[Note: This is the tenth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
Charles Darwin achieved fame for popularizing the knowledge of genetic evolution, a normal and natural life process. All living things have genes, and their offspring inherit copies of them. No other critter, living or dead, possesses genes exactly like yours. Each of the billions of cells in your body carries a copy of your unique genes. Cells exist for a while, then die. New cells are created to replace them. Every hour, your genes are duplicated countless times as your body replaces dead cells with new ones.
The genes in every cell are incredibly complex, and it is normal and natural for boo-boos to occur in the duplication process. The mutations are purely random, and they are called genetic drift. It is not unusual for mutated genes to be passed from parent to offspring. For some offspring, random mutations might be beneficial in some way. Other offspring can be diminished by mutated genes, leading them to become less able to survive, thrive, and reproduce.
Everything on Earth, and all beings in the family of life, are constantly changing. Food resources can increase or decrease. Drought can be washed away by deluge. Parasites, viruses, volcanoes, fires, floods, invasives… the wheels of change keep spinning. Glaciers become tundra, tundra becomes grassland, grassland becomes forest, and then the parade reverses. Stability is a temporary state, change is the long-term norm. Evolution helps the family of life adapt and survive. Species unable to adapt to change disappear from the stage.
In the animal world, if predators get too good at hunting, they deplete their prey, go to bed hungry, and maybe starve. If prey get too good at escape, the growing herd will decimate the vegetation, and maybe create a desert, so everyone starves. If the predators gradually become one percent faster, the prey gradually become one percent faster, not two. Balance requires predators to be slightly better at their sacred obligation — limiting the herd — but not too good.
The speed of genetic evolution varies. Species with slow rates of reproduction, like elephants, can take many generations or millennia to adapt beneficial new features. Evolution proceeds much faster in species with brief lifespans. This is why pathogenic bacteria can quickly develop resistance to antibiotics, and insects to insecticides. Some plants develop resistance to a new herbicide in as few as four years. Some fungi can develop resistance to a new fungicide in just three years.
We try so hard to control everything. Big Mama Nature just howls with laughter, gushing tears, at our comical experiments in playing fake god, silly efforts that regularly bite us on the ass. She has no use for two-legged stewards, or managers, or sustainable growth maniacs. She gets along best with animals that are wild, free, and happy. It’s survival of the fit-ins. Ecological loose cannons need not apply.
Today, we’re living in an especially exciting time! The treacherous sorcerers of innovation and progress have conjured a colossal curse on the family of life. The curse has overloaded the atmosphere with crud, which is destabilizing the climate to a degree that seems certain to turbulently blindside life as we know it. Thanks to genetic evolution, the surviving species will eventually adapt to wrecked ecosystems, and a heavily scarred family of life can continue on its sacred journey.
And now, dear reader, we need to stop here for a moment, sit down, take a deep breath, and have an extremely embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion on the difference between genetic evolution (yum!) and cultural evolution (danger!).
Genetic evolution is billions of years old, as old as life on Earth. Its realm is the metamorphosis of genetic information over time. Cultural evolution is the realm of learned information — beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and so on. It has emerged recently, in the last few million years. It’s essentially a hominin fad, a spooky quirk of swollen brains. Innovation and progress are two of its monster children. These children are as unpredictable as two year olds with a box of hand grenades.
In hominins, genetic evolution proceeds at a snail’s pace, but cultural evolution can boogie like a herd of gazelles on meth. It might have taken our ancestors a million years to genetically evolve vicious claws and fangs, and we may have blinked out before succeeding. Instead, cultural evolution inspired our ancestors to invent lances and javelins — fake claws and fangs.
When someone’s leg is amputated, they can be fitted with a prosthetic leg, so they can walk again. Dentures are prosthetic teeth. Warm clothing is prosthetic fur. Heated dwellings provide a prosthetic tropical climate, so tropical primates can survive far from their normal habitat. Prosthetic claws and fangs eventually made the ancestors capable of killing critters bigger than themselves, bringing home more meat at the end of the day, and feeding more bambinos.
Chimps don’t do this. They snatch insects and lizards with their hands. Their small scale hunting is far less likely to rock the ecological boat. This is why there are not seven billion pudgy chimps staring at cell phones while driving. Indeed, their million year track record with this effective strategy has to be categorized as genuinely sustainable. Chimps set an excellent example for the last surviving hominins — humans — who are beginning to swirl the drain. Alas, we have been bedeviled by a compulsive obsession with every type of prosthetic device that greedy capitalists can imagine. Zombie consumers endure mindless jobs in order to acquire and proudly display as many of this season’s trendy status symbols as possible.
Anyway, our ancestors got totally addicted to cultural evolution. They shifted from chimp-type hunting, to stones and clubs, then scavenging, persistence hunting, thrusting spears, projectile javelins, bows and arrows, nets, snares, harpoons, horses, guns, and on and on. Like junkies, prosthetic addiction requires shooting up bigger and bigger doses to continue experiencing the beautiful soaring flights of euphoria. Like junkies, cold turkey withdrawal from prosthetic addiction is excruciatingly painful. Imagine your president, and her husband, stumbling around naked in the Congo, gobbling termites, slugs, bird eggs, berries, and lizards.
Cultural evolution in weaponry enabled our ancestors to extract more food resources from the ecosystem, so the land’s carrying capacity for humans increased, for a while, as long as overhunting didn’t deplete the prey, and chill out the feast. Each advance in hunting technology temporarily increased the food resources available for hungry hominins, encouraging their numbers to grow. Inevitably, the ecological boat began to rock, and sometimes overturn.
As you can see, innovation is risky. It often has unintended consequences. Chimps are conservative, and teach us that innovation is unnecessary for enjoying a million years of healthy sustainable living. The humans that are currently decimating the chimps’ forest, and the entire planet, present a different, and very important lesson.
Chimps have almost no understanding of the human-caused Earth Crisis. Their knowledgebase is modest, limited to local affairs, in the here and now. They learn by observing and imitating their elders. They lack the cultural information needed to destabilize the planet’s climate systems, acidify the oceans, eliminate forests, and generally behave like insane idiots. They learn exactly enough to live sustainably from birth to death. Perfect!
When I was a young lad, I was forced to spend years institutionalized in a series of educational penitentiaries. Like an assembly line, students had their brains filled with cultural information. I was taught about history, numbers, reading, writing, human supremacy, the daffy pursuit of status, and the sacred principles of unsustainable living. Our mission in life was to get a job, work hard, accumulate status trinkets, and spend our lives moving as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills — a remarkably toxic game. I shudder at the amount of stuff that has passed through my life.
Americans, British, and other colonizers created boarding schools for the children of the wild aboriginal people they conquered. Kids were snatched away from their families, communities, and cultures. They were forbidden to speak their own language, or sing their songs. They had their brains filled with the cultural information of industrial civilization. The kids suffered tremendous emotional damage from this brutal process, and many were seriously wounded for the rest of their days.
Priests used to boast: “Give me your child for his first seven years, and I will have him for life.” The cultural information you are imprinted with in childhood usually solidifies like concrete, and those beliefs are carried until your final breath. This works perfectly in sustainable wild cultures, where kids learn time-proven knowledge. It sucks in super-toxic cultures, where everyone is taught to be mindless eco-terrorists. Derrick Jensen once noted that unquestioned beliefs are the most dangerous and destructive things in the world.
Humans are not in serious trouble because of crappy genes. Genes did not get us into this mess, culture did. Every human that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, ready to spend a lifetime in a healthy tropical ecosystem. We don’t become batshit crazy critters until we are trained by a batshit crazy family and society. If you had been born into a wild, free, and happy tribe in the Amazon rainforest, you would have grown up in a sane culture, and you would be living in a low impact mode that has respect and reverence for the natural world (until the maniacs on bulldozers arrive to introduce you to progress).
Genetic information is passed from one generation to the next via reproduction. Cultural information is passed via words, images, and demonstration. We acquire it from TV, websites, books, classrooms, conversations, and so on. We absorb a knowledgebase that has accumulated over many generations. Each new generation has no need to spend decades reinventing the wheel, clothing, or the fire drill.
Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada. He was surprised to discover that the entire knowledgebase of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on. In Ehrlich’s own culture, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information. It’s impossible to learn it all, and the knowledgebase is constantly growing, faster and faster. Folks can get a PhD from Stanford without ever learning a single thing about science. The survival of humankind is dependent on ecological sustainability, but most PhDs know nothing about it, nor do our political leaders.
Here’s a half-happy idea: William E. Rees reminded us that cultural evolution is also subject to something like natural selection. Maladaptive cultural mutations, like the belief in perpetual growth, limitless resources, or utopia-bound progress will eventually push the civilization off the cliff, into the compost bin. Stuff like motorized transport, industrial manufacturing, and agriculture will inevitably go extinct because depletion of resources will pull the plug on them.
The more daunting challenge has to do with wisely and deliberately tossing overboard the maladaptive hallucinations that infest our throbbing thinkers — hierarchy, patriarchy, human supremacy, materialism, disconnection from nature, and so on. Our culture never stops pushing us to run at full speed to the cliff. We are completely unprepared to proceed with a healthy, cleansing, cultural evolution enema.