Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Vearl Brown / Creative Commons
From the beginning our human family has been on a journey. Born together, in eastern Africa about 100,000 years ago, our ancestors migrated to distant points around the globe. Our family scattered, communication was cut off and, in most cases, we forgot about them all together. We went our separate ways and lived our separate lives. Like siblings each adopted by different parents in distant lands, we came to identify with where we were raised instead of where we were from. Now, after accumulating so many years of tradition and experience in these various locales, our estranged relatives are finally being reunited. Our outward journey may have come full circle, but our reunion requires a new journey that we all must take together.
In every human culture, societies have developed myths to explain complex phenomena or provide meaning to the black box of their distant past. Creation stories made sense out of the human desire for precise beginnings. The first humans were hatched from a gigantic egg; a celestial being became self-aware and divided, like cells in a developing embryo, into male and female; a sky God created a man from mud and fashioned a woman from one of his ribs. These stories gave comfort, a sense of group identity and settled the question once and for all on an issue that, at the time, could never be resolved. But these stories also offered lessons, be they moral, political or simply personal, and served as a kind of communal guidebook for members of the society. Everyone understood their place in the social group and everyone knew where they were going. Today, several outgrowths of these nascent belief systems fear that without the guidance provided in these ancient stories our society will disintegrate; and they are willing to fight violently to protect their way of life – even if it means destroying the very thing they hope to save.
Natural history, at first, seems to be a poor replacement for such comforting myths. The path of evolution doesn’t have us in mind and never did. However, understanding our evolution can help pry off the lid to that infernal black box and offer tantalizing insights into the forces that molded our behavior. Furthermore, by highlighting how individuals in other species interact with one another and their environment we can begin to understand the outlines of a general guidebook for living in concert with nature rather than in opposition. There is no doubt that humans have radically transformed the planet like few species ever have (the only direct comparison might be the anaerobic bacteria that populated the oceans of early Earth, expelling oxygen as a waste product only to eventually poison themselves and 95% of all life). But the fact that we are becoming aware of this fact could give us the tools to change direction.
Imagine that written into the rock of ages is a tattered and incomplete “gospel of dirt,” to co-opt a term from Thomas Carlyle in his critique of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The resulting “good news” from this gospel may not always be to our liking, consisting as it does with no single, centralized moral force to dictate correct behavior. And yet, out of this anarchic system morality is produced. It emerges from the system itself in the same way as the latticework coils of DNA, the delicate concentric rings of a spider’s web, or the beautifully synchronized movements in a school of fish. Emergent principles abound in nature; they bear witness to the creative beauty of natural selection.
Writing 150 years ago, Charles Darwin understood the majesty of this creative process and celebrated nature as a grand design that had no need of a designer:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
I would ask you to take this conclusion from Darwin’s life’s work and join me on an exploration into the very nature of human nature. By examining what is known about the origin of human societies, by investigating the evolved behaviors of humans and other primates, by untangling the interconnections in life’s innumerable ecosystems, we may not discover a single, precise answer to the many problems that plague our species, but we will discover the contours of a future direction.
Are you ready to begin?