Evolutionary Amnesia?

BY our own estimates, human evolution has made vast progress over the millennia in our dominance of Earth as a species; particularly in the development, capacity and intuitive functionality of our brains. Which leads me to question, why, as clever and technologically astute as we have become, even in the face of historically evident patterns, can we not learn from our mistakes?

Inevitably, I have more questions than answers.

Driven by our good and evil inclinations, we repeatedly experience periods of war or peace as we veer between prosperity and paucity. Although we are now engaged in battling a global pandemic, this is not a traditional theater of war with a clearly visible, organized enemy; unless you have access to a scanning electron microscope and a fully equipped lab to make sense of it.

However, our conflicting responses to it make me wonder about that ancient argument of free will vs. determinism. Given my penchant for science fiction, are we ‘pre-programmed’ to behave this way by some incomprehensible ‘entity’? And might that ‘entity possess a dual nature that encompasses both good and evil that eternally vie for dominion over us?

Perhaps we were created to evolve with a ‘bug’ in our neural coding; ostensibly to help us navigate our way through life’s physical environment, develop civilizations and address the bombardment of misleading or insufficient information in each generation? For lack of a scientific term, have we dubbed this ‘bug’ ‘free will’?

Or, perhaps our overactive imaginations are merely a random side effect of our physical evolution? Since I have no philosophical or scientific creds to bolster technical arguments for either idea, my curiosity and incessant reading habits of both secular and religious literature will have to do.

I suppose that my religious beliefs urge me towards determinism but depending on the circumstance, I occasionally waver between the two ideas. And here is why:

In each go-round, we are presented with chains of man-made and/or environmental events that soon result in reduced populations, prejudiced political dogma and sometimes polemic leadership. The latter rises by promising that life will surely improve going forward under their watch (which it may briefly do). Still, when negative situations arise, our response remains confined to predictably static phases: denial, then outrage and finally, surrender to performing damage control while bemoaning our fate.

For centuries, historians have documented this cycle of events with their often tragic denouements yet offered only theoretical remedies for them.  Such remedies, beholden to hindsight rather than foresight leave us trapped in the disasters we’ve created through our complaisance, economic manipulation and deadly political mischief.

It would seem that while we have dramatically evolved physically from our knuckle-dragging forbears, we have remained psychologically frozen as teenagers; prone to impatience, addicted to excitement and often intolerant towards others.

Holocaust denial may be one of the most cited examples of this idea despite the copious historical evidence and heartfelt efforts of the few remaining victims of its atrocities. Nevertheless, in succeeding generations, individuals arise with a superficial understanding of Nazi culture and its role in these horrific events yet they know enough to twist the facts or form groups of like-minded acolytes in order to activate its worst malevolent characteristics.

Many years ago, this idea struck home when I was commissioned to draw caricatures by a local department store (remember those?) during the holiday shopping season. Taking a break, I was watching the zombified shoppers wander through the glittering aisles, when a young teenaged boy approached my table asking if I would draw him. Sure, I said. Then I noticed that he had inked the sign of a swastika on his hand. Not wishing to provoke a confrontation, I asked innocently as my eyes narrowed involuntarily. “What’s that?” Without hesitation he explained proudly that it was a sign worn by a group of his ‘friends’. “Oh,” I said. Never one to let a teaching opportunity pass, I further inquired, ” Do you know what it means?” “Not really,” he shrugged. ” I just did it because they said it would be cool.” “Uh-huh” I nodded, then proceeded to give him a brief but graphic history of the Holocaust. As I explained, I watched his face drain of color and without a word, he raced to the men’s room. Upon his return, he waved his hand in my face. “See?” he crowed, I scrubbed it off! I think I need to find some new friends!” In common social media parlance, SMH.

So, considering our long, fraught history (the ‘woke’ teenager notwithstanding) , to what extent does free will ‘bug’ exist, if it does? Do we not learn from our mistakes because in order for evolution to continue its mysterious trajectory, each iteration of humanity must be doomed to make its own mistakes? And could this be why ancestral wisdom gets poorly translated and/or misinterpreted in succeeding generations? Or, in simple street terms, does sh*t just happen?

I realize that this essay opens a pungent can of worms, but it’s just my opinion and I’m truly curious as to what you think…?

 

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