A way of seeing

We exist within an evolutionary reality, it would be hard to overstate the importance of this fact. For us to understand who we are and can be, we must gain an understanding of what we are.

The being that comprehends these words is the result of billions of years of the evolutionary process, a "successful" line of ancestors ranging from the simplest of organisms to you, an individual capable of intricate creation. This is not to say it was necessarily a linear progression between these two points, it is a misunderstanding to view evolution that way, the ability to fly if unneeded is discarded, a creature may struggle from the sea to the land and back again, a comet hitting the earth may wipe out all the "fittest" species leaving the things that previously survived by huddling in fear to emerge from their burrows and hiding places to take over a now empty world. Evolution is written in the language of the universe, and that language as Galileo said is mathematical rather than philosophical. It does not care about who is the strongest or fastest, just who survives and reproduces whether by luck or fitness.

There is no point to evolution, no morality inherent in the cosmos. As creatures who seek to find patterns amidst the masses of information circling around us which make sense to us in an ordered cause and effect way, this can be difficult. We cannot change the cosmos so we have tried to construct patterns of thought which contradict this in both our religious and secular ideologies and make us feel that we live in a cosmos that is logically ordered around its central meaning, us. This is a delusion, an unnecessary one, I do not believe it is a choice between a fabricated meaning to make ourselves feel better, or a life devoid of meaning, there is a middle way.

Every sense with which we view the world, the brain which connects those senses, the body which supports our senses and helps us manipulate the environment, all of this is the result of an evolutionary process. In looking outwards we cannot escape the frame of evolution because it is the fundamental basis of our being. There simply is no other reference point, no other place to ponder ourselves from than an evolutionarily based organism within a system of living things that are also products of an evolutionary system.

To try and escape this reality, to find some realm of pure reason, is both highly unlikely and I believe an errant attempt to find meaning in a pure reason devoid of the context of reality. Just as a sense only has a purpose in relation to other things, the mind too only makes sense in relation to the reality in which it evolved as a response. We understand the limits of pure reason, hence why we have the scientific method or empiricism, truth is often counterintuitive. This is not to say we should relegate reason to a subordinate position in understanding ourselves and our environment, merely that we should look for confirmation of the ideas of reason in our lived experience within the evolutionary realm that defines us. Reason for instance might lead us to believe that we have no free will because everything about us is shaped by our genetics and environment. Our lived experience however is very different, we live our lives apparently making choices that create different outcomes. The reconciliation of this is not to elevate one form of thinking or the other, but to rest in the knowledge that both are important truths that should be factored into our considerations. To try to choose between them in some attempt to be consistent or certain in our thinking is a greater fallacy than to accept two seemingly contradictory positions. Doubt is often the closest to truth that we can get.

Evolution is of course complex. The life cycles of many creatures defy belief, much less the interaction of all these species within a local or the global ecosystem. How then can this system which we know so little about be the basis for certainty of our intellect? Though we crave certainty it is often an illusion, and in overly clinging to it we lose grasp of the wider truths. Caution, consideration and subtlety are often the appropriate responses to the complexities of this world rather than instinctive reaction.

Mute creation

Looking at the belief systems which underlie the actions of human culture, it seems clear that we are still caught up in a pre-Darwinian conception of the world and ourselves.

It is easiest to see this in the doctrines of most religions their separation and elevation of humans as beings with "souls" and the rest of creation lumped into a subordinate morass. God may be dead as Nietzsche declared long ago, but this conception of the ordering of the world has changed little even in the ever-expanding secular world.

Nietzsche of course did not kill God, if anyone could lay claim to have done so, it would be Charles Darwin. The theory of evolution radically reshapes the ordering of life, humans are one point in an ongoing story, science may have separated us further from other animals physically, but the philosophical ramifications should be to draw us closer with them and see how much we share with them. With the absence of a divinely created soul which elevates humans beyond comparison with other creatures, each being instead becomes a collection of physical characteristics that it is possible to compare. We are apes, mammals, we share much of ourselves with other species, we know their joys and sorrows share commonalities with our own. There are many differences between species as well but it is clear that a basic empathy with the mental world of the "higher" species is not anthropomorphism but rather is in concordance with the tenets of modern science. We can see the similarities in our bodies, the threads of the nervous system connected to the same parts of the brain, we can understand their abilities to think, to judge fairness, to learn, to bond together. The more we learn, the deeper we become ourselves, the more we understand that they are fellow travellers on this journey of consciousness, and they deserve an equal place in our consideration.

The reflection of ourselves

The argument for a change in our treatment of "higher" species is I believe clear and unassailable, only self-interest and custom have stopped its progression once the mythology of human divinity was unmasked. The world is much more than this, however, and I believe as the most powerful species we have a duty towards that which may not share similar suffering to our own.

I have no hesitation in calling the current world the Anthropocene. There are many natural forces that we are powerless in the face of, however, they have in some sense always been present, what defines this epoch in the natural history of the world is the ever-present fingerprint of humanity.

Though as humanity progresses many realise they wish to be a creative rather than destructive force in the story of life, as a whole species we have been extraordinarily destructive. I have no doubt that over time one species may have been the cause of the extinction of another. The trail of extinction which has followed the rise of humanity is on a scale that we can only compare to things like comets hitting the earth and supervolcanoes erupting.

We might forgive our less sophisticated ancestors for this, or even tribal people today. They do not have access to the vast array of scientific and philosophical understanding we have now. Aboriginal Australians may have burned the forest in which the last large wombat lived, knowing full well what they were doing, but I think it far more likely they were just "innocently engaged" in their daily business.