Saturday, October 13, 2007

Chain of succession

I'm sure there are plenty of evolutionary theorists out there who have already beaten this subject to death. What I'm about to write is hardly anything new. But for someone like me, an armchair theorist who has been out of college life for over ten years since grad school, my pursuit of knowledge is nowhere near as concentrated as it was years ago. I fit in my "intellectual" time when I can, which nowadays is mostly either on the toilet or on the train. In any case, on those days on the subway when I don't have the New Yorker or a Savage Love podcast, my thoughs wander and I find myself in contemplation.

This week, as I passed by from Brooklyn to NYC overlooking the Gowanus canal (which apparently has gonorrhea), I started to think about waterways and how things came to be this massive city, and how it took millions of years for us to be where we are right now, smack in the middle of advanced civilization. I started to wonder what the first man and woman were like, and whether they had any idea that this was what we would become. I really tried to feel those millions of years, and of course my little brain couldn't wrap its head around that much time (and if my brain is inside my head, then that phrase can't be logical, but I digress...).

I found myself awash in visions of Adam and Eve, cavorting in the jungle. Then it hit me: there never really was a first. Not explicitly, and not in a way that those "first" would ever have realized, nor would be possible to pinpoint. Humans didn't just spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus, er, God. No! As with all other living things, we are an accretion of those very first cells that came together somewhere in the water and eventually merged and divided until increasingly more complex forms of life were created. There never was a "First Man" or "First Woman." It was all a chain of succession where beings came to be, somehow reproduced, and continued to "refine" themselves genetically over millions of years.

If one could actually pinpoint the first "man," it's possible that he actually mated with a slightly genetically inferior version of a female (meaning that Adam and Eve were not genetic "equals"), which then maybe produced the first genetically superior female, or vice versa. And so on. There is no such thing as a first. Ever. We just came to be. But not out of nowhere. And the truth of our origins is a slippery, but not impossible mess when we realize that our human need to categorize, label and contain is both our weakness and our strength. There are times when we have to let go of our cultural fantasies that try to explain to us the unknowable. There is no Adam and Eve. But, we did come from an unplottable somewhere (from where we currently stand in time) and that is what we have to take on faith.

1 comment:

Rational Answers said...

You knew I had to weigh in on this topic . I completely buy your basic thesis that there was no first human. A multiplicity of distinct humanoid genomes most likely existed in the earliest days of the genus homo. Since we seem to be the only survivors of the genus that emerged on this side of our split from chimps (our closest living relatives), humans are descendents of the particular combination of humanoid genes that was evidently best adapted to the environments that emerged between then and now.

In general, genetic superiority is defined in terms of adaptation to one’s environmental niche. As such, in a strictly genetic sense neither parent of an arbitrarily designated “first human” could be regarded as superior (or inferior) since they lived at the same time and both contributed to our (still surviving) genome.

Brava, on your commentary on the double-edged nature of our analytical minds. As a person whose first approach to virtually everything is analytical, I sometimes lose sight of that fact. Your suggestion that we place our faith in our causality, rather than in myths about our cause completely captures the difference between rationality and religion.