The Terrible, Violent, Beautiful, Gracious Jungle

Spirituality of Evolution, part 3

That the mix of competition and cooperation happened to produce humans is, I mentioned, a cosmic accident. That’s a lesson in humility. That we could readily be replaced is another lesson in humility.
“Some zoologists suspect that chimps and bonobos have long been ‘held back’ by the presence of humans – kept from moving out of the jungle onto grasslands and, more generally, from filling the human niche” (Wright, Nonzero, 292)
So if all humans suddenly vanished today, the chimps would Nash-ramble out into the savanna, start spending more of their time walking upright, which would conduce to the voice box dropping down in the throat, which would allow production of more subtle vocal sounds, which, in combination with the positive feedback loop they already have for increased political savvy, would cause the use of those subtle distinctions in vocal sound in a more complex symbolic language. If some virus wipes out all the humans but not the chimps, probably in about a couple million years or so, we’ll be back – that is, a species very like humans: five or six feet tall, with armpits, bad jokes, spectator sports, musical instruments, and so on.

How’s that for a story to give us a sense of our place in the scheme of things? Of course, the chimps are already so much like us. What if all the apes, or even all the primates, or, heck, let’s say all the mammals suddenly disappeared from earth? High levels of intelligence – that is, behavioral flexibility made possible by larger brain-to-body-size ratios – would probably emerge again.
“Toward the end of the age of dinosaurs – just before they ran into their epoch ending piece of bad luck [when a comet or asteroid struck earth and caused massive climate change that wiped them out] – a number of advanced species had appeared, with brain-to-body ratios as high as those of some modern mammals. It now looks as if some of the smarter dinosaurs could stand up and use grasping forepaws. And some may have been warm-blooded and nurtured their young. Who knows? Give them another 100 million years and their offspring might be riding on jumbo jets” (Wright, Nonzero, 293)
-- and arguing over whether to teach evolution in their schools.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. How any given species will go is a highly contingent matter. Yet a level of intelligence – that is, behavioral flexibility – comparable to what humans have is no fluke. “Given long enough, it was very, very likely to evolve.” (Wright 276)

We -- we homo sapiens -- aren’t necessary. Try holding that awareness in your consciousness throughout your day. Remembering this puts the ego's preoccupations in a wider context, and invites us into that wider perspective. Cultivating continual remembrance of non-necessity is a spiritual practice – grounded in what we learn from science.

The evolution story evokes simultaneously a pride and a humility: we are the universe playing itself out – the grand product of the grandest possible creator. At the same time, if we humans weren’t around, the complexity and flexibility of our intellect would simply appear elsewhere. It is a story of nature red in tooth and claw – ruthless, heartless competition forming the conditions for gradually increasing cooperation to form more complex, more beautiful, coalitions of cells, and then coalitions of individuals, to produce wonders that never would have appeared had life been easy.

The moral of the story is the ultimate moral of many spiritual stories: there is irreconcilable tragedy within a basic goodness of reality. The fundamental beauty of the whole somehow emerges from billions of incidents of vicious ugliness. It’s a story of interconnection – for there is ultimately nothing that separates us from the other animals, other life, or from the earth itself. A little more of this, a little less of that – no barriers.

It’s a story that evokes depths of gratitude; wonder and awe. It’s a story of faith, because it tells us there are forces out there that we can trust – that we don’t have to carry all the world’s burdens ourselves. There are much more powerful forces at work out there, and they are slowly, slowly, pushing for ever-greater levels of cooperation and harmony. We are borne aloft by that grace.

Yes, it’s a jungle out there. For that we can be grateful. We -- whether "we" means homo sapiens or "we" means some species with the behavioral flexibility necessary for highly abstract symbolic language and elaborate structures and mechanisms of social organization -- wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a terrible, violent, beautiful and gracious jungle.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Spirituality of Evolution"
See also
Part 1: Our Best Myth
Part 2: Competition and Cooperation

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