Evolving to the end

January 20, 2004|By Larry Lasher

IT HAS NOT been an easy trip, from the Big Bang to the microchip. Against all odds, the species has survived through several millennia, but it's an even-money bet as to whether the gradual accumulation of higher-order human behaviors will outrun the more primitive responses of our hard-wired brains.

A contemplative view of the now almost casual carnage in Israel, the appalling large-scale massacre of neighbor by neighbor in the Balkans, genocide in Africa, and forms of terrorism everywhere, suggests that despite the evolution of higher-order human sensibilities, the primitive instincts of the primordial brain continue to dictate much of human behavior.

While the most brutal forms of human-to-human cruelty are not new to the human experiment, the tensions produced by a world shrinking into a "global village," and the specter of suitcase-sized weapons of mass destruction - which keep popping up on network news and in our perfervid dreams - suggest that we will not avoid our looming Darwinian fate. The major achievements of the "big brain" - the development of experimental science and really smart engineering - may ultimately produce an environment to which we will be unable to adapt.

Even if our big brains and opposable thumbs allow us to cope with the sorts of environmental catastrophes that did in earlier species, the technologies that produce those adaptations may, finally, clear the terrestrial decks for the next contender species. That is, we may succumb to the apparently inevitable advances that arise from our own evolutionary unfolding.

It may be that we will be the victims of a cosmic joke, if only we were prepared to laugh. The laugh will be on us when the world ends with a bang as our astounding technology produces an increasingly intimate interaction with "the other" and at the same time provides us with the readily available tools to destroy the alien other, the infidel, the oppressor, the "axis of evil."

The capacity to see and hear and feel the other in ways that were never possible while the separations of geography remained without a bridge has produced an environment in which we may be unable to survive, just as the dinosaurs were when that cloud of dust obscured the sun. If the big guys needed sunlight and a constant rate of ice melt, we need the comfortable isolation from the alien other that prevailed until we became too smart for our own good. The technologies that have made it possible for us to control the biosphere may turn out to be the trigger of the social and political cataclysm that will bring us down and give the Earth back to the clicking beetles and the scurrying rats.

The destruction of the twin towers in New York may have been the announcement of the beginning of the final episode in the human narrative as those gleaming symbols of human accomplishment collapsed in response to a force more basic in its origins and redolent of more chaos to come.

The roar of the crumbling concrete, the clatter of the shattering glass, the moan of the twisting steel and the human cries of the doomed when those planes slammed into the World Trade Center may have signaled the beginning of the end of an experiment in evolution in which astounding success produces profound failure.

Larry Lasher is associate director of the Honors College at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He lives in Columbia.

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