Monday, August 14, 2006

Evolution, less than meets the eye?

A recent article from detailed the results of an international survey.

The researchers combined data from public surveys on evolution collected from 32 European countries, the United States and Japan between 1985 and 2005. Adults in each country were asked whether they thought the statement “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” was true, false, or if they were unsure.

The study found that over the past 20 years:

* The percentage of U.S. adults who accept evolution declined from 45 to 40 percent.
* The percentage overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48 to 39 percent, however.
* And the percentage of adults who were unsure increased, from 7 to 21 percent.

The aim of the article, in my reading, was to expose the silliness, in the opinion of the author, and on that small point I don't disagree, of Protestant Fundamentalism.

Yet, the question of evolution doesn't seem to me to be so simple. That question being, how did humans develop? Was the essential development biological alone or was it spiritual, i.e. cognitive, having to do with man's sense of the world.

Some of the more radical fundamentalist beliefs do make simple straw men to knock over. Some of my scientists friends will laugh and say, the world is older than the 7000 years these evolution deniers claim. Man has lived on this planet far longer than that, so evolution is proven.

What if, I ask, the essential quality that makes humans human isn't the ability to walk upright, or use tools but the ability to think about the self and the external world. That is, what if the essential quality of man is the ability to abstract, and change's one's behavior accordingly. Apes are not what we would call civilized, and (sometimes at least) humans are.

It seems to me that our ability to think, and communicate those thoughts is the reason behind this. Men are not biologically ants or bees who seem designed to form large communities, yet we do and our biological ancestors, the early hominids, like the Australopithicines apparently did not.

In a speech to the UN in 1985, J. Krisnamurti, spoke on the issue of evolution:

Mankind, man, has lived on this earth over fifty thousand years, and perhaps much longer, or for less duration. During all this long evolution man has not found peace on earth - 'pacem in terris' has been preached long before Christianity, by the ancient Hindus and the Buddhists. And during all this time man has lived in conflict, not only conflict with his neighbour but with people of his own community, with his own society, with his own family, he has fought, struggled against man for the last five thousand years, and perhaps more. Historically there have been wars practically every year. And we are still at war. I believe there are forty wars going on at the present time. And the religious hierarchy, not only the Catholics but the other groups have talked about 'pacem in terris', peace on earth, goodwill among men. It has never come about - to have peace on earth. And they have talked about peace when you die and go to heaven and you have peace there.

And in a Q&A following the speech

24 QUESTION: At the end you said that we need to break the pattern of conflict between man. My question to you is, do you see that as something of an evolutionary process that inevitably will happen? Or do you see it as something that we all have to work very hard to achieve? And there is an expression that goes something like this: in times of darkness the eye begins to see. And why I am throwing this at you because in a sense it is either going to happen, or it is not going to happen, but how do you see it happening?

25 K: I don't quite understand your question, sir.

26 Q: All right. You talk about breaking the pattern, man has a pattern, the brain has a pattern, and that pattern has to be broken in order for there to be peace in the world.

27 K: Of course.

28 Q: Now do you see the breaking of that pattern being an active movement, or a natural progression in the evolution of man?

29 K: Sir, have we evolved at all?

30 Q: I think we are continuously evolving.

31 K: So you accept evolution - psychological evolution, we are not talking about biological or technical evolution - psychological evolution. After a million years, of fifty thousand years, have we changed deeply? Aren't we very primitive, barbarous? So I am asking if you will consider whether there is psychological evolution at all? I question it. Personally, to the speaker, there is no psychological evolution: there is only the ending of sorrow, of pain, anxiety, loneliness, despair and all that. Man has lived with it for a million years. And if we rely on time, which is thought - time and thought go together - if we rely on evolution then another thousand years or more, and we will still be barbarous.

32 Q: My question is: what would have to happen for there to begin to be psychological evolution as the speaker understands it?

33 K: What about psychological evolution? I don't quite understand the question.

34 Q: You have said that you do not think there has been psychological evolution. My question is: what can happen so that there will be, so that there can be, psychological evolution.

35 K: Madam, I am afraid we haven't understood each other. We have lived on this earth from the historical, as well as ancient enquiry, on this earth for fifty thousand years or more or less. And during that long period of evolution psychologically, inwardly, subjectively, we have remained more or less barbarous - hating each other, killing each other. And time is not going to solve that problem, which is evolution. And is it possible, we are asking, for each human being, who is the rest of the world, whether that psychological movement can stop and see something afresh?

To me, blind faith in the "evolution" evidenced by the questioner to solve man's ills as silly, and perhaps more dangerous than the Protestant Fundamentalist view.

Humans can think, although as William James puts it so well, many think they are thinking when really they are just rearranging their prejudices. We can think and choose, but sometimes, (Krisnamurti would likely have said, often) we choose barbarism.

I don't know which is sillier, praying to the God of evolution, which is to wait for time to solve man's ills or praying to "an eye for an eye" Jehovah. Civilization is, in my view, a choice, a change of mind, from barbarism. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, it's a civilization, if you can keep it.

I'm still working on the King Canute piece, most likely it will be ready tomorrow.