2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

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Vice President of Research & Collections, Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Dinosaur paleontologist and science communicator; Author, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
EVOLUTION CHANGES EVERYTHING

Evolution is the scientific idea that will change everything within next several decades.  

I recognize that this statement might seem improbable.  If evolution is defined generally, simply as change over time, the above statement borders on meaningless.  If regarded in the narrower, Darwinian sense, as descent with modification, any claim for evolution's starring role also appears questionable, particularly given that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  Surely Darwin's "Dangerous Idea," however conceived, has made its mark by now.  Nevertheless, I base my claim on evolution's probable impacts in two great spheres: human consciousness and science and technology.

Today, the commonly accepted conception of evolution is extremely narrow, confined largely to the realm of biology and a longstanding emphasis on mutation and natural selection.  In recent decades, this limited perspective has become further entrenched by the dominance of molecular biology and its "promise" of human-engineered cells and lifeforms.  Emphasis has been placed almost entirely on the generation of diversity — a process referred to as "complexification" — reflecting the reductionist worldview that has driven science for four centuries. 

Yet science has also begun to explore another key element of evolution — unification — which transcends the biological to encompass evolution of physical matter.  The numerous and dramatic increases in complexity, it turns out, have been achieved largely through a process of integration, with smaller wholes becoming parts of larger wholes.  Again and again we see the progressive development of multi-part individuals from simpler forms.  Thus, for example, atoms become integrated into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms.  At each higher, emergent stage, older forms are enveloped and incorporated into newer forms, with the end result being a nested, multilevel hierarchy. 

At first glance, the process of unification appears to contravene the second law of thermodynamics by increasing order over entropy.  Again and again during the past 14 billion years, concentrations of energy have emerged and self-organized as islands of order amidst a sea of chaos, taking the guise of stars, galaxies, bacteria, gray whales, and, on at least one planet, a biosphere.  Although the process of emergence remains somewhat of a mystery, we can now state with confidence that the epic of evolution has been guided by counterbalancing trends of complexification and unification.  This journey has not been an inevitable, deterministic march, but a quixotic, creative unfolding in which the future could not be predicted. 

How will a more comprehensive understanding of evolution affect science and technology?  Already a nascent but fast-growing industry called "biomimicry" taps into nature's wisdom, imitating sustainable, high performance designs and processes acquired during four billion years of evolutionary R&D.  Water repellant lotus plants inspire non-toxic fabrics.  Termite mounds inspire remarkable buildings that make use of passive cooling.  Spider silk may provide inspiration for a new, strong, flexible, yet rigid material with innumerable possible uses.  Ultimately, plant photosynthesis may reveal secrets to an unlimited energy supply with minimal waste products.

The current bout of biomimicry is just the beginning.  I am increasingly convinced that ongoing research into such phenomena as complex adaptive systems will result in a new synthesis of evolution and energetics — let's call it the "Unified Theory of Evolution" — that will trigger a cascade of novel research and designs.  Science will relinquish its unifocal downward gaze on reductionist nuts and bolts, turning upward to explore the "pattern that connects."  An understanding of complex adaptive systems will yield transformative technologies we can only begin to imagine.  Think about the potential for new generations of "smart" technologies, with the capacity to adapt, indeed to evolve and transform, in response to changing conditions. 

And what of human consciousness?  Reductionism has yielded stunning advances in science and technology.  However, its dominant metaphor, life-as-machine, has left us with a gaping chasm between the human and non-human worlds.  With "Nature" (the non-human world) reduced merely to resources, humanity's ever-expanding activities have become too much for the biosphere to absorb.  We have placed ourselves, and the biosphere, on the precipice of a devastating ecological crisis, without the consciousness for meaningful progress toward sustainability.  

At present, Western culture lacks a generally accepted cosmology, a story that gives life meaning.  One of the greatest contributions of the scientific enterprise is the epic of evolution, sometimes called the Universe Story.  For the first time, thanks to the combined efforts of astronomers, biologists, and anthropologists (among many others), we have a realistic, time-developmental understanding of the 14 billion year history of us.  Darwin's tree of life has roots that extend back to the Big Bang, and fresh green shoots reach into an uncertain future.  Far from leading to a view that the Universe is meaningless, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as fully embedded into the fabric of nature.  To date, this story has had minimal exposure, and certainly has not been included (as it should be) in the core of our educational curricula. 

Why am I confident that these transformations will occur in the near future?  In large part because necessity is the mother of invention.  We are the first generation of humans to face the prospect that humanity may have a severely truncated future.  In addition to new technologies, we need a new consciousness, a new worldview, and new metaphors that establish a more harmonious relationship between the human and the non-human.  Of course, the concept of "changing everything" makes no up-front value judgments, and I can envision evolution's net contribution as being either positive or negative, depending on whether the shift in human consciousness keeps pace with the radical expansion of new (and potentially even more exploitative) technologies.  In sum, our future R&D efforts need to address human consciousness in at least equal measure to science and technology.