Development, yes. Improvement? Well…

This one came to me some time back and I’m still hashing out the speculative ramifications of it, so don’t expect a thesis here. Meanwhile, I realized that Darwin Day was approaching and stalled it a little to appear now.

There have been countless ways in which Homo sapiens is considered different and distinct from all other species on the planet, but let’s get something out of the way first: all species are distinct in their own ways. Not to mention, all species that exist today are successful, having gone through the entirety of evolution to still be here, so judgment on intelligence and advancement and all that is at best missing the point: there is never a goal, just what remains after unsuccessful variants get weeded out, and we share the planet with fungi and bacteria and freaking fire ants, so considering ourselves the highest form of life in any way is mere ego (itself probably an evolutionary artifact that helped drive survival, and so likely possessed in ways we cannot fathom by many other species as well.)

Most (if not all) of the traits that humans possess are possessed by other species as well, just perhaps not to the same degree, but it’s hard to point to anything of ours as unique. The one I’m talking about today is the degree to which we change our environment rather than changing to suit our environment – constructing rather than adapting. I’m not specifically talking about anthropogenic global warming, because this was never intended to make the world suit us, but instead about all the ways in which we alter so many things around us.

Many species construct shelters to one extent or another, from the molluscs that excrete their own protective shells to the elaborate den systems of some mammals and hive systems of insects. A few of them actually have methods that regulate temperatures within to some degree (heh!,) but we’ve expended vast amounts of thought and creativity to pin this down to very precise ranges – which indeed require quite a lot of resources to maintain. For just about everything else on the planet, when it’s hot, they’re hot – they seek shade or breezes or deeper holes, and avoid doing strenuous things, and generally cope. And when it’s cold, they fluff up, or find insulation, or migrate. Virtually nothing has an external method of generating heat.

[Amusingly, our ancestors likely had significant body hair like all other primates, and even our follicle density is the same as chimpanzees, but when we became more active chasing down prey on the savannas the hair got thinner and less protective. Later on as we left Africa for Europe and ended up getting into the last ice age, the hair cover didn’t return, though we can’t say whether this was from the option not arising in the genetic record then, or that we were already compensating with huts and pelts, or even that we considered it unattractive and simply didn’t propagate the variations that did arise. Or many other possibilities.]

It’s safe to say that, as we are now, we consider the environment to be something that we change to suit us rather than coping with. South Florida, for instance, is a vast expanse of measures undertaken to create usable land from swamps, with very mixed results – there are efforts to now try and restore sections back to what they were to re-establish the previous ecosystem that turned out to be much more beneficial. We insist on air-conditioning in our cars rather than simply rolling a window down and taking advantage of the airflow that exists by the very nature of movement. We become inordinately frightened of rain, sometimes avoiding it through elaborate efforts (in many cases because being wet in that air conditioning is quite uncomfortable.) Within cities, barely any vestiges of the original landscape can be found – amusingly, even with our housing, we strip the land of trees until the house is completed and then plant a handful of new trees to ‘decorate.’ Homeowners associations get all anxious when lawns do exactly what they’re supposed to do, but a little too much so. I personally find it incredibly ignorant when people that chose to live on the edges of ponds, streams, lakes, or forests start getting upset when animals are around, doing what animals do.

It’s become a mindset now: we don’t cope with conditions, learn to roll with them, take them as they come; we feel obligated to change everything that we can to suit ourselves. In many ways, we’ve become inept at the very skills and traits that our ancestors spent millions of years within, a remarkably fast change and not at all for the better. For far too many of us, if the car dies in a snowstorm and we’re more than a few kilometers away from a shelter with artificial heat, we’re gonna die.

I can’t stress enough how fast this occurred in evolutionary terms. Our backs, our knees, still retain the evidence of a loping, forelimb-assisted method of locomotion, millions of years gone now, while central heating has barely existed for a couple hundred years. I realize that portions of the world still carry on without even this ‘basic’ convenience, and that, as a species, we’re not completely inept about survival in conditions we haven’t shaped. Yet it’s amazing how many people in what we call the ‘industrialized’ nations totally rely on something that has never existed for nearly the entirety of our development, and get really upset when there’s even a momentary lapse.

I’m not advocating for a ‘return to the soil,’ eking out an existence in log cabins and sewing hides together with fishbone needles – I think our abilities to reduce the difficulties that we faced in the past are pretty damn beneficial, and this is reflected in our increasing life expectancy. But it does make one wonder how far down such a path we can go before we reach a point where, if our created environment collapses, so do we.

Adaptability is a prime factor in survival, and evolution itself. While every species is a genetic journal of the variations that arose in their past that permitted them to handle the changing conditions of the planet, it’s undeniably better if we don’t wait for those little mutations to spring up, but use our vaunted intelligence to fill in where natural selection lags behind. And we do, to a significant extent, such as eradicating diseases and preserving our food and creating some really tough shelters. At the same time, we’re openly dismissive of so many really bad practices, like burgeoning populations and terrible resource management and what consequences lie just down the road. We even have this peculiar, and quite prevalent, mindset that our future lies in expanding off of our planet, because of these exact same issues; we recognize them, but somehow figure we can leave them behind rather than simply avoiding the impending problem in the first place. I’ll be blunt: creating a new home for mankind elsewhere would be a million times harder than simply stabilizing the home we now have, that we evolved to fit within.

I suspect part of this is actually an adapted trait in itself: the drive to explore and seek out better conditions elsewhere, and if this is so, in all fairness it worked out fairly well; we moved across the continents with the game, and could dodge the environments that proved too hostile. But it’s also ludicrous to believe that this could apply to conditions away from this planet – the danger of trusting in ‘instinct’ rather than rational consideration. And it need be said that every extinct species had the traits that they needed to survive in the conditions – until they didn’t. Natural selection also selects against the species that lack the right factors for the changing conditions. It might be nice if we were not one of those casualties, especially of conditions that we created ourselves.

There’s no place in particular that I’m going with this, save to raise some questions of whether our actions are instinctual or considered. Progress is important, but not enough; direction is a key factor of that.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

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