Evolution and the humanities
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Bang! That’s my partner Wilda slamming the front door on her way to the gym. Every couple of days she gets unbearably restless and has to go to the gym to work off energy that’s built up in her body.
I’m the opposite. My body remains inert, placid. It’s my self that gets squirmy and needs exercise. I used to envy people who had ready access to ways to exercise the self; Christians who could simply thumb through the bible, or Hindus who could pray to yet another god. I think of Western selfs like mine as being like a lake, its surface whipped into a frenzy by blizzards of novelty and innovation that yet leave its depths unaffected and still. Despite the agitation of the surface waters, they are sterile. What I need is something to stir those depths, bringing some nutrients up to the surface.
I appease that craving by meditating and writing, usually about the self. “What is the self?” people ask me. I say, “It’s like a relationship, except it involves only one person. It’s an abstraction, but when something’s wrong with it you feel it.” That’s the only way I’ve found of describing it.
The selfs those other people inherited--Christians and Hindus--were shaped by their different origin stories. Your origin story--how you think you were made--is going to powerfully influence what you think about your self, and the opportunities for exercise it occurs to you to create for it. But I’m not a Christian, or a Hindu. Instead, my origin story is that I evolved. That’s where I’d turn for ideas I could use to come up with exercises to set the self frolicking, burning off some energy, and feeling native joy.
I looked for ideas like that in modern evolutionary theory, but I couldn’t find any. So just as, to understand how my body moves, I revert to the older theory of gravity rather than the more up-to-date relativity, I turned to earlier theories of evolution. And in an even older tradition of evolutionary thinking, dating back to the late 18th century, I found something I could use.
This tradition begins with the physician and poet Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, providing us with the first known reference to the genome, in his “Zoonomia.” “From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-bloodied animals... would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-bloodied animals have arisen from one single living filament.... possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!" He then asks us to imagine all living creatures having arisen from such “living filaments.”
From Erasmus Darwin this "genome" tradition passes to the Victorian artist and writer Samuel Butler. What evolves, Butler says, is not individual creatures, but a self that runs through successive generations of a species. The "living filament" has a personality, is personality. It’s that person who evolves, not us individually. The root of our nature is that person--the person of the living filament, the genome. From Butler the tradition goes underground for a while, then surfaces again in the 1950s with the discovery of DNA’s double helix, and it finds its modern expression in the human genome being completely mapped.
I’ve no doubt all our ideas about evolution will someday merge in some super theory but I can’t wait. I almost certainly won’t live long enough to benefit from it. Instead I’ve come up with my own version of this new/old origin story and drawn from it to develop opportunities for my self to exercise and play.
Here’s my version of the story: life originated when Erasmus Darwin’s living filament--the genome--developed sufficient “intelligence” (or whatever it took) to support living creatures capable of reproducing themselves. That “intelligence” develops steadily for four billion years. Two billion years ago it became capable of forging complex cells with nuclei, half a billion years ago it came up with all the various kinds of animals and, more recently, with living creatures with brains and their own intelligence. And finally, us. We, a very recent product of the evolutionary process, provide the best measure available to us of the capabilities and nature of that process. We are that process’s “person” (as Butler might say) written into the conscious experiences of individual living creatures. Through our conscious experiences we can sample the nature of that process, the creative power of evolution.
This is not meant as science. It’s a story, an origin story. It’s from stories like this we extract ways of thinking and talking about something, in this case the self, in my case, for ways I could exercise my self.
Here’s an exercise drawn from that story: walking in a garden I feel the process of evolution--manifested in how plants grow--resonating with how that same process powers my own cognitive powers. I deliberately let that resonance tune my vision and amplify my sensitivity to patterns of growth. My reward is greater delight in natural forms. Here’s another exercise: driving on a country lane I close one eye and lean forward, folding my arms on the steering wheel. As I lean in the direction the car needs to go to follow the road, it seems to drive itself; I can concentrate on savoring the view ahead flattened into two dimensional landscapes by the closing of one eye, forming a panorama of landscape “paintings” unrolling in front of me over time.
Is our vision equipped with more capabilities like these, that I could turn to further exercises of the self? Of course! through training the eye-hand loop I learned to draw, for example.
In an origin story based on evolution I have found inspiration for endless new ways to exercise the self. If it could furnish me with a gym for the self, I wondered, could it furnish me with other aids to living? I believe it could. It could pump new wealth into the economy, provide new themes for entertainment, and ultimately restore vitality to the entire range of the humanities. In the essays in this section I’ll suggest how.