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The Human Condition:

What Is Good? – November 11, 2018

Vitruvian blood vessels

I have never concealed the fact that I am an atheist—although I sometimes sail under the flag of agnosticism, the state of “not knowing,” in order to avoid bar fights. I do not accuse or belittle people who have had an actual religious experience, heard the voice of God or the rustle of angel wings, and are guided by the principles of their religion. Peace be unto them. But I never had the experience, and I have neither the genetic makeup nor the cerebral or psychological components necessary to perceive that unseen whisper. But at the same time, I am not in G. K. Chesterton’s famous line, “capable of believing in anything.” I have my own principles, after all.

One of those principles is evolution. I have worked at both a manufacturer of biological pharmaceuticals and a developer of genetic analysis equipment. I know enough biology and have read enough about genetics and cladistics to appreciate that all life on Earth is related. The octopus is not an extraterrestrial alien dropped into this planet’s oceans—as some sources have recently claimed—but is cousin to the squid and the cuttlefish in the class Cephalopoda, just as human beings are cousin to the mouse and the lion in the class Mammalia.

Evolution is not just the “survival of the fittest,” as the popular saying goes. The evolution of a biological organism takes tiny changes in the genetic code, potentially effecting tiny changes in form and function, and then either implements them immediately—especially if the change is harmful or fatal to the bearer—or holds them quietly in the genome as a recessive or alternate copy of the gene until the features engenders can come into play. The DNA/RNA/protein coding system has many built-in safeguards that make most random changes in the code neither immediately fatal nor immediately helpful. For example, each three-codon reading frame, in which three base-pair sequences call for any one of the twenty amino acids used in assembling a protein molecule, usually has several alternate forms for calling each amino acid; so a change in just one of the “letters” will usually still create the intended protein. The system is robust—so that we can still have viable offspring and recognize them as human—and yet just fragile enough that changes are possible over generations.

And those changes and their effects are not necessarily crude, achieving just basic survival or writing off the individual organism with a lethal deletion. The cheetah was not born to limp over the veldt in pursuit of its ambulating prey. Time and the millions of minute alterations to the genetic code governing the cheetah’s musculature, metabolism, and nervous system allow it to lope gracefully and efficiently, outrunning the swiftest antelopes and wildebeests, which are themselves adapted to run just fast enough—most of the time—to elude their predators. Evolution is not just a mechanism of survival but a mechanism of optimization, efficiency, and ultimately of temporary perfection.

I have called DNA the “god molecule,”1 but that is not because I worship it or think it has supernatural powers. The DNA/RNA/protein system is simply the instrument of evolution. It has created not only all the varied life we see on this planet but also, because of the impact that life has had on shaping the atmosphere, seeding the oceans with abundant life, and covering the hills with vegetation and grazing animals that change their erosion patterns, it has changed the surface of our world itself. The original Earth, before the first bacteria and blue-green algae evolved to give it an oxygen-rich atmosphere, was as hostile to our kind of life as the surfaces of Venus or Mars are today.

But the principle of evolution applies to more than just organic structure and function. Most of the structure and function of human society and the approaches in any human endeavor, from technology to the arts, have advanced by a form of social evolution: small—but sometimes large—changes introduced into a complex situation, there to be either discarded, adopted, or further adapted. In rare cases, like the mathematical thinking of a Newton or an Einstein, a single person will make a significant change in human society and history. But for the most part, what one person starts another will then adapt and improve on, so that the seminal invention is lost in a continuous flow of minor and incremental developments. The invention of the stirrup and the wheeled plow, with their migration during the Middle Ages from Asia into Northern Europe, are such examples.

In the same way, the structure of many human social concepts like love, justice, honesty, reciprocity, personal freedom, and other exchanges that we consider “good” and weave into the stories we tell are the products of social evolution. Human families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations learned over time by piling one experience and its consequences on another that certain strategies of exchange either worked or did not. For example, they settled early on the basic understanding that habitual lying is harmful both to the people who must deal with the liar and ultimately to the liar himself. That fair dealing and reciprocal trade are a better system of exchange than theft and plunder. That hereditary servitude is not proper treatment for any thinking human being, and a society that practices slavery may flourish for a time but will eventually collapse. That love is a stronger bond and lasts longer than hate. And on and on. We learned these “home truths” at our mother’s knee and passed them down through the cultural wisdom of our clan and tribe long before some prophet wrote them on tablets of stone or bronze and suggested they were the teachings of the gods.

This does not mean that dishonesty, plunder, slavery, hatred, and other injustices don’t exist in the world. Or that sometimes these strategies of exchange will not work just fine in some situations—especially if there is no one stronger around to keep you from getting away with them. Ask the Romans, or the Mongols, the Nazis, the Soviets, and any of history’s other bent and crooked societies that have made a bad name for themselves. But thinking human beings, left on their own to study and consider the situation, will conclude that these negative strategies do not work for the long haul or for the greatest good of the greatest number of people.

Not only has human society as a social construct but the human nervous system as a response mechanism evolved in tune with these beneficial strategies. Try taking from a toddler the treat that its mother has given and see if that tiny human brain does not immediately register and react to the unfairness of your action. Hear children on the playground taunting each other—perhaps even with names and descriptions having a superficial gloss of truth—and see if the recipient does not explode with anger at the perceived dishonesty. We all understand how the world works and know when others are practicing falsehoods and injustices upon our person and our sense of self.

It does not take a god from a burning bush with a fiery finger to write out the rules of what is proper and good in any human exchange. We know it from before we were born, because our brains and our society had already supplied the answer, hard-wired and ready to function. In the same way, we see the world in the colors for which our eyes were adapted, breathe the air for which our lungs were optimized, and recognize the adorable cuteness of babies and puppies because it is beneficial to both that our brains release the right endorphins at the sight of them.

Evolution says that we are at home in this world because we are the products of this world. And that is enough of a natural wonder for me.

1. See, for one example among others, The God Molecule from May 28, 2017.