This is an article/letter written by Paul Casselle. The cartoons are mine. I thought it was interesting:
Two apes are walking through a forest. One notices that the other has a pained look on his face.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“They say that humans evolved from apes, right?” replies the other ape.
“Yes, they evolved from apes. What’s the problem?”
“Well, if humans evolved from apes, why are we still here?”
“Ahh,” says the first ape, “some of us had a choice.”
It is all too easy for we humans to assume that we are the top animal on the planet. After all, no other species has managed to inhabit so many diverse geographical areas, climbed to the top of the food chain or erected structures as elaborate as ours. Well, we may think that, but is it really true? We fear to tread in many inhospitable places in which bacteria thrive, and they are far older and more numerous than us. Termites build incredibly complicated and technically impressive structures, and many species use tools and have elaborate social hierarchies.
So is there anything that truly sets us apart from the other living creatures on Earth? I think there is, but it may also be the reason we are on the brink of failure.
The theory of evolution teaches us that the first forms of life were very simple. Slowly, over millions of years, slight mutations sequentially caused new species to emerge, and over eons this process led to increasingly complicated organisms and eventually us. By the way, the opening joke is not really accurate. Humans did not evolve from apes; apes and humans have a common ancestor and we both came from that animal. That is why there are still apes as well as humans, but that’s not as funny!
What seems clear to me is that biological evolution had little to do with creativity and much more to do with functionality. Creatures with DNA mutations inevitably proliferated if the mutation produced a functional improvement. Most species live only in the present. Immediate stimulus creates an automatic response, and this mechanistic routine only differs through changes in environment or mutation. ‘Thinking’ played no significant part in evolution until very recently; maybe with the emergence of monkeys and apes or early hominids. And that is the difference. We humans think. We think deeply. We have the ability to imagine what might be. We can contemplate future scenarios in a way that most other animals cannot.
Biology is a little like Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Slowly, over a long time, the program was tweaked, changed and improved. Many subroutines became obsolete, but the Frankenstein monster became so complicated that no one was sure whether certain parts could be cut out or not. Furthermore, many functions had developed crazy serpentine paths that would make no logical sense if designed from scratch. A case in point for human anatomy is the recurrent laryngeal nerve. This nerve serves our voice box in the throat, but rather than traveling directly from the base of the brain to the throat, it sojourns down into the chest before looping around the aorta and returning back up the neck.
Some people disagree that this is a case of bad design (click here for such an article) but my point is not about whether we were designed or not. I am interested in how clumsy our biology has become when seen against the astonishing advances in our thinking, technological abilities and artistic culture. Shakespeare described humans as;
“The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals... In apprehension how like a god...”
Four hundred years later, with massive advances in every direction possible (think computing, space travel and communication technologies) we have advanced even more beyond our wet-work biology. If I were designing a modern human, in all its cultural, artistic and technical beauty, I would not choose frail, disease-prone biology as a suitable medium. I am not sure what material I would use, but I am worried for us. I am concerned that our minds may have outgrown our biological bodies.
Maybe it will not be nuclear war or the total breakdown of our political/social systems that will spell the end for us, but like the aliens in War of the Worlds it will be simple, vulnerable biology.