If more people made New Year’s resolutions, teaching evolution in high schools wouldn’t be so perilous.
What teenagers too often take from their life science lessons is not what scientists would call evolution, strictly speaking. Regardless of what’s being taught, what high schoolers are learning is gradualism. They take the lesson to mean that change always happens slowly, imperceptibly, by natural but unseen forces.
As we’ve secularized our society, we’ve lost one of religion’s best conceptual contributions — conversion. Whether it’s by divine calling or personal choice, people and circumstances sometimes change all at once. Some would even claim that dramatic change more the rule than the exception.
Biologists refer to the history of change as “punctuated equilibrium.” When they’re speaking among themselves, they use the shorthand term “punk-eek.” (Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Biologists suddenly seem adorable.)
Biological history ambles along in no particular hurry. “Same old, same old” is how it usually goes. Random changes occur all the time, but most are flushed out by the status quo. Stillborn or sterile, mistakes are most often forgotten.
Occasionally a random mutation — by itself or in combination with an environmental upheaval — leads to a big change. The sameness is punctured. Smaller changes ensue until a new status quo takes over. Then things stay the same again, until they don’t.
Cultures follow a similar pattern. Civilizations want to maintain order and mostly they do. Occasional disruptions occur, but most flush away after a news cycle or two. Rarely but reliably, larger disruptions take hold and alter the course of human events. As with genes, so with memes.
Individuals challenge the status quo and sometimes the quo loses its status. Changes occur.
That’s why resolutions are important. They remind us of our greatest power as humans — to change, intentionally. We can recognize the patterns of our own behavior, imagine a different pattern, and then will ourselves to alter that pattern. We can perceive circumstances around us, understand our role in maintaining the current order, and choose to disrupt it.
Any day is a good day to make a change, but January offers social support. Others are pushing themselves to change. That makes it a little easier for each of us to push ourselves. By February, nobody will be asking about it anymore, so there’s little risk of enduring the shame of failure.
In fact, success is barely the point. Every attempt — even if it lasts only a day — is a success, because it reminds us that we can exert some control, if only for a moment or two. Sometimes that’s enough. We need occasional reminders that we still have a say in our future. We’re not victims in our own lives, unless we choose to be.
Picking a resolution that’s hard, but not too hard is often the trickiest part. Resolving not to kiss a dog in 2015 might be too hard; resolving not to kiss a dog in church, too easy. You’re looking for that sweet spot that contains both comfort and challenge. You’re seeking disequilibrium. You want your “eek” to be “punked.”
How would you like the world to be different once 2016 rolls around? How would you like your own world to differ? Change is always available. Sometimes asking is all that’s necessary.
If you make a change, no matter how small or how brief, you’re exerting yourself on the world as you know it. Your actions suggest and support a simple truth: Things don’t have to stay the way they are. Nothing can improve if change is forbidden. Change doesn’t always lead to improvement, but improvement comes from nowhere else.
The lesson evolution means to teach us is that tinkering can never be underrated. The smallest change — unnoticed and seemingly random — might produce enormous consequences. Not knowing where it might take you is exactly the point. As things were, things no longer are, thanks to you.
You cannot know the ultimate power of that, but somewhere there will be a high school biology teacher who’d like to thank you.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs