There is no such thing as the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution. Humans are still evolving, just like everything else
It was during a morning lecture, whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in biology, that my tutor said something that has stayed with me ever since.
It was something like this:
Humans are not ‘more evolved’ than any other organism on earth. That parasitic worm is just as ‘evolved’ as you: it will go on to reproduce and pass on its genes. That, in the end, is all evolution ‘cares’ about.
Ah, evolution, the great leveller. We often talk about the human race being more ‘advanced’ in terms of technology, communication and other achievements — this is true, of course. Advances in technology in medicine and technology have improved countless lives and are something, that we, as a species should be proud of. It’s a sobering reminder, however, that we are not, however, the dominant species on earth — a biologist might argue that bacteria, plants, and even ‘dung beetles’ have a greater impact on the global ecosystem, and therefore represent the most ‘successful’ species on this planet.
From a scientific perspective, evolution is a process that results in a change in a group of organisms, described here by Douglas Futuyma:
“[biological evolution] is change in the properties of groups of organisms over the course of generations…it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportions of different forms of a gene within a population to the alterations that led from the earliest organism to dinosaurs, bees, oaks, and humans. (2005: 2)”
Most importantly, the word ‘evolution’ does not imply any sort of progress towards an ‘end goal’.
As a species that has been described as a ‘super predator’, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of seeing our evolution as ‘over’ — we have mastered our environment, and can now leave the job of ‘evolving’ to other, ‘less-evolved’ species.
Basic science tells us that this cannot be true: our environment is always changing (therefore, selective pressures are changing). An example of a relatively modern evolutionary change is the ability of some humans to digest the sugar found in milk, lactose. In the European population, this is conferred by one mutation, which is thought to have arisen at the time when humans started domesticating animals.
Even if the environment somehow stayed constant, the random nature of genetic inheritance and mutations means populations will continue to change anyway, in a process sometimes called ‘neutral evolution’.
Evolution can teach us humility
I don’t know about you, but I find the thought of humans never reaching a ‘peak’ (and the fact that even the idea of a ‘peak’ is a figment of our imagination) humbling. Please don’t confuse this with me being defeatist — far from it. We should keep striving as a human species to make life better for our fellow humans, and in my view, for all other organisms with which we share this planet.
But ultimately, nature is in control. We would do well to remember that we are just another one of the millions of species on this planet and we must change and grow — just as they must too. Our lives are not constant — we see this in real-life examples, our climate is changing, we must take responsibility for our role in this and adapt. If we do not, we will perish.
As human beings, we need to remember that we are not invincible.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I find solace in this. When, as most of my fellow species do, find myself knotted up in everyday worries, I try to remember my place in the world, in nature. I will step out into my garden or take a walk by the river and try and keep my eyes and ears open for every single sign of life: the grass, the wasps, the beautiful songbirds, the busy woodlouse. All of these creatures face the same ultimate survival struggle as I; remembering this helps put everything in perspective.
It’s at times like these, when I appreciate my true place in the world, that I feel most ‘human’.
“This idea of how everything is interconnected, and the impermanence of things… It sums up the human condition to me, and it helps me on my path.”
If we choose to let it, evolution can also be a source of inspiration
In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds.
One of the problems with a conceptual ‘peak’ is that we will constantly argue whether we have reached the top. One might argue that this means we will keep striving, which, on many levels, could lead to positive outcomes for human existence.
But logically, if such a peak were to exist, we’d have to reach the top someday, and then what would happen? Would we stand still? Suddenly limited by our own capabilities? I would argue that this would not be a positive conclusion. My hope is that the human race will keep evolving, keep changing, to adapt and thrive in our ever-changing universe.
We can apply this idea to our individual lives too. To take one example, in my work as an educator, I try to employ the ideas of ‘growth mindset’ (Carol Dweck) — your abilities can grow, they are not fixed.
It’s a reminder to enjoy the journey.
Sure, I can set constructive goals for myself, that’s a positive thing to do and helps keep me motivated day to day. But, now and then, I try to take a wider perspective — life is in flux, so my goals will be in flux too; I need to remember to enjoy the ride.