Evolving to Survive Ourselves

07/04/2014 11:32 am ET | Updated Sep 03, 2014

Every time I read about another religious fundamentalist killing people in the street, blowing up a building, attacking an airport or airplane, or committing some other atrocity, I think about how evolution is steadily fighting for the survival of the planet by cutting down the human population. Every time I read about the outbreak of a new disease, a rise in automobile-related deaths, or the carcinogenic toxicity of plastic, I think about how nature is constantly rubbing its palms together with glee at having indirectly and creatively "figured out" new ways to manipulate us into killing ourselves, and each other. Every time I read about a rise in any kind of sexual behavior that does not directly result in procreation, I inwardly applaud in hopes that the result will be a drop in rising birth rates.

When the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess first advanced the idea that it is illegitimate to value one species of living creature over another, he originated the idea of Deep Ecology. He also struck an astonishingly Taoist chord. As a Taoist monk, I find the notion of the Earth as a superorganism to make perfect sense; I also find the notion of evolution as a propulsive, all-encompassing, and all-pervasive force to be completely congruent with the ancient Chinese concept of Tao, arguably the closest thing a philosophical Taoist (one who forms his worldview on Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching) has to a notion of God.

If our own bodies are in fact host to millions of microorganisms -- myriad viruses, bacteria, and parasites -- that conspire to keep what we call a human being humming along from conception to death, then is it not reasonable to see the Earth as the real macro life form and all the living creatures upon her, sentient or not, as components of that large self? In this view, is it not obvious that with our fracking, drilling, polluting, acidifying the oceans, producing toxins, outcompeting other species, destroying habitats, changing the climate, draining every possible natural resource (now including those buried deep under the Earth's surface), and engendering the sixth great extinction in geologic history, we are attacking our host in most cancer-like fashion?

If there is one driving force behind our malignant behavior toward our world and toward each other, it is the Judeo-Christian notion that we are entitled to hegemony over the natural world because the alternately vengeful and beneficent god of the Bible gave it to us as our playground. Whether, after concocting a god in their own images in the inimitable fashion of our aboriginal forebears, the sages of yore actually meant for us to exert stewardship of our planet rather than destroy it is anybody's guess. The modern reading of that Biblical mandate, like so many other convenient, self-gratifying and self-indulgent interpretations of the mystical experience of probably-fictional individuals, is that everything, including some sentient beings, like whales, who may actually be more intelligent than we are, is here for our pleasure and convenience.

In my 2007 apocalyptic thriller, The Crocodile And The Crane I took the idea of nature fighting back to reduce human population to a new level. I based the story on the biological phenomenon of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This phenomenon, first described in 1842 by the German scientist Carl Vogt but deeply and enthusiastically studied in far more recent times, occurs when a highly stressed cell releases lethal, endogenous substances in response to a genetic signal. In short, the cell commits suicide. The sequence of exterior stressors leading to a genetic response is the basis of the relatively recent field of epigenetics. In my story, the Earth, stressed to the breaking point by human overpopulation, triggers a "death gene" in human beings, a last, fail-safe mechanism for saving itself from the ravages of human activity.

Thankfully, and perhaps by Evolution's very grace, we humans are imbued not only with pure destructiveness, but also with the gift of consciousness. With that consciousness, particularly when it is nurtured to ever-higher levels, comes the gift of choice. In the same way we grew thumbs and learned to walk upright, we can grow our brains and learn to see the world in a completely different way. We can turn away from greed and toward sharing, away from destructiveness toward nurturing, away from narcissism and toward compassion, and away from the material model of life and toward the cultivation of our own spirituality.

We can choose balance and harmony over excess and chaos, conservation over profligacy. We can recognize that while we can neither control others nor any other facet of nature, we can control ourselves. We can utilize evolution rather than be a victim of it, and in doing so find both redemption and salvation, a much better path than destruction, and one that may just prevent a violent end to our species, other sentient beings, and our world.