Sunday, September 26, 2010

Evolution: Part One

I am alive, marginally conscious, huddling in a hole in the ground, while giant creatures with their thunderous roars and colossal thirty-ton bodies shake the earth above me. It is 150 million years B.C.

I am in the trees, safe from a whole new set of nasty and cunning predators below, ready to scurry down whenever the coast is clear, to quickly locate, gobble down, and fill my belly with tasty bugs, eggs, lizards, and berries. It is 20 million BC.

I am running across the open savannah, naked, sweating, now almost six feet tall, fully erect with a much bigger brain, on the look out for Smilodon who would rip my flesh apart with his six-inch front teeth and eat out my liver; I am also watching out for my ape-man cousins who would clobber me unconscious with their primitive rock tools and eat my liver out as well. It is 1 million BC.

Life is hide-and-seek, duck-and-dodge. Life consumes life. Life procreates. Life protects its own kind. In all its agitation and ferocity, life keeps evolving.

I am living through the harrowing experiences of my ancestors, the complex, capricious, and perpetually dangerous saga of the evolution of mammals and primates, told in the flesh-and-blood, tooth-and-claw, dirt-and-soot, first-person perspective--through the eyes of the animals. I am about half way through Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution. Baxter, as he has done in his great futuristic epics (such as Vacuum Diagrams and the Manifold Trilogy) that span millions and billions of years, has created in Evolution an immense historical narrative extending from the deep past into the far future, all of it told through the lives of the creatures who lived it. Baxter paints very big pictures. In this novel, he tells the story of our evolution, our history, our struggles, our deaths, our fears and cumulative triumphs from the earliest beginnings of tiny furry animals who hid in terror, in the muck and mire with the worms, while the dinosaurs ruled the land, the sea, and the air.

But futurist questions emerge within the saga as it unfolds. What have we learned? What are the neurological and instinctual underpinnings that have been built into our nature? Where is it all heading? Will we make it? Species come and go in life’s drama like the flickering of fireflies. The future of evolution is an adventure into the arena of unending uncertainty.

I am now moving into part two of the novel. Neanderthal, powerful like a bear and smelling like one, has just met the tall, skinny, childlike-looking “people” who make tools out of bones (the wonder of it!). I am at 130 thousand BC.

Stay tuned for part two in the next blog.

If you want to feel deep in your gut--to experience with your vicarious senses, to smell and taste it, the living pulsation of evolution--this is the book to read. Baxter is amazingly good at creating the visceral and naturalistic feel of the struggle of life, woven together with an ongoing broadly painted description of the evolution of nature and the earth. His description of the comet hitting the earth and the resulting ecological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs is excellent--tragic, powerful, and jolting to the mind and the senses. You are there.

As Peter Watson has said, “Evolution is the story of us all.” As many others have said, a fundamental law of life is “Grow or die.” Life is transformation; life is creation and destruction. Evolution is one of those very, very deep brute facts of existence (like gravity--only deeper). There is no way to understand what and who we are and what it all means without understanding evolution. It is the cosmic and the earthly context of the human soul. Without (understanding) history there is no (understanding of our) future. Evolution is our history; evolution is our future.

Hence, in the spirit of the great cosmic wave of creation, we are evolving--our house has been disassembled and put together in a different way. (You grow or you die.) Go look at the new organization of our website. It is a new Gestalt. We have a whole new set of categories that pull everything together much more intuitively. All of our newest articles and slide presentations are up now; our print and web libraries have been greatly expanded and updated. The focus of our home page--our mission, vision, and purpose--has been defined much more sharply and cleanly. And this is all just part one of our new evolutionary jump. Stay tuned for new waves of transformation in the coming months. This first wave of change was content and conceptual structure and focus; the next waves will be multi-media and interactivity.

Speaking of which--that is, evolution and computers--I have just finished Wake, Robert Sawyer’s new science fiction novel on the emergence of consciousness, of intelligence, of selfhood, on the Web. As usual, Sawyer is an incredibly clear writer; as usual, he has done his scientific and technological homework. He creates a very realistic and convincing story--set in the present--of how the Web could realize awareness of itself and eventually make contact with the world--with us. Its first questions to humanity are: What am I and who am I? But of course. Isn’t that what we all ask, when we begin to think. The answers lie in the future.

Regarding upcoming events: We will be hosting our third meeting of the CFC Think Tank and Educational Academy, October 2nd, the first Saturday of the month starting at 7:00 pm. The first two meetings were lively, free flowing discussions on a variety of topics, including the purposeful self-conscious evolution of humanity. What will this mean? How will we do it? Everyone seems to agree that it is a moral and ontological imperative.

Finally, note that this coming month (October) I am doing two presentations out on the west side: October 6th at Sun City Grand and October 20th at the Rio Life Long Learning Center. Both are new updated presentations--that is, evolutions--the first one, on “Globalization” and the second one on “The Question of Progress.” Is human society evolving—improving--as we increasingly network ourselves together across the globe? How do we define progress and social evolution? I am anchoring both presentations to an opening quote/theme from Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” In some ways we are still like those fuzzy tiny creatures, hiding in our dark little holes while giants shake the ground of our existence and frighten the hell out of us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Paradigms: Stephen Hawking on God and Pretty Shallow Babes

I am watching the afternoon news on TV while eating lunch. There is a piece on a sexy, blonde woman who is in trouble with the law. While the newscaster is relaying the story (without ever really getting to the substance of the accusation and issue), various short videos of our blonde, smiling, posing, dressed in expensive and revealing dresses, are being shown. I am thinking to myself about all the air time and attention (albeit negative) that this pretty shallow babe--this cultural icon of our time--is getting. Who cares what she has or hasn’t done? Why on God’s earth give her any air time at all? But indeed, she periodically, over the last few years, gets lots of air time. Almost everyone in our modern, media saturated culture could tell you who she was if you showed them a picture of her.

And she is not the exception to this focus on the inane. In the same week on the news there were two other young women who were in the spotlight--media celebrities--who were given lots of attention and vapid, empty commentary for being sentenced to “time” or “community service” for doing dumb and shallow things. How much can you say about the shallow and the stupid? Apparently a lot.

On the other hand, Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and physicist, has just released a new book, in which he argues that God is not necessary in order to explain the existence of the universe. Now--I am sure--that Hawking gets a lot less air time than our pretty shallow babe and, in fact, in the sample of days that I watched the news this last week, there was a lot more attention given to the blonde than to the genius. And of course, in terms of significance, one could ask if it is more important to determine if a shallow woman stuck drugs in one of her bodily orifices or not, or if God created the universe…

I have frequently stated in my presentations on the future and our present social-cultural reality that our cultural icons--our heroes and heroines--are athletes, movie stars, and pop singers (I should also include in the list, rich shallow people) to the absolute exclusion of great thinkers and humanitarians. Where are the wise and intelligent in our brain depositories of well known, familiar faces? How many people would recognize a picture of Hawking? I may not agree with Hawking as to whether God is necessary or not, but at least he is grappling with an issue that far exceeds in importance what color dress or pair of shoes to wear out that evening.

I saw an email this week, written by someone who had read a news release on Hawking’s new book, and this person stated that given Hawking’s physical state and appearance it was no wonder that he didn’t believe in God; he was undoubtedly angry at God for his physical affliction. Not only did I find this commentary insulting and shallow, but I immediately asked myself who was the uglier and more disabled human being, Hawking or the shallow babe. Of course, my answer was the latter. In spirit and vision and mind and intelligence, Hawking lives in a different universe--a different paradigm of existence and value--than the media grabbing blonde. (No one seems to like this woman, but they keep running stories on her. Maybe our news stations—or rather our news commentators--don’t know what to say about Hawking since he is a person of ideas rather than eye shadow.)

I am in the middle of a dialogue--actually a debate--with a fellow philosopher over whether one should be optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world. (This was a question discussed at a session this summer at the World Future Society.) He strongly believes that the more valid and appropriate attitude, given environmental deterioration, power politics, money hungry mega-corporations, and excessive consumption and waste, is to be pessimistic; he thinks I am too optimistic about things--present and future. Our debate got me thinking about the opening lines in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” Contrary to my fellow philosopher’s assessment of me, I can see numerous reasons for being pessimistic as well as other reasons for being optimistic about things. But regardless of our differing opinions--assuming we are at different points on the optimism-pessimism continuum--he and I live in the same paradigm, the same mind set, the same universe of discourse, perception, and value. We agree (to a degree) on what is important—on what deserves our attention. I am sure that both of us would see the excessive attention to the trivial and the shallow as grounds for being pessimistic about our present culture. (I suppose we would both like to see more news items on Hawking, Spinoza, and Sartre--fat chance, God forbid, since Sartre was cross-eyed.)

I would propose that there are two “cities” (sort of like Augustine’s cities of God and Man). I would call one “The Paradigm of the Shallow” and the other “The Paradigm of the Deep.” Should one be pessimistic or optimistic about this cultural state of affairs? Should one focus on the light or the darkness? Perhaps this is too simplistic a question, too either/or. It is important to see both the light and the darkness, to be a realist about things. I must say though that my philosophical friend worries about power, greed, waste, deceit, etc. in our world, and though I do not discount such factors/problems, I tend to worry about the shallow and the superficial. (He worries about 1984 and I worry about Brave New World.)

This coming month I will be presenting a three-part series on the state of the world and a preferable direction for the future at the Life Long Learning Center in Surprise. See the announcement on the right side bar of the blog. In part one, I will be discussing Dickens’ opening lines within a contemporary context: Is it the best of times, the worst of times, or some Yin-Yang mixture of the two? And what indeed is bad and what indeed is good? Deep questions.

I thought that perhaps my juxtaposition of a male (Hawking) and a female (pretty shallow babe) might sound sexist. (The male is laudable; the woman is a bimbo.) Hence, I want to close with the question: How many people would recognize a picture of Riane Eisler? Well, who’s that? Of course, many fewer would recognize a picture of her than even of Stephen Hawking. Well, Riane Eisler (and some of you will know this) is a beautiful, highly intelligent, supremely sharp, erudite and scholarly eighty-year-old, far-from-shallow, woman philosopher and writer. She is (in my mind) wiser and philosophically more sophisticated than Hawking (though she suffered through the Holocaust, which should have made her angry at God too). And she is, with all her heart and soul, trying to make the world a better place. See her website. But, of course, she gets almost no air time and only a small percentage of our population knows who she is. (She has never been accused of some soap opera misdeed.) She is a role model for women--for all of us--a cultural icon we should know about and aspire toward. But given what I hear and what I see, it is the pretty shallow babe who has more of an effect on our psychology and behavior. We are what we eat.

There is a new book out by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. I need to read it before my talk next month.