Martin LeFevre: Exapted for Awakening? (Pt. 2)
Exapted for Awakening? (Pt. 2)
See also… Martin LeFevre: Exapted for Awakening? (Pt. 1)
In this column, the second of two parts, I want to examine the question: how did the universe made such a mistake as man? Second, has evolution provided us a way out of this mess, for which it is partly responsible?
Last week I laid the groundwork for this conundrum by doing what justice I could to paleo-anthropologist Ian Tattersall's thesis in "Monkey in the Mirror." That is, the human brain evolved for unknown purposes in a goal-less, non-linear way, and only much later was "exapted" for symbolic thought. That exaptation enabled us, Homo sapiens, to have language, culture, and science.
No one knows what drove the brain's enlargement, but the logic is inescapable: morphology precedes, not follows, innovation in nature. In other words, nature can only produce innovations (like flight, or symbolic thought) out of structures that already exist; it doesn't develop structures for a particular use. That is the meaning of exaptation, whereby evolution produces innovations in one context that are later used for other purposes.
Tattersall ends his book with the rhetorical (and rather resigned) question: "who knows what exaptations are already in there waiting to be released?" But his prescription, to "actively seek ways to maintain the status quo, and develop means to cope with our familiar yet at the same time bizarrely unfathomable selves" just won't cut it.
Given humankind's headlong rush toward fragmenting nature, culture, and the human psyche into trillions of bits (and bytes), producing a decimated planet inhabited by billions of deracinated people, there is no choice but to ask the question seriously.
Humans were given the Promethean fire of symbolic thought, but we have been using this gift to plunder the planet. We are fragmenting everything all to hell. So this is the million-year question: is the human brain being exapted for awakening, in the same way that it was exapted for symbolic thinking?
It stands to reason, since there is a dynamic order and immeasurable intelligence inherent in nature. I don't mean design, via a deus ex machina (for that is thought projecting itself) but rather, a ground beyond thought.
The popular idea that life is just random and relative activity, founders, ironically, on the disorder humans are generating. Humans don't bring order, but chaos to the earth. And since we evolved along with all other life, something else has to be going on here.
The word evolution has come to connote gradual change toward greater perfection. But those who study organisms in nature now generally agree that evolution is not evolutionary but revolutionary. That is, long periods of stability and even stasis are "punctuated" by short bursts of major change.
Just such a radical change occurred when the modern human brain suddenly became rewired and reconfigured for "symbolic cognitive processes." But this gift (or curse) carried with it the necessity of self-knowing and self-understanding, because without it, humans cannot stop dividing and fragmenting.
Therefore, as the raw brain contained the potential for conscious thought, and conscious thought tends toward escalating fragmentation, so too the brain contains the capacity for an insight into thought sufficient to enable it to use thought wisely, rather than stupidly.
Humankind is standing at the same juncture that our ancestors unconsciously stood before fully conscious thought and culture exploded onto the scene. Now however, our awareness of the next step in our evolution (which has nothing to do with computers and a "still evolving brain") is indispensable to taking that step.
One feels, in these contemplations, the compassion of the universe for humans in our terrible dilemma. It stands to reason, since humans didn't ask for the Promethean fire--it was thrust upon us.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.