The Evolution Sutra
The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?
- Joseph Campbell
There is no longer any doubt that the scientific story of evolution is true, at least among those who have a relatively large forebrain. So now we can begin to worship the story, embracing evolution as our new creation myth. Besides, we are due for an upgrade of our metaphysics. Haven’t we lived long enough believing that our essential self is somehow disconnected from this body, or atoms, or materiality, whatever that happens to be. We’ve also gone long enough believing that our purpose and salvation lie somewhere outside of the life we are now living.
Those beliefs are now dysfunctional. They take the divine away from the Earth and place it in some other realm, robbing life of its due reverence. Our major religions have come to regard Earth as little more than a training planet, a place where we come to learn a few lessons, or burn off some karma, or get saved by some messiah or another. The general hope is that once we’re done on this funky old sphere we can go off to a better place, where we truly belong, and be in another life living happily ever after. We will be going “home.”
It would serve us better to bring our spiritual attention back to the Earth. If we could feel ourselves as part of the life of this planet, we might take better care of our environment. If we bring our sense of the divine to this earthly existence, we might even find more joy in living, however briefly, here and now.
For now, our understanding of evolution still lies rusting in our neo-cortex. We need ways to revere the story: make ritual around it; give it song and dance; internalize it. We need to mine evolution for its spiritual gold, learning our new role in the grand scheme of things.
In fact, the story of evolution can offer us everything we traditionally seek from religion: a basis for morality, humility, meaning, purpose, a message of self-liberation, and as much awe and wonder as any bible. Let’s stop looking upward in prayer and gratitude for this or that, and instead direct our gaze downward at the Earth and all around us, to celebrate Nature, the instrument of our creation, and the closest and most obvious source of all our gifts.
When modern ecologists and neo-pagans search for a symbol for wholeness and health, they come back to the ancient goddess, Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the Greek’s Gaia. Only today she starts as a “hypothesis,” and must trickle down from her rebirth as scientific postulate to become sacralized by the people’s shamans.
- Theodore Roszak
Bonobo (Pygmy Chimpanzee) mother and child: 6-8 million years ago, our hominid lineage
diverged from the Chimpanzee one. About 1.6% of our DNA differs from theirs. -Ed.
The story of evolution tells us that we are part of the history of life on this planet, making our primary identity that of “earthling.” (Of course, if we discover life in other galaxies we might have to become galaxy identified, which would make us “Milky Wayans.”) You can feel your earthling nature inside your body, which is composed of “all natural” earth ingredients. Just rub your upper and lower teeth together for a moment and feel the hardness of your bones. They are made out of minerals found in the Earth – calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium – all mysteriously molded together into your skeleton. Can you feel that you are a piece of Earth walking on Earth? It is though we are Earth sprouts that somehow gained a lot of mobility.
Meanwhile, about 75% of your body is liquid, and most of that liquid has the same chemical consistency as the oceans. You literally sweat and cry seawater. It’s as if the ocean splashed up on shore and eventually walked away. When you think about it, where else could our bodies have come from but the Earth and it’s seas? You are certified organic.
Not only are we made out of Earth and ocean, we have been shaped by them. Your legs and feet, fingers and thumbs, this upright posture and big brain, even your instincts, emotions and thoughts -- all are the result of life adapting to elemental demands. Remember that for a couple billion years of life on this planet there were no legs or feet simply because there was no land to walk around on. Legs were of no use.
As we consider our body, we might reflect on the fact that the most critical steps in its creation can be correlated with major environmental change. Scientists believe that upheavals of land masses nearly six hundred million years ago triggered the "Cambrian Explosion"-- also known as the “Big Birth” (biology's Big Bang) -- which marks the first appearance of many forms of life, including multi-cellular animals with skeleton-like structures. Vertebrates like us.
Over the course of three and a half billion years volcanoes erupted, continents bumped into each other, ice ages came and went, and life kept figuring out new ways to live, growing new appendages, plumage, camouflage, new ways of sensing, eating and moving. Nature is the sculptor, carving and coaxing all life forms into being. Nature is the artist, and we are the art.
Mountains' walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains' walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. You should penetrate these words. If you doubt mountains' walking, you do not know your own walking.
- Dogen: Mountains and Waters Sutra
Geologic events have molded us. A meteor crashing to earth sixty-five million years ago has been linked to atmospheric changes that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, allowing for the subsequent evolution of larger mammals, present company included. The dinosaurs toppled over, and there we were, the ones who nurse their young -- the hairy ones.
More recent geologic and atmospheric events are associated with the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens. Twelve to fifteen million years ago the land mass of Africa was dramatically altered by tectonic forces, producing the Great Rift Valley which erected an east-west barrier to the existing animal populations. As a result, the common ancestor of humans and apes was divided, and each group began evolving under different conditions. They got the jungle and we got the savannah.
Suddenly our human ancestors had no trees to live in or escape into, and boy, it must have been scary. The savannah was full of lions and tigers and hyenas ready to pounce and gobble you up, so you desperately try to see out over the tall grasses, but you really aren’t big enough. So what do you do? You stand up on two legs. Bi-pedalism may have partially been born of fear.
The ice ages are now recognized as a major force in the emergence of Homo sapiens. Scientists believe that our family of Hominidae came into existence during the colder weather of the late Miocene, seven millions years ago, and our genus Homo, along with those of cattle and gazelles came into existence during another cooling period two and one half million years ago, the late Pliocene. Our tremendous human energy and ingenuity may have a lot to do with the fact that we were cold. Consciousness and the opposable thumb may have originally been designed as tools for shoveling snow.
We, mankind, arose amidst the wandering of the ice and marched with it. We are in some sense shaped by it, as it has shaped the stones. Perhaps our very fondness for the building of stone alignments, dolmens, and pyramids reveals unconsciously an ancient heritage from the ice itself, the earth shaper.
- Loren Eisley
And just think of it, my earthling friends, here we are spinning around on the Earth's axis at about 1,000 miles an hour. Meanwhile, the Earth is spinning around the sun at about 66 thousand miles an hour, and the entire solar system is spinning though the Milky Way Galaxy at a million miles an hour toward a point in space that astronomers call the Great Attractor. Yea, baby! And everything attracted to the Great Attractor is moving at about 800 thousand miles an hour toward a super-cluster of galaxies called the Shapely Attractor. Whoa, earthlings, this mother ship Gaia is moving fast! And you don't even have to hold on. Because the Earth is holding on to you, like the dear mother she is, embracing you with her strong arms of gravity. Even black guys can't jump all that far off the Earth. We are on the Earth and of the Earth. It is the true “rock of ages.” It is the Milky Way’s little biosphere project, and everybody’s `hood.
So let’s offer praise and reverence to the home planet. We could turn Earth Day into a major international holiday, and maybe even celebrate an “Earth day” every month, on full moon. (The moon is also a child of the Earth, and helps keep our oceans waving and our orbit stable.) Earth days are not just a call to “do something” to heal our damaged eco-systems, but more of a spiritual exercise, a time to celebrate all life, regardless of kingdom, phyla, or species: regardless of colour of skin, feathers, fur, flowers, leaves or bark. Earth days will be a time to reflect on our connection to this planet, and to embrace our basic identity as earthlings.
A repeat unit of DNA & regulatory proteins (called a nucleosome) that makes up our chromosomes - Ed.
The Divine DNA
There is a simple grandeur in this view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation, and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that while this, our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of changes, have gone on replacing each other, so that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been evolved.
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, final paragraph
One of the most important lessons we can learn from evolution is that we are related to all that lives, and to all that has ever lived. Once we begin to include ourselves in the story we are no longer on an individual journey, but have joined that grand procession of endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. Instead of being the singular focus of all creation we are now at one with all creation. It’s an excellent trade-off.
When we join the evolution story our family suddenly increases by a million, million fold. Almost as deep as being blood-related, we are all cell-related, and the proof is in the pudding, and in this case the pudding is the plasma, and inside of it lies the secret of all living things—the DNA.
Have you seen a strand of DNA? It looks like a slinky with a purpose. It would make an excellent religious symbol, with its two identical halves and elegant spiral shape: the logo of life. It is ready for the evolution artists to adorn and embellish.
From the funkiest fungus to the most nothingness bacteria, to the ordinary grass that grows all around, to the great cats and big-brained humans, even the weeds and mosquitoes--all beings grow out of the information contained in the double-helix. This is the stuff that seems to separate life from non-life; that turns ordinary matter into replicating plasma. It is the physical manifestation of spiritus mundi: the holy ghost, the eternal Tao.
As the seed substance of the entire biota, I think the DNA deserves some spiritual attention. We could start with its name, “deoxyribonucleic acid,” which is much too cold and clinical. I have created a new acronym, and I suggest that from now on, whenever you read or hear the three letters DNA, think “Divine Natural Abundance.”
The DNA also carries with it a powerful message of self-liberation, because as scientists unravel the codes, we discover that we are not so particular and individual. Consider the fact that your personal DNA is 99.99% identical to the DNA of every other human being. In other words, the instructions for building and maintaining you are almost exactly the same as the instructions for building and maintaining me, the Dalai Lama, George Bush, Oprah, Julia Roberts, Jack the Ripper, and the Buddha. Our individual looks, personality and I.Q. are just a thin layer of paint over the basic human design. We are over 99% the same. “Can’t we all just get along.”
Meanwhile, over 98% of our DNA is the same as that of the great apes, and even more shocking is the fact that we share about 90% of our DNA with mice! But we don’t have fur or tails, and not only can we run a maze, we can build one. So why is our DNA code so similar to mice? The answer is because it takes most of our DNA -- that enormous library full of information inside each of us -- just to create a basic mammal. It took billions of years for nature to learn how to build a good skeletal structure, circulatory and nervous system, and those designs are at the core of who we are.
DNA also connects us to the slimier side of life. The Victorians were shocked at Darwin’s suggestion that we are related to apes, but they would faint dead away to hear that we share nearly 60% of our living instructions with worms. Indeed, we owe a lot to the worms of the world, who were the first creatures to develop spines: they virtually invented our phyla of vertebrates! And do we ever thank them? No, we put hooks through them and use them as bait.
The DNA lesson in humility goes even deeper with the revelation that we share about 50% of our DNA with…yeast! Yes, the stuff that makes the dough rise. But that discovery also raises an important spiritual question for those who believe in an eternal soul -- does the yeast have a soul? Does each individual yeast cell have a soul? I mean, if we are going to declare ourselves divine, then what about the slime? And if we don’t consider the slime divine, then where do we draw the line? Do mushrooms get a soul? How about mollusks? Daisies? Crab grass?
A T-shirt created by a bunch of scientists at the University of California conveys the same message, “We share 25% of our DNA with bananas. Get over yourself!” Our species could certainly use some humility, but the message of DNA does not necessarily put us down. It doesn’t deny our divinity -- it just denies our exclusive divinity. Everything that lives contains the seeds of Divine Natural Abundance.
Survive or Die
The story of evolution teaches us the laws by which we must live, and the first commandment is to stay alive. More specifically, the first commandment is to make sure that your information stays alive, your particular instruction manual, your imprimature, so to speak. That is the number one imperative of every living being, including every single one of the trillions of cells inside of us. And yet, the notion that we are driven by the survival instinct is traditionally cast in evil. As if you should be caring more about some DNA other than your own.
So it was that a storm of outrage followed the publication of Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene, whose title seems like a taunt to both the bible thumpers and the humanists. He was simply relating the findings of modern biologists who are telling us that our behavior is largely governed by genes who only want to replicate themselves.
So don’t blame yourself if most of your thoughts are about you. Even if your genes are selfish, it’s not your fault. Blame it on your genes. It’s evolution’s fault. Nature wants it this way. And for good reason: Life needed to be deeply programmed with the determination to continue or it might have died out at the first sign of hardship. The anerobic bacteria who began to choke on their own waste may have just given up rather than morph into beings who lived on oxygen. Life had to be pumped up with the desire to live, down to the most basic molecules, or else living beings might never have gone to the trouble to become multi-celled, let alone to have figured out higher mathematics.
So rather than cast the survival imperative as evil or brutish, maybe we should celebrate it. If we could only see living beings as a single entity, or at least part of the same experiment, then the selfish gene can be seen as noble, glorious, even worthy of reverence. It is no longer regarded as selfish for its own sake, but for the sake of life itself. We should all be singing the praises of the selfish gene and toasting its insistence on living.
Your Mama is a Germ
Why should we think that the universe was made for us? A better case can be made that the world was created for the lowly bacteria. Single-celled bacteria are the most successful of all life forms, having lasted for three and a half billion years, surviving all the great species extinctions and still thriving, uncountable trillions of them, teeming everywhere, covering everything. In fact, billions of bacteria are living their individual little lives inside of your mouth right now. Maybe they even have houses in there, churches and roads -- a whole civilization between your cheeks! There is some speculation that bacteria invented humans as moving feed-lots. Inside of us they get room and board as well as a tour of the neighborhood.
But, you ask, could the bacteria be created in God’s image? Why not? I can imagine God in the shape of a single-celled being: like a little round ying-yang symbol. God as a drop of protoplasm pulsing with life, with a permeable see-through membrane. God, the Great Germinator.
Whether or not they are the crown of creation, bacteria are incredibly successful, and one reason is because they reproduce by just dividing-- they don’t have to take each other out to dinner first. The little bacterium just pulls its DNA evenly across its body, and then splits itself into two. Maybe to a bacterium that splitting-in-two behavior feels good like sex, and that’s why bacteria divide so often. Is it something akin to masturbation?
Too bad we humans can’t go back to dividing as a means of reproduction. Of course, it would be traumatic to think of losing half of yourself, but on the other hand, dividing would double your chances for a happy life. And then quadruple them, etc…Another reason to believe that life was created for bacteria’s is the fact that they aren’t programmed to grow old and die. Bacteria can be killed but they don’t die naturally, which brings us to a major turning point in the life of the planet: death.
The bacteria themselves were doing quite fine for well over a billion and a half years, having a leisurely time floating around in the Archean seas. Then one fateful day (epoch), at some auspicious moment (era), the bacteria began to merge with each other, and started to combine their little packets of DNA. Blame it on love, or at least, attraction.
Okay, it was a marriage of convenience. The merging of two cells usually took place when it was useful for the survival of both—“You’ve got a little flagella to move yourself around, and I’m growing some eyes, so let’s get together and we’ll be sittin’ on top of the food chain!” After some time, the cells that joined together became a whole new life form, a multi-celled being, who was now carrying information and instructions from two different DNA sources. Since two packets of Divine Natural Abundance are more inventive than one, the new microbes began incorporating other useful creatures into themselves, and eventually had to start putting their overflowing library of DNA into a completely separate body. There was no more room in the cell.
So, “Ta-da!” Sex was invented as a way of putting great amounts of DNA together into a separate new organism, leaving lots of room for variation and complexity. It must have been very exciting for the first few couples, suddenly discovering those thrilling sensations of having sex. Try to imagine two proud microbes, mama and papa -- you’ve seen them on the Petri dish -- looking at their little baby microbe saying, “Isn’t it cute! Look at it twitch!” But there was a catch, as usual. Once the mama and papa microbe got their DNA into a separate new body, it was no longer necessary for them to stick around forever. Their information had been passed on (life is information!). So the mama and papa microbe eventually became programmed to grow old and die. What happened, to put it bluntly, is that life traded sex for death.
Now there’s a choice for you. Would you rather live forever without sex, or have sex and die? Of course the question is ridiculous, because we have no choice in the matter. It was only through a phenomenal number of DNA combinations, through sex, over the long course of biological history, that life grew into a being complex enough that it can even contemplate the choice, or begin to understand it’s own origins. In order to become the smart-ass creatures we are today we had to have both—sex and death. (Not to mention the fact that if there had been no death, earthlings would have run out of room a long time ago.)
At least now we know enough to acknowledge the bacteria and microbes as the parents of us all. And it’s time to give them their props. Let’s offer a deep bow to the smallest but not the least among us, the brilliant and innovative progenitors who invented sex, mobility, oxygen breathing -- all sorts of fun things. Bacteria! Microbes! Without them there would be no Adam and Eve. They were the first to be alive.
Australopithecines lived from 4 to 1.5 mya. Their limbs, teeth & brain size were
intermediate between chimpanzees & man -Ed.
New Animal on the Block
Drive all blames into one.
- Tibetan Buddhist saying
Friends, do you want to find forgiveness? Then place yourself in the story of evolution. If you believe in sin, or that you are seriously flawed as a human being, or that all human beings are similarly flawed, then sink yourself into deep time, into the history of life, and you will see that none of us is to blame. We are all saved, forgiven, absolved! Can I get a witness?
If we see ourselves in the story of evolution we realize that we are not our fault. We did not invent ourselves. We were created out of the shape-shifting stream of life as it danced with ever-changing Earth conditions and natural phenomena. We did not chose our particular type of consciousness or our instincts for love or for killing, any more than we chose our thumbs.
So in the story of evolution we are absolved of our supposed sins, the original one as well as all those we have copied. Mother Nature forgives us because we have no choice but to be who we are, and also because we are still such a young species, and know not what we do.
We are, in fact, a brand new kind of animal. (I hope you aren’t offended by being called an animal. In some contexts you love the designation “You animal, you!”) Our eminent scientists classify us as animals for very good biological reasons, but most of us refuse the designation. You’ll find evidence of our collective denial at any café or supermarket where there is a sign in the window saying No Animals Allowed. Humans walk right in!
But we are a brand new kind of animal, and just figuring out that we are one. The body that you and I inherited breaks away from the rest of our primate crowd only about five million years ago -- just yesterday in biological time. That’s when the Great Rift Valley was created in Africa and our ancestors had to go from the trees of the jungle to live in the tall grasses of the savannah. It must have been as difficult as first learning how to live on land. Among those who began to hang out on the ground was an ape-woman who the scientists have named “Lucy,” considered to be the mother of us all. Can we therefore presume that the father of us all was “Ricky?”
After living on the ground for a while our ancestors began making crude stone tools, and became a sub-species of human who we now call Homo habilis, or “handyman.” The “handyman” started standing upright more often, probably to fix a leaky roof, and after a while we seemed to like it so much that soon our ancestors became what we now call Homo erectus or “upright” humans. And we’re not talking morality here. In fact, standing up put our sexual organs right out front for everyone to see, and no doubt that led directly to the invention of the loincloth. Four-legged animals don’t have to worry about clothing because their private parts are hidden by their stance. Once we stood up we exhibited full-frontal nudity.
Standing up not only brought us shame, it also brought us pride. I have a theory, fully uncorroborated, that the upright stance elevated our heads too far off the ground, and that’s precisely when we started feeling remote from the earth. We also started looking down at other creatures. We thought the crawlers weren’t as good as those who walk. Our upright stance may have also contributed to our belief that we came from some other realm. With our heads lifted high, we thought we were above it all.
Most important, according to evolutionary biologists, standing up seems to have triggered a rapid increase in brain size. You would think that the exact opposite would happen, and that standing up would cause our feet to swell instead. But that’s not what happened. Here’s the theory: standing up left our hands free, and after a while we realized that we could use them to hold and manipulate objects. So we started using tools -- spears, axes, chopsticks – and that required far more brain connections to co-ordinate the more precise movements of our hands and fingers. So a feedback loop was created: better hands, bigger brains, bigger brains, better hands. Pretty smart, Mother Nature. Worthy of a deep bow.
Standing upright also left our arms free to carry our stuff around with us, and after a few million years we started migrating out of Africa. Nobody knows exactly why we left, but I suspect it was to look for Chinese food. At the time our brains were only half the size they are today, otherwise we would have been smart enough to just send out for Chinese food. Anyway, we started wandering around the planet, and got caught in an ice age or two, and that may be one reason our brains kept growing — we had to think hard and fast how to stay warm. Of course, it would have been easiest just to grow a heavy coat of fur, but at the time our brains just weren’t big enough to figure that out. So instead of a fur coat we grew a bigger brain and learned how to make fire. Then we started huddling around that fire and telling stories about ourselves. Stories like this one about evolution.
Wes Nisker is an author, comedian & teacher of Insight Meditation.