My Significant Other is the Kosmos Part 3: Is Evolution the New Metaphysics?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Marching onward into the fog - sounds a bit daunting, even a little terrifying. We think of phrases like "a foggy mind", or "the fog of war"; we think of being lost without bearings, no visible landmarks to guide us. But fog can be a teacher; let me relate to you an anecdote concerning fog.

I grew up in Northern California, land of the giant Redwoods and - you guessed it- fog. From June until October thick ocean fog presses the shoreline from San Diego to Eureka, tumbling over hills and rushing inland through openings like the Golden Gate at San Francisco Bay. Anyone who has visited San Francisco for summer vacation probably remembers that rude awakening when, dressed in shorts and tank top and sandals on a trek to the sunny California beaches, they encountered the icy grip of wet, clinging fog that never quite burns off, but at best recedes to a pale grey haze. Another peculiarity of weather in California is the dry summer - from June until October it's likely not a drop of rain will fall on the state west of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Because of this much of California is, for all intents and purposes, a desert.

And yet, there are those vast forests of giant redwood trees, the largest trees in the world - hardly a desert inhabitant, one would think. How do they survive four to six months a year, year after year, with no rain? This question had never risen in my mind until one thick foggy morning I took a stroll in a redwood grove just east of Oakland. As the trail meandered through a particularly thick stand of trees I suddenly found myself pelted with a steady, persistent stream of large globs of water. I stopped, and all around me I could hear what sounded like a light but steady rainfall. When I looked up I discovered the source - somehow, the peculiar shape of the redwood needles managed to capture moisture from the fog and condense enough of it to create a small stream of water that ran down to the tips of the branches, light drops falling from each branch in a steady drip, drip, drip. The ground under my feet was wet and soggy. Then it hit me - the redwood trees had found a way to water themselves!

They adapted. A Neo-Darwinian would say it came about by the process
of random mutation and natural selection over thousands, even tens or
hundreds of thousands of years. But if you stand back, way back, and
just look at the process and results, you'll be struck by how
astonishingly CREATIVE this solution is. One might say, in this
light, that the process of evolutionary adaptation seems to be
saturated in a kind of creative desire - in the case of redwoods,
some elemental desire for water resulting in a novel, creative
solution to overcoming environmental obstacles toward satisfying that
desire. And think of this - how persistent were they? Thousands and
thousands of years working at the problem trying this, trying that,
morphing slowly but always, always in the direction desire dictated,
until finally.... no rain? No problem, we'll make our own rain. It's
as if this small expression of the Cosmos just shrugged and said, "if
ya gotta lemon, make lemonade".

This desire, this creative eros, seems to penetrate not only the evolution of life on this planet, but in fact the entire cosmic evolutionary stream. If we, for the moment, accept the notion of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago as the initiator of this grand evolutionary process, what do we see? From pure, matterless energy to the first hydrogen atoms, to helium, and on through the periodic table, slowly but inexorably coming into being from nothing. Then the clouds of gas composed of those early elements forming into stars, solar systems, galaxies. Then somehow, against all odds, here on Earth (and probably elsewhere) life appears - single cells to multi cells to organisms arising out of the primordial soup. Eventually those organisms migrate to land, culminating in 100 milliion years of domination by the dinosaurs, then a meteor crashes into the Gulf of Mexico and nothing bigger than a chicken survives, allowing the rise of the mammals, then primates, then...us, beings apparently for the first time capable of self-reflection. All of this a long, long series of absolutely novel creative leaps.

Could it be that, even in us today, when we find within us that urge to create - be it in the arts or sciences, in building or inventing, in making babies or making lasagna, in doodling or dancing - we are tapping into that same creative eros that has driven the entire evolutionary impulse of the Cosmos from the beginning? And if that's true, could it be that we are right now the leading edge of something much, much bigger and grander than our petty personal experiences? So it seemed to me on that dark night when my self disappeared and something else arose in the fog.

To be continued...