Life, Death and Extinction: Part I of a Series of Essays Inspired by the Book, “The Dawn of Everything”


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).

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.Read More »