Stand in a grove of eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove, California, early on a spring day, with the temperature hovering in the mid-60s, and nothing seems very unusual. But then, as the mercury in a large old thermometer fastened to one of the trees moves above a special mark at 68 degrees, the trees in the grove seem almost to come alive. What had appeared to be dark foliage coating the trunks gradually takes on brilliant orange and black hues. With the rise in temperature, thousands upon thousands of Monarch Butterflies are waking up and opening their wings. It is a breath-taking sight, and one of those awe-inspiring aspects of our universe that almost seem to defy explanation.
However, how the butterflies came to exist, at least at the most general level, isn’t too hard to grasp. Evolution, from lower life forms to this complicated higher level of insect, is well understood by scientists, just as they can explain the other aspects of our first fundamental question, “How did we get here?”
What is truly astounding, when you know more about their living patterns, is how these particular butterflies got to this grove this spring. Their annual migration covers 2,500 miles, and what is hard to grasp is that the life span of a butterfly is much less than one year so the migration takes several generations of butterflies to accomplish. That means that a butterfly that leaves these trees in Pacific Grove in early spring will travel for most of its 3-month lifetime, then lay a larva, which will mature and immediately continue the journey, with its travel route somehow impregnated in the microscopic strands of DNA passed on from the butterfly that left Pacific Grove.
Likewise, a second generation will be born, fly on to the next way station to where larval plants are plentiful, give birth and die. Halfway through the long journey, the routes in their genetic code turn and begin coming back in this direction, and eventually, two more generations later, the direct descendents of the butterflies that left this grove will return here to exactly the same grove of trees to spawn and start the journey again.
It seemed to me, when I first learned of this marvelous life form, that somehow it represented a metaphor that explained how we humans came to exist, and helps me understand why we’re here. Simply, from the first generation of what scientists would call the human species first began to stand upright, and then in self-awareness to remember, communicate, and learn from other humans, each generation has found ways to pass on what it knew, so as a species we began to evolve technologically and culturally as well as physically.
Like the butterflies, I can say for certain that we are here and have the quality of life we do because the progress made by those who came before us made it possible for us to move from that point of progress to a point of further advancement. That understanding provides a solid foundation to answer the question of the purpose of my existence.
Of course, it’s not a perfect metaphor; the evolutionary process that resulted in homo sapiens is much more complex. At one point in our evolution, our species overcame the instinct of individual survival at least sufficiently to live in groups where each individual contributed to the survival of the group. Living within a group, it was possible for innovations that contributed to survival to be passed on as cultural traditions rather than being limited to those passed on in individual genetic coding.
My understanding of how all this works starts with one significant difference between evolution as natural selection among various forms of a genus or species competing for resources, and the evolutionary process that takes place in human society.
This process of social evolution through pursuit of competitive advantage started when life forms started taking on human characteristics that both permitted and required them to live in groups. The process passed through a number of stages beginning with crude communication through body language and guttural sounds, to verbal communication, to use poetry and song as aids to passing on complex wisdom and experience, to communication in written form, and finally – a very short time as measured by the universe’s clock – communicate in print and then digital electronic form. As these changes in communication took place, humans in successive generations became better able to collaborate with other humans, and then pass on their accumulated information to future generations.
As these forms of communication evolved, it wasn’t the life form that changed, it was the nature of the personality of the individual and the way in which individuals interacted with one another that changed. At that stage, beautiful plumage, or powerful muscles, or immunity to a disease, weren’t the factors that determined who got to breed, and who didn’t. Instead it would be the individual with greater intelligence, coupled with a stronger drive to succeed, who would be the one who could rule the group and through that satisfy his basic needs of food and opportunity to breed. Through his control of the group and its resources, he would be more likely to have children who would live to adulthood, and could pass on not only his physical attributes but his knowledge and experience to those children. He would also have the power to keep lesser-capable individuals from breeding, or their children from acquiring the knowledge to challenge his children for dominance.
One step beyond that, he – or she, since there are many instances of matriarchal societies – could take advantage of the instinctual urge that explains group behavior: positively valuing membership in one’s own group and treating other groups and their members with disdain.
Seeing evolution as the most likely way in which we evolved into human-like creatures, and then seeing natural selection among competing individuals overlaid by organization of groups and competitiveness among groups to survive as the process by which the human race evolved, we begin to see why modern humans display the personalities and behaviors that they do. With that, I realized I had in front of me the answer to one of the basic questions of life: Why does evil exist?
When I considered in my history and business courses the importance of competition as a part of evolution, and the vast spectrum across which competitiveness plays its role, it’s not hard to see why there is evil in the world. Evil is simply the expression of competitiveness and the struggle to succeed at its worst extreme.
At the one end of this spectrum of competitiveness, there is the healthy desire to acquire the skills and knowledge, and move into the positions of influence necessary, for example, to create or sustain a company dedicated to doing good things. At the other extreme, there is the desire to control the people and resources necessary to accomplish a goal of total world domination. To believe that competition is healthy, I have to acknowledge that “greed is,” at least in some semantic sense, “good.” That spectrum of competitive individuals stretches from the chief executive of a biotechnology company finding new means to improve the quality of life on the one end to Osama Bin Laden attempting to lead his people back to the supremacy of the Khalifates of the sixth century, as Ferris explains in his discussion of the forces behind conflict in the Middle East.
If I’m going to believe in evolution and randomness, then I have to accept that a certain amount of attempts to improve things, filtered through the variety of human personalities, will result in some people doing evil things in pursuit of goals they believe are good.
But is there too much evil in the world? Is there more now than there’s been in the past? The answer to that seems as obvious to me as the remainder of these evolutionary principles. If we examine the data of our history, we can see that humanity is still alive after all these years of evolution, and even more to the point, the lives we lead today are considerably better individually and in the aggregate than they have ever been in the past. More people are alive, living at a better standard of living, for more years, than has ever been true in the past. On this observation, verifiable by any examination of economic and demographic data, we have to conclude that good continues to triumph over evil, even if the score is 60-40, 55-45, or even 51-49 in any given period. Good even loses the occasional period, but over the course of history, still manages to beat evil.
Granted, this progress has been very slow at times. There is a fossil record of one pre-human group living in an isolated valley tens of thousands of years ago that seems to have done nothing much except live and make stone hammers. Looking at layers of sediment and habitation, the archaeological information indicates that they did nothing but make stone hammers for over 4,000 years. Even the form of the hammers never changed. One can surmise that the hammers were sufficient to help them in their hunting and gathering so that they stayed alive, and were sufficiently advanced over whatever weapons neighboring tribes had that they could fend off attacks without giving up the secrets of their superior stone hammers.
But in other periods, progress was rapid, sometimes so much so that it dislocated cultures and caused significant changes in history. Overall, over the course of human history, that progress created a world where we live well above subsistence levels, with the world supporting a greater number of people than it ever could have done in the past.
Thinking about this, I had to wonder how the balance got tipped in the positive direction often enough for mankind to make progress, rather than destroying ourselves in the process in pursuit of territorial dominance, or wreaking violence on the natural world, as pure competition for economic dominance. It wasn’t hard to find a possible answer as the source of countervailing forces.
Very simply, when I did something nice for someone else, it made me feel good. When I became connected enough with one person that the actions and feeling were reciprocated, that made me feel even better. When I looked at something beautiful in nature or in its representation in art, it made me feel good. These were strong clues to the general principle.
Consequently, a critical part of the second element of my belief system is based on my own observation that when people do something nice for other people, it makes them feel better, giving them a sense of personal satisfaction. The higher expressions of this feeling – where there is a continuing sharing of good actions and good feelings in return between two people – might even be what we call love.
This personal return from doing things for others has been reported, discussed, and formed the basis for advice on interpersonal relationships since the beginning of literature. Interestingly, when economists and psychologists have collaborated on the study of this behavior, they have found that those feelings go beyond rational collaboration for competitive gain – doing something good with the expectation that it would be repaid. Now more recently brain scans have shown that when someone does something good for someone else, a physical change actually takes place in the chemistry and structure of the brain. We, at least most of us, seem to be hard-wired to enjoy doing good, whether or not remuneration is expected.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of reasoning to conclude that the return to the individual from doing nice things for others has been an important element in the preservation of our species, counteracting as it does the raw forces of competition. The observation that there is a personal value in caring for other people, I think, may explain why we haven’t destroyed our species, or the world that sustains us, by now.
We might also notice that at critical periods in mankind’s development, teachers have emerged who, by preaching and example, taught the value of good deeds and love. Christians have Christ, of course, but Mohammad, Confucius, Buddha and other figures have served the same central role in other faiths. If you wished to believe in a supreme being, you could easily believe that at the stage in our evolution when humans began to extend their influence beyond their own immediate regions and mankind was, as a consequence, in danger of extinction, these teachers were introduced as a means to shift the balance from dominance of competition and self-interests to a slight dominance of love and altruism, so that mankind wouldn’t destroy itself.
On the other hand, if you prefer a simpler construct, it isn’t difficult to conclude that our need for self-preservation brought these individuals and their teachings into positions of influence when they did because we needed them. People have sometimes said that if Christ, or his counterparts in other religions, hadn’t existed, man would have had to invent them. Perhaps mankind didn’t actually invent these men, but individuals around them were certainly receptive enough to their teachings to listen to them and promulgate them, expanding the influence well beyond what an individual preacher could have accomplished in an individual lifetime.
Watching a rose-tinted sunrise over a quiet lake in Wisconsin one morning while I was writing this reminded me of what I believe is the important second element of our survival on earth. Though no one else was there, I felt a strong feeling of happiness in being able to experience and appreciate this wondrous beauty surrounding me. Wrapped up in the pleasure of those moments was the awareness of the complicated processes and the actions of people who had lived before me that had created this point in time, my happiness from being there to experience it, and my responsibilities to make sure the beauties could be appreciated by other people in the future.
This ability to appreciate the wonders of the physical world surrounding us seems similar to me to our ability to love and be loved. Obviously, with it, our life is happier if we just open ourselves up to the experience. Equally obvious, it seems to me, that ability has been critical preserving those beauties. Without the ability to appreciate the beauty of the physical universe, man’s desire to dominate and increase personal wealth, or even the more altruistic desire to make life more comfortable for others, has resulted in strip-mining for minerals and energy, damming and draining lakes and rivers to support urban growth, and building transportation systems that pave over and pollute the beauty surrounding us. Fortunately at least a slight majority of humans in power, more times than not, has realized the sacrifices that were being made, and has established practices to protect the environment and preserve its beauty.
Science is only beginning to explore the relationship between the brain and the individual personality, the influences on the brain exerted by interactions among individuals, and how pleasure centers in the brain are stimulated in the presence of external beauty, but early results are consistent with the hypothesis that altruism is hard-wired into the human brain just as is the instinct of survival.
We already know that the personality is a special thing, and that its existence is enabled by the existence of a healthy brain. For me, there isn’t much of a leap to believe that heaven, in terms of happiness, and hell, in terms of unhappiness, both exist here on earth and are created by what we do with or to other people. If I do good things for other people, and love when possible, I receive satisfaction and that makes me happy.
On the other hand, when my desire for dominance rather than cooperation, revenge rather than forgiveness, takes control, that source of happiness is lost and instead I have a feeling of unease and discomfort.
There is certainly enough justification in literature to believe that the characteristics of feeling good by doing good, and being unhappy when not getting that feedback from other people – or by being made to feel unhappy by others – are characteristics shared by all sane individuals. (I’ll reserve the possibility that truly evil desires, and the inability to get satisfaction from doing good, may in fact stem from physical limitations manifested in criminal insanity.)
I know that the nature of the good we do for others may have positive effects on future generations, and our understanding that a future exists allows us to get a similar source of satisfaction when we do something positive and with long-lasting consequences, whether or not we know what those consequences may be.
As quoted by Jeffers in Science and Liberty, art critic John Ruskin once wrote,
“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for ... and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’ ”
As I’ve discussed above, I can accept evolutionary forces in explaining not only how life on earth as evolved through natural selection. I also can see how extensions of those same forces, when played out by self-aware players with the ability to influence one another and keep records of their experiences, could produce progress. I can even see how the good feelings that come from doing good for others, or experiencing beauty – whether a natural product of that selection or stemming from spiritual influence – also were critical elements in ameliorating the raw effects of unfiltered competition.
But one question still persists. Where does this force of self-awareness come from? How can we explain why we have individual personalities, or souls? And what happens to that soul when the body or brain can no longer support it? I needed to understand that, or at least come up with a belief that filled in that critical gap, or my understanding of life and how I fit into it would be incomplete.
For me that belief, and the beginnings of what might even become a principle that can be unraveled by science in time, eventually came from thinking again about the event that started me on this path of inquiry. It took two angels to help me.