There are lots of things no one has quite figured out about evolution. Is it gradual, or not? Why is there a relative lack of intermediate forms in the fossil record? Some species is happily cavorting or barking or ruminating away and then it’s gone, and evidence of a later form pokes out of the stone, something smaller or pointier or more burrowy. What happened in between? I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who observed a caterpillar that looks like bird poop and wondered how that particular adaptation gradually evolved: sure, it keeps predators from wanting to eat it, but where is the percentage in looking just a little bit like a turd?
It was Gould and friends who postulated something he called “punctuated equilibrium,” in which a species could be expected to remain pretty much the same for a very long time, and only an abrupt change in environment or circumstance would cause the various mutations rumbling away in the margins of the population to surge. Dog-sized critters didn’t gradually inch up into horses. In this scenario, mutations are happening all along, but in a large population well-adapted to its environment, those little accidental genetic ideas are overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of standard-issue traits. One creature might show up with an adorable little horn between her ears and say “Look! I can drill holes with this thing!” and everyone else is all Yeah, that’s just weird. And that’s it for the horn until something happens in the environment that makes hole-drilling really handy.
It’s suggested that these little developments lead to species changes only in the edges of the population, where a group might break off from the main herd and get isolated geographically, and at that point some of those accidental ideas get more of a hearing. Things could then change in a hurry, in a matter of generations. And if the diverging population meets up with the original species again, they don’t even recognize each other anymore. “Ew, horns,” they hear. “Gross.”
“Yeah? Drill you,” they say back.
Some events are more consequential than others. You get a lot of tectonic mayhem happening and all of a sudden you’ve got the isthmus of Panama, and everything changes. Marine species discover themselves in separate oceans. Llamas move into South America. Porcupines pass them going north. Warm Caribbean waters can’t play with the Pacific anymore and now there’s a serviceable Gulf Stream gyre affecting things in Northern Europe. It’s a big deal.
That’s what I think happens in politics, too. Things don’t change too much and then there’s a big event, or a series of them, and minds change, and things that weren’t possible before are suddenly inevitable. Gay people are persecuted and killed in one decade, fighting unsuccessfully for basic civil rights in the next, daring to demand the right to marry in the one after that; it’s too soon, they’re told; it’s too much; some county allows marriage on a Wednesday and yanks back the licenses by Friday. But the push is on. And more and more people are willing to come out to their family and friends. And they talk to other people. It’s a cascade of truth. And all of a sudden gay marriage is legal. “Ew, horns,” some people still say, but nobody reallly cares what those people think anymore.
We are now in a very unusual time. A formerly well-regarded nation can’t keep its people healthy, or housed, or even fed, and we’re on a fast track toward an unlivable planet, yet nothing seems to change. Billionaires are still isolated in their own country called Money and we’re caught in the same gyre of power and greed that has dominated the world for centuries. On the edges of the population, ideas emerge: the rise of the commons, the rejection of racism, the deliberate restructuring of a world economy toward a just and sustainable future. The ideas are shouted down. Too radical. Too soon.
But a global pandemic reveals the fault lines in the system. Hurricanes and fire and drought lay their fingers on ever more people. Women speak up about their mistreatment at the hands of men and are heard. Cell phone video reveals how much Black lives still don’t matter, and citizens finally listen, and learn, and march, and keep marching. Facing disasters all around, Americans begin to imagine life with adequate health care, with livable wages, with compassion toward each other and the stranger.
The ground is quaking. We’re poised to tumble toward a more sustainable existence. It’s a Panama moment.