Man’s closest relative on Earth is the chimpanzee. Our DNA is 98.5% identical. Small as it is, that difference sets us worlds apart — and evolution is widening the gap at an accelerating pace.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the critical difference between us and our primate cousins is that we have achieved a level of intelligence that makes ‘cultural evolution’ a major part of our past, present and future. While cultural evolution is also a component of evolution in many other life forms (including chimpanzees) only in man has it become a major force. But what do we mean by cultural evolution?
The word evolution is synonymous with change. In ‘classic’ genetic evolution the change is triggered by the transfer of genetic information (DNA) to future generations. If the (DNA) information increases the likelihood that the host individual will survive to pass on his genes to future generations that genetic information gains ‘market share’ in the gene pool. By this process, over great lengths of time, changes take place. Over enough time these changes can become dramatic — such as sea dwelling creatures evolving legs and the ability to move on dry land.
Cultural evolution is also driven by information acquisition, but now the incoming information is not genetic (DNA), it is ‘external’ – meaning that the information is acquired by the senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.). An intelligent organism will use the incoming information to make behavioral decisions (e.g. a bird’s decision to migrate). When the decisions have good consequences, the decision is likely to be ‘learned’ by other members of the social circle of the decision-maker. This learned behavior may then be passed through generations. When the learned behavior is sufficiently established it is likely to be ‘endorsed’ by genetic evolution so that it becomes ‘hard wired’ in DNA (as in our bird example). One documented example of this in humans involves the adult consumption of milk.
It is, of course, natural for human babies to drink their mother’s milk. They are able to digest the milk by virtue of an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose in the milk. In mammals, however, the production of lactase normally ceases as they grow up. Without lactase to help, milk becomes indigestible and causes unpleasant digestive problems.
About 8,000 years ago, however, it appears that adult humans experimented with cow’s milk and discovered that some adult humans were lactose tolerant. Because of a ‘defective’ gene, in some humans the lactase production gene had not been switched off after infanthood. As a life-fostering trait, this was favored by genetic evolution, and the ‘defective’ gene’s population grew. Lactose intolerance is now relatively uncommon among Europeans although it is still common among some cultures (e.g., Native Americans) whose ancestors did not domesticate cattle for their milk.
Another example of cultural evolution, less well supported by the anthropological record but much more important to the evolution of modern man, involves man’s invention of language. Scientists now believe that the invention of language was the precursor of abstract thinking — and gained the practitioners a considerable advantage over the ‘talk-nots’. Some scientists believe that this is the explanation for the extinction of H. Erectus and H. Neanderthal; aided by oral language H. Sapiens just ‘out-smarted’ them.
While accepted as an important component of evolution, cultural evolution is not well understood as to the processes involved. Today, our species is bombarded with external information which brings about behavioral changes that can sweep through our ‘connected’ cultures in a very short time. While many of the changes are transient, like clothing fashions (e.g. the mini-skirt), some are profound. The dramatic change in birth rates in many countries in the late twentieth century is a significant example that continues to puzzle scientists.
Whether we understand it fully or not, human cultural evolution is omnipresent and happening at breakneck speed. In complex ways, our behavior is changing in response to changes in our environment and, as the dominant species, many of our behavioral changes are impacting our world to create chain reactions – with major consequences.
It is, perhaps, appropriate that our intelligence, which was our saviour in the battle for survival 50,000 years ago and has brought us to a world population of seven billion (projected to reach nine billion by 2040) will very soon decide our future. With cultural evolution we have created a whirlwind that will either lift us to great heights or dash us to ruin. The phrase ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ comes to mind. We have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we see ourselves as selfish creatures, driven by materialism and fleeting pleasures, we will assure an early and ignominious end for humanity. If we see ourselves as a truly intelligent and compassionate species that accepts responsibility for the future, then we will make for ourselves a noble future.
When I have shown friends the cover of my book ‘The Future of Man – Extinction or Glory’ some have responded with one-liners like ‘Okay, just give me the bottom line – what is it going to be – extinction of glory?’ My answer rarely satisfies them (but it is the truth) — ‘the future is yours to choose’. The analogy is to the voting-age person consulting the opinion polls to find out how an election will turn out. The underlying irony is that the opinion polls are all trying to figure out how that wondering voter will vote.
We are now ‘voting’ for our future. Soon our children will vote and then their children. The votes are being cast, not as ballots, but by actions — actions that express our views as to our place in the world we live in and our sense of responsibility for its future.
If this vision of our future sounds like an argument for responsible action to deal with pollution, global warming or mindless consumption of non-renewable resources, that is no accident — but the issue is much broader than ‘good housekeeping’ on our planet. Far more fundamental to our future as a species is our ability to rise above the selfish tribalism of our past to reach the ‘next level’ and become future man, united in our determination to survive the tests ahead. Central to success in this effort will be reaching a meeting of the minds philosophically — and therefore spiritually.
You might ask ‘What does the future of our species have to do with religion?’ and my answer is — nothing. But ask me the question ‘What does a unifying belief in a higher purpose for our existence mean for our survival?’ and my answer is — everything. The distinction I make (between religion and God) is an important one. Our religions, concerned above all with their survival as distinct (and therefore competing) entities, are rooted in the past and divide us. The God that will unite us is focused on the future. This is the God of deism that does not rely on ancient books or demand blind faith when those books fail tests of fact or reason.
There are those who question that God, in any form, is relevant to our future. The atheists would have us believe nothing that cannot be scientifically proven. But is belief in nothing going to unite us and help us rise to the next level of humanity? This is no more tenable than the arguments of fundamentalists (Islamic and Christian) who believe that the morals and ethics of two thousand years ago should be our guide. Those standards are better than nothing — but we can do better. We must do better. We cannot reach our destination by focusing on the rear view mirror — and when the journey will span many generations, we need vision and motivation that transcends our individual lives and base self-interest.
Deism will light the way. I will be expanding on this subject in later posts. In the meantime I urge readers to visit the Deism website.