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The Evolutionary Lesson of Humility

In the past few decades, technology has flourished. When I was a child, cell phones, digital cameras, laptops and the like were the stuff of sci-fi lore. Official documents were not word processed. They were typed. Today, American Indians seem more wired than most. Even on the reservation, it’s rare to run into someone who doesn’t have a cell phone or access to the internet.

The exponential growth of computerized technology is a good example of evolution at work. Evolution is, simply put, descent with modification. A life form—even an artificial one—evolves by making adaptations that increase its ability to survive and reproduce. The evolutionary process doesn’t happen overnight, but in the case of artificial intelligence, factors like the laws of supply and demand and new scientific discoveries have enabled evolutionary jumps that we human beings have not been able to accomplish as organisms on our own. Anyone who’s purchased a new laptop has seen how quickly it becomes outdated, as it is swiftly and mercilessly replaced by its next generation. Experts surmise that "singularity"—the moment when computers become as intelligent as human beings—will occur by 2045. On that date, "civilization" as we know it will no longer be defined within human perimeters, as we will no longer be at the top of the cerebral food chain. There is speculation that after singularity occurs, humans will merge with artificial intelligence, and evolve by finding immortality when we are able to replace defunct organic parts with synthetic ones, like we’re changing out the tranny on an old Buick. Then again, the artificial intelligence we’ve created could determine that the human race has become obsolete.

The possibility that we as humans are capable of shaping our own evolution suggests that we can control it. Surely we are capable of determining what adaptations may increase our chances of survival. One could assert that the transition from fossil fuels to green energy is an altruistic behavioral adaptation that the human species can make; we're hoping to avert global warming and thus increase our odds of survival as a whole.

The results of human attempts to harness nature have been mixed. Dogs and cattle were domesticated though selective breeding, but that doesn’t rise to the level of influencing natural selection. Thousands of species have gone extinct on our watch, some have done so directly because of us. The honey bee, which pollinates flowers, cotton, berries, cauliflower, beets, watermelon, and dozens of other crops, is on the brink of extinction. Over the past 40 years, we’ve lost approximately half of all honey bees in the United States. The main cause appears to be the use of pesticides, but studies have shown that cell phones may be a contributing factor. If honeybees went extinct, we could follow closely behind. As a species, it appears that we haven’t managed our own development very well either. Record levels of obesity caused by unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle have lead to an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease. The distribution of resources among humans on Earth is hardly equal either.

Pride and greed tell us that we are the masters of all we survey, but control is often an illusion, especially where Mother Nature is concerned. Nature is powerful. Earthquakes lay waste to entire countries. Tornadoes tear through landscapes indiscriminately. Mother Nature abides by rules, but occasionally, she refuses the adaptations that normally lead to survival via evolution in favor of chance. Research has shown that when mass extinction events transpire, the adaptations organisms have made for hundreds of thousands of years matter less than whether or not we’re widely dispersed enough to have a chance of surviving. Just as dinosaurs were evolutionarily primed for success, they were helpless in the wake of a mass extinction event that wiped them out, and allowed nondescript, widely dispersed mammals to step out of the darkness and thrive. Imagine a supercomputer reaching singularity, only to have its figurative plug pulled by Mother Nature, with no back up drive in sight.

Man is not omnipotent. It’s impossible for us to prepare for every possible scenario because the future remains unknown. An asteroid could strike Earth tomorrow. About every 300,000 years, the magnetic poles on Earth reverse. If this were to happen today, magnetic north would become magnetic south, and vice versa. This event would render navigational devices useless, and wreak havoc on electronics, as well as migratory animals. Curiously, we’re due for a pole reversal.

We can make Earth better, if we stop destroying it and take measures to preserve balance. In the environment’s current state, what’s needed is not pride or greed, but humility. As Natives, we are taught the importance of humility. Perhaps it’s time that we stress the importance of being humble to the Western world. Humility calls upon us to respect others and respect nature—to live in balance with it rather than dominate it. If we are to survive as a species, it will be the common, humble man who leads the way.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at