Even though I have written a book about evolution, I confess to kneeling in awe at the concept. And indeed, having read literally hundreds of papers and books explaining evolution from many a vantage point, I suspect that even brainiac scientists who can sketch out on cocktail napkins the molecular transfer of nucleo-whatever-icides to show you the physical transaction of evolution, don’t fully grasp it themselves. Otherwise, they would be able to say what evolution is. Ernst Mayer, a giant of biological thinking, has a point-blank book, What Evolution Is, and I love that book, but even a writer of this stature somehow falls short of a definition. There is a reason for this. Evolution is the pattern and process of nature, and nature is bigger than we are. Our brains, even collectively wired and cooperatively producing, are yet a subset system to a comprehensive entity the size and persistence of which our imaginations can only barely intuit much less quantify.
Recently I read an old interview with poet Gary Snyder (I can’t find the link, sorry!), in which Snyder commented that whenever we have an insight or a thought, we assume it has come from within ourselves. He posits the idea that it could have come from somewhere else; in the context of the interview, maybe from a bird or a mountain or some ineffable thing in nature.
The difficulty in grasping his suggestion is similar to the grapple with evolution. It is so everywhere, we can’t locate it. We only understand it by taking a stance separate from it, but we are not separate from it so we contradict ourselves. Evolution challenges the limits of our consciousness.
In The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life, biologist David Mindell lays out some basic evolutionary tracks. First he reviews “three unpopular discoveries,” putting the cultural resistance to evolution in a line with refusal to accept the Copernican universe and germ theory. In other words, people take a long time to change their minds, often hundreds of years. Then Mindell writes about the evolution basically everyone does understand and millions embrace, and that is artificial selection in breeding animals. Selecting animals for specific traits and having them reproduce to pass those traits on is actively manipulating an evolutionary process. Also, we understand that diseases have a life history and this affects how we get hit by them and how we reduce their effects on us. Medicine is a place where most people more or less accept evolution and on some level do get it.
Mindell approaches “evolutionary metaphor in human culture”; it is a fascinating subject, but whole cultural studies departments have been deeply devoted to elucidating its fine points and Mindell’s greatest hits, while useful, doesn’t quite do the field justice. He’s excellent back in the land of the concrete, discussing DNA evidence in court cases like O.J. Simpson’s (remember that)?
So going by Mindell’s table of contents alone, we have evolution: unfolding in the history of scientific discovery and belief; creating fatter cows and more docile dogs; rescuing millions from disease; the foundation of all nature and biodiversity; a fundamental human search image in culture; and something we hammer out and slap around in courtrooms and classrooms.
Got that? Okay, what is it?