Evolving With A Conscience

Thus far, all species have evolved simply to survive. To live and procreate is all that matters to the lion, spider, parasite or otherwise. Through the evolutionary process, many species have fallen away, never to exist again. This scenario plays itself out through all of nature. Most species care not for the lives of others, sometimes even when they depend on them for their own survival. Animals are incapable of correcting for their own overpopulation. Nature takes care of that and is none too forgiving in her methods. Too many big cats, and prey is decimated. Eventually, the cats start to starve and their numbers are affected too. Obviously, there is much more to the process than this but that is the general example.

Enter the human. Able to reason and adjust our behavior and evolving in not just for survival but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually; and we are struggling with it. Most of us seem happy to float along on the Darwinian model, while others are waking up to the world around them and finding themselves more and more discontent with our collective performance and current situation. We fight each other, exploit and deplete precious resources. We are getting fatter and less healthy, also dumber. This all spells out nearly certain annihilation for us in the natural order of things.

We are, ourselves, animals, but there is no mistaking that we are different. Somewhere along the way we went from creatures driven solely by survival to beings with desires for art, industry and deep, meaningful relationships. We are moved by music and story and empathy even while the ancient roots of evolution rule over us still. We are a contradiction. Hundreds of thousands of years has taught us to be anxious and fearful of anything or anyone outside of our own tribes. Meanwhile, we are striving to advance in our knowledge of the world and social systems. The success of this progress desperately depends on us being able to communicate and work with each other.

And so we are tasked to master our own evolution. To decide which things within our DNA must be ignored and fall away while working to enhance that which makes us better as a whole. We are, every one, symbiotically reliant upon other living organisms of this earth. How can we make these symbioses mutual, or, at least commensal? That is to say, benefit both sides or benefit one without doing harm to the other. I think it starts with each other.

As people, we must learn to treat one another with respect and compassion as well as hold each other accountable for behavior that falls outside of these fundamentals. The struggle I see is that we have built so many social structures and systems based at least partially on bad information from our lizard brains. These structures are so hard to renovate or demolish entirely and rebuild. People, by nature, do not like change (yet another tip of the hat to evolution). This only compounds the challenge of making things better. When something has worked well enough for the majority, or at least for those in power, they are not inclined to want to make it better for all. Evolution has not made us inherently concerned with people not like us or even much outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. Yet I think we can all agree, we won’t improve until we extend this concern further.

Before this is assumed to be a pipe dream ideal for utopia on earth, let me be clear. I know perfection cannot exist in a world with so many different cultures and ideas of what perfection looks like. We cannot guarantee the happiness of every person because there are just too many variables that affect the happiness of a human. What we can do, however, is try. We can try to reach out and improve the lot of another, even if just a little. We can question the status quo and not turn a blind eye to injustice or inequality because we do not suffer from it. I don’t think this is unreasonable.

Assuming we can get better at being good to one another, how can we extend this even further? If we care about ourselves and each other, we have to care about the health of our planet. Every single person is dependent on the oxygen provided by plants and trees as well as the fresh water from rivers, lakes and streams. It is a clear truth that these things are more life sustaining than fossil fuels, plastic and timber. Our evolution has made us capable of reason and logic and ways to build a better mousetrap. This has served us and hurt us throughout our journey as a species. By catering to our desire for convenience and efficiency, we have decimated some of our most precious life-giving resources. We must extend our concern to our shared home.

In addition to clean air and water, most of us are also dependent on protein from other animals. I am not exempt from this. However, over time and study, I cannot help but question the morality of it. It is no secret to the majority of us who live in Western civilization that the animals we consume suffer. Factory-farmed livestock, which the majority of us eat regularly, are subjected to terrible, congested and filthy conditions throughout their lives before terrorized at the end when they are slaughtered. I am not saying this to shock or disturb. I am aware of many ugly practices in the world that I will not mention here, nor do I appreciate seeing videos of. But I think it is something we need to give more thought and at least improve our practices.

So, what is moral? Many people believe it is a set of values often determined by their own religious doctrine. I think it is more than that. Sam Harris, who has a podcast that I really enjoy called Making Sense, has written and spoken a lot about morality. The piece from his “moral landscape” that made sense to me is that if something is causing undue suffering, it is immoral. This is a very short deduction of a very studied and complicated theory, but I feel like this fundamental part is a pretty easy thing for us to all get our hands around and agree to. The hard part is in the practice.