Our species, which has managed to rise to the top of the food chain, conquer and colonize every region of the planet we care to inhabit, and control the fate of almost every other species unlucky enough to exist contemporaneously with humankind, seems to be partially exempt from the Theory of Evolution.
Sure, our spectacular advances in technology appear to be compelling evidence that we’re making progress, “improving” our existence by applying our superior intelligence to complicated problems that other creatures can’t solve. Want an iPad, Senor Gerbil? You might want to grow some thumbs! Life expectancy is longer – and by many measures healthier and altogether “better” (less violent, less frightening) than, say, 10,000 years ago.
But what kind of species is powerful enough to unilaterally destroy its environment, smart enough to understand the ramifications of its decisions, and yet brazen enough to keep making the same mistakes?
Take climate change. Using our unprecedented ability to organize and interpret information – thinking, you might call it – we developed this thing called science. It’s helped us invent tools, like engines with horsepower, to compensate for our inherent shortcomings, like not being able to run as fast as, say, a horse. For the past century or so, we’ve built our existence around automobiles and airplanes, incredible inventions that transformed our species and, coincidentally, Planet Earth. Industrializing the civilized world, paving over nature, burning a hole in the ozone layer – these actions, we now understand, have negative consequences that harm our species (not to mention all the species below us on the power hierarchy). Our old friend Science predicts that our behaviors will ultimately extinct us from this magical realm, just as an errant asteroid took care of the dinosaurs before us.
Still – and this is the part that causes one to wonder about Mr. Darwin’s big idea – we refuse to change. We use our magnificent intelligence to argue (“Climate change is a hoax!” says the Senator from the oil-centric state of Oklahoma), to equivocate (“Without burning coal and oil and gasoline, I might as well live in a cave, like my ancestors,” says the otherwise progressive liberal), and to prevaricate (“The ocean is so big it doesn’t matter what we dump into it,” says the multi-national chemical manufacturer). Instead of copping to reality – namely, that we’re responsible for the future of the planet and everything that lives on it – we pretend we’re prisoners of fate.
Children being born today to parents who proudly proclaim their commitment to “family values” will have a much worse life than the generations before them. (That would be us.) They’ll look at their poisoned rivers, toxic air, and infected food and wonder why their ancestors bequeathed a world so profoundly damaged. Could 20th Century humans really be that un-evolved?
Take war and violent revolution. We have ample evidence – history, observation of nature, our “better angels” – that cooperation is the most reliable way for a species to survive and flourish. Yet for as long as homo sapiens has roamed the land, we’ve been a murderous, intra-species malefactor, cracking skulls with cudgels and incinerating cities with bombs. We’ve killed millions – billions? – of our brothers and sisters in the name of religion, natural resources, sovereign pride, and a panoply of other reasons that seemed justifiable at the time. But has all the murdering brought our species to a collectively better place? Is the world a kinder, more equitable and just realm? No – not kind and equitable enough to prevent humankind from being in a constant (i.e., every hour of every day) state of war and revolution.
Is it fair to say we’ve “evolved” into failure? Not yet. Not until we ultimately fail. But it’s hard to be optimistic about our long-term chances when all the high-minded revolts and life-changing inventions, and all the knowledge, insight and understanding that we have of Existence – all of it – simply begets more cruelty, injustice, and depredation. Progress is the movement toward social and economic justice. We don’t seem to be moving in that direction.
Darwin’s theory implied that evolution is difficult to observe in the present, while you’re “too close” to the scene and don’t have a broad enough perspective to compare and contrast the before and after. Maybe 21st Century mankind is evolving in mysterious ways that won’t manifest themselves for another few hundred years.
Or maybe evolution, like population controls and environmentally-caused extinction, applies to every species except us. We’re already so smart that we’re exempt.