Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Existence and Religion as Evolutionary Processes

A colorful peacock facing a lit path in Morelia zoo

Regardless of whether one believes it or not, the theory of evolution is a fascinating concept. To me, the most significant aspect of evolution theory is the concept of survival of the fittest. Certain members of the species have had the edge over others and have managed to survive and thus continue their genetic line.

In the ancient past, fitness was best embodied in physical strength. It was the era of the bully who could beat you up and steal your lunch money, while you shiver and starve in a corner. Nowadays, we would have to revise this idea since physical strength is not the outstanding feature anymore. It will be of help to survive on the streets or in pub brawls or even to make it through high school, but in the modern world intelligence has become more important. If you are streetwise, you may have a higher survival rate.

Notwithstanding, the modern structure of the world is predominantly based on power. Although they say that knowledge is power, hence elevating intellect over other qualities, the main recipe for success today would be money. So we can rephrase and re-coin the concept and say that it has turned into survival of the richest.

But let us look at the genetic link across generations first. At some point in time, say more than a hundred years ago a great-great-great-grandfather met a great-great-great-grandmother of mine. From them followed a line of offspring that led directly to me. In other words, if any of these links had not occurred, I would not be here now. If my great-great-grandfather had not met my great-great-grandmother one fateful afternoon in a park, I would not have come into being.

The line is woven so intricately and with so many detailed variables that a single change in the chain of events would have led to a completely different outcome. This idea has been played around with in two notable movies, Back to the Future, where a slight change in the past affected the whole outcome of the future, and the interconnectedness of seemingly random and trivial events that led to a major and life-changing accident in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All this woven fabric across time convinces me even more that life is indeed a miracle and a precious gift.

This metaphor can be extended to include the existence of our planet in the universe. Whether it is completely gratuitous and a fortunate series of random chance events that led to the existence of our planet or whether it has happened by the delicate and conscious design of a powerful creator do not take away nor diminish the sense of awe and wonder.

Human existence itself has been formed and defined by various ideas and actions in the course of history. What we are now is to a large part what we were in the past, whether you look at the microcosm of a person, the macrocosm of a country or the global proportions of significant world events. Nations have been created and religions have come about in such an interconnected chain of events. Should you take out one variable, the rest will tilt by degrees.

As a result, some religions have died out over time, while others have been more resilient. The Christian religion would have been unthinkable without St. Paul. Had he not been converted on the road to Damascus, we would have been left with a historically forgettable and insignificant Saul. Had Luther not brought about the split from the Catholic church, the Protestant religion, as we know it, would not exist. Even throughout the Reformation, there were many particular decisions that led to even more factions, and it is why, for better or for worse, we have a whole gamut of Christian religions and evangelical movements.

Again it is not only limited to the Judeo-Christian religion. Buddhism, for example, might not have come about had the noble Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama not had a glimpse of suffering outside the royal confinements. Like a building block, traditions and cultures in the form of memes are passed on and have managed to become mostly resilient to the erosion of time.

It is a magnificent feat that these thoughts have survived, whether in writing or in tradition. These ideas have evolved because time plus reflection has changed our own way of thinking while scientific and technological progress is constantly making us reevaluate our beliefs and standpoints.

I often prefer to think of a line of progress in a Hegelian manner that we are not retracting but advancing toward an end goal, what he termed the World Spirit, or complete consciousness or awakening of the self. In the sense of human rights we have made significant leaps, at least ideologically if not in practice. Equality is on the minds and lips of most world citizens.

Nonetheless, when I look at some of our actions in the world, be it war, disregard for others, lack of sensitivity for important issues such as the environment we live in, greed and lust for power at the detriment of destruction and loss of human lives, I sometimes cannot help but wonder whether we would have been better off as apes.

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