from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007


Characteristics Of Evolution

Our journey starts with the nature of evolution. To begin primarily a political and psychological book from a biological standpoint may be unusual. One might ask what evolution has to do with present day socioeconomic and legal ideologies. Yet, we will discover that the study of evolution is quite relevant for comprehension of our current state of affairs—both societal and individual. In order to put political theories into proper perspective, we need to understand them in the context of human evolution; it remains the interminable background from which we have come to understand all the issues presented to us.

In this chapter, we will examine the basics of evolution. We will also see how our species has formed and progressed over time. Moreover, we shall focus on our distinguishing characteristics (i.e., what sets us apart from other species). This developmental tack will provide the proper frame of reference by which to judge, among many other things, our present political situation.

Evolution is the awesome, silent benefactor of every organism that has ever existed or will ever exist. Evolution relates to the gradual alteration and refinement of a species throughout a given period of time. Charles Darwin made renowned groundbreaking discoveries in this area of biology. He was one of the first main theorists to approach the formation and alteration of life itself from a scientific standpoint—instead of a theological, mystical, or plain commonsensical one.

Natural selection was the phenomenon Darwin identified that happens to species (and characteristics of species) as they are perpetuated or became extinct. He reflected on this:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.20(p.92)

Natural selection, then, is the process that screens out the maladaptive from the adaptive biological functions and variations over time. Capability for surviving in the environment determines what is ultimately useful and what is not.

The general conditions on Earth are such that a given level of action (both internal and external) is required for particular organisms to survive. For example, the bird must gather brush and other material to build its nest so that it can have shelter and a safe place for its young. The maple tree must move nutrients and water from the soil by its roots upward to its highest branches. Even the single-cell amoeba must ooze its way through its surrounding medium by jutting its pseudopodia forward to engulf food in its path. As we breathe, the cells of our heart are performing tremendously complex respiratory functions; their honorable task of sustaining our other systems, organs, tissues, and cells thus continues. Such processes continue endlessly in myriad organisms in countless ways.

Through its screening process, natural selection grants every living creature a built-in set of features or capacities that direct it on a proper course of action. This ensures success, the ability to function and live in reality. The particular outcomes of genetic mutations that did not provide for success were extinguished.

The fate of a species becomes sealed when its members do not survive long enough to reproduce, or it cannot sustain an adequate population over time due to its members’ inherent disadvantages. Thus, natural selection guarantees that only the biologically appropriate and adaptively functional organisms survive for any extended period, from the single-celled bacteria to the multicelled mule deer. But a fascinating question still remains about how organisms “got here” in the first place.

The time involved in the origin and evolution of life is, to say the least, immense. Geologists have determined that our planet is approximately 4.6 billion years old, which is still only about a quarter of the age of the galaxies in the observable universe—some 15 to 20 billion years.

Conditions on Earth during the first billion or so years were such that the constituent elements necessary for life to begin were either not yet available or not arranged properly. For roughly the next 2 billion years, this planet did not have an environment hospitable enough to promote anything other than very primitive life forms. Yet, a primitive life form, such as blue-green algae, is indeed life—one of the most astonishing natural milestones.

In order for us to grasp the essence of life, we need to inspect the properties of these first primitive life forms. Microscopic beings originated out of the primordial soup eons ago. In addition to still being around today, they also share certain properties with all other advanced forms of life.

All life forms, no matter how primitive, consist of cells (except viruses, which are basically cell protein fragments). Each cell has the characteristic property of being a more or less self-contained unit; it performs all kinds of very complex self-maintenance functions. Cells must also utilize their surroundings in order to thrive. In addition, they must play their particular roles within any given organism.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has written extensively and articulately about the processes whereby life begins and evolves, and to what life can be attributed. This entails inspection of the various “organs” of these cells, specifically the chromosomes. In addition to inorganic chemistry and the physical elements, essentially all life relies on genes—or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)—in order to begin and continue (with of course the help of RNA).

To be precise, life hinges on the successful replication of DNA molecules. Parts of DNA molecules known as nucleotides hold the specific cellular instructions for utilizing nutrients and substances to produce any given plant or animal. These characteristic DNA can be viewed as rivers of genetic material flowing through time, branching off in myriad tributaries. They are isolated into species of animals by the “banks” of each particular genetic stream (i.e., by their genetic dissimilarities and reproductive incompatibilities).24

So, for any life form to arise, it must first be made of the proper molecules. In turn these molecules must combine in such a way that they can make more of themselves. In other words, they must be configured into cells in order to become replicating, multiplying, and self-maintaining systems. Once these conditions are satisfied, time and random (and non-random) mutations provide the key ingredients for natural selection to yield the fascinating kinds of life found on this planet.25

Scientists are still studying how the first DNA molecules, and their precursors, came to exist. The possible ways that some molecules differentiated from other combinations of molecules, formed cells, and began their chemical journeys through time, are still under investigation. Since such events occurred billions of years ago, the exact conditions and factors involved can be extremely challenging to identify. Nevertheless, some quite intriguing ideas are being offered. Scientist Stuart Kauffman had this to say:

Life, at its root, lies in the property of catalytic closure among a collection of molecular species. Alone, each molecular species is dead. Jointly, once catalytic closure among them is achieved, the collective system of molecules is alive. (p.50)

...Life is the natural accomplishment of catalysts in sufficiently complex nonequilibrium chemical systems....(p.51)

The striking possibility is that the very diversity of molecules in the biosphere causes its own explosion! The diversity feeds on itself, driving itself forward. Cells interacting with one another and with the environment create new kinds of molecules that beget yet other kinds of molecules in a rush of creativity.(p.114)45

As mentioned, DNA contains a series of instructions, one of which is to make more of itself. Slight alterations in replication of the genetic sequence of DNA provide new possibilities for new phenotypes to occur (phenotypes being the organisms themselves—the overt, physical consequences and functional characteristics of genes).22 This is why we see such things as wolves, dandelions, sea urchins, and ourselves.

New phenotypic characteristics may be more or less favorable than preceding ones, which determines whether they are selected by nature. It should be noted that “selected” implies no deliberate or conscious choice. It is merely a convenient way to convey how some organisms are born fit for their environment and others are not— —at least from the standpoint of being able to reproduce and continue the flow of genetic material through time.

All that genes actually “care” about is whether they are transmitted to the next generation. If they are successful in this process, then they will continue in the life forms in which they reside. The complex biological sequences and processes involved do not immediately concern us here. What is important for us is the realization about how we have come to exist on this planet. As will be noted frequently throughout this book, nothing is more important than understanding the nature of ourselves and of life itself. Once this understanding begins to occur, new possibilities can arise in all areas of our life—much like beneficial alterations in the genetic blueprint.

In the evolution of life, primitive forms emerged when the chemical and environmental conditions favorably changed. Once in motion, life forms started to take shape that were different from ones previous. There were many niches ready to be filled on the highly varied geography of this planet. This was especially the case during “the Cambrian explosion,” which started the Paleozoic era.

Up until the Paleozoic era (about 570 million years ago), however, the life on our planet consisted only of one-celled organisms, such as protists, bacteria, and blue-green algae. Untold generations of these basic life forms finally led to alterations whereby different types of cells became compatible with one another and functioned in synergy. Over the course of a few hundred million years (during the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary), many multicelled organisms came onto the scene, which were the precursors to even more complex designs.

With such an enormous quantity of time, the genetic configurations that led to dysfunctional phenotypes were continually eliminated by natural selection. Hence, the rates and the courses of genetic mutation were selected by nature according to their viability in surroundings of varying stability.44

Eventually, new animals arose with cells that formed various complex organs. Organ systems, then, could function efficiently as whole entities. The genes of these organisms of course resided in different types of cells that all had been selected over great stretches of time to successfully function in unison. Cells were now structured into tissues and organs, in which each performed their tasks as nature had outlined.

Usually such processes of evolutionary change are hardly perceptible. One can accelerate them, however, through artificial selection. For example, by repeatedly breeding the offspring of wolf species that have certain appealing characteristics, people were able to rapidly produce the hundreds of diverse breeds of dogs known today—terriers, dachshunds, bulldogs, poodles, Labrador retrievers, and so on. Apart from selective breeding, the constantly progressing field of genetic engineering employs many methods to yield quick phenotypic effects.

Large mutations—of a highly refined internal organ, for instance—in most cases lead assuredly to death of the organism. Some minor alterations may be neutral. But most alterations must either beneficially contribute to or successfully replace biological structures that have already proven to be viable. Natural selection only favors successful alterations, so genes with grossly inaccurate mutations are mostly eliminated.

As Dawkins has noted, there are many more ways to perish, genetically speaking, than to survive. He discusses a figurative multidimensional place (of space and time) called genetic hyperspace. It contains all the possible points of DNA configuration that lead to similar or dissimilar organisms.23 For instance, human DNA in genetic hyperspace is in closer proximity to feline DNA than to the DNA of mollusks, insects, or plants. Since genetic hyperspace constitutes every conceivable genetic formulation, it contains all the organisms that have ever existed as well as all those that could exist, for however brief a time. It also contains all the distorted sizes and shapes that would be incapable of functioning.

So, genes and their phenotypic counterparts, the organisms in which they reside, follow two very divergent paths: one that leads to the evolutionary dust heap, and another that leads to more changes or simple continuation due to their initial successes.43 Although only relatively stable replications of genes remain viable, they still must have enough inaccuracy in their countless duplications to allow for slight phenotypic differences; these differences are favored or disfavored by reality accordingly. For example, with geographical separation of species’ members, new species may emerge as a result.

Numerous members within each viable species either never make it to maturity or simply never reproduce. Yet the survival of genes demands the survival of the species. So enough members must sustain themselves and reproduce. Every healthy living organism is in a constant process of maintaining its individual survival, regardless of how many members of its species are doing the same. Only independent entities survive and transfer genetic material and, hence, can form a group.6

For most organisms, death is a necessary part of sustaining the species. As long as aging is a factor, death is the price organisms must pay for genes to move down their rivers in time. Since the cells in which genes reside usually perform their life-sustaining processes less well over time, genes must jump from their “sinking ship” to the next, new healthy organism. Of course, they are not the exact same genes this time, but rather fresh replications of them.

Members of a species face death either biologically or by their environment (which includes predators, competitors, overpopulation, and forces of nature). Species able to discover ways of dealing with these situations—and specifically those able to stop the aging process itself—could conceivably forestall death with no ill-effects on genes, organisms, or the species. Humans are the only known species potentially capable of such a feat (although a few organisms, such as some species of trees, are extremely slow aging). Modern medicine has already slowed or even prevented many processes of natural selection. The fields of genetics and bioengineering, for example, will continue to make further advancements.

If members of a species do not reproduce, and aging is still a factor, the species obviously would only last a lifetime—all genes would march to the evolutionary dust heap. This situation is clearly hypothetical of course, because the replication of genes via reproduction is necessary for the species to form and endure in the first place; they would have reached a level of viability that ensured their perpetuation.

Taxonomists divide the diversity of life on this planet into five generally accepted kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia. This classification system includes, in descending order of generality: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Organisms are categorized not only by differences in their visible characteristics and functions (both internal and external) but also by the types of cells that constitute them. For example, Protista are single-celled organisms or colonies of cells that are eukaryotic (i.e., they have a nucleus and other membranous organelles). Monera—bacteria and cyanobacteria—are also single-celled but are instead prokaryotic (i.e., they lack a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles). Plantae and Fungi are eukaryotic, but unlike the other three kingdoms, they have a cell wall (not just a cell membrane); this contributes to their noticeable differences with other organisms. Members of the kingdom Animalia are multi-cellular (as are Plantae and Fungi) and eukaryotic. Animals acquire energy and nutrients from ingesting external food sources.

The great diversity of the animal kingdom alone testifies to the tremendous capability of DNA. The animal phylum Arthropoda is extremely diverse and numerous; it in fact comprises millions of species, with astronomical numbers of members in many of them (e.g., the insects). They are characterized by such things as paired, jointed appendages and a tough exoskeleton.

Phylum Chordata contains the subphylum Vertebrata, of which our particular class—Mammalia—is part. Other vertebrate classes include Osteichthyes (the bony fishes), Amphibia, Reptilia, and Aves (the birds).

Over time, many organisms (most notably the arthropods and chordates), arose with more advanced and refined faculties of perception. Although the range and scope of awareness and capacity for learning varied greatly among these life forms, they provided new ways to deal with reality. Now certain organisms could interact with their surroundings with senses that provided a quite varied quantity and quality of data. We commonly ascribe higher levels of awareness to animals that have more than just tactile senses or rudimentary biochemical feedback processes. The senses of sight, smell, and hearing all contribute to new levels of perception of the world.

As the various senses become even more refined and the brain of the animal develops further, relatively more unpredictable and unprogrammed behaviors arise. Learning from experience becomes a more noticeable form of dealing with reality. This form of consciousness we easily see in higher mammals.

The vertebrates developed the potential for complex nervous systems. Nature found that a brain and spinal cord would do well to be encased in a protective structure of bone; a spinal column also allows a place of attachment for more muscles. Mammals—the higher mammals especially—have greatly utilized a skull and vertebral column to form the most advanced nervous systems.

Again, the time frame required for appearance of these complex designs is staggering, practically beyond comprehension. Yet, after billions of years and multitudes of paths taken through genetic hyperspace—after subtly dramatic falters, abrupt errors, tragic extinctions, life-giving renewals, outgrowths, transformations, and evolutionary spurts—the successive mutations in a specific genetic pathway produced a wondrous organism. It was an organism possessing not only awareness, but also self-awareness: a human being. The species Homo sapiens arose and evidenced characteristics far different than others.

Self-awareness embodies all sorts of facets and features that make our species unique. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden wrote about the uniqueness of our species and about the implications of having self-awareness:

No other animal is capable of monitoring and reflecting on its own mental operations, of critically evaluating its own mental activity, of deciding that a given process of mental activity is irrational or illogical—inappropriate to the task of apprehending reality—and of altering its subsequent mental operations accordingly....

No other animal is explicitly aware of the issue of life or death that confronts all organisms. No other animal is aware of its own mortality—or has the power to extend its longevity through the acquisition of knowledge. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to weigh its actions in terms of the long-range consequences for its own life. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to think and plan in terms of a life span. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to continually work at extending its knowledge, thereby raising the level of its existence.

No other animal faces such questions as: Who am I? How should I seek to live? By what principles should I be guided in my actions? What goals ought I to pursue? What is to be the meaning of my life? What should I seek to make of my own person?(p.35)10

To grasp how great these observations are, it helps to put them into the context of evolution. Knowledge of the developmental process enables us to better appreciate our identity. A fascinating complexity resides in our own reflective capacity, and in living organisms in general. The scientific explanations for the tremendously intricate and complicated design seen in ourselves (and in hundreds of thousands of other species) reveal nature’s awesome capabilities—given enough time within a fertile environment.

What we see, then, is the end result. Eons of time have shaped the manner in which organisms are structured anatomically and function physiologically. Many levels of symbiotic relationships of species foster elaborate balances and specific utilizations of surroundings. Such is the nature of ecosystems.

Science is our guide for comprehending nature. Science obviously cannot postulate anything “supernatural” to explain nature. It must deal with what can be observed and investigated. While a postulation of supernatural factors may be easier, it can cause scientific understanding to regress and inquiry to cease (or be forbidden). Thus more problems would be created than purportedly solved in such an activity.

Obviously, science is unable to explain evolution through unreserved acceptance of the religious teachings of creationism. It would have to eschew its methodology, which enables it to separate fact from fiction. Nonetheless, the issue of evolution versus creationism is far from resolved in our culture. Numerous polls have shown that the majority of people in the United States would favor the teaching of creationism in schools. Additionally, upwards of 90 percent of the American public believe in God, even though interpretations of the Creator’s attributes (e.g., power, presence, and actions) vary considerably.

A common interpretation, however, represents a deistic approach: God created the physical universe and then allowed evolution to take its own course. Because the huge amount of evidence for evolution is very hard to deny upon critical examination, creationism then becomes simply an origin theory of the universe.

As science has rapidly progressed over the last 300 years—especially during the last century—direct references to the supernatural have become less popular and more esoteric. Mostly, supernatural explanations have receded to the realm of metaphysics, which is the branch of philosophy that deals with the underlying nature of things and the meaning of reality itself.

Since these ideas involve a foundational branch of philosophy, metaphysics—the very nature of reality—they are far from trivial. Some may say that they are merely differences of opinion. Others may say that they are of life and death importance. Ultimately, as individuals, we need to understand the significance of what we know—and how we have come to know it.

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