Evolutionary Spiral

Perhaps the Buddha was the first
to recognize that humankind
emerged from out the stream of life;
was part of one organic pool with nature's order structured in;
that human selves were always more
than isolated spirits floating free,
created out of nothing by some engineering god.

"Nothing at all is ever born of nothing by the will of gods," Lucretius said.
And long before the poet wrote,
there was a flowering of thought on Asia Minor's coast;
led by descendants of that great Ionian people who had formed the very heart of Greece,
the physical philosophers.
For they it was who pondered long and deep and free from godly fear
upon the nature and beginnings of the world.

T'was Anaximander who maintained that all the early forms of life
emerged from out of earthly moisture, and
that higher species grew from out of low
in everlasting spirals of increasingly complex.
Then Alcmaeon of Croton made the claim
that humans with the other species needs must share
their basic nature -- even learning through the senses is the same --
to differ only in the power of thought.
Which that great man exemplified so well.

Protagoras the Sophist taught
that nature's laws are everywhere the same
with consequences unavoidable.
Nor gods nor humans can escape their working out.
The Atomist, Leucippus, he it was, they say, who thought
that all reality is matter, ongoing, indivisible, unwrought --
comprising atoms moving constantly,
colliding and combining; then regrouping to compound
in that mad whirl in space that did in time
make up the Universe whence all things came.

Democritus of Abdura, Leucippus' student was.
The Universe is matter in a constant moving state,
and motion is a given, so he said.
No need to introduce First Cause external to the flux of time,
nor yet transcendent Consciousness nor supernatural Mind.
If gods exist they must as well be governed by necessity
like all things human; and if souls there be,
they must be mortal too;
and with the body merge once more into that long forgotten sea
whence all life grew.

Then Epicurus in a later time
sought to spring wider still the hidden locks
of nature's gates.
Lucretius celebrated him
in wondrous verse resounding down
the centuries wherever humans lived to speak and write,
and wonder in the night.
Lucretius wrote of plants appearing, then of animals,
and human species coming forth by merest chance --
with many dying out along the way.

And then the insight almost perished from our sight.
Through many shadowed centuries evolution seemed a dream long past.
'Til Rousseau, living in a lightning world,
saw the significance of time in shaping that which is;
immensity of time enabling humans to evolve
--perhaps from apes.
Then few there were who did not look askance in horror at the thought,
for in his day the popular wisdom was
that one Great Chain of Being did exist;
with species each created whole at every step from out God's mind,
according to His Purpose and His Plan, with humans at the top,
and different in kind.

From Darwin came the spark igniting
all humanity in visions seen but dimly by the Ancient Greeks.
One simple principle at work throughout the aeons long, he said;
one mighty natural engine pulsing down the generations now long dead.
Environmental challenges selecting out; the unadapted ones
surviving not to reproduce their kind,
while random changes proving advantageous endure and thus accumulate.
Directionless, the vehicle of natural selection ran --
no destination fixed ahead; no engineer; no master plan.
Thus awe-inspiring evolution brought us to this unexpected place,
producing finally the human race.

Imagination ne'er conceived a path to life more wondrous than
the story Darwin told; the tale he saw unfold;
in rock and bivalve, limb and organ, all unplanned diversity --
in form and function over time, expanding ever awesomely.
Indeed it was a tale sublime.
"Descent by modification" then, to him, it seemed to be.
Thus nature's process, engineered within,
no blueprint handed down,
nor goal ordained nor Mind at work without, of nature's order free.
All, all is process; yet there works within, a pulsing heart --
reverse causality!

Contingent circumstances feeding back,
determining what forms prevail; what functions fail
to meet confronting challenges of cataclysm or of gradual change.
Those organisms that best fit the niche available survive
to breed and thus their code is carried on
in pool of species' genes.
For adaptation is the key, as nature does select from what by random chance is born,
that which can "work" in altered times.
And thus a species, through accumulation, is condemned
to probe alternate paths that work,
and thus to live;
or to stagnate and die.
For nature never can forgive.

And now the theories build at faster pace.
And now we see the awe-inspiring possibility
that this great principle of natural selection
drives culture too; and science; and the growth of intellect;
and developing behaviors within every living thing.
Like genes that carry information charting out
our organismic form and function as in current strong --
determining the route the species takes;
so too our cultural routines, ideals and norms are passed along
the generations by their individual carriers,
some tossed aside, but others bearing fruit to spare.
And if these work to give us power in changing circumstance,
the culture spirals in complexity and long endures.
But if they cripple those who carry them, and weigh them down --
those people either change their ways and their beliefs,
or else they die and so, thereby,
the culture disappears.

And finally in scientific process we can see
the path of evolution writ by humankind quite consciously.
Hypotheses created by the minds of those who seek to know
the regularities of that great order all surrounding and immersing and propelling us to grow.
Then, in their testing, truths are ferreted with ever finer eye.
And some are found to hold and to withstand attempts to falsify,
providing grounds for action with predicted consequence.
But many fail, and these are cast aside for propositions new
with better fit to circumstance.
Thus, gradually, by rigorous unforgiving test an edifice of knowledge builds --
enduring and reliable.
All tentative solutions to intriguing puzzles that we sought to solve.
Endowing us with power to shape that natural ordering force --
and by this means determine paths whereby the culture will evolve.
Thereby to change for good or ill the future's course,
by our resolve.

But many now recoil in terror at the thought that in our might
we hold potentially the power of Heaven's throne.
So too must hominids in dim-lit caves have shuddered at the sight
of fire new-captured and employed as tool --
'til then the instrument of gods alone.
For power gives us choice and choice demands responsibility,
and we are ill prepared by our beliefs in godly wrath
and godly grace;
so it may be that humankind rejects the opportunity
for evolutionary spiral far above the current habits of our race;
the violent depredations of our past --
and by rejecting science may prefer to pave the way that none can stay,
in unremitting spiral down and down;
and into Hell at last!

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon. Previously published in Humanist in Canada (Spring 1996),p.6-7;23. Also in Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), p.493-6.