Benevolence in evolution

From the comfort of temples and churches at the dawn of our intellectual awakening, our ancestors sought meaning – as we all do – a purpose, a reason for our existence and how we came to be. At that time, lacking the considerable collection of knowledge that we now possess, they developed some elaborate theories to explain how we as a species were conceived. Religion is a defining feature of all human societies, the representation of our primitive unilateral search for truth and understanding. It provided the social adhesive that brought people together as a community. Today, some still remain in that primitive mindset, despite all our achievements. They cannot accept that we are just another terrestrial species vying for dominion over our competitors, albeit with a particularly effective evolutionary strategy. We arrogantly assume that we are the purpose of everything that has come before, and that will come after, akin to gods walking the Earth. All this despite being extremely late-comers to the life-on-Earth party.

Creationism, in all its ugly forms, is fundamentally boring and intellectually lazy. Despite being dogged by logical fallacies, inconsistencies and contradiction, it continues to linger on amongst those unable, or unwilling, to accept simple, incontrovertible truths regarding our existence. An anachronistic throwback to a simpler, earlier stage in our societal and intellectual development conceived in a time long before the enlightening torch of scientific discovery was lit. At the time, the authority of the politico-religious ruling elite was unquestionable and organised religion was the tool used to extract loyalty and revenue from their citizens. Accordingly, creationism is the antithesis of science – it encourages intellectual complacency by providing a disappointingly simple and vague explanation for everything that has ever happened and that will happen in the future, without any evidence whatsoever, and on the basis of empty, unfounded and unrewarded faith. Those who continue to subscribe to this obviously outdated belief system contribute nothing – and in fact substantially subtract – from collective human intellectual endeavour and curiosity. Creationism will never achieve anything, save to revert our young societies to superstitious and bigoted tribal communities, feeding off our primitive irrationality until we are once again feeling our way through the darkness of existence with no guiding light except the dim candle-light offered by weak philosophies of a time gone by. Vitriolic creationist rhetoric is the water to the torch of understanding; it extinguishes the flame of rationality and keeps us rooted in the past.

Those of a more liberal religious disposition who have the (preferential) good sense to view the Genesis saga as a myth, as well as the rationally minded amongst us, are fully aware of the true driver of speciation amongst organisms – evolution by natural selection. It is a theory, but in the same sense that the laws of gravity are a theory. Evolution is by all reasonable grounds, and to a significant degree of certainty, a fact, and natural selection is its very effective mechanism, albeit a very indifferent and cruel one at that. It is supported by a body of evidence that is undeniable in its enormity, housed in every natural history museum and within the genetic code of every organism. It is happening now and we can observe it in action.

In a very simplistic and reductionist definition of this mechanism, the passage of genetic information and the phenotype it codes for, probably acting at the level of the gene, is ensured by the successful reproduction of the organism that possess it. The level of reproductive success of a given organism is proportional to its environmental adaptability – a well adapted organism will most likely be the most successful at gathering resources, and therefore the most likely to pass on its genes to its descendants. Natural selection is not teleological, it is indifferent to subjective human notions of cruelty and suffering, but it is efficient and powerful, probably so much so that if life was to exist on another planet it too would most likely be driven by natural selection. In that sense, evolution by natural selection is a universal constant, akin to the laws of gravity or thermodynamics, constant throughout space and time.

It probably didn’t happen like this…

Consider, despite the unforgiving unpleasantness involved in so doing, the innumerable organisms that have been destroyed by predation or competition throughout the vast expanse of time that life has existed on this planet. Pause to imagine the indescribable suffering wrought by one organism upon that of another; the agony and fear, the venom and spines, teeth and tools that contributed to their destruction. The sick and old, feeble and weak, their fleshy frames easily torn by tooth and claw, brittle bones of calcium snapped by rock, their bodies poisoned by toxins and withered by age and disease. Viruses abound, DNA replication fails and cancers malign. The accumulation of all of the pain and suffering, the collective agony of all creatures killed by predators, enemies, competition, disease or themselves, expressed as a whole would be impossibly traumatic to even begin to comprehend. A tireless, indifferent and endless cycle of birth, death and decay.

Prior to our self-domestication and effective removal from the pressures of natural selection, Homo Sapiens was originally a raptorial species that hunted in packs using tools and superlative cunning to ambush and assault our prey. Short-sighted and nimble, we were efficient hunters and could run at a moderate pace for an impressive duration to exhaust our pursued prey and make the kill. Not many individuals of the species continue to hunt at present and most have descended into physically feeble, fat and sloth-like creatures living communally in enormous nest-like artificial structures, usually perched on a coast. We still squabble violently over resources, reproduce prolifically and alter our environment to suit our short-term needs, occasionally to our long-term detriment. Epitomised by our superior intelligence we are the culmination of millions of generations of successful organisms. We are very effective at adapting to our environment using superlative ingenuity to circumvent our otherwise relatively feeble physical endowments. However, we are in many ways imperfect organisms blighted by defects, psychosis and degenerative disorders and we carry with us several items of evolutionary baggage that are now unessential.

Why would a benevolent Creator choose this long-winded, brutal and imperfect mechanism as His ideal path to eventually culminate in the dominance of His image on Earth; the sentient, introspective evolutionary pinnacle that is Homo Sapiens, over 3.5 billion years after life first emerged? Those who invoke the notion of a loving, omnipresent Creator, even in the most liberal of interpretations, surely have to at least pause for thought upon considering this unspeakably horrific reproductive strategy, as admittedly effective as it is.

In light of this, the continued belief in creationism, in all its guises, is so nonsensical and so deeply flawed in its reasoning and rationale that it could be considered a serious defect of human nature because of its very real ability to stunt our continued dominance as a species, and therefore tantamount to an evolutionary failure. Or, perhaps it could too be an evolutionary mechanism; religion may be a means to deal with the occasionally unnerving level of comprehension and foresight that a superior intellect affords us. We all want to be saved after the agony of death, to have a loving protector guiding us at every step, to one day achieve a higher sense of understanding and purpose. It eases the pressure applied to our psyche by the apparently uncomfortable knowledge of our desperate mortality and isolation.

This is no excuse however. We should not be seeking shelter in ignorance, however comfortable its embrace. It is within our species’ best interests to deal with the matter of our existence with rational forethought and in as objective means as possible, however unpleasant or humbling our findings may be.