Wednesday, October 23, 2013

World view

Which book has meant the most to you? No matter who you are, or whether or not you have actually read it, the correct answer is “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (1859). Before the concept of darwinian evolution by means of natural selection western "civilization" could understand nothing about life on earth. In the words of Theodosius Dobhzanski:  “Nothing in biology makes sense, save in the light of evolution”. No other body of thought has had such an impact on our view of the world and our place in it, on life, of how the world works and of the processes that shape our lives. Without understanding evolutionary biology we cannot think about life on earth. Work on "the new synthesis" from 1930 and onwards combined Darwin's insight with genetics, and made it possible to understand a host of mechanisms that make all living things the way they are.

Copernicus relegated Earth to simply one of many planets; not the Center of the Universe but just another rock in orbit around a rather ordinary star. Darwin did the same with humans; not created in God's image after all, but shaped by the same processes as all other animals, and not fundamentally different from them. Humans are a part of nature, not put here by God to rule it. Darwinism revolutionized the world, even more than the Copernican revolution. For the first time, it was possible to understand life on earth. The movement of planets in the Cosmos had not the same impact on our daily lives as the understanding of how life is shaped by evolution. Before Darwin we could not even place humans relative to the rest of creation. The term "creation" itself, along with "creator" (in the context of life on earth) and "creature", became an unfortunate misnomer.

Ecology made it possible to understand the ebb and flow of population changes and expanded the use of "community" and "society" to other organisms and associations of different species in nature. In a food chain, the species at the bottom support the entire structure, and are paramount for the maintenance of the whole. Charles Darwin made a point to remind himself, repeatedly, not to describe species as “higher” or “lower”. The new science of ecology demoted humanity further from the position evolutionary biology and astronomy had reduced them to. If organisms are mutually inter-dependent like organs in the same body, or the different stages of embryology, which is more important?

When a new world view sweeps humanity it is usually the product of a scientific paradigm shift. Ecology will also force a reality-check on traditional liberalism. There can be no individual welfare, nor freedom, removed from the ecological matrix upon which the individual life form depends. How we treat our neighbor creatures determines how we treat the earth itself. Are we able to perceive the aggregate outcome from billions of isolated actions and choices in a globalized world? Are we as a species capable of curbing our technology and economy, or do they control us? Has our culture outgrown us? Or will we reach a stage, in time, where we manage to control our own species and choose a path towards a future where one would want to live?