Taking Evolution Seriously

Back in 1904, sociologist Max Weber proposed that the modern period was witnessing “the disenchantment of the world” – a process which traditional mythic ideas that wove meaning into human experience were being replaced by the alienating and dehumanizing worldview of materialist science. There’s some truth to Weber’s thesis, but I’m not sure he anticipated the inevitable backlash: the Procrustean stretching and lopping of scientific ideas in the popular imagination that has turned many of them into substitute myths.

One example that has been much on my mind of late is the way the theory of evolution has been manhandled into a surrogate mythology. The reason it’s been on my mind is simple enough: whenever I discuss peak oil at a lecture, book signing, or some other public setting, it’s a safe bet that someone will raise a hand and ask what I think about the possibility that the approaching crisis is part of our transition to a new evolutionary level. I am always left wondering what to say in response, because this sort of question is almost always rooted in the notion that evolution is a linear movement that leads onward and upward through a series of distinct stages or levels – and this notion is a pretty fair misstatement of the way evolution takes place in nature.

Few things in the history of ideas are quite so interesting as the way that new discoveries get harnessed in the service of old obsessions. When X-rays were first detected in 1895, for example, one of the first results was panic over the possibility that the new rays might make it possible to see through clothing; the New Jersey state legislature actually debated a bill to ban the use of X-rays in opera glasses. Wildly inaccurate as it was, this notion was rooted in profound fears about sexuality, and so it took many decades to dispel – when I was a child, ads in comic books still claimed to sell “X-ray glasses” that would let you see people naked.

Something not that different happened to the theory of evolution, and thus nearly all of today’s popular notions about evolution are shrapnel from the head-on collision between Darwin’s theory and the obsessions of the era in which that theory emerged. Social class rather than sex was the driving force here; as religious justifications for the English caste system faltered, the manufacture of scientific justifications for social hierarchy became a growth industry, and by the time the ink was dry on the first copies of The Origin of Species, evolution was already being drafted into service in this dubious cause. The resulting belief system was very nearly a parody of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in advance – all living things evolve, but some are more evolved than others.

Now of course this is nonsense. A human being, a gecko, a dandelion, and a single-celled blue-green alga are all equally evolved – that is, they have all been shaped to the same degree by the pressures of their environment, and their ancestors have all undergone an equal amount of natural selection. We think of humans as “more evolved” than blue-green alga because Victorian Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer engaged in conceptual sleight of hand, transforming the amorphous outward surge of life toward available niches into a ladder of social status, with English gentlemen at the top level and everybody and everything else slotted into place further down. The concept of evolutionary stages or levels was essential to this conjurer’s act, since it allowed social barriers between classes to be mapped onto the biological world.

In nature, though, evolution has no levels, it just has adaptations. There is no straight line of progress along which living things can be ranked. Instead, evolutionary lineages splay outward like the branches of an unruly shrub. Sometimes those branches take unexpected turns, but these evolutionary breakthroughs can no more be ranked in an ascending hierarchy than organisms can. They move outward into new niches, rather than upward to some imagined goal. There are any number of examples from nature; the one I want to use here is the evolution of bats.

The ancestors of the first bats were shrewlike, insect-eating nocturnal mammals, related to early primates, who scampered through the forest canopies of the Eocene around 60 million years ago. For animals that live in trees, the risk of falling is a constant source of evolutionary pressure, and adaptations that will help manage that danger will likely spread through a population; that’s how sloths got their claws, New World monkeys got prehensile tails, and many animals of past and present got extra skin that functions as a parachute. If the extra skin bridges the gap between forelegs and the hindlegs, the most common adaptation, you get the ability to glide, like flying squirrels, colugoes, and the like; you’ve got a viable adaptation, and there you stop.

If the extra skin is mostly on and around the forelimbs, though, you’ve just jumped through the door into a new world, because you can control your glide much more precisely, and you can put muscle into the movements – in other words, you can begin to fly. Once you can do better than a controlled fall, furthermore, the trillions of tasty insects flitting through the forest air are on your menu, and the better you can fly, the more you can catch. The result is ferocious evolutionary pressure toward improved flight skills, and in a few hundred thousand generations, you’ve got agile fliers. That’s what happened to bats, as it happened some 200 million years earlier to the ancestors of the pterodactyls.

By 55 million years ago, bats almost identical to today’s insect-eating bats were darting through the Eocene skies. Sonar seems to have taken a while to evolve, and some offshoots of the family – the big fruit bats and flying foxes, for example – took even longer, but the basic adaptations were set and, to the discomfiture of countless generations of mosquitoes and moths, have remained ever since. As evolutionary breakthroughs go, the leap into flight was a massive success; bats are the second most numerous of mammal orders, exceeded only by the rodents, but it’s impossible to fit the breakthrough that created them into any linear scheme.

Applying an ecological concept to human social systems always takes tinkering, but there are good reasons to accept the idea that societies are capable of evolution; like populations of other living things, human communities face pressures from their environments, and adapt or perish in response. Here again, though, the evolutionary process moves outward in all directions rather than ascending an imaginary hierarchy of levels. Hunter-gatherer systems seem to have been the original form of human society, but other forms branched off as adaptations opened doors to possibilities that were likely as appealing at the time as the bug-filled night sky must have been to the first clumsily flapping proto-bats.

Where large herbivores could be tamed, therefore, nomadic herding societies came into being; where many food plants could be raised in intensive gardens, tribal horticultural societies were born; where extensive fields of seed-bearing grasses offered the best option for survival, agrarian societies took shape. As it turned out, grains could be bred to yield large surpluses that could be transported and stored, and so the agrarian system opened the door to large-scale divisions of labor and the rise of cities. These in turn made complex material culture possible, and ultimately drove the creation of the machines that broke into the Earth’s stockpiles of fossil carbon and gave the modern world its three centuries of exuberance.

Thus industrial society is not “more evolved” than other societies, for for that matter “less evolved.” It was simply the most successful adaptation to the evolutionary pressures that opened up once fossil fuel energy had been tapped, and it outcompeted other systems in something of the same way that an invasive exotic outcompetes less robust native organisms. As fossil fuels deplete and climate change unfolds, the balance of evolutionary pressures is shifting, and as the new reality of limits takes hold, selection will favor those systems that are better adapted to the new ecological constraints of global climate instability, energy scarcity, and resource shortage.

The fact that those new systems are better adapted to new realities, however, does not free them from the human condition. This is where the rubber meets the road, because the people who ask me about the prospects of a new evolutionary level are rarely asking whether the societies of the future will be better adapted to an environment of resource scarcity. They are generally asking whether societies on the other side of an imagined evolutionary leap will be free from problems such as poverty, war, and environmental destruction.

The best way to assess this, it seems to me, is to consider what happened the last time human social evolution yielded a breakthrough to a new way of living in the world: that is, the rise of industrial societies beginning around 1750. Agrarian societies suffered from poverty, war, and environmental destruction, and so did all the other “evolutionary levels” or, rather, adaptations, right back to the hunter-gatherers. Many hunter-gatherers among the First Nations in North America, for example, had sharp social inequalities, a busy slave trade, and a long history of fierce tribal wars. Their ecological relationships were less problematic, since those native societies that failed to find a balance with nature, such as the Mound Builders and the people of Chaco Canyon, collapsed long before 1492.

Just as bats faced the same experiences of hunger, social squabbles, and the unfriendly attentions of predators as their ancestors, the societies that took up industrialism experienced poverty, war, and environmental destruction just like earlier societies, and it’s hard to think of a good reason why the new societies that emerge in response to the evolutionary pressures of the deindustrial age should be exempt from the same troubles. Evolutionary adaptations can make things easier for living things – plenty of predators in the Eocene must have been discomfited when bats evolved the ability to flutter away to safety – but no living thing is exempt from the balances of the natural world. It’s a mistake, in other words, to see evolution as a movement toward Utopia.

When I’ve tried to explain any of the above in public, though, someone – and it’s not always the same someone who asked the original question – usually insists that this may be how biological evolution works, but spiritual evolution is different. Some of my readers just now may have come up with the same objection. All I can say in response is I know of none of the world’s great spiritual traditions that would approve the claim that people living extravagant lifestyles of wealth and privilege – this is, after all, a fair description of life in modern industrial societies from the standpoint of the rest of human experience – can expect a sudden leap to an even more comfortable and convenient life, just because they happen to want it, and would find it a useful way to avoid dealing with the consequences of their own shortsighted choices.

This may seem unduly harsh. Still, the notion that an evolutionary leap will extract us from the mess we’ve made for ourselves is as much a distortion of the realities of the evolutionary process as any Social Darwinist screed. If people want to believe that a miracle will rescue them from the predicament of industrial society, they have every right to their faith, but it would confuse communication a little less to call it a miracle, instead of trying to wrap it in the borrowed prestige of Darwin’s theory. Perhaps it’s the bias instilled by my own Druid faith, furthermore, but it seems to me that if we are going to use evolution as a metaphor, we need to start by taking evolution seriously, rather than imposing our own fantasies on the very different stories that nature is telling us.