The Scheme of Things …
“It is a natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements; of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity – in a word, towards us.
“We flatter ourselves.” ~Bill Bryson
I was listening to the audio edition of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” wherein the author discusses how one of the more common occurrences in the history of life is that of species extinction. Very few species last a very long time. If fact, he points out, it is shown that the more complex a species, the quicker they go extinct. That, in turn, got me thinking of something related.
Sometime back I was listening to Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” on NPR. They were replaying an interview with evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who had recently passed after a long struggle with cancer. During that interview, Gould discussed varying aspects of the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge (as well as talking a little about his love of baseball, as I recall – he was quite the knowledgeable fan, and his books of essays are peppered with thoughtful observations of the game).
During the interview he got around to talking about where homo sapiens fits into the grand scheme of Evolution. Essentially, one of the interesting conceits of science in regard to Evolution in general, and Darwin’s proposals for its functioning in particular, is the perception that Man represents some sort of pinnacle of evolutionary development. (One can’t help note the parallel with the religious concept/projection of man being “created” in God’s image, a rather anthropomorphic element of the psychology of religion.) The idea of Gradualism, Gould felt, completely misrepresented what Darwin had observed. (For gradualism, think of those progressive illustrations that portray the evolution of man from a slouching, shambling creature to the upright, handsome devil he thinks he has become, and you see the idea in its most simplistic presentation.)
Gould offered that evolution was a development of fits and starts, a reaction to sudden changes in the biological status quo. (In keeping with Darwin’s observation’s of the variety of evolutionary changes witnessed on the Galapogos in the same species.) He pointed out that the most powerful evolutionary stories were not those of the singular complex flora or fauna that we mistakenly perceive as the height of evolutionary development of a species, but instead tales of diverse creatures like bats and rodents that blossomed into multiple evolutionary variations on the original theme. He felt that the most successful species were the ones that continued to adapt and diversify, not rarify into a few or even one branch of flora or fuana, like man and his simian cousins.
He suggested that homo sapiens and his cousins are not pinnacles of evolutionary development but, at best, twigs on the tree of life – not just man, but primates in general. Happy accidents (for us) of evolutionary change, that for all intents and purposes are in a perilous position from an evolutionarily perspective, particularly when compared to “lesser” animals like beetles and rats and even cockroaches in all their diversity.
Rather humbling, that…
Bacteria ‘R’ Us, by Valerie Brown
… it is clear that bacteria are not what the general run of humans thought they were, and neither are humans. Bacteria are the sine qua non for life, and the architects of the complexity humans claim for a throne. The grand story of human exceptionalism — the idea that humans are separate from and superior to everything else in the biosphere — has taken a terminal blow from the new knowledge about bacteria. Whether humanity decides to sanctify them in some way or merely admire them and learn what they’re really doing, there’s no going back. And if there’s any hope of rebalancing the chemistry of a biosphere deranged in two short centuries by humans, it very likely lies in peaceful coexistence with the seemingly brilliant, deceptively simple life-forms comprising the domain Bacteria.
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