A Short History of Evolution: Coda

Image credit: lightwise / 123RF

This article is part of Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to see all the articles in this series.


The last several chapters brought our narrative up to the present. That would probably be a good place to quit, since predicting the future is a very chancy business. When the subject is life itself, and our species in particular, there are just too many variables.

On the other hand, we’ve made a couple of assumptions about the essential nature of the evolutionary process. If they have helped us to understand what we know about the past, maybe they also can give us clues about what might happen in the future. If the shoe fits, wear it.

Our first assumption was that evolution is a universal principle, like gravity or entropy. The second was that evolution operates to produce complexity out of relative simplicity. The third is that in this process energy becomes concentrated. That is, the power available to the entity that is evolving tends to increase.

The trends toward complexity and concentration of power tend to fade out of sight when we look at what is evolving with the wrong time scale. If we look at the collapse of the Roman Empire in terms of centuries the trend is toward less complexity and less concentration of power, not more. But when you look at the evolution of Western civilization from the Neolithic era up to the present, the trend is easier to see.

The evolutionary process works because things that work better tend to last longer. But the process of winnowing out what works best and discarding the dross can be chancy and time-consuming. Progress comes in fits and starts, and often appears to involve several steps back as well as some steps forward. But there does seem to be something like a ratchet principle that operates over the long run to ensure that if you wait long enough, there will be progress. That’s really what evolution is all about.

Over longer time spans, progress is punctuated by what I have referred to as ceilings. Call them parameters, or algorithms, or whatever fancy names you will, they define the rules of the game within which an evolutionary process plays itself out during a finite slice of time and space. As that game continues and perfection within those rules approaches, pressures mount for some game-changing breakthrough that will open up possibilities for major new advances. Seen close up, such developments can seem enormously important, but viewed from afar they are just blips on a screen. Think of them as ratchets writ large.


The Perfect Storm

By many standards, we live in interesting times. Several major evolutionary forces are converging, all bumping against ceilings, all demanding some kind of breakthrough. It is like a perfect storm.

What are these ‘rare combinations of circumstances’? Well, on the energy front, it’s becoming clear we need to change our ways. We still have substantial reserves of fossil fuels, but our needs for power to fuel a rapidly growing world economy are growing. The energy breakthrough has to come in the form of renewable energy sources, and the need may become more urgent sooner than most of us expect. The climate is beginning to change and no matter who is to blame our needs for power will drastically increase. Meeting those needs with clean power is one of the principal challenges we face.

Meanwhile the population bomb has already exploded. We cannot just keep on expanding out into new turf as in the past because the earth’s surface is finite and we are coming close to filling it.

On the complexity front, the central issue for our species is governance, how to build systems that bring ever larger groups of individuals into cooperative relationships. There are really two issues here, how to keep the peace in the more quarrelsome neighborhoods, where people still believe war is the answer, and how to create some central authority that can govern on issues of global concern. It seems to me that on both counts we need a stronger United Nations, one that has both the will and the capacity to intervene decisively in the world’s worst conflicts, while providing the platform on which effective global governance for all of us can evolve.

A key sticking point is that cooperation between the major powers can no longer be secured by the classic expedient of fighting it out, because with the nukes, war has become just too expensive. Somehow, we have to find another way to global governance. It’s new ground we’re exploring, and we aren’t there yet by a long shot.


Where Do We Go From Here?

But how do we get from here to there? The USA is a natural fit for the type of leadership the rest of the world needs, but hubris has led us down the path of believing that the UN be damned, we shall fulfill the role of global sheriff ourselves. Meanwhile, we haven’t even sorted out our own problems of internal governance, so we fiddle while an increasingly impatient world watches and considers alternatives.

The patterns of human societal evolution we have observed since the Neolithic era suggest two possibilities. The first is a reversion to dynastic principles for the time being, with global rule by oligarchy rather than a single titular monarch. This might provide the central authority humanity needs to get people cooperating enough to resolve some of our more acute global problems. I suspect some of the billionaires that hobnob in Davos, and some others who are busy buying elections in our country, would be willing to shoulder the responsibilities of being the world’s policeman as and when they might be able to grab enough power.

This might prove an expedient way of getting our quarrelsome species past some of our more acute present migraines, but pretty soon the old problem of how authority gets passed on between generations would lead to a new era of disorder. At least we’d have learned something (the ratchet principle) that would pave the way for the eventual evolution of a more durable form of global government.

The other path forward would lead directly to a form of global governance grounded on the world’s recent experiences with representative government and inspired by a deep respect for humanity as a whole. That, of course, is eminently the more desirable alternative.

Something has to give. We cannot just stay put where we find ourselves now, in a halfway house between a world dominated by competing nations and a global authority. Either we go forward or, like Rome, we descend into a long period of relative darkness. Perhaps that too would constitute just another blip on the history of evolution, but even if seen from a long way off, it would be an unusually big one, and very painful for the people living at the time.

Frankly, I find it’s hard to be optimistic when I read the daily press about the latest happenings in Washington or at UN headquarters. But who knows, evolution has a way of asserting itself, even when the short run obstacles look overwhelming.

Let’s all keep looking for cracks in that ceiling we’re bumping against and catch some glimpses of the bright future that awaits us if we can just get through to it. If enough of us can sense that bright future we may achieve it sooner rather than later.


Click here to see all articles in Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series.