Part 1: Where Darwin Feared to Tread

The first segment of my intro to parvulism accepts the foundation on which the rest of it is built – the “theory” of evolution.  Once the facts and evidence are separated from our fear and narcissism, it becomes abundantly clear that every living thing on Earth is descended from a common ancestor – a single strain of amino acids that developed the ability to copy itself in the oceans of the ancient world.  We have actually replicated this “genesis” in the laboratory.

The implications of our humble origin are much more extensive than the verity that the proverbial watch does not necessarily require a watchmaker.  If you can accept that unconscious microbe as your direct ancestor, only then can you begin to appreciate the long and winding path between it and you.  Only then can you witness the genuine miracle that brought you, me, and all the rest of us into existence!  We were not just created in our present state as if it required no effort at all.  We are each the product of unfathomable degrees of unwitting experimentation and improvement, forged by billions of years of struggle and striving.  In what other light does human life appear so special and precious?

Even those of us who believe in evolution are prone to embrace the illusion that we evolved and now here we are, the picture is complete.  But we are not the culmination of the process.  As Darwin remarked:  “Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen … to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”  There are no guarantees, but it’s a pretty reasonable bet that our descendants will be here for many millions of years, and that they will become as different from us as we are from the chimps.

I don’t mean “evolution” strictly in the Darwinian sense.  Darwin was a meticulous documenter, a shrewd speculator, and an eloquent writer, but I believe his explanation of natural selection was incomplete.  An alternative (and, in my opinion, more accurate) description of evolution was proposed before Darwin by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  Whereas Darwin theorized that evolution occurs slowly over many generations through the spread of favorable genetic mutations, Lamarck believed that it takes place much more rapidly, and that animals have the ability pass on to their offspring traits they developed in their own lives.  The clearest picture of this distinction is the giraffe’s neck.  Lamarck’s elegantly simple proposal was that it grew a little bit longer as each generation stretched out to reach higher leaves.  But Darwin thought that some giraffes just happened to be born with slightly longer necks, which made them more likely to survive and reproduce than others, and that this process repeated itself cumulatively to produce the 18-foot tall animals we see today.  Instead of waiting thousands of years for an advantageous mutation to manifest itself, Lamarckian dynamics empower species to adapt to changing conditions with each successive generation.

Scientists disagree about how the giraffe’s neck grew so long, but they have discovered that “some water fleas sport a spiny helmet that deters predators; others, with identical DNA sequences, have bare heads.”  The mothers of those fleas with the protective helmet survived an attack by predators; those without it came from mothers who had never been threatened.  Laboratory mice with inherent genetic memory problems, who were given an environment rich with toys, exercise, and extra attention gave birth to offspring with improved neural memory-formation capacity, even though this second generation received no such environmental assistance.  The external events that can alter future generations need not occur during pregnancy or shortly before conception, but at any time in the parent’s life.  In humans, for example, the children of fathers who smoked before age 11 were decidedly more prone to obesity.  These experiments show that who we are is determined not only by heredity and our experience, but also by our parents’ and ancestors’ experiences before we were born – even if they do not alter the genetic code!

So the age-old question of nature vs nurture is somewhat moot; they are tag-team partners in the fight against death and entropy.  As Darwin said, a peacock’s brilliant tail is the product of the peahens’ preference.  But a whale’s tail, on the other hand, is not the product of sexual selection.  It’s highly unlikely that a group of mammals doggy-paddled through the seas for centuries waiting for a mutant legless calf who would find himself at an advantage in the marine environment.  No, the evolutionary step that led to cetaceans was almost certainly Lamarckian – the land animals were forced into the water by changing conditions or need for food, and each generation consequently grew progressively more streamlined, with stronger swimming muscles and weaker walking muscles.

Further evidence of the Lamarckian method includes the relatively rapid development of lactose tolerance in adult humans that had domesticated cattle.  Also, there is a great number of species that have remained essentially unchanged for millions of years (even though random mutations presumably occur at roughly the same frequency in all species) because, like the chimps who remained in the forests (as opposed to those who came down from the trees and went on to become humans), they faced no environmental pressure to adapt.  This environmental pressure, not random mutations like throwing something at a wall to see what sticks, is the driving force behind evolutionary change.

Although the large brain of early humans may have resulted from a random Darwinian mutation, the process that allowed us to evolve so much faster than our primate cousins from that point on has been largely Lamarckian.  Learned skills, such as language, are probably a combination of the two.  Certainly a capacity for communicating intentions and ideas increases the likelihood of survival, and those individuals who possessed it would have been more desirable mating partners.  But at the same time, as people use language they invent more complex syntax and more extensive vocabulary, and that part of their brain is therefore slightly larger in the next generation.  These implications may be startling, or they seem so commonsensical that they’re almost obvious.  (For years I was under the impression that Darwin’s theory included what I now know to be Lamarck’s ideas.)

Why is this distinction so important?  Lamarckian theory gives us the ability to shape the future of our species.  It means that the countless hours I spent practicing baseball as a child may give my children a small added measure of coordination, even though my DNA has remained the same as if I’d spent my whole life on the couch.  It means that the hours I’ve spent on a cell phone may give them some resistance to the harmful radiation.  It means that although we are corrupting natural selection with modern medicine, doing so will not dilute or weaken the future human race.  Lamarckian evolution offers a semblance of order and even purpose that make life worth living.  The randomness of Darwin’s theory is what has inspired much of the fear of (and backlash against) it.  But to know that there is some mysterious “epigenetic” ingredient in our makeup, in additon to our DNA, is to free us from our “selfish gene” masters.  This should give us great hope for the future, for even as climate change or super epidemics or nuclear-armed terrorists may cause widespread devastation, humanity will march on.  And by aspiring to ever-higher levels of thoughtfulness and discovery, all of us can help pull humanity closer to our distant, but attainable, goal of an earthly utopia.

In the subsequent writings on parvulism, I also use the word “evolution” in an even broader way to include an increased sense of self-awareness, empathy, and justice – things which may not be visible under a microscope but are nonetheless observable.  In general, humans today possess greater stores of these qualities than our ancestors did.  So it is in this sense that our continued evolution can pave the way for newer, better forms of morality, government, and self-actualization.

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