Interdependence and the Weakness of Evolution

Interdependence and the Weakness of Evolution January 5, 2014

The current debate on polytheistic theology includes a strong concern over anthropocentrism – the idea that it’s all about us.  Traci Laird articulated some of this in her own blog post and then clarified her thoughts in this comment to my last post.  Rhyd Wildermuth continued the conversation on his blog.  There have been others, some of which I’ve read and some of which I haven’t.  I’ve seen a lot of very thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary, but what I haven’t seen is a working hypothesis on the source of anthropocentrism.

The idea that the world (the universe, Life itself) is all about us – whether “us” means humans, our tribes, or just me – is very old.  The first chapter of the Book of Genesis says

And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion … over all the earth…

And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

I doubt you need me to explain how this text has been used to justify some abhorrent behavior.  I quote it to show how the idea that it’s all about us is very old.  It was old by the time it was written by the storytellers of Genesis.  The idea that it’s all about us is the result of our evolutionary heritage.

Modern humans – and every other example of every other species – are the product of millions of years of evolution.  We are who and what we are because our ancestors survived, adapted to environmental changes, and reproduced.  Those who were unable or unwilling to do those things don’t have descendants living today.  We’re the products of evolution’s winners – those who did what it took to win.

Along the way we picked up some habits that were helpful for the continuation of our species.  Look out for yourself – or at least, try not to get yourself killed before you can reproduce.  Learn to see things as black or white, because nuanced knowledge isn’t nearly as important as quickly figuring out whether you can eat something or whether it will eat you.  Favor your blood relatives – they share most of your genes and so their success is almost as good as your own success.

Given these evolutionary pressures, it was inevitable that our religions would be anthropocentric.  We have hundreds of millions of years of experience telling us that the most important thing is the continuation of us.

The shortcoming of evolution is that it favors what works, not what’s best.  And it favors what works now, not what will work in the long run.  That’s one of the reasons I have to laugh at the idea of intelligent design – our design isn’t very intelligent.  But it’s been good enough to take us from the trees to the caves to the skyscrapers.

Is it good enough to take us through the next million years?  Or even the next thousand?

Explain our evolutionary selfishness to someone who doesn’t want to bother with the inconvenience of thinking beyond his own immediate wants and needs and you’re likely to get a response along the lines of “other creatures modify their environment, why can’t we?”  Or, as in the very good example Rhyd Wildermuth gives, the wolf doesn’t care if the cow he eats is the last of its kind, so why should we?

Do I have to quote Spiderman?  Do you need the contemporary examples of obesity and overpopulation to understand that following our evolutionary instincts isn’t always the best thing to do?

At Denton CUUPS 2012 Winter Solstice Circle I said:

Our natural predators of disease and famine are not gone, but they have been beaten back.  War still kills too many, but it kills far fewer than at any time since civilization began.  Aided by the fear of scarcity, the myth of dominion, and ordinary greed, the human population has exploded and is consuming resources at a rate that cannot be sustained.

Either we will moderate our behavior or we will suffer the same consequences as the rabbits who multiply beyond the carrying capacity of their environment, and we will take down countless other species with us.  Moderating our behavior is in our own self-interest and it is especially in the self-interest of our species.

Isn’t that just anthropocentrism all over again?  Isn’t that ignoring the inherent worth and dignity of other species and ecosystems?  No – that idea is buying into evolution’s dualistic limitations.  It isn’t that we must choose to be less so others can be more, it’s that we are more when we’re all more, when we cooperate, when we all succeed.

We are interdependent with each other, with other species, and with the Earth herself.  An approach that recognizes this interdependence will be more successful than one that stubbornly clings to the illusion of independence.

About 2600 years ago the Axial Age occurred – a near-simultaneous (on a historical time scale – about 700 years) emergence of the ethical religions of Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism and others in widely separated parts of the world.  Their founders saw how the evolutionary instincts of self-preservation and the promotion of close relatives over others was resulting in needless bloodshed and other suffering.  We still have not completely implemented their ideals, but the world has become a much better place because of them.

We face a similar challenge in our age.  Overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change will cause suffering on a massive scale.  I do not believe some technological deus ex machina will allow us to continue our current lifestyles.  Either we change voluntarily, or we (more precisely, our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren) will change like rabbits who have eaten all the grass.

Some argue we’re already past the point of no return, and in any case the American empire is in the beginning stages of what will be a long, slow, steady decline.  The question isn’t whether we will change – the question is how painful our changes will be.

Reason has been shown to be a notoriously ineffective method of persuading anyone – yourself or others – to change their behavior.  This is why I believe we need a religious approach.  The cure for anthropocentric behavior is to remove the anthropocentrism from our religion, to develop and nurture a reverence for Nature.  Not some romantic impulse for flowers and sunsets, but a reverence for Nature based on the recognition of the interrelatedness of all life and the inherent worth and dignity – and agency – of all life.  In the words of OBOD founder Ross Nichols:

What we need is to induce men to think of themselves as not outside the natural cycle but as active partners with nature in it.  This is almost the opposite of wandering about in natural surroundings and dreaming.  We need a functional approach, not a cult of pretty bits of indulgence in speed sensations.

This is why I honor the Earth and all her creatures.  This is why while I do not live a life of deprivation I do my best to limit my impact on the Earth.

This is why I render due honor to the spirits of the Land, the Sky and the Sea.  This is why I worship the Lord of the Animals and the Lady of the Waters.

This is why I am a Nature-centered Pagan.


The weakness of evolution in the title of this post refers to the weakness of the process of evolution – of its propagation of adequate adaptations instead of ideal adaptations.  If you came here expecting to read about the weakness of the theory of evolution, I suggest you read Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth.  Dawkins is a lousy theologian but he’s an excellent biologist.

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  • Henry Buchy

    I think you’ve made some good points as to why humans are central to life on this planet. I’m not sure if it’s a weakness of evolution or its strength. 🙂
    there’s been around a dozen or so extinction events on this planet. it’s hard to say whether other species have knowlege of those or not, I don’t know. I know we do. I also can’t say if the species alive at those times could foresee extinction events looming, I know we can.
    It seems folks see this centrist thing as one of superiority rather than responsibility.
    It doesn’t mean it’s all about us.
    maybe life evolved us as the deux ex machina in the scheme of life. maybe there is something to intelligent design after all, and nature/life produced a species with the abilities to observe present conditions and extrapolate future possibilities, a species which can purposefully over ride the biological/evolutionary impulses which lead to overpopulation and self extinction. A species who might even be able to manage that for the continuance of other species and manage resources due to the ability to recognize the interdependency in a closed system. Even if we don’t do that, the ability is still there.
    whether we’re here by fiat, accident or design, life evolved a species which have those abilities. maybe Life anthropomorphized itself 🙂

    • “a species with the abilities to observe present conditions and
      extrapolate future possibilities, a species which can purposefully over
      ride the biological/evolutionary impulses which lead to overpopulation
      and self extinction.”

      Yes, exactly. And if we don’t, then some other species will get the chance, after a couple million years.

      • Henry Buchy

        yep, but they will still be manushya…we just happen to use the term ‘human’ …

  • Rick_K

    “Either we will moderate our behavior or we will suffer the same consequences as the rabbits who multiply beyond the carrying capacity of their environment, and we will take down countless other species with us.”

    No, we won’t suffer the consequences of rabbits – they’re not predators. We won’t quietly starve to death. We’ll suffer the consequences of too many predators. Think praying mantises eating their mates or fish eating their children.

    We have plenty of historical examples. Easter Islanders failed to control population, failed to control consumption, and consumed resources until the carrying capacity of their isolated island nation collapsed. The result was war, death on a massive percentage scale, cannibalism, surrender and ennui.

    Tikopia, another isolated island nation, controlled its population, carefully controlled its resources, and never fell into collapse and cannibalism.

    Opponents to population control (often religiously-motivated) will point out that there are places in the world with dense populations where nobody is starving. They will point out that Malthusian predictions have always been wrong. But they only point to examples where nations or people have trading partners. They never point to Easter Island or Tikopia or the New Guinea highlands.

    The Earth is an island with no trading partners. If we don’t husband our resources and control our population, we will simply re-create the horror of Easter Island on a Biblical scale.

    • Your example is better than mine. Either way it isn’t going to be pretty.

    • I am generally opposed to population control, but not for those reasons or with those justifications.

      Rather, the language of population control is very often racist and eugenicist. One very rarely hears people speaking of controlling the populations of people who use vast amounts of resources (like Americans, whose consumption and environmental impact is immense compared to people living in places with higher birthrates and larger families) and instead hears of controlling the rates of birth in poorer countries (and even amongst the poor and minorities in America).

      • Rick_K

        Fair point. See my response to Aine above.

        And yes, I take much more issue with my affluent neighbor with 10 children (because birth control is a sin) than I do with someone in Guatemala with 10 children.

        But the fact remains – resource consumption cannot grow indefinitely, particularly at its current rate. And population growth is a major factor in resource consumption.

        We can choose a hard landing (Easter Island) or soft (Tikopia). But to land softly requires education (particularly for women), economic opportunities not based on family size, real conservation and blunting the message from multi-billion-dollar global organizations that preach that birth control is a sin.

        Obviously, our “hard landing” wouldn’t be as dramatic as Easter Island, where they cut down the last tree, could no longer make boats, and suddenly lost access to their biggest food supply. But significant pockets of starvation brought on by failing infrastructure, wars over resources, rebellions over rising food/fuel prices and development of natural preserves will cause more human misery than would condoms, education and economic incentives for conservation and birth control.

        • You are certainly correct in your concern, both with large religious organizations preaching against birth control and also resource consumption.

          You’ll forgive me, though, if I tend to think that rampant Capitalism is more an issue than population growth, or, more specifically, that capitalist consumption imperatives and resource extraction is such a determining factor that the focus on population growth is very suspicious to me when in policy (that is, I’m not saying you ignore this, only that global organizations and environmental groups who advocate heavily for population reduction).

          While getting into maths and statistics would be an endless and dehumanizing game, I fear so much is done just to prop up a western “standard of living” (including the very machines and infrastructure we are currently using to communicate) that an easier answer in most policy discussions is just to reduce the amount of people competing for resources rather than reducing our usage of those resources.

          One affects the luxuries “developed” societies demand, while the other actually demands control over a woman’s reproduction (just like the conservative religious organisations!). Thus, I err on the side of less luxury and simpler existence, rather than controlling other (mostly non-white) people’s reproductive choices.

    • Aine

      “Opponents to population control (often religiously-motivated)” – uh…there are plenty of non-religious people opposed to population control. A little more honesty about why people oppose it would be swell. (Especially seeing how ‘population control’ is usually code word for ‘let’s get rid of the kind of people I don’t approve of’.)

      • Rick_K

        OK, fair enough. When I say opponents of population control, I mean those who advocate having as many children as you can (usually religiously motivated) and/or oppose birth control or family planning (usually religiously motivated) and who (as I said) brush away any concerns about global resources because Malthus was wrong.

        I don’t mean those who want to go kill people they don’t like.

  • Y. A. Warren

    This approach, deemed anathema by the early “Christian” church is called panentheism, not to be confused with pantheism.

    • I’m a polytheist and a pantheist, which isn’t what’s generally meant by panentheism.