Life, Death and Extinction


I can’t understand the relationship (if any) between progress, growth and evolution. They’re entangled, but not equivalent.

The importance of this question will become clear – it’s not an academic issue, but a matter of life, death and extinction.

Let’s just play with this a moment.

(By the way, I refuse to “get to the point”. That’s because everything we “know” only describes a particular spectrum or color or frequency of the issue. We discover as many meaningful angles as possible by spinning the prism of perception around the issue (and around and around). This form of learning doesn’t tend towards conclusion (or points), but is constantly shifting its orientation as we learn, without end. I do this in honor of the Iroquois, on whose land I live. Talking around a subject until there is consensus by communion, not by force).

If pressed, most historians would probably agree that evolution is not equivalent to progress, improvement, advancement or any other comparative terms in any conclusive sense. We might say that a new species is better adapted to a particular niche, but outside that niche the species would no longer qualify as more advanced.

As the environmental situation shifts, the skills and intelligence we need also shift, forcing us to lose capacities in one direction while developing them in another. So every new skill reaches a point of diminishing returns. Every medicine becomes a poison.

This balanced lateral movement of development and decline is part of evolution. So evolution can’t be conflated with improvement or progress alone. Something needs to die in order for something new to emerge (See “Giving Up and Going On”). This is why we resist change, the half-felt realization that one way or another, if we change, we’ll stop being who we thought we were. Of course, we could also project our identity into the new form of humanity that might emerge and come away feeling optimistic. But the projection of personal identity may be the very quality that the new species drops in order to enter into a wider relationship with the world. So who we think we are ends here one way or another.

When notions of evolution tie themselves too closely to notions of continual advancement we forget to watch for signs of death and decline. Evolution isn’t impressed by big brains, if those brains aren’t capable of changing direction (which requires death). So let’s distinguish extinction from death. There is no evolution without death. For those who change, the old form dies. But extinction is when the old form is entirely eliminated, and no new form crawls out of the tarpit in its place. Extinction is the absence of life and death.

[Rather than using footnotes, I’m going to place these tangential, but relevant addendums in italics so that they’re easier to read in their correct context]. However, these are somewhat relative terms, extinction and death. From the earth’s perspective, the extinction of a species is only a death. From an individual perspective, the death of a species is extinction. If the earth itself is destroyed, that’s extinction of earthly life itself. But from the perspective of the universe, the extinction of life on earth is only another death. These relativities don’t flatten the meanings to irrelevancies. We need to understand that death is part of evolution, whereas extinction ends the movement of evolution at whatever level it occurs.

The specialists are most susceptible to extinction because they refuse to change direction (they refuse to die). We like to think that we’re the ultimate generalists, able to adapt to any environment because of our technological gifts. But specialization is a sneaky tendency. The technologies that helped us become generalists reach a point of diminishing returns and begin to narrow our attention spans with too much passive absorption, and by corralling our intelligence (our awareness and behavior) along the predictable ruts of algorithms.

How Does “Advancement” or “Intelligence” Relate to Evolution?

But does evolution only refer to the lateral shifts that keep a species from sinking into tarpits? Are we only shifting from apples to oranges – an incomparable sideways alteration? Is it all merely the equivalent of, say, the “evolution of fashion”, whereby forms of dress or forms of bodily shape alter themselves without any clear sense of progress, without any wider consolidations of previously divergent orders?

What are these strange consolidations that also happen, whereby a species, for instance, consolidates grunts and growls into a language? Sometimes this consolidation is abrupt, a kind of crystallization, as when the apple hit Newton on the head, deleting the blinding assumption of a Platonic vision of the universe so that a new consolidation of understanding could emerge in its place. So how closely linked is this “advancement” with evolution? Do we “evolve” when we discover a more consolidated (wider and deeper) connection to the world? Does the nature of Being change (do we become a new species) when our visions consolidate in a far wider and more empathetic way? What continues (goes on) and what dies (gives up)?

Evolution is generally defined by a change in genetics. But our genetic heritage is a kind of magical seed bag of infinite potential — dormant seeds waiting for their epigenetic moment. No, it’s even more open-ended than that. Our genetics are recapitulated holograms of the primordial soup, which can germinate in any form when the immaterial lightning of insight alchemically strikes the fertile ground of biology. Every shift in shape from Tetrapod to whale could be described as earthly insights, leaps in orders of being. Describing it alchemically rather than strictly chemically could account for the strange consolidations of order that exceed the capacities of random selection. Why this strange desire to erase evidence of creative genius in the material world, when we ourselves are evidence of the material world’s creative genius? (I say “in” the material world rather than “beyond” or “transcending” the material world because I’m picturing matter as a phase of energy and mind, like the metaphor of three “gods” in one — see “Practicing a Prismatic Approach on the Mind/Matter Dilemma”).

So is there (after all) a net sum “advancement” implied in this?

So far we see evidence of a kind of lateral movement, as well as indications of an increase in complexity that develop along with this lateral movement. And this increase in complexity also provokes consolidations of order that exceed random accumulations of change. These consolidations could be called meta-level tendencies towards a larger generalization, which would make the holon of life (whether a species, an individual or a planet itself) more likely to adapt and survive. And then after a while, the new consolidation becomes another form of specialization, triggering a yet larger consolidation. And this movement of advancement and decline (generalization and specialization) can also be described as another form of lateral movement, but one that moves perhaps along a spiraling trajectory of increasing complexity and subtlety. And beyond that, this spiralizing trajectory itself can also retract into a coiling collapse. And so on and so on. Hard to say, yes and no.

I think the problem is that we tend to look at the notion of evolution from a narrow vantage point, as the accomplishment of an individual species (biologically), or maybe (sociologically) as the branching of points of view within a culture (one branch surviving, one branch dying). Thus one competitor seems to advance in comparison to others. But evolution can be seen from a wider vantage point, where individual species are not competing with each other, but complimentary elements of the same unified life spreading out into infinite niches. From this wider point of view, evolution is communal, not individual. From a communal point of view, evolution is not competitive or comparative, but measured by whether the whole (or holon) is thriving or declining.

If it thrives, then the environment pushes out new branches that consolidate the growing whole. Then it’s the earth itself, for instance, that evolves. These new branches or species develop into something like incipient higher organs of a still-consolidating earthly life. But if the branch loses its sense of connection to the whole tree of life and begins to imagine that it can live independently from this tree (perhaps on Mars for instance), then the earth as a whole might be showing signs of schizophrenia, whereby the incipient organ of mind (embodied in whales, humans, squid and others higher forms of consciousness) begins to imagine itself as alienated from the earthly body, forgetting its place in the tree of life.

If this narrow perspective dominates perception, then the earth fragments and withers, then the dangers of over-development in any one direction (specialization) go unnoticed. We’ll go extinct if the narrow perception can’t give ground to a wider realization of a deeper community. But we have repressed the larger, communal perspective in favor of self-defensive individuality that is inherently blind to its larger surroundings. And any animal that insists on remaining blind to its surroundings will not evolve, no matter how intelligent it becomes in its own niche.

So the fairly common presumption that evolution “culminates” in the development of a heroically intelligent species doesn’t seem valid. At least not the kind of intelligence that made us thrive for a while – rational, controlling, manipulative skill. This intelligence is narrow in its focus, because it assumes a competitive stance, controlling and managing other species as an outsider of sorts, a supervisor of the environment, somewhat alienated from the world. A God in training, as we like to think of ourselves. This form of intelligence is a specialized skill that needs to give way to another form of intelligence (a semi-dormant quality, which might provide the vague outline of an incipient form of humanity): here intelligence is wider, making links, connections, a priority. The older form of manipulative intelligence doesn’t disappear, but (like mitochondria) gets absorbed as a specialized capacity within the new mind. The new human being can still think in narrow terms, but doesn’t take these narrow identities too literally (too seriously). They are metaphors of the moment, not who we are, not real entities that need defending.

A literal sense of “I” will not continue as this new mind (I won’t evolve into that mind), because the sense of “me” as an independent reality ends here. (If I identify with that new mind, then I’m still in the old one). So I have to die. Something abrupt breaks the old narrative, marking a radical departure in the nature of the human being. A change in meaning changes the nature of the being, to paraphrase David Bohm.

How Does “Growth”, “Consolidation” or “Learning” Relate to Evolution?

Still, I can’t entirely shake the conviction that we’ve progressed at least in terms of “quality of life” (an admittedly vague term, but one that’s often used as a measure of human advancement). I mean, consider the advances in the arts and sciences alone. That’s part of our “quality of life.” I don’t want to dismiss all that as if it were nothing, just because the human world in general is stumbling towards suicide. But even here, yes, there are advances, even as there are declines. As Eliot said,

“There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious”

But in general, “material comfort” is used as a synonymous measure of “quality of life,” and material comforts have clearly increased (for many people). But if it were that simple then the areas of the world that enjoy the greatest material comforts wouldn’t be facing such high rates of suicide and depression. We can lose ourselves in the narrow digital infinity of a phone or computer, and that’s not improving our quality of life.

Quality of life seems more closely related to being an integral member of a community (that’s another way to measure it), but not just a human community. This is part of the problem. We don’t see the relevance of earth and other species anymore, except as playthings or scenic backdrops to our diversions. We’ve become the only relevant thing, which is a loneliness that never existed in previous cultures. A meaninglessness too, because we have divorced ourselves from the larger, undiscovered portions of who we are, which are rooted in the mystery of our surroundings. We slide along the empirical surface of the world, blind to the immaterial forces, which give shape to that empirical world.

Post-modern insights have made the culture somewhat more aware of the fictional nature of belief and knowledge, but the insights didn’t go far enough to rediscover a new orientation in the absence of certainty. (I say “rediscover” because older cultures often understood the fictional nature of reality better than we do, as we’ll soon see). Broad visions and broad narratives went out of fashion, because they made us look too gullible. In the absence of larger meanings, our only alternative was to narrow our vision to the so-called practical necessities of a personally-focused life. And we accepted this narrower focus on Self, Group, Tribe, Nation, as if it were an inevitable quality of life itself. This situation is almost solipsistic in its absence of a connection to worlds that are larger than these forms of Self, worlds which could have put the personal point of view in its place (so to speak), giving it a role or meaning, rather than letting the personal presume the throne of ultimate importance, as we have by and large done. From my point of view, the half-completed insights of post-modernism left the culture stranded in a narrowly focused world, unable to return (thankfully) to outdated dogmas of the past, but also unable (tragically) to realize a new orientation, which doesn’t require dogma.

So our quality of life also hasn’t strictly improved as we evolved. For periods it rises, for periods it falls, untethered to material comforts, intellect, or advancements in surface learning, beyond certain basic levels that preserves us from too much physical suffering.

Nevertheless, there may exist a potential for a “strange consolidation” of our self-defeating narrow interests into a larger common interest that would suggest a significant leap in quality of life. In fact, every period in human history that consolidated around a wider communal and cosmic vantage point (providing a “home” for the personal vantage point as well, giving it context and a limited domain of responsibility) were the happier periods (more advanced periods perhaps) of human history. Perhaps humans have been crossing this threshold of a consolidated well-being periodically and then falling back into a myopic narrow mentality for hundreds of thousands of years, as if perhaps we are banging against a kind of eggshell from the inside, trying to peck out way into a more spacious and empathetic world, but failing so far to break free. In honor of that possibility, here’s a poem I wrote called “Big Bang Theory”:

To the chick
The Awakening impulse
Is a Big Bang

The shell is shattered,
The chicken coop expands

I think, in general, it’s the conflation of technological progress and evolution that distracts us by its bells and whistles from noticing evolution’s underlying lateral swings.

And there may come a time when we realize that machine intelligence has funneled too much of our creative energy towards the development of a technological potential, while reducing our capacity to probe a fuller range of human potentials. By focusing on technological solutions to health problems, for instance, we are neglecting the development of a human capacity to heal ourselves. (It’s instructive, for instance, how a tech-focused science overlooks the astonishing evidence of a Placebo effect, as if it weren’t “real.” Why isn’t this effect recognized as an undiscovered potential to know and heal our bodies without (perhaps) the need for technological fixes?).

My bias lies precisely here: I think technological development as an end in itself (beyond any immediate need) becomes a form of human parasitism. And one of the telltale signs of this parasitism is a blind conceit that represses our capacity to abandon this relatively narrow form of intelligence in favor of wider forms, when the need arises. We have conflated ourselves with a form of surface intelligence (measuring and weighing). And it’s my bias here speaking. But sooner or later we’ll be forced to extricate ourselves from a world made for (and increasingly by) machines and rediscover a lost potential (or consolidate this potential as a new form of humanity, rather than as a temporary state) – a world that promotes life itself (which includes “human life”, but isn’t narrowly focused on that), rather than the mechanical virtues of productivity, efficiency, control, and so-called “growth”.

This seems far-fetched, because we don’t allow ourselves to notice evidence of regression in our development. And yet here we are, poised on the edge of suicide. A blinding conceit has developed, which makes it hard for us to admit our errors. And this conceit wasn’t noticeable in many indigenous cultures, or cultures tied more closely to the rhythms of earth. They didn’t share this conflation of growth as progress and thereby develop the belief that they are better and more advanced than everything that came before them. They perceived the world in rhythmic terms.

Growth can mean many things. But as a technological virtue growth is equivalent to the expansion of control – prediction, rational delineation, empowerment (over the environment, competitors). This leads to a world that aims for only one winner (although it sells this competition as a universal benefit (“You too can become wealthy!”)). The narrowness of this technological intention is lost on us, because the narrow focus has its own limited form of infinity. We can become infinitely lost in the small silos of ourselves.

But as a virtue of Life itself, growth can mean something very different (a strange consolidation), which is far less easy to define, because it is utterly open-ended. But growth here doesn’t mean the expansion of control or domination to the point of imbalance and suicide. A wider frame puts the narrower in its place, and being “put in our place” is part of growth, part of maturation. It means growing into a relationship with the other elements of the environment so that all boats are raised, not just one at the expense of another (which is eventually at our own expense too).

In the narrower frame, I grow in comparison to others (at their expense). That’s why this culture’s dominant ideals include the internecine idea of Supremacy – never admitting defeat, never apologizing, never confessing to a lie. I’m not being derogatory in saying it’s an adolescent characteristic. I mean that in a carefully considered way. Being humbled is the real threshold of manhood and womanhood. It means losing our adolescent delusions of grandeur, so that we find our true place in the world.

“Being put in our place” could also be described as “being welcomed home.” Belonging to something larger than us. Finding our place in the choir, our meaning. We call this “being put in our place” when we look at this maturation as a defeat, as a loss of grandeur. We look at this maturation as “returning home at last” when this grandiosity dies.

But the narrow focus isn’t defined by size alone. Narrowness inhabits any form of the singular Self, including the singular nation or singular species. It’s the oppositional quality of the focus that defines the narrow vision.

And a narrow focus isn’t a problem by itself. Sometimes we need to see things in narrow and even oppositional terms. But it’s the domination of this focus to the exclusion of a wider context that indicates what we’ve lost and why we’re on the edge of suicide.

Rediscoveries and New Consolidations: Regarding the Absence of Any Blinding Conceit in “The Dawn of Everything”

This loss is becoming clearer as I read the book “The Dawn of Everything” by David Wengrow and David Graeber. None of this was mentioned in the book (so far), so don’t blame them for these deviant digressions. But the book is free of that blinding conceit and is able to take a fresh look at our ancient past, at our pre-state societies (even the prefix “pre-“ betrays that blinding conceit, that everything must inevitably become like we are today, as if this isn’t perhaps a dead end, as if this were the pinnacle of a progression conflated with evolution). We’ve never been able to look at our ancient past without looking down our noses at every society that didn’t expand to a gluttonous over-population or chain itself to the dictates of mechanical virtues.

To seriously ask whether earlier, stateless societies were more subtle, fluid, open-minded, individualistic and communal (simultaneously), than top-down controlled, technologically driven societies like ours was (until this book) laughable. We had too much conceit to look closely enough to see what we lost. We weren’t so much afraid of endangering our sense of superiority as we were incapable of doubting our conceit.

“What if the sort of people we like to imagine as simple and innocent are free of rulers, governments, bureaucracies, ruling classes and the like, not because they are lacking in imagination, but because they’re actually more imaginative than we are? We find it difficult to picture what a truly free society would be like; perhaps they have no similar trouble picturing what arbitrary power and domination would be like. Perhaps they can not only imagine it, but consciously arrange their society in such a way as to avoid it.” (Dawn of Everything)

That’s why I love this book – it gives me the opportunity to wax rhetorical about a lost vision that I sensed but could not otherwise identify. In this book, older cultures can be seen without being labeled as noble savages or ignorant savages. They aren’t diminished or idealized versions of modern humans, they’re modern humans creatively engaging the same questions we face now, but engaging them in very different ways, developing different skills, many of which we’ve lost to our own detriment.

However, what we also encounter in this book are the same mistakes we are making, a graveyard of lost civilizations, lost capacities, lost balance. A roiling history of gain and loss, providing endless lessons in humility for any reader who is not blinded by the indoctrinated conceit of history classes endured long ago. What a boring world those history classes depicted: a simple flatline of ignorant cave dwellers bashing each other with stones. How primitive compared to atomic bombs.

See, I’m already inclined to see “civilized” human beings as insane (not evil). That’s my bias. The authors may not share either of these radical positions (insanity or evil), but their research does beg the question when they ask why we’ve gotten stuck in more repressive forms of social organization:

“If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis, maybe the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’” (Dawn of Everything)

This is the same question I’ve been asking. My tentative answer is that human perception has become hypnotized in the narrow frame. We can’t seem to drop the singular focus on competitive, opposing Selves (whether as Me or my nation or my culture or my race, or my species, etc.). And this incapacity to shift our focus leaves us with no arbiter of reality greater than the isolated Self. Thus, our world has become a teleological trap. Nothing matters but Me (or I find false meaning in the greater Me of my nation, or my race, etc.). We can’t see our predicament from a wide enough vantage point to gain some perspective because that perspective endangers the primacy of the Self. And only extinction will convince us otherwise.

There’s nothing normal about this. There is no human nature visible here, only a lost capacity to adjust the focal point of our narrowly focused mental “eyes”. And our unwillingness to acknowledge this pathologically narrow mentality is precisely what prevents the vision from widening.

This is a form of insanity we could call Literalism — getting stuck in the notion of our own centrality, as if these identities were not merely narrow ideas and images (helpful fictions in certain contexts), but Absolute Truths. If you denigrate my image I may have to kill you. What I think of myself feels more real than the earth itself, more real than my idea of you. Literal thinking displaces a larger reality. A stuck, narrow vision tends towards psychopathy.

And once the “Self-frame” clamps itself over human perception as an absolutism, its own circular logic repels any information that might open our eyes to a wider world. It’s a kind of missile defense system guarding against any anomalous information that threatens its centrality.

So opening this book is like opening a treasure chest we had tossed aside as junk. There we find ancient worlds far more engaging and relevant to our present predicament than we ever imagined. My essays try to describe the skeleton of an elephant that they’ve beautifully and vividly described from the outside. What I describe as a loss of perceptual fluidity (the absence of a “prismatic” perspective), they describe as a loss of social, political and interpersonal fluidity. The question, “how did we get stuck?” is the same.

5 thoughts on “Life, Death and Extinction

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