Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Evolution of Thought Affecting Biological Evolution

J Shafagh's picture

                Looking at the evolution of thought and thought processes among many different cultures can shed light into a better understanding of our evolving world today and, albeit, our interpretation of the world, for over time, the two work hand-in-hand.  Our thought gives us explanations of how our world came into existence, and as life evolves and the story becomes more expansive, our world evokes the evolution of more thoughts on aspects of our culture, health, society and future. Thus, biological evolution creates a framework for understanding the evolution of many other things, such as the human thought process, as they continue to influence one another over time.  However, because human culture and society can also affect our thought processes, this complicates our understanding of the interplay between the many factors which can affect our overall biological evolution.
               Among humans, the evolution of thought is the long and slow transition from the earliest beliefs in myths and magic, to the implementation of science and reason, and continues to rapidly evolve today.  In the earliest of times, humanity’s knowledge of the universe was very limited.  Natural phenomena such as changes in climate and weather were poorly understood, travel was more tedious and difficult, communication between individuals in far off lands was rare, and there was an overall simplicity to life and lack of understanding of many of life’s processes.  When catastrophes struck the world or countries, such as Bubonic plague, the only thing that people understood could help them was prayer and religion.  In essence, these ideologies and poor medical knowledge caused the death of billions of people, affecting the course of biological evolution.
                   However, after the advent of movable type and the expanding Western Civilization, books became readily available to many, the opportunity to learn and be educated was more common, and humans became more interested in studying the physical world.  The blooming science and technology spurred the Industrial Revolution, creating a middle class, more education, many books, and a way for people to begin thinking freely and independently.  Increasing communication meant sharing medical information and publishing and reading medical texts, and increasing means of transportation meant more access to healthcare and faster assistance and treatment when needed.  Furthermore, technology advanced the tools necessary for medicinal practices, and a larger emphasis was made on cleanliness and hygiene.  These factors combined helped improve patient healthcare and prolong life, which in turn, affected biological evolution of human beings.
                  As civilizations further evolved in different countries and among different cultures, education, learning, and thinking were able to take on their own course.  Although there was expanding communication between human beings in different locations, different ideologies and philosophies of life still grew and expanded.  In a world filled with opportunities for many, especially with an increased acceptance of the freedom to choose, intellectual growth and stimulation developed in different subjects and among different people.  As Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, puts it, “Leisure meant for the Greeks, among other things, the freedom to pursue knowledge.”  Thus, cultures varied in their intellectual pursuits, which to some degree, affected their respective biological evolution.  For example, in some countries, where modern conveniences were readily available, such as easier transportation, better health, access to healthcare, public education, prepared and packaged food, child day care and a modern civilized society, the time demands and ideologies used in the past life were replaced with newer thoughts and ideas and more time could be placed on pursuing science and medicine.  Consequently, more diseases are being cured, people are living longer, vaccines are created, women can choose to abort fetuses or use birth control, and overall, human beings are essentially affecting their own biological evolution through their advanced beliefs and emphasis on health and medicine.  In other countries, which have more ancient beliefs about healthcare and a different ideology and emphasis on education, older and outdated practices can be performed.  For example, the process of childbirth can render more fatalities and birth problems, whereas a similar birthing practice could be carried out successfully in other areas of the world.  This, too, affects those individuals’ biological evolution.  Conversely, the high-fat diets and over-consumption of pre-packaged foods in the US has caused a rapid increase in health-related issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  Whereas, other countries with limited food supplies which are nutritious, healthy and fresh have individuals who are more lean, slender and healthy. 
                      Currently, in the US, medical practices and technology are bringing us into an era of prolonging life and overall, enhancing the quality of our lives in our elderly years.  Reproduction has been more easily controlled, more vaccines are becoming available and imaging technology has helped us target certain tumors and cancers for more effective treatment and accurate diagnoses.  Pace makers allow our hearts to keep beating, transplants allow us to utilize others’ organs for survival, genetic counseling and testing allows us to abort fetuses which may end up with low survival rates and complications, and so on.  Laparoscopic surgeries help us become more efficient and cause less remnants of surgical procedures having been performed, and many medical practitioners work towards beauty enhancement and perform elective surgeries.  To continue, stem cell research, the future of science and medicine, has been working towards rebuilding organs and organ systems from scratch, and is growing among many other medical advances in the arena.  And when disasters such as the Avian flu or SARS may occur in the near-future, we are more prepared to tackle the problems and fight the disease, so as to promote our lives, build up our tolerance and immunity, and prolong our biological evolution in years to come.  Even things like cleaner water, purer air and safer infrastructure has helped change the course of biological evolution.
                        Overall, it is our inquiry, our thoughts and beliefs, and our desires to explore the world, science, technology and other worldly phenomena that help us understand things in more depth.   In essence, our reason and scientific inquiry bring us the current technology that affects our world and life, and in turn, this drives us to rethink things, inquire, and learn more, which ultimately affects our biological evolution.  Thus, there is a profound interplay between our thought, culture and society which all affects our biological evolution.   Today, the notion of ancient beliefs, traditional medicines, and old teachings connotes a deeper understanding of life and the world, as our modern thinking portrays the current understanding of our progressive world.  In sum, experimentation, rethinking, and learning through experience and observation continually change our thoughts, which in turn change our respective biological evolution, helping us to get things less wrong and continue to ask more questions, which may affect our own biological evolution throughout time.        






2 - Nisbett E. Richard. The Geography of Though: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Simon & Schuster, 2003. 


3 – Begley, Sharon. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How A New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books, 2007.