Monday, May 24, 2010

Re-Defining the E-Word

What does the word “evolution” mean?

In last week’s post on this blog, I argued (as have a number of others before me) that the “e-word” should be expanded beyond biological evolution to include no less than the “history of the universe.” In this more comprehensive sense, evolution is able to capture in a single word the unified story of the cosmos, life, and culture. In response to this post, one of the comments I received came from Kenneth (last name not included), who argued that evolution should be restricted to biological evolution. In his words,

"So much of the refusal to accept evolution (in this country at least, the US) comes from those who think evolution explains the origin of life. It, of course, does not and has nothing to do with abiogenesis. But presenting the origin of the cosmos as "the epic of evolution" is just going to further that divide. We need to teach about the Big Bang, stellar birth and refinement, how planets form, the Miller-Urey experiment's results, and evolution and natural selection. But we can't put them all in the same basket since they're not actually related (and saying that non-reproducing things "evolve" is adding gasoline to the fire, too).

Kenneth raises a critical issue, and I thank him sincerely for taking the time to articulate it. Because “evolution” has become such a loaded word in the United States (and a number of other countries), I have thought long and hard about whether or not to expand the word to refer to the history of the universe. After all, I reasoned, people might reject the Great Story out of hand, effectively tossing out the baby with the bathwater because of a bias against anything evolutionary. Eventually, however, I came to think that the two truly deserve--even need--to be linked. Not only is the teaching of biological evolution a critical endeavor worthy of our energies—so too is the teaching of the Great Story. And I’m convinced that this pair of ideas can be mutually reinforcing. I devote today’s post to a brief outline of my position.

Ultimately, of course, how we decide to define the word “evolution” is a matter of semantics, and words can have multiple meanings. For example, at, the biological definition of evolution is, “change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift.” However, nine other definitions are also listed, including one that applies to the history of the universe: “any process of formation or growth; development.” So the question is this: Do we elucidate or muddy our understanding of nature if we refer to the Great Story of everything as the “epic of evolution”?

Kenneth contends that the expanded version of the word gives ammunition to those who conflate the process of (biological) evolution with the origin of life, suggesting that evolution has nothing to do with life’s beginnings. I would disagree with at least the latter half of this claim. Recent work by origin of life researchers have revealed remarkable continuities between geochemistry and biochemistry, between the living and nonliving worlds (1). My strong hunch—likely bolstered by the announcement this week of the first synthetic life (2)— is that resolution of the origin of life problem, one of the greatest mysteries in science, will reveal blurry boundaries between the animate and inanimate, akin to what we see between major groups of biological ancestors and descendents (e.g., theropod dinosaurs and birds).

On a larger scale, I think that using evolution to describe the Great Story serves at least two important purposes. First, it underlines the fact that the evolution of life (and humans in particular) is not separate from the rest of nature. Rather, life’s origin and expansion is merely one of the latest examples of increasing complexity within a single, unified, and stunningly creative whole. By treating biological evolution as an entirely distinct process, we tend to construct a false dichotomy and ignore the many similarities between organic and inorganic transformations.

For example, although increasing diversification has been a major trend in both cosmic and biological evolution, another frequently overlooked propensity is toward unification. As I described in a previous post, “The numerous and dramatic increases in complexity, it turns out, have been achieved largely through a process of integration, with smaller wholes becoming parts of larger wholes. Again and again we see the progressive development of multi-part individuals from simpler forms. Thus, for example, atoms become integrated into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms. At each higher, emergent stage, older forms are enveloped and incorporated into newer forms, with the end result being a nested, multilevel hierarchy.” Indeed a strong argument can be made that the major steps in complexification over the past 14 billion years have been achieved large through unifying rather than diversifying (3).

A Darwinian sense of evolution has also helped to inform ideas about evolution in the nonliving realm. Perhaps the most surprising case in point is Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection theory (4,5). Smolin, a theoretical physicist, has suggested that the rules of biology apply on the scale of the cosmos. Specifically, the eventual collapse of a black hole may result in the creation of another universe on “the other side.” If so, each universe generates as many universes as it does black holes, the equivalent of reproduction. Due to a number of physical constraints, the majority of these universes may undergo “heat death” before they can generate stars and black holes; that is, they die off before reproducing. If so, there would be a kind of natural selection favoring the formation of universes of that could successfully spawn new universes!

The second important reason I advocate use of the e-word to describe the Great Story is that it increases the scope of the challenge facing those who oppose the notion of organic evolution. That is, opponents of evolution, especially young Earth creationists who argue that the universe is a mere 6,000 years old, must contend not only with the Everest of evidence supporting biological evolution, but also with the equally abundant evidence in favor of cosmological evolution (the origins of the universe, galaxy, solar system, etc.) and cultural evolution (e.g., evidence of tool use within the hominid lineage). Anti-evolutionists typically search for supposedly “fatal flaws” (e.g., structures showing “irreducible complexity”) that might indicate the work of a “Designer.” But there will always be things in science that cannot be fully explained (at least not yet), and overthrowing the notion of evolution requires that one upturn the entire mountain rather than a few grains of sand. Explicitly linking the evolution of life with the evolution of the non-living universe greatly increases the size of that mountain.

Finally, much of my confidence in promoting an expanded definition of evolution comes from such luminaries as biologist E. O. Wilson (6), who made this argument long before I did. I recently received additional assurance when I ran into my friend Eugenie Scott, Executive Director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE; the leading organization promoting). Arguably more than anyone else in the country, Genie and the NCSE are on the frontlines fighting to keep the teaching of biological evolution in the science classroom (and creationism out). When I asked for her view on the matter, Genie responded in wholehearted agreement with me, adding that she too defines evolution as “the history of the universe.”

So let’s feel free to refer to our cosmic story as “the epic of evolution,” and then recognize biological evolution as a subset of this grand narrative (7). At present, the general public is effectively illiterate with regard to both, a dire situation that, as argued last week, deserves immediate and widespread attention.

References and Suggested Sources
1) To give just one example, check out a terrific talk by one of these workers, Eric Smith (

2) Wade, N. Researchers say the created a “Synthetic Cell.” New York Times, May 20, 2010. (

3) Margulis, L. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Sciencewriters, Amherst.

4) Smolin, L. 1997. Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

5) Lee Smolin Wikipedia entry:

6) Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Pp. 206-207.
7) For additional reading on this topic, I recommend:
- Cosmic Evolution Wikipedia page:

- Epic of Evolution website:

- Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos

All images courtesy of National Geographic:

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Great Story

Do you know your origin story—the evolutionary account of your roots and those of everything else? If you’re like most people in Western societies, your honest answer is no. And that, it turns out, is a BIG problem.

What’s the problem with being story-less? We’re in the midst of a gargantuan sustainability crisis, the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity. The vast majority of scientific experts, from ecologists to climatologists, are in full agreement that we are currently on a collision course with ruin, involving human suffering and devastation to the biosphere on an almost unimaginable scale. Finding and following a new, more sustainable path will require much more than new technologies. Any solution demands no less than a novel way of seeing the world, one that gives our lives greater meaning and causes us to take action to protect and nurture our native places. In other words, we must foster a new worldview that roots humanity in both local places and deep time—exactly the kind of thing that origin stories do best.

Fortunately, an astonishing, awe-inspiring, and staggeringly beautiful story of our origins is now readily available, one with the potential to unite humanity at this critical juncture in our history. Variously called the Great Story, the Universe Story, the New Story, or the Epic of Evolution, this grand narrative is founded on several centuries of scientific inquiry [1,2]. Evolution isn’t just Darwin, natural selection, and mutation. Evolution is the history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. And far from leading to a view that the universe is random and meaningless, as commonly conceived, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as deeply embedded within the fabric of a creative cosmos.

Indeed the Great Story is arguably the greatest contribution of science, offering a direct glimpse into where we come from and what it means. More than three decades ago, famed biologist E. O. Wilson [3] stated that, “the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.” He added that this same story, “retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.” In the intervening decades, fields like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and archaeology have greatly augmented this saga, generating for the first time a unified, evidence-based narrative encompassing the cosmos, life, and culture.

Over that same time period, a number of people, in particular the late “geologian” Thomas Berry [1], have argued strongly for the importance of a general understanding of this unified epic. Yet the Great Story has remained virtually absent from all arenas of education. Today, few of us can convey anything of this story beyond perhaps an incomplete sequence of origins—for example, galaxy, Earth, bacteria, worm, fish, amphibian, mammal, upright primate, Homo sapiens—with humans generally placed atop the pile as the “king of the world” (if not king of the universe). It is ironic that we who have access to the most rigorous and complete story of everything do not use it to inform the arc of our lives.

I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas Berry that the Great Story, expanded beyond biology to encompass cosmos and culture, deserves to reside at the very core of the education curriculum. This astounding epic deserves to be told and retold, with appropriate increases in complexity, from childhood through adulthood. Education is currently focused almost entirely on the present day, with the unspoken assumption that everything that came before is meaningless and irrelevant. Yet meaning, purpose, and belonging have less to do with where we are at any given moment than where we’ve been and where we’re going. So, in addition to the horizontal perspective offered by understanding the present day world, education must convey the vertical context that roots us in deep time. Humanity must reinvent the sacred [4] and learn to see that everything around us has its origins in deep time stardust.

But isn’t the Epic of Evolution incompatible with the beliefs of major religious traditions? So it might seem, given ongoing media coverage of this conflict. It’s true that, despite resounding acceptance by the scientific community, biological evolution remains a hotly debated topic within the general public, particularly in the United States. About one half of all Americans currently support the statement that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” And many scientists, educators, and parents, responding to attempts by Christian fundamentalists to discredit Darwin and re-inspire a dominant role for a Creator throughout the history of life, have been fighting to keep evolution in America’s classrooms.

So embittered is this conflict that rarely is much thought given to why evolution education is important. Scientists and educators often state that learning the fundamentals of evolution is necessary because this idea is central to biology, or because evolutionary concepts underlie hot button topics like genetics. Such arguments miss a fundamental point. Teaching evolution is critical because the underlying concept of transformation is the very glue that holds together the epic of cosmos, life, and culture. And understanding this story could change the world by shifting the human conception of nature.

Ultimately, I can’t envision the necessary shift in worldview occurring (at least not in the brief time allotted to us) in the absence of a dialogue between the science and religion communities [4-6]. Fortunately, attitudes toward evolution, within and outside of religious circles, are far more nuanced than generally believed and great potential exists to integrate the Great Story with traditional theist views [6]. Spiritual leaders as diverse as the Pope and the Dalai Lama have advocated acceptance of evolution (though, granted, sometimes with caveats pertaining to human origins). Theologian John Haught [7] declared that, “Darwin has gifted us with an account of life whose depth, beauty and pathos—when seen in the context of the larger cosmic Epic of Evolution—exposes us afresh to the raw reality of the sacred and to a resoundingly meaningful universe.” Michael Dowd, minister and author of Thank God for Evolution [5], has adopted the role of “evolutionary evangelist,” preaching the Great Story to church congregations throughout North America.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” So said poet Muriel Rukeyser, underlining the power of narrative. Why does the Great Story merit a central place in our culture? Because this grand epic represents our best understanding of the evolving universe; because internalizing the idea of common ancestry through deep time will help us reconnect with nonhuman nature; and because disseminating this story widely may well be critical to shifting worldviews and achieving sustainability. Only when the Great Story is finally expressed throughout our culture—not just in science, but in poetry, song, fine arts, and dance—will we begin to truly understand what it means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. Only then will we begin to conceive of nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation. We need a story.

1) Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
2) Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.
3) Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Pp. 206-207.
4) Kauffman, S. A. 2008. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Basic Books, New York, 320 pp.
5) Dowd, M. 2005. Thank God for Evolution. Council Oak Books, San Francisco.
6) Phipps, C. 2007. The REAL Evolution Debate. EnlightenNext Magazine.
7) Haught, J. F. 2008. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Westview Press (quote: p. 2).

Top image courtesy ofSky Image Labe:
All other images courtesy of National Geographic: