In 1831 a twenty-two year old boy boarded a ship in Devonport, England. His journey on the HMS Beagle would take him around the world for five years. To places like New Zealand and the Galapagos and Farallon Islands, where he collected specimens of plants, rocks, animals, fossils.
He observed variations in habitats and layers of rock formations; the earth changes over time, dramatically. He observed fossils; organisms change too. Those that can adapt, survive.
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Thirty-two years after the trip that changed his life, the theory he advanced changed the world.
Standing on his shoulders, we see even further today. Here comes the magic. Ready?
All living creatures have about five hundred genes in common. Yes all: the koji fungi in our soy sauce; the single-cell microbes in our sneeze; the centipedes in our flowerpots, they and the flowers hundreds of millions of years older than us. The trees, fish, iguanas, birds, dinosaurs, dogs, mammoths, sloths, butterflies, hummingbirds, earthworms, blue whales. The apes, the chimpanzees. Us.
The specific DNA sequence of a gene can vary among species, but these genes themselves are so critical to all function that natural selection has left them intact for over two billion years.
All living creatures evolved from a common ancestor. All living creatures share five hundred genes.
Some living creatures swim, some fly. Some crawl and some skydive from planes. Some breathe through lungs, gills, through the pores of their membranes, oxygen masks in hospital beds. Some are so infinitely small that a drop of water is an ocean to them, some with cerebral cortexes so large they build great walls, nuclear bombs, megacities.
Within each species, variations are endless. Some humans are tall, short, fat, thin. Some are more powerful, some luckier, some born into loving, middle-class suburban homes.
But some are born with Monosomy, Trisomy, genes that predispose them to diabetes, cancer, hyper and hypo tension, the development of schizophrenia, dementia, Celiac, depression, Alzheimer’s disease.
Some are killed in terrorist bomb blasts, in markets, public squares, hotels. Some in the crossfire between government forces and insurgents, jihadists, the automatic guns of mad men. Some are persecuted and driven out of their homes, made stateless because of their faith. Some are refugees by drone strike, storm. volcanic eruption. Some are starving, freezing to death.
Natural selection means ‘survival of the fittest:’ some traits make some organisms more fit. They adapt better, reproduce, pass their genes on. Those with weaker traits die out.
But survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the best. There is no merit to mere existence. We are no better than the centipedes. Or the koji fungi in our soy sauce, or the bacteria in our sneeze. No better or more worthy than the sick, the handicapped, the humanitarian refugees. Survival of the fittest is a fact, not an attribute. Nor is it an excuse.
The fittest among us shares five hundred genes with the weakest, the most distant, most different. You are your brother’s keeper. You are every life’s keeper.
Evolution is a single tree.
True, survival of the fittest is a fact; not everyone can or will. Nor can we stop all suffering everywhere, but we can and we must care.
We must care about Saudi women driving; American women being harassed; Nigerian schoolgirls being held hostage for the past three years. Rohingyas, Copts scared to return home; Somalis scared to leave them; Yemenis, Syrians, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans who no longer have them.
We must care about discolored coral reefs, disappearing rainforests and glaciers. We must care that since the beginning of this year, we have lost thousands of species. We must care about the environment, about human rights, animal rights. Five hundred genes. No life is too small or weak for us to fight on its behalf.