29 Jun


evolution photo: Mortal Evolution MortalEvolution5-1.jpg
When Charles Darwin noted that species change slowly according to the demands of their environment he might have added that the change was slow and steady.

So when his mockers, the disbelievers of the nineteenth century, cackled because they believed he suggested they had evolved from chimpanzees, they missed the point entirely. Darwin wasn’t suggesting that anyone in their immediate ancestry had been a chimpanzee but that somewhere in the dimmest of the dim past everyone had an ape-like creature in their lineage.

Indeed, you could go back to before the wheel was invented or fire discovered, to when men modified their environment as best they could with crude stone tools, and wonder why they didn’t look like chimps. In fact, you would find yourself wondering how come they look very much like us (though with different grooming habits and a penchant for very different fashions) and not at all like the apes from which we supposedly evolved. Why, you might exclaim, here’s proof that Darwin was wrong! And if you were to exclaim that then it would be clear as glass that you don’t have the foggiest notion about evolution.

Evolution, the imperceptibly slow reaction of a species to changes in its environment, doesn’t happen over night, but when it does occur it can make quite massive strides if they’re called for.

All this is my way of suggesting that over the past, oh, dozen or so generations, there’s been no change that you’d notice about human beings though sometimes, to look at the weird obsessions the young can have periodically, you might be tempted to think otherwise.

And a dozen or so generations ago they were burning witches for being in league with the devil. Not many more than a dozen generations ago they were lopping the heads off believers in the wrong version of Christianity. Back then, not all that many generations ago, they constructed tiny hidden rooms in their houses in which the priest could hide because he was outside the remit of current thinking. Priest holes, they called them. His wasn’t even a different faith serving a different God, just a marginally different version of theirs!

And that same number of generations ago men were the same as men today and women the same as women today. Evolution can’t do much in so few generations. Brain size was the same though life-expectancy for the majority was considerably less, but that’s been down to an improved understanding of what causes death and how to postpone it, not evolution.

Given the right push, the right impetus, and we could return to the jolly old days of trial by ordeal. Dump an old woman in the duck pond and it she survives and doesn’t drown then the devil’s saved her but if she does drown you’ve made a mistake, what a shame. This might sound a little absurd, but look at what’s happened quite recently when the right little push has been applied to perfectly rational and honest people. There was Hitler, for example, and the dreadful things he dreamed up for those he perceived to be his enemies and convinced the masses that he was right. And there have been others.

The easiest way to stir a people to obscene action when normally they’d be quite loving and ordinary is via their belief system. We, as a species and long ago, seem to have evolved to need something to believe in. Maybe, and for thousands of years of pre-history, there was the need to consult the local witch-doctor over matters concerning health and fitness, and that evolved painfully slowly into a need to believe what the witch-doctor said was true and he needed a reward or something nasty might happen to you… something like that, I wasn’t there and absolutely no records were made by societies that totally lacked any degree of literacy. But it’s there. That’s why the Tudors lopped heads off. It’s why old ladies with warts were burned at the stake and their animal familiars disembowelled. It’s why, centuries before then, the Crusades were fought. It’s why the Romans, for the first time in centuries observing their Empire as it grew weak, looked to the East for another religion (there old ones didn’t seem to be working) and promoted the hippie Jesus. It’s why, in short, there always seem to have been religions to hinder man’s progress!

And it’s emerging again. This time it’s the Islamists who are seeking guidance in their ancient texts, and the only real difference is a single man can kill dozens before he finds himself being shot because he’s got what his fellows in the past didn’t have: really powerful weapons. And that single man might seem more dangerous than whole armies once did, but he’s no different, really, from the terrorists of history. He’s responding to something inside him, something that has been brought to the surface and egged-on by this or that old man who seems to have wisdom beyond that of mortal man, and certainly has access to fine words. They’re the Guy Fawkes of a more technological generation but with more power at their finger tips than Guy Fawkes would have dreamed possible in his wildest fantasies.

The danger is to assume that the terrorist is a brutish, unintelligent throw-back, a crass individual who has somehow escaped the miracles of evolution and ought to be living awkwardly in his stone-age cave and chewing on old bones for supper. He’s not. He’s modern man but he’s responding dreadfully to whispered encouragement and the twisted words of an ancient book.

And I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do about him.

© Peter Rogerson 29.06.15



  1. josephurban June 30, 2015 at 11:03 am #

    Interesting post. I have the same beliefs about humankind. It seems to me that our technological and scientific development has far out paced our biological make up. We are still tribal in our psychology. Fear the other. Which would be a positive trait in the past, when people lived in small groups. Not such a good trait when we live in large, diverse communities and nations.

    • Peter Rogerson June 30, 2015 at 11:05 am #

      You’re right. And the more the human population expands the more likely it is there will be cause for fear.

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