Children of the Evolution

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH
PHOTOGRAPH BY HENRIETTE EBBE

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Photograph by Henriette Ebbe

“Your humanness is…merely the most recent stage of your existence; as you stop identifying exclusively with this chapter, you start to get in touch with yourself as vertebrate, as mammal, as species only recently emerged from the rainforest. As the fog of amnesia disperses, there is a transformation in your relationship to other species and in your commitment to them.” —John Seed

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a book that would revolutionize the way we understand life on Earth. Considered the foundation of modern evolutionary biology, Darwin’s text introduced the theory of natural selection, the hypothesis that the driving engine behind evolution is the competition between individuals whose genetic makeup differs. And while we owe a countless number of scientific breakthroughs to this work, on the one hand, it presented or perhaps reinforced a worldview characterized by competition and what we don’t have in common: not only natural selection, but natural separation.

 

On the other hand, somewhat paradoxically, Darwin also left us with a wider view when it comes to the interconnectedness of everything. Evolution may have driven us apart from other species, sure, but inherent in that understanding is the notion that we were once one. Or as he put it: “I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.”

 

Scientists have been searching for LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, ever since. In “Looking for LUCA,” published by NASA’s astrobiology program, Keith Cooper explains that LUCA would have lived around four billion years ago—most likely in hydrothermal vents. From these depths, LUCA gave way to prokaryotes (single-celled life forms like bacteria and archaea) and eventually eukaryotes (multicellular life forms like plants, animals, and fungi), forming the base of what evolutionary biologists call the tree of life.

 

Over the course of four billion years, that tree continuously unfurled into a flourishing array of biodiversity, all the while retaining its common root. You’ve probably heard that you and your neighbor share 99.9 percent of your genes, but did you know that you share 98 percent with many primates? Or that, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, we share up to 90 percent of our genes with felines? What about the 80 percent we share with cattle, as a 2009 study published in Science found? Did you know that butterflies evolved from moths out of an inkling to venture into daylight? As scientists continue to map species’ genomic history, they uncover more and more of what we all have in common.

 

In his essay “Beyond Anthropocentrism,” John Seed describes what happens when we free ourselves from the prison of segregation that we have created between ourselves and the rest of the natural world, a journey that is inherently inward: “The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we can begin to recall our true nature; that is, the change is a spiritual one—thinking like a mountain, sometimes referred to as deep ecology. As your memory improves…there is identification with all life…remember our childhood as rocks, as lava? Rocks contain the potentiality to weave themselves into such stuff as this. We are the rocks dancing.”

 

Of course, this awareness is by no means new. In her most recent column for Atmos, Ruth H. Hopkins describes this imperative, inward journey as the seventh direction, long foretold by the Lakota people: “It is we who will fulfill prophecy. As the seventh direction, we are at the center of this history defining enigma and we will decide our own fate. When we do harm, or allow harm to occur, it is our duty to repair that injury, or stop it from transpiring further. Inaction and self-pity will only bring negative consequences, not just for us, but everything we are connected to…Only through unity and reconnection will we survive.”

 

One of the hallmarks of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that a species’ survival depends on its ability to adapt to its environment. According to a 2020 WWF report, we have seen a staggering average decline of 68 percent in mammal, bird, fish, amphibian and reptile population sizes since 1970. As the ecological crisis continues to unfold, our evolution is now contingent on our ability to reconnect with the rest of life on Earth and see this loss as personal. To retrace our origins and understand our relations as both familial and fractal. To no longer view the world through a lens of natural separation, but sanctification—to declare all as holy, which is to say whole.

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