Celebrate the Epic of Evolution
Why would anyone want to celebrate evolution? What sane person would want to rejoice about extinction, sing about the struggle for survival, or delight in our descent from slime?
For many people, the thought of evolution creates fear. Some see that the events of evolution are purely random and aimless, giving people the sense that existence is meaningless and that our lives ultimately have no purpose. Some fear that to believe that we are related to apes and algae is to give license to behave like chimps and pond scum. Others believe that because most species that have ever existed have gone extinct, the logical conclusion is that we, too, will become extinct. Others believe that “Survival of the Fittest” condones eugenics, Nazi-like exterminations, and corporate greed. And for some, the worst blow of all is that evolution means that a benvolent God does not exist, contradicting their most strongly held convictions and eliminating their primary source of comfort.
These ideas are what many of us may have learned about evolution. But are they accurate understandings of evolution? I invite you to examine the evidence that shows that evolution does not necessarily mean that life is random or aimless, or is about ruthless competition, or a struggle for survival. On the contrary, the study of evolution has helped many people find a deeply grounded sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Understanding evolution has deepened many people’s sense of compassion and strengthened their moral convictions. A deeper understanding of evolution shows people the power of cooperation and the power of information sharing. A deeper view of evolution shows the survival of the most harmonious. A broad view of evolution has provided many with a grand sense of hope, even in the darkest moments. Understanding evolution has enriched the spiritual lives of religious and non-religious people.
Before you can celebrate the Epic of Evolution, you first must understand what it is.
What is the Epic of Evolution?
The Epic of Evolution is the scientific story of the cosmos told in a way that helps people find their place in the universe. While it presents scientific facts of our origins, it is a story infused with meaning that helps us makes sense of our place and purpose in the universe. In this way, it marries the facts of science with the meaning provided by philosophy and religion. This 13.7 billion year story of our universe offers us a vast, comprehensive and integrated perspective of the cosmos. Like any story, the Epic of Evolution helps us create meaning out of events.
This is a vast topic and much has been written on the topic of evolution. This site offers a brief overview of the major features of this Epic. To learn more, please check out the other resources offered on this web site, including the authors who have written their interpretations of this epic. The Epic of Evolution is known by many names, including Big History, The Great Story, the Universe Story, Cosmic Evolution, and the New Cosmology.
A Map That Provides Clarity
Understanding evolution is like having a map that lets you see your world clearly, helping you to successfully navigate through life, avoiding the rocks of frustration and whirlpools of despair. Only by seeing where we have come from may we influence where we are going.
Because it comes close to describing reality, evolution is a worldview that, like a map, helps us locate and reach our destinations. When we are lost, this map helps us find ourselves. In some cases, it can be a tool that helps us survive and thrive. This map shows clearly marked paths leading to freedom of the human spirit.
This map is described in both the languages of science and of spirituality. Like the multiple, overlapping layers of a GPS map that shows vegetation in one view, buildings in another view, and mineral resources in another view, this map of the Epic invites us to see two different perspectives of the same reality.
A Direction: The Universe Flows In Many Directions
This map differs from a conventional map in that it includes the dimension of time. Because it operates over time, evolution, like time, has a direction. Evidence shows that evolution flows in many directions. One of these is toward entropy, that is, disorder and a loss of useful energy. This concept is well understood by scientists, and will not be examined in more detail here. What is less appreciated (perhaps because it is so obvious to scientists and non-scientists alike) is how the energy flow that creates entropy drives parts of the universe toward ever greater complexity. Plenty of evidence shows that at least in some places, the universe also moves in a direction of greater cooperation, greater consciousness and greater compassion.
We know that the universe tends toward complexity because, over time, some simpler things become more complex. When the universe began, there was only energy. This energy became more complex to form matter (subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules). Simple atoms and molecules became more complex to form simple, single-celled life. Over time, these simple cells became more complex and formed a nucleus. Some of these nucleated cells eventually formed full-time, symbiotic relationships with other cells that became energy power plants in the cell (the mitochondria and the chloroplasts). These single cells in turn became complex, multi-cellular organisms. Some of these multi-celled organisms formed diverse, complex tissues—such as muscles, bones and brains. These, in turn, formed societies. Simple societies, in turn, became complex, interrelated communities.
A part of the universe tends toward consciousness. For this discussion, consciousness is defined as awareness of the environment, creating an ability to choose action. By this definition, atoms and molecules have no consciousness, because although they may respond to their environment, they have no choice in how they respond. However, even the simplest living cells do have a choice. “Life is matter that chooses,” according to biologist Lynn Margulis and science writer Dorion Sagan.
Simple cells, like those that first emerged on Earth, can sense molecules. If the molecule is food, cells respond by allowing it to enter the cell or moving toward it. If the molecule is toxic, then the cell bars it from entry, moves away, or dies (in the case of poison). Over time, cells gained the ability to respond to light, to pressure, and to magnetic fields. Over time, more complex, multi-celled organisms with integrated neural networks evolved to respond to sound, to taste, to touch, and even to thoughts. Today, with the help of scientific instruments, human consciousness continues to expand its reach, and in this expansion, allows us to appreciate the universe more fully.
A part of the universe also flows toward cooperation. As we have seen, there is a tendency toward complexity. A powerful driver of complexity is the tendency toward cooperation. Like the simplest single-celled organisms of today (the bacteria), early cells probably lived in isolation at first. Eventually these cells cooperated to become multi-celled organisms. Some simple-celled organisms cooperated with other, diverse cells in symbiotic relationships to become more complex cells. Some complex, multi-celled organisms cooperated to become societies. And societies cooperate to become interdependent communities.
Although abundant evidence shows a direction inherent in the universe, little evidence predicts any particular destination. It appears that the destination may be up to us. For more discussion of evolution’s direction, see Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright or Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity by John Stewart.
A New Understanding: Survival of the Cooperative
With the sequencing of entire genomes, an new view of biological evolution is emerging. We now know mobile DNA drives the evolution of genomes and organisms. We know that although point mutations are random, they pay a small role in creating the genetic diversity that drives evolution. Furthermore, we know that natural selection is not random. Only the most well adapted creatures survive, and there is nothing random about that. Furthermore, one of the most important adaptations to have evolved is cooperation! Rather than evolution being merely about survival of the most selfish, evolution is also about survival of the most cooperative, the most conscious, and perhaps even the most compassionate.
Confirmation of the Prophets
Science, which reveals the Epic of Evolution, confirms what prophets throughout the ages and from all major traditions have been saying: our salvation lies in awareness and compassion. Science shows that humans are related to all beings. We are all one. Furthermore, we are interdependent with other beings and with our environment. Human survival now depends on “loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
In former times, a successful survival strategy, sometimes considered moral, was to kill other humans that were not part of your tribe. This is no longer true. In an age of nuclear weapons, the strategy of war threatens mutually assured destruction (MAD). What was once adaptive is no longer adaptive. Our world has grown smaller as our technologies have grown larger and more complex. This now becomes the environmental reality to adapt to.
Now that we have a basic overview of the Epic of Evolution we can begin to look at the reasons to celebrate.
Reasons to Celebrate
The benefits of an evolutionary worldview are both practical and spiritual. The practical gifts of evolution are a better understanding of how things came to be. This has been helpful in creating new antibiotics, understanding ecology and global climate change, the emergence and extinction of species, advances in medicine, in agriculture, in bioremediation. Because understanding evolution helps us understand each other and ourselves, it also offers profound spiritual gifts to people of all religions and of none. The spiritual gifts include the liberation of our spirit, a solid grounding in hope, a deep sense of purpose, and an expanded concept of Ultimate Reality, (what some choose to call God and others choose to call Nature.)
After nearly 14 billion years, humanity has emerged with the eyes to see and the capacity to understand the universe, both at microscopic and macroscopic scales. At one time, science seemed to remove us humans from the center of the universe, which removed a sense of purpose for many people. But now, our expanding consciousness and new scientific revelations in cosmology have put us back in the center, according to Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Furthermore, we now realize that we are the eyes, ears, and minds of the universe.
Liberating the Human Spirit
Understanding evolution is a powerful way to liberate the human spirit. Understanding the past liberates us from its bonds. Only when we understand the roots of our emotions, can we transform them. Only when we understand the origin of our fears, can we find our way to true hope.
The basis of effective psychotherapy is understanding your past so that you are no longer held victim to it. A deeper kind of psychotherapy is to understand your evolutionary past, so that you are no longer held victim to subconscious instinctual drives, cultural norms, and personal stories. An emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology is helping millions of people understand why what they do is sometimes at odds with what they would ideally like to do. Many people are slaves to their appetites and addictions. Many of these appetites served us well during our evolutionary past. Understanding how these appetites evolved can help liberate us from their tyranny. For example, powerful cravings for sweets served our ancestors well. Those who acted upon these cravings gained the fat stores needed to survive and thrive. Today, for many people, these cravings lead to diabetes, obesity and foggy brains. The basis of effective weight control is learning tricks (such as eating frequent small meals) to outsmart behaviors that evolved over millions of years.
An Evolutionary Worldview Provides Us With Hope and Purpose
As eyes and ears of the universe, we realize that we are central in the universe, both as individuals and collectively as a species. Once we know our place we can begin to know our purpose. Understanding evolution provides a solid foundation upon which people can build reliable purpose and meaning in their lives. Our purpose, from both genetic point of view as well as a traditional religious point of view is to grow, survive, and thrive.
By showing how far we’ve come, the Epic of Evolution opens possibilities for how far we might go, both as individuals and also as a species and a community of interconnected life.
In learning how the universe has been transformed, we realize that we, too, can be transformed (see below). Empowered with this meaningful story, people can be more accepting of themselves and others. They can enjoy more peace in the moment and have the tools to effectively transform their future.
The Epic of Evolution helps people ground their purpose on an integrated worldview that is based on the rock-solid authority derived from many sources: 1) observations of the cosmos by investigators from all cultures and religions; 2) the shared values of hundreds of cultures and religions; and 3) on reason. The stability of a person’s purpose in life might be too tenuous and susceptible to change if it were based on any one person’s observations alone.
Expanding Appreciation of Ultimate Reality
The Epic of Evolution invites us to enlarge our sense of the divine and to enrich our traditional teachings about the ultimate, underlying basis of all reality or, as many call it, God. Because the word God is such a loaded term, many prefer to call this creative force of the universe nature. Yet for others, instead of disproving God, understanding evolution actually expands their concept of God and in so doing, enhances their relationship to the Divine. These people conceive of God as the creative force of the universe who is still creating. For them, God is the process underlying all reality and the relationship between all things. Understanding evolution helps some people move from believing in God, to knowing God.
Understanding the Good News of Death
While the afterlife remains one of life’s great mysteries, the Epic of Evolution can help us make sense of and find solace in confronting death. In the light of evolution, we know that death of the individual promotes the life of the species. Cell biologists have discovered that for species of complex, multi-celled organisms to survive, thrive, and evolve, individuals must die. The only organisms that are immortal are single-celled bacteria, which never die of old age. But for all other creatures, the price of continued life of the species is death of the individual. And for complex creatures with expanded consciousness like ourselves, the death of individuals is the price for awareness of the universe. Death is a double bonus. Paradoxically, death allows us as a species to live. And it also gives our species the ability to perceive more of the world. In other words, the only way we may experience love, or joy or awe of the Universe is at the price of death of our bodies.
The Epic of Evolution shows that just as many species of plants, animals, and other life forms have evolved, so too have many religions and philosophies evolved, each adapted to a particular time and place. In showing how the different religions and philosophies have emerged, the Epic of Evolution shows that there are many paths to survival (salvation), both physical and spiritual including paths of religion and other philosophies, that invoke no supernatural power. This new understanding can help empower people of all religions and philosophies and at the same time promote harmony between them.
One of the purposes of religion is to orient people to the cosmos in a meaningful way. Since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species many people have felt disoriented because evolution seemed to contradict the stories people grew up with from their religious traditions.
The Epic of Evolution, although not a religion, does help to reorient people to the cosmos. This Epic tells the story of the universe from the perspective of science, yet also with an understanding from religion. The Epic of Evolution helps many people deepen their faith, and at the same time understand and appreciate other religions and philosophies.
Because religions have evolved, they will continue to evolve, adapting to their environments. For example, many seminaries today teach Process Theology, a relatively new way of understanding God which is based on discoveries in physics and biology that are less than 150 years old.
Understanding evolution has lead to the field of evolutionary psychology, which seeks to understand human nature in light of our evolutionary past. Among other things, evolutionary psychology can help people enjoy better relationships. The emerging field of evolutionary psychology helps people understand love, lust, revenge, anger, and forgiveness. When you understand why others do what they do, sometimes against their best intensions, it makes it easy to forgive them (and yourself). For more information see the excellent books The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan or Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher.
Understanding evolution helps us understand how to attain ideal health. As mentioned previously, a recent important breakthrough in the treatment of obesity is the realization that craving carbohydrate was a successful strategy for survival in our evolutionary history. With surplus food in many areas of the world, this craving no longer contributes to our health. We don’t need carbohydrates to help us through long periods without food; in most modern cultures we are eating all the time!
Another example is in the field of medicine. The more scientists know about how pathogens evolve, the better equipped they are to fight them. HIV is a virus that rapidly evolves. To fight it, humans must take this into account.
By understanding how the world works, we may better understand how to work in it. Those who understand the world, thrive.
We have just seen the many ways that the understanding the Epic of Evolution helps benefit our lives, and now we have many reasons to celebrate. But a celebration is always lots more fun with other people. Who else is at this party?
Who is at this party?
Ever since Darwin, growing numbers of people accept the ideas of evolution. These people include scientists as well people of all religions and no religion.
Today, nearly all scientists accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution. The least amount of doubt about biological evolution comes from biologists. Every major scientific society acknowledges the central role of evolution in understanding biology, and everything else. The tiny, vocal minority of scientists who do not accept evolution, are generally not trained as biologists, anthropologists or geologists, those in professions which are deluged with evidence for evolution.
Although a minority of people believes that evolution means that there is no God and that religion is obsolete, many more people find evolution to be compatible with their religion. In 2006, for the first time, more than 10,000 clergy from diverse denominations in the US signed the “Clergy Letter” stating the compatibility of religion and evolution. Furthermore, over 466 churches from all across the country celebrated “Evolution Sunday” on Darwin’s birthday, February 12, 2006. Evolution Sunday is expected to include many more participating churches in the coming years.
Recently, many prominent scientists and theologians from the Christian, Buddhist and Jewish traditions have published best-selling books on the enriching world view gained by integrating faith and the science of evolution.
Everyone is Invited
For some scientists and religious people, although evolution is fact, it is an ugly fact like taxes and death, not something to be celebrated. They still fear that evolution implies there is no higher power, no direction, and hence no purpose to their lives. They are invited to discover why evolution gives reason to celebrate. And while The Epic of Evolution will help atheists find more joy in life, it call also help religious people discover how evolution enhances their faith.
Now that we’re celebrating the Epic of Evolution, let’s keep the party going.
Keep the Celebration Going: Our Responsibilities
All celebrations require energy and commitment to keep going. This celebration is no exception. From what we know of the past, we know that not all species survive forever. Yet despite this sobering fact is the realization that many species have survived. We humans, along with every other creature alive today, are survivors! So far, we are immortal!
But we are at a crossroads. We know that overpopulation leads to harsh competition for sparse resources and potentially death. We know that the earth’s climate has changed over time, resulting in mass extinctions. Furthermore, we know that the Earth’s climate is currently warming and there is abundant evidence that human activity may be responsible for this rapid change.
With information comes a choice. And with choice comes responsibilities.
I, for one, choose to continue the celebration. But to do this requires me to behave in a way to insure that the party goes on.
The goal of all life is to survive. The roles of both religion and science are to help us achieve this aim.
We Are Stewards
Because we humans are the most conscious creatures on Earth, we have dominion over it, with the power to destroy and the power to sustain. The power to sustain only comes with the understanding of how interdependent all life is.
With our expanded powers of awareness, perhaps we humans can be a force for good. Perhaps we will detect and deflect a meteor, the size of which killed the dinosaurs.
The Epic of Evolution gives us a greater appreciation for our Earth and how it and its interrelated creatures came to be. The growing understanding naturally leads to greater respect and care for the world.
Motivation to Transform the Future
The broad view of history and evolution gives us a sense of possibility for the future. We can convert to non-polluting sources of renewable energy. We can end war, and we can make poverty history.
The singer Bono is one of many at the forefront of a (r)evolution: ending crushing poverty on Earth. Although this challenge is even more ambitious than the sending people to the moon, its rewards are so much greater. We can do this, just as we are ridding the world of smallpox, slavery, and discrimination based on gender, race or religion.
People with extraordinary vision, determination and effective application of resources are making Bono’s dream a reality. Bill and Melinda Gates are working to eliminate malaria from the world. Oprah is using her platform to educate her massive audience about this project. And millions of people from around the world are volunteering their time and money to help make poverty history.
An evolutionary worldview also provides hope in the realization that we can convert to sustainable energy sources, thereby reducing CO2 emissions, global warming, and dependence on fossil fuels.
The Epic of Evolution tells us that each of us is responsible for the future. The great news about our place in the evolving universe is that we humans are the ones that can see the beauty of distant galaxies and peer into the smallest cells. We are the ones that create astonishing architecture and compose splendid symphonies. With our expansive powers of consciousness, we are the ones with the most choice. Just as understanding electricity has helped us harness its power, understanding the forces of evolution will help us harness its power.
The science of evolution clearly shows that most species have gone extinct. For some people, a logical conclusion is that we humans will likely go the way of way of the dinosaurs, a most depressing realization. Yet extinction is not inevitable: all extant living things are evidence of this. For the first time ever in the history of life on Earth, we humans have a choice to become immortal – to have our species live forever. But this can happen ONLY if we fully awaken to the reality of the universe and its creative force (what some call God), and ONLY if we act with more love, wisdom, and compassion.