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Bottlenecks and Breakthroughs

Last week I had a possible insight that changed my perspective on the human crisis. I’m still questioning and thinking through it, but essentially, it is that Homo sapiens has generated a completely new type of evolutionary bottleneck.

population-bottleneck-mainWhat is a bottleneck? “Population bottlenecks occur when a population’s size is reduced for at least one generation. Because genetic drift acts more quickly to reduce genetic variation in small populations, undergoing a bottleneck can reduce a population’s genetic variation by a lot, even if the bottleneck doesn’t last for very many generations.”

An example of a population bottleneck occurred with northern elephant seals—huge, bellowing creatures seen along the California coastline. Human hunting drove their population down to as few as 20 individuals at the end of the 19th century.

Their population has recovered, indeed rebounded to over 30,000, but their genes still carry the effects of the bottleneck. The northern elephant seals have much less genetic variation than a population of southern elephant seals that was not so intensely hunted.

Sometimes population bottlenecks lead to beneficial mutations, even to the creation of new species. That’s because evolutionary bottlenecks generate enormous pressure for radical change, which can occur when populations are reduced to the point of being threatened with extinction.

Population bottlenecks have happened at least twice in human evolution, the last one just before the emergence of fully modern humans. There was a bottleneck prior to a cognitive breakthrough that occurred about 100,000 years ago, which gave humans the capacity for sophisticated language, technology, art and science.

Humankind then went from a few thousand people in which the cognitive breakthrough occurred to 7.4 billion and growing. Genetic studies have shown that everyone on earth is descended from those few thousand people in Africa somewhere about 100,000 years ago.

The breakthrough occurred in a human species that had the same morphology as us, implying that there was an unconscious creative explosion that rewired the brain and released latent potentials, giving humans our present capabilities.

Successive waves of migration and mating of various species of humans (for example modern humans with Neanderthals) is a very ancient pattern, dating (pardon pun) back not just tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of years. So much for white supremacy and the injunction against ‘race mixing!’

The intermingling of different human species also attests to the general if random directionality of human evolution, producing the single human species all people belong to today—the most powerful and destructive species in the history of life on earth.

Homo sapiens, a supposedly intelligent species, has initiated the Sixth Extinction, wiping out animal and plant species at a rate that has only occurred five previous times in the history of life on earth, the last being from the asteroid that drove the dinosaurs to extinction.

That means this bottleneck is not just in a single species, but in the earth’s ecosystems as a whole. The implications are staggering, raising philosophical and scientific questions about evolution itself.

In short, humans have become so successful using symbolic thought without self-knowing and insight that we have generated a planet-wide bottleneck in the environment itself!

If evolutionary bottlenecks sometimes lead to new species, and humans have generated a bottleneck in the biosphere itself, it means something more than meets the eye is happening with humans on the evolutionary stage.

That doesn’t make man important, much less the center of creation as people used to think. But it does mean man may be an unfortunate stage in the evolution of intelligent life.population-bottleneck-1

For if one species can bring about the Sixth Extinction in the history of life on earth (defined as “a relatively sudden, global decrease in the diversity of life forms”), then the evolution of brains such as ours presents a great mystery. Randomness alone can’t explain it, and the ‘multiverse’ idea is intellectually dishonest.

The question is, can there be a conscious creative explosion that changes the disastrous course of humankind? Not to give greater cognitive capacity (computers with have that), but to awaken the human being’s latent capacity for insight, compassion and harmony with nature and each other?

The fully modern human brain has operated in terms of symbols, memory and time since before our species wiped out the Neanderthals. Now, because of the increasing division and fragmentation generated by the use of symbolic thought without self-knowing, we have become the Neanderthals.

Therefore what brings about a transmutation in the individual and species?

Passive watchfulness, especially in the mirror of nature, gathers attention into great intensity— without the observer/self directing and controlling awareness.

Attention is totally different than concentration, which involves effort and will. Attention is completely inclusive and acts on what is without volition. So-called direct action of concrete plans and actions only increases darkness and division.

When all one’s energy is gathered through passive watchfulness, attention becomes a fire that incinerates thoughts and emotions as they arise, leaving only awareness of being. Tremendous insights and states of insight occur, and the brain itself is to some degree transformed, rewired.

Then psychological thought and time end; thought becomes utilitarian, and is in its rightful place. Therefore attention and insight dissolve separation and self, and are the source of transmutation in the individual and the species.

Martin LeFevre

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