The dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments?
For ease of reference, however, here is the relevant part of that quotation once again:
…Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
So, then, what are these “failed evolutionary experiments”; and why might we be about to join them in the dustbin? Indeed, what does it mean to suggest there is a dustbin? I ask this latter question because, as I often seem to find myself saying, the concept of waste disposal is an illusion: Nature does not do waste disposal; it only ever does recycling.
However, there is an even more fundamentally-challenging aspect to xraymike79’s turn of phrase, which is the suggestion that the emergence of complex life on Earth is the result of an unguided process. Jean-Paul Sartre’s question “Why is it that there something rather than nothing?” is answered with the following equation: Nothing + Time + Chance = Something.
Some scientists, such as George Smoot (Wrinkles in Time) and Paul Davies (The Mind of God) have asserted that the Universe appears to be perfectly designed to accommodate us – effectively a statement of the Anthropic Principle. However, I find it hard to refute the argument, made by people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, that we are here because the Universe is the way it is – effectively a statement of existential Selection Bias.
For people of a theistic persuasion (like me for example), such notions are very challenging. However, I dislike the arrogance of people like Dawkins and Hawking, who – rather than just assert that they do not believe in God – appear to want to insist that they have proven that God does not exist. Although they present cogent arguments and justifications for their atheism, I prefer the position adopted by Stephen J. Gould – that science and religion represent non-overlapping magesteria. This is the proposition that science seeks to answer “how” questions, whereas religion seeks to answer “why” questions. If so, it would appear to be self-evident that trouble ensues when either party steps outside the boundaries of their legitimate enquiry.
It was for this reason that Young Earth Creationism had been rejected by the vast majority of Christian theologians even before Charles Darwin was born. They had, in essence, followed the advice of St Augustine (354-430AD) in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74AD) in Summa Theologica. For example:
Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, [and] one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing… (Thomas Aquinas, 1273AD)
As I said to my son recently, “just as scientific theories like evolution should not be used to reject religious beliefs; Biblical texts should not be used to reject scientific facts”. I hope you will agree that this is a nice turn of phrase too, but, it belies the fact that all knowledge in science is provisional. However, in my defence, I must protest that “should not be used to reject things most scientists consider to be beyond reasonable doubt” …does not sound quite so good.
So then, back to big question: Is evolution a random process with no pre-ordained purpose; or has it been guided by someone or something? Well, I think I am going to dodge the bullet on that one; but I will say this: I was astonished recently to learn about the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ – as proposed by Howard T. Odum – that suggests that Darwinian-style natural selection tends to produce organisms “that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency”. For background to this, please see this comment (and those that follow it) by Paul Chefurka on Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog.
If you look at Chefurka’s comments, you will see that he blames the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ for the fact that humanity seems set on a path to self-destruction (and unintended ecocide), i.e. that our consumption of resources is biologically-driven. Some may say, as I did initially, that this explains an awful lot but, upon further reflection, I am inclined to think that this could be used as an abdication of ultimate responsibility for our not leaving this Earth in as good a state as we were fortunate enough to find it.
Be that as it may, the evidence from the fossil record suggests that the vast majority of species that have ever lived are probably no longer with us today. However, that does not make them “failed evolutionary experiments”. Indeed, I would argue that some species that have survived through to the present time look like failed evolutionary experiments (and I do not mean humans). What sense is there in that? Why do some species appear to have got stuck in a time-warp? Is it enough just to say they are adapted to their niche environments?
I am therefore ambivalent about the question of whether evolution must be seen as purposeful or self-selecting process. However, I think xraymike79’s turn of phrase is useful because it has the potential to shake us from our anthropocentric complacency. Furthermore, I think it almost demands that – instead – we embrace the ecocentric reality around us: Apart from a few dairy cows that might experience some significant discomfort for a while – most of life on Earth would not even notice if we humans disappeared. As Edward O. Wilson observed, we may be the most intelligent life form on Earth – and we may be at the top of every conceivable food chain – but humans are not the most important life form on Earth. That honour probably goes to fungi – Nature’s most effective and efficient recyclers.
Unfortunately, we humans seem determined to go down fighting and, unless we wake up to the reality that we cannot subdue and dominate Nature – we must seek to live in harmony with it – it seems increasing likely that we will cause the widespread breakdown of many essential ecosystem services upon which all life on Earth depends. This is because we are currently in the process of deconstructing the benign and stable environment that has made life possible. As such, the Hockey Stick may have now turned into a Scythe:
That being the case, we must all hope this does not herald the arrival of the Grim Reaper himself.