The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine


Evolutionary inheritance, part 1

Millions of years of evolution have adapted us for a world very different from the one we are living in today.  (Oh snap!) The first humans evolved, so the experts tell us, in riverine, savannah or forest environments. They lived in small  groups of 20 to 50 individuals. They subsisted by hunting, fishing and gathering vegetables. They were in constant danger from wild animals, disease, natural disasters such as drought, and of course other humans. They had to react quickly to threats from without and from without: drought, famine, plagues, changes in climate. They had to be ready to fight or run at any moment — and to choose the best option within seconds. They also had to cooperate and forge bonds with other members of their group, at least well enough to secure food and avoid being killed. They had to adapt quickly to survive the unexpected. Those who survived long enough to have children passed on their genes to us.

An environment we didn’t evolve to handle
A blink later in evolutionary time, most of us we live in environments very different from those we are evolved to cope with: gray cities inhabited by crowds of faceless strangers, a world of metal, glass and concrete.  More and more, we interact with others via the glowing screens. Our family and tribal groups are fragmented, perhaps even non-existent. Many of the threats we face — from high-fat diets and addictive drugs to nuclear war — are not threats we are evolved to handle. Our hard-wired responses remain what millions of years of evolution have made them. But those responses are no longer appropriate for the world we find ourselves in.  No wonder so many of us — even the outwardly prosperous and successful – feel alienated, isolated, vaguely uncomfortable.

Our saving evolutionary inheritance could be our ability to react quickly to the unexpected.  So far, we have been able to adapt to our new environment — at least enough to survive. But as technology continues to race forward and the human population continues to expand towards its Malthusian limits, the environment will change faster and faster.  Can we continue to adapt? And at what cost?

Not a new problem
The tension between our hard wiring and our increasingly urbanized, densely populated environment, has been with us since the earliest cities. And so far, we have managed to survive, although not always well or happily. But as  our environment becomes ever more artificial, more complex, more densely populated, the tension increases. And there is no obvious way to remedy the situation.

We need our cities and our technology to survive. We are powerless to stop the advance of technology or return to a simpler way of life. We cannot expand or migrate to new lands. The only place to expand is into space, the only unoccupied real estate the airless, hostile planets and moons of our solar system. And since dawn of the Atomic Age, the total destruction of our planet is just a phone call or unfortunate incident away. We are poised on a knife edge.

Where to now, Saint Peter?
If we can find a way to reconcile what millions of years of evolution have made us with with the environment we are creating, our species has a future beyond imagining.  But how? How can we, who are designed by evolution to live in small groups, prosper in nations of a billion citizens? How can we, who long for grass and rivers, exist happily in caves of steep and canyons of glass? How can we ensure our hard-wired fight-or-flight responses or our primal tribal loyalties will not trigger a catastrophe? Some thoughts, if not answers, to be explored in the next few weeks.