Nobody at the Wheel: Unguided Evolution’s (Pretty Bleak, but Sometimes Necessary!) Lesson for Crisis Activism

Nobody at the Wheel: Unguided Evolution’s (Pretty Bleak, but Sometimes Necessary!) Lesson for Crisis Activism August 23, 2019

Sarah Brown,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. It’s the story of lignin: one of the plainest illustrations that evolution has no grand design.

Our planet’s earlier worlds were also rich in biodiversity–not billions of years ago, mind you, but relatively recently: 470 million, give or take, being when the first plants arrived on land. Even then, these were fairly rudimentary species: mosses and the like. Root systems, vascular systems, seed structures… these all took time to evolve–which is why, at first, there were no trees, as we understand trees today.

Trees were a tricky development. They not only required those vascular systems (for fluid uptake), and those root systems (for stability), and sturdier seed structures to boot, but also the development of lignin, a compound you’ve probably smelled off old books, and which creates that far tougher layering with which a plant might tower over the landscape. It’s thanks to lignin that trees could grow to foster whole ecosystems under their sturdy shade. (Ecosystems, mind you, like those currently being lost in the Amazon to a now-three-week-old blaze of staggering intensity and reach.)

But when plants did develop lignin, about 460 million years ago, and thereafter grew into such formidable giants, a new problem emerged. When the trees died, they fell to the forest floor, to be nibbled away at by smaller lifeforms. Only… none of those lifeforms had yet developed the ability to break down this tough new compound.

That’s okay, you might think. It’s the natural world; evolutionary pressures are intense; something will acquire the ability eventually. But no, this is the indifferent cosmos we’re talking about–and evolution, as a process, is not at all cognizant of this huge pile-up of dead trees. What exists to be anxious about all the felled lumber?

So, yes, eventually something manages the trick–go white rot!–but it takes a long time.

And I mean long. Around 160 million years.

In the meantime, gravity is also at work on these trees, which are steadily piling up with all those trapped resources within. Down, down, down the layers go–with sheer pressure succeeding, in time, where bacterial and fungal species failed. And so those masses of dead tree eventually become coal, that intense compression of carbon into a more energy-compact form, all because lignin developed millions of years before any countervailing biological force.

Because evolution is, well–for all its incredible feats of biodiversity–also straight-up inelegant, inefficient, and unguided.

And remains so today.

Nobody at the Wheel

We human beings have a maddening leg-up, though, over the early worlds of planet Earth. We can think, and we can plan, far more extensively than any other species. Whether we choose to do so, of course, is another matter. And are our plans ever in perfect alignment? Obviously not.

A dogged proponent of intelligent design, for instance, will still find some circuitous way to make the inefficiency of early life somehow in keeping with his story of how evolution could only come about through masterful orchestration by a higher power. “This is just proof that God wanted us to have fossil fuels!” he might say. “Look at the great lengths He went to with the trees, to lay coal in store for our eventual use!” …Never mind that a god could have made these with a snap of its fingers, and that a decent deity would perhaps even have crafted a form of fossil fuel that was readily renewable in the process, if it truly wanted humans to enjoy the resource in abundance, without engendering resource wars and their brutal social consequences.

No, to an ID advocate, there’s no level of evolutionary waste that can’t be explained away.

But since most of us are not proponents of ID, we have no excuse for knee-jerk defensive when confronted with the difficult reality that many of our smaller, more recent transformations–and here I’m taking social transformations as much as anything–are also not guaranteed to find equilibrium or greater utility all on their own. Not within our lifetimes, and not, perhaps, ever.

Things fall apart–and either we fix them, or we don’t. There is no grander intervention.

So what stops us? Why do we struggle so much to take action?

Partly, as I noted a couple essays back, we are stymied by people who just want to see the world burn–either literally, or figuratively, through a return to greater social turmoil–because they think this will hasten the coming of the end times.

But since I’ve also relentlessly beaten the dead horse of there is no god save the concept of a deity in the minds of believers, which serves as an enhancement of personal outlook, I also don’t think that nihilism is solely a religious trait. I think the same “good, let’s bring it all down!” impulse, the self-destructive component of human experience, is present in us all, and active in a far wider range of fellow citizens than religion alone can explain.

I think we see it in our mass shooters, theistic and atheistic alike–and especially in young men convinced they’ll never attain the success they want in the world we all share.

And we see it in bankers and fund managers knowingly bringing our economy again to the brink with the rationalization that everyone else is doing it–so might as well get ours, too, while we can.

And in the staggeringly widespread phenomenon of business execs buying a thriving enterprise solely to exploit its extant resources, thus maximizing short-term investor payout at cost to the continued viability of the business itself (then abandoning said monolith to bankruptcy).

And in government leaders playing the short-game to get re-elected, at cost to the more difficult work of setting policies to sustain not just town and country but also the world through its most pressing current crises.

Tempus fugit, carpe diem, et… in gehennam mittere omnis? (My Latin’s a touch rusty.)

But why not take what we can and consign the rest to misery, when nature is an unguided process, and therefore no one larger or wiser than us is looking on, or cares? When one day soon we will die and cease to be conscious, and one way or another our little planet will keep turning on its axis and spinning on its orbit, until either sun death or a collision with Alpha Centauri brings it to ruin?

Guiding Life in the Here and Now

Oh yeah–please don’t for a moment assume that just because I’m an annoying humanist I’ve forgotten the fundamental existential facts on which compassionate humanism must be predicated. (How else does one get to be a good absurdist, except by recognizing that meaning is contrived, then refusing either to buy into one’s chosen meanings as Absolute Truth, or to kill oneself because of the essential meaninglessness of it all?)

Have you seen the movie Melancholia? Lars von Trier isn’t everyone’s cuppa, but this one’s a pointed existentialist piece told in highly impressionistic movements, with the first following a woman who remains deeply depressed so long as the world seems to move forward with all contrived senses of purpose credulously embraced by everyone around her. In the film’s second movement, though, it’s her sister–a woman at her most secure when moving through those contrived senses of purpose–who falls apart when it turns out another world is about to crash into the Earth, destroying everything. In these melancholic endtimes, the first sister finally flourishes, basking in the knowledge that everything will be over soon–all the affectations of value, all the futile human striving–and yet still, still!, it’s that first sister who builds a circle of protection for a small child in all these proceedings. Who offers him sheltering kindness right to the bitter end.

Why? Well, because we’re animals–in a group species, at that!–not unfeeling machines.

Because even if we could just exploit the system while it’s burning all around us, or otherwise strive to take what we can for ourselves while we still can… a) we do not live in a vacuum, b) most of us have fully functional neuronal networks for empathy, and c) even for those who don’t, the exacerbated marginalization and vulnerability, the fear and the desperation all around us, still offers dire consequences all their own.

So, yes–our social crises are not guaranteed, ever, to reach equilibrium. Nobody’s at the wheel to course-correct for our individual failings on whole, which means that the hate-mongering we see online could continue indefinitely. The near-daily reality of U.S. mass shootings could, too. And the widespread perpetuation of curable diseases and other poverty-related causes of deaths in less-valued human populations. And the relentlessly escalating impact of climate change for most all planetary species.

But we can take the wheel locally. We can provide shelter, and care, and support, for those in our group-species nearest, dearest, and most vulnerable around us.

In individual corners of a vast planetary ecosystem of astonishing (if ultimately meaningless) life, we can nibble away at our sections of stubbornly decomp-resistant lumber. Not because our nibbling will necessarily succeed in reducing suffering and postponing species-wide oblivion (though huzzah if it does: more time to catch up on Netflix!)… but because, if nothing else, it reassures our fellow nibblers–people we live with and work with and love (or at least hate to see in pain)–to know that they’re not facing down that looming end without a fight… and also, not facing that fight alone.

Simply put then, my dear fellow, futile bursts of evolutionary brilliance and muck:

We’ll have all eternity after death to be insensate.

Let’s not get a head start on that soon-to-be-quotidian feeling just now.

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