Posted by David
Earlier I defined evolution in one line: Evolution is the process whereby a natural system becomes its archetypal form. Let me go a bit further on this idea.
First, to see where I’m going with this we must realize that an individual is not independent. Nothing is independent. Everything is part of a greater whole. As John Donne put it:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…
The same goes for a species. To understand how a species develops a particular set of characteristics or a morphology, we must look at the broader organism: the species as an organism, the genera as an organism, the order as an organism, etc., the phyla as an organism, and even life as an organism. An not only do we need to look at a particular family or genetic grouping, we also need to look at the local and broader ecosystem as an organism. For example, the grasslands with all its organic and inorganic substances is an organism. The continent of North America with all its climatic influences and biomes is an organism. The earth is an organism. The universe is an organism.
I suppose I’ve gone far enough. You get the point. But here’s the clincher: each of these life forms grow just like you do, just like a dog does, just like a tree does. An apple seed becomes an apple tree. A baby dog, becomes a dog. A grassland ‘seed’ becomes a grassland. An earth ‘seed’ becomes the earth. You became you.
An earth ‘seed’ didn’t become Mars. A tiaga seed didn’t become a tropical rainforest. A rainforest may have once existed where the tiaga now exists, but it grew out of a different ‘seed’.
Each of these broader organisms is a form of life and has a particular specialness that is inherent to it. Each had a seed. Each, one might say, inherited a plan, much like the genetics written in your DNA. But the seed that grows a grassland, doesn’t look like a cashew nut. And the egg that grows an elephant species didn’t take just a 22 months to develop into an elephant. These ‘broader’ seeds took millions of years to develop interdependent the genera and biomes we see today.
What’s also interesting is that in the first few million years of growing into an elephant, the elephant didn’t look anything like an elephant. In fact, it probably looked more like rock hyrax. But, make no mistake, it became an elephant. It also became other things too: manatees, dugongs, mammoths and mastodons to name a few. But the ‘seed’ that grew the elephant species could not have grown a cheetah, a whale or a star. It simply couldn’t have. It couldn’t have no more than your mother’s egg could have produced a hummingbird instead of you.
One common misconception in evolution is the focusing on one-half of the process of evolution and missing entirely the other half of the process. The common notion is that the branches become more diverse as time progresses, call it an upside-down pyramid, or the phylogenic tree.
But the opposite is also true. There’s a right-side-up pyramid that deserves equal attention if we’re really and truly to understand how evolution works. This pyramid has to do with the evolution of broader ecosystems. It’s also known as succession.
Let’s take the example of a grassland. Over the years the correct climate and soils would drive the characteristics of the local ecology to take on the appearance of a grassland. This is the case for all biomes. It is also the case for you.
And there are only so many of these archetypal forms. There is not an infinite number of them. There may be a seemingly infinite number of successional steps within a paticular biome just as there are seemingly infinite number of steps between you as a fetus and you as an adult. But if you look around the earth, you will find a fixed number of these archetypal biomes. Each of them are slightly different, but in principle they are the same. Grasslands, forests, deserts, tundra are some of the primary ones on land. No matter what you do to these systems (unless you change the climate), inevitably in time, they will redevelop into their archetypal form. And what’s so totally amazing—from a personal and relational standpoint—the same is the case for you. You are an archetypal form.