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2011: An Evolutionary Retrospective

by Jon Cleland Host

Compared to our 13.7 billion year history, not much changes in a single year, right?  While that’s true, we can place the changes we’ve seen in the context of an evolutionary perspective - that grand saga of life, which has given us our world. 

On the grandest scale, the Universe continues to expand.  The most distant galaxies are rushing away from us at a blistering speed of over 100,000 miles every second, putting them 3 trillion miles farther from us than just a year ago.  And while we don’t know of any life outside of Earth yet, we have discovered many hundreds of extrasolar planets, most of them discovered in 2011 by the Kepler mission.  Much closer to home, our Sun has become more active, ramping up into the coming solar maximum, and sparking huge Northern Lights this past October 25th.

Our Earth is a planet that has brains, eyes, and the internet, and is a planet that has intentionally launched parts of itself into space.  In November, the most advanced probe to Mars ever made (the Curiosity rover) lifted off flawlessly, showing our continued advancement.  Also advancing, our global connections have greatly increased with at least tens of millions of new internet connections and new wireless hotspots in 2011 (if we have millions of both in just Great Britain, the worldwide total is easily in the tens of millions).  Whether or not this qualifies as a global brain yet is another topic for another day, but our progress is rapid, and who knows what the results will be in the future?  One possible result of our interconnections so far has been the 2011 Arab Spring.  Another has been the information explosion, with as much text written every few days now as humans had written in their entire history up to 2003, and more text written in 2011 than in any other year in our history.  Hopefully this information processing will help us handle the problems of the future, both expected and unexpected.

And we moved toward some of those problems in 2011 as well.  With 134 million new babies born in 2011, the world population continued to increase.  That many births means more mouths to feed, as well as a billion or more new mutations in our gene pool – most being neutral, some harmful, and some beneficial.  (Estimates of the mutation rate per generation in humans varies widely, so I used a very conservative number of around 10.  Some evidence suggests average mutation rates well over 100 mutations per birth.)  With natural selection reduced by our technology, the harmful ones are more likely to increase healthcare costs, and the beneficial ones may fail to spread to everyone.  It will be another challenge for future generations to figure out the best way to handle this constant mutational drumbeat.  That issue won’t really need to be faced for a while, especially compared to our unsustainable energy habits.  In 2011 we burned enough fossil fuel to add about 10 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, carbon that has been buried underground for millions of years, and now will contribute to global climate change.  Similarly, the rapid extinctions we are causing continue, with both headline losses like the Western Black Rhino, and the loss of at least hundreds of species in 2011, many before they could even be named by science.  Religious based hatred continued in many incidents, including the slaughter of dozens of teens in Norway by a person who wished to “return Europe to its Christian roots”.  Worst of all, I suspect that the majority of humans on our planet are unaware of the threat all of these are posing to our future generations, among so many other threats as well.    

There are also reasons for hope.  The information explosion mentioned earlier may bring the powerful force of our collective creativity to bear on these problems, before they are insurmountable.  The Arab Spring may have helped millions of people move from tyranny towards democracy.  The occupy movement in the United States may be partly driven by concern for future generations, and in 2011, the level of human concern for future generations appears to already exceed that at any point in our history.  Our circles of care continue to expand in many areas, one of which was shown by the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Human action in 2011 also gave us a higher use of sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar, than has ever been seen.

Of course, this review of our evolution toward a just, peaceful and sustainable world surely misses a lot, even the most important points.  In addition to the events I simply forgot to mention, many of the most important events of 2011 are likely unreported in the news.  For instance, did millions of teens begin to see our place in this Great Story, and their role in crafting the future, in 2011?  Were there elementary kids who learned the basics of science in 2011 who will go on to use that understanding to find a cure for cancer, or a new solar cell technology decades from now?   We can’t know, but we can trust that this pulse of life, which has overcome even deadlier threats in the past, continues to surge now, in us, at the start of 2012.  May we each do what we can to live up to our potential, for ourselves and for future generations.

In hope - Happy New Year!

~ Jon Cleland Host
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