The Season on Origins
During these six weeks, we remind ourselves who we are by examining the contexts in which we are – our cosmic, biological, historical, social, communal, and individual contexts. We look at ourselves through different lenses and at different scales. We see the world we inhabit as the natural scientist sees it, as the social scientist sees it, and as we as individuals see it. We find our place everywhere, from the vastness of the universe to our own living rooms.
Week 2 – Biological Origins
Our bodies are the closest thing to us, and yet we often take them for granted. Join us this week as we strive to understand ourselves as physically constituted beings with an evolutionary history. Join us as we seek to appreciate our place in the order of nature…
Charles Darwin wrote, in the closing lines of his On the Origin of Species, that:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us… from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” [Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. David Quammen. New York: Sterling, 2008. Print.]
We humans sometimes like to pretend that we are above our biology. Throughout history we have made a distinction between us and the “animals.” Special though we are, we are of course very much animals. We have a biology and an evolutionary history which shapes every intimate detail of our lives. And this is a wondrous thing. When we situate ourselves in the order of nature, rather than robbing ourselves of some special status, we invest our lives with an incredible richness. We discover our part in the grand tapestry of life. Moreover, we gain a tremendous amount of understanding. Why should the biochemical nature of emotion or the evolutionary nature of cooperation bother us? How infinitely interesting are the inner workings of our brains, how delicately balanced and impressively capable are our hands, our hearts, our eyes. Our biology makes us, as Darwin writes, a form most beautiful.
● Watch the second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – “Some of the Things That Molecules Do.” In this installment, Dr. Tyson discusses the origin of life, the nature of evolution, and our own appearance on the cosmic stage.
● Evolutionary Psychology is an approach to psychology which seeks to explain our behavior in light of our evolutionary history. Our instincts, evolutionary psychologists argue, should be seen as adaptations to the environment of early humans. That is why, for example, we crave foods which are high in fats and sugars. We developed a strong taste for them when these foods were difficult to obtain. Now that they are easy to come by, that taste hurts us more than it helps us. Read this primer to learn more about this fascinating field.
● Do yoga as a way to connect with your body. Yoga forces you to use your body in ways that you rarely do and so you develop a more intimate understanding of and mastery over that body. This article discusses the benefits of yoga. Try it at your local yoga studio or in your own home with these guided exercises.
● Another great way to connect? Dance. Whether alone in your bedroom or out at a club with friends, enjoy the movement of your body this week.
● Read The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough. It has been claimed by some theists that a world without God is a world without meaning. Professor Goodenough, a microbiologist, attempts to show just how much meaning there is in a naturalistic worldview. Her vision of our relationship to nature is inspiring and provides a lot of food for thought.
● People with physical disabilities often have a difficult time interacting with a world which is not designed for them. We need to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of these people while treating them with dignity and respect. Consider donating to an organization like the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund or the National Organization on Disability. You could also volunteer with the Special Olympics or with Ability Awareness, an organization which builds accessible houses for people with disabilities.
● Consider also that not all disabilities are permanent. The Himalayan Cataract Project helps cure unnecessary blindness.
Comment below with your ideas for how to observe this week!