembling a modern day pig and due to scarcity of resources, competition from other species or environmental change, returned to the sea to make a living. Over time subspecies have developed or evolved different characteristics to suit even more varied sub-niches. Common dolphins live in cold water, have fast metabolisms, incredibly quick reflexes, and travel in massive pods resembling herds. You do not see common dolphins in oceanaria. They are sensitive and die in captivity. But you do see bottlenosed dolphins, their more laid back cousins. They inhabit warmer seas, live in smaller family groups and are more adaptable to the needs and whims of human beings.

So what does any of this have to do with annoying new agers resently possessed of yoga training and Depak Chopra books, claiming their thinking has "evolved?" Everything.

The evolution of human beings is no different from that of sharks or dolphins. Genes like the ones for efficient opposible thumbs and bigger brains were selected for over time so that we could survive narrowing ecological niches. Our smaller brained ancestors passed out of existence because they were out competed by their larger brained brethren. Once upon a time if you could throw a spear you could eat. Once upon another time, game was scarcer and in order to eat you had to invent a spear thrower to hurl the thing further. Simple. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

So why does misuse of the word "evolve" pet peeve me? I love words, but more than words I cherish concepts and ideas. The more well thought out an idea the better, and one of the most elegant and dynamic ideas in human history is Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Not only does it explain the natural world, which I love, but it delivers me from the burden of judgement. I am not "better" than a shark. My species simply took longer to catch on. Life is all of apiece. Either all of it has value or none of it does. My brothers and sisters extend infinitely in all directions. This is not some crackpot idea. It is not theology. It is not a swamp into which my intellectual castles will ultimately fall. It is a well thought out explanation the delving into of which opens an infinite number of intellectual and spiritual doors. The theory of evolution is The Central Insight into Understanding the Natural World.

So the misuse of the word "evolve" is something I'll continue to drag around for awhile. And at least when the new agers use it, however wrongly, they're not being pejorative. That's left to religious fundamentalist everywhere, and Christian fundamentalists particularly. And their rejection of the theory of evolution in favor of the belief that whatever they do, Jesus is going to magically fix it if only they grunt and sweat hard enough at church on Sunday, will undoubtedly be the death of us all.

Except for the sharks. I imagine one way or another they'll survive. Chinese fishermen not withstanding, I have faith in sharks.


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