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 concepts — conversion. Whether it’s by divine calling or personal choice, people and circumstances sometimes change all at once. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception.
Biologists refer to the pattern 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 forgotten.
Occasionally a random mutation and/or 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 change. 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 the New Year offers social support. Others are pushing themselves to change. That makes it a little easier 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’re not victims in our own lives. We can exert some control, if only for a moment or two. Sometimes that’s enough. We still have a say in our future.
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 one 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 world to differ? Change is always available. Sometimes asking is all that’s necessary.
If you make a change, no matter how small or for how long, you’re reintroducing caprice into the world. To everyone but you, the change will seem random. And that’s exactly the point. You cannot know its ultimate power, but somewhere there will be a high school biology teacher who’d like to thank you.