Waking Up in Time

Creativity - From Genes to Ideas

If I had to define life in a word, it would be Life is creation.

Claude Bernard

Humanity’s unprecedented powers of thought and action have established us as a most significant species on planet Earth. But our evolutionary significance does not end there. Our minds and hands have produced a new source of novelty, putting at Nature’s disposal a fundamentally new mechanism of evolution.

If we move to a cold climate we no longer have to adapt by evolving a thicker coat of hair, more fat, or changes in metabolism -- a process that, even with selective breeding, could take thousands of years. Instead we can design and build insulated houses, central-heating systems, and warmer clothing. If we choose to fly we can study aerodynamics and build wings for ourselves; we do not need to go through the long slow process of biological evolution that birds and flying insects did. If we want to step into the vacuum of space we can conceive and create ways to take essential life-support systems with us. And if we don’t like our genetic constitution we can re-engineer it.

A New Source of Novelty

Most people do not usually consider humanity’s technological developments to be part of evolution. This is largely because twentieth-century scientific thinking considers evolution only in terms of the development of different biological species and the underlying genetic processes. Yet before Charles Darwin the word “evolution” had a much wider general usage. Its original meaning is the “rolling out” of the world: the emergence of new forms and phenomena from existing ones. In those days the term was applied to the world in general -- including the world of ideas -- not just to living creatures.

Prior to biological evolution there had been, as we saw in the first chapter, a process of physical evolution. New atomic elements were created from combinations of existing atoms; and as these formed into compounds, new substances emerged bringing new properties to matter. Only later, after the material Universe had evolved into very large and complex molecules capable of self-reproduction, did genetic processes begin molding the clay into a rich variety of living forms. Now, with the appearance of Homo sapiens, a new form of evolution has become possible. It is our minds and hands that are doing the molding, reorganizing matter into new structures and creating new capacities.

The human mind has now become the dominant creative force on this planet. The whole panorama of change that humanity has initiated, the whole of the culture that differentiates us from every other creature on this planet, started as ideas in the mind.

Unnatural Creations?

Many think that humanity’s creations are not natural in the way that the creations of biological evolution are. Why is this? We do not consider a beehive to be less natural than a bee, a beaver’s dam less natural than a beaver, or a bird’s nest less natural than a bird. Why should creations that come through the human mind and hand be any less natural?

Why do we think a lamp-post is less natural than a tree? It is true that they were created in different ways. One is a product of biological processes, the other a design of the human mind. One is a living system and the other inanimate. And we may judge one more beautiful than the other. But are they any different in the eyes of the Universe? Both are experiments in design. Both are the result of eons of evolution.

The different way we perceive many human artifacts stems from the effects they have on the world. When these effects do not seem to be in harmony with the rest of Nature we regard them as “unnatural.” But the reason they do not harmonize with Nature is that the thinking that governs their creation and use is not in harmony with the rest of Nature. Believing we are masters of Nature, rather than agents within it, we often use our unprecedented creative potential for our own ends, resulting in actions that do indeed separate us from the rest of Nature. As a result, our creativity may frequently be misguided. But it is not unnatural.

A Giant Leap for Evolution

Evolution mediated by human minds and hands has been able to create in years developments that would have taken genetic processes alone millions of years -- or that might never have occurred at all. The solar cell, for example, represents a totally new method of capturing the sun’s energy -- converting it directly into electricity. This is as significant a breakthrough as the development of photosynthesis itself, some three billion years ago.

Radar has allowed us to “see” at new ranges of frequencies -- a development as significant as the evolution of the eye.

Through nuclear physics we have discovered how to create new chemical elements. The last time that such a synthesis occurred in our area of the Universe was in the supernova that preceded our sun, some five billion years ago.

Genetic engineering means that the creation of new organisms is no longer dependent upon the slow process of biological evolution; we can consciously design and create them within a matter of months. (Though whether we will use this awesome power wisely remains to be seen.)

And we have made our first journeys out into space and walked on the moon -- a step which biological evolution alone might never have achieved, not in ten billion years.

In short, the shift from genes to ideas represents not just another step in biological evolution, but a giant leap for evolution itself. We, the products of this long evolutionary development, have now become conscious participants in the continuing unfolding of creation.

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