One of the common misunderstandings about evolution, sometimes accidentally promoted by people who should know better, is that it’s an active process. Sometimes the term ‘evolve’ is even applied to individual beings, as if some invisible force had driven them to suddenly change. But the truth is that individuals don’t evolve; the term “evolution” describes a long-term process that can be observed in an entire population across time, in response to an external threat or challenge.
The role of mutation in evolution is particularly fascinating. Mutation is essentially an error in the organism’s central database: a variable gets changed, a piece of information is accidentally destroyed, doubled, or combined with another. Most of the time, the result is the equivalent of a bug, causing anything from minor problems to complete system shutdown (i.e. death). But sometimes the new information is functional, giving the organism an advantage against the challenges it faces in its lifetime.
If an individual coincidentally has a trait that allows it to deal with a challenge more effectively than others of the species, it is more likely to pass on that information to its genetic descendants – its children. That information gives them that same advantage, so over time, they become the dominant “model” of that species. The individuals experience no (significant) genetic change during their lifetimes, but each of them is part of the evolution of the species as a whole.
If you consider how unlikely a beneficial mutation is, and how long it takes for such a mutation to propagate, this process can give you an amazing insight into just how vast the genetic history of each living organism is. Simultaneously, it is intriguing to consider what a major role random errors have played in the evolution of life itself. It is akin to a blindfolded chef, throwing random ingredients into a bowl and, occasionally, producing a delicious meal. On a darker note, the same process that has killed so many of us, often in horrific ways, is also responsible for our very existence.
I believe that we should view knowledge in much the same way – as an evolutionary process for the benefit of the species as a whole, not necessarily for the individual.
The human brain is a product of the development of matter, as discussed above, and at the same time it is an instrument for the cognition of this matter; gradually it adjusts itself to its function, tries to overcome its limitations, creates ever new scientific methods, imagines ever more complex and exact instruments, checks its work again and yet again, step by step penetrates into previously unknown depths, changes our conception of matter, without, though, ever breaking away from this basis of all that exists.
In short, we can say that the brain is an engine of reason.
Reason in a creature is a faculty for extending the rules and purposes of the use of its powers far beyond natural instinct and knows no limits in its designs – it was Reason that led our ancestors to master fire and invent the wheel, and it was the evolutionary process of natural selection that allowed those who did to survive and pass on their knowledge to others. Reason does not act according to instinct, but requires trials, practice, and instruction, in order to progress from one degree of insight to the next.
Therefore each human would have to live excessively long in order to learn how they could make full use of their natural capacities; or, if Nature had given them only a short term of life (as it indeed has), so it would require a perhaps unpredictable series of generations, each passing its enlightenment on to the next, to finally develop reason in our species to the highest degree possible.
And that point in time must be, at least as an idea, the goal of mankind’s efforts, for otherwise, our natural capacities would have to be regarded as largely meaningless.
Were this untrue, it would seem strange that the earlier generations seemingly performed their toil and labour only for the sake of the later ones; to construct for them a step from which they can raise higher the edifice that Nature intended; and only the latest of all generations have the luck to inhabit the edifice that a long line of their ancestors (intentionally or otherwise) constructed, while in turn constructing (intentionally or otherwise) a higher edifice for their own descendants.
So I would suggest that, on a philosophical level, reasoning is akin to immortality. By using our reason, making an insight, and passing our insight on to the next generation, we give them a potential evolutionary advantage – a mutation of the mind, if you will – and, in doing so, we give a tiny piece of ourselves the agency to last beyond our years – a legacy. We possess reason, and we work to develop this capacity to its perfection, being individually mortal, but immortal in the species. Or, as observed by others (and somewhat proving my point):
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever”
(The Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:4)
“Arriving at Sleswick, the residence of Prince Charles of Hesse-Cassel, the sight of the soldiers recalled all the unpleasing ideas of German despotism, which imperceptibly vanished as I advanced into the country. I viewed, with a mixture of pity and horror, these beings training to be sold to slaughter, or be slaughtered, and fell into reflections on an old opinion of mine, that it is the preservation of the species, not of individuals, which appears to be the design of the Deity throughout the whole of Nature. Blossoms come forth only to be blighted; fish lay their spawn where it will be devoured; and what a large portion of the human race are born merely to be swept prematurely away! Does not this waste of budding life emphatically assert that it is not men, but Man, whose preservation is so necessary to the completion of the grand plan of the universe? Children peep into existence, suffer, and die; men play like moths about a candle, and sink into the flame; war, and “the thousand ills which flesh is heir to,” mow them down in shoals; whilst the more cruel prejudices of society palsy existence, introducing not less sure though slower decay.”
(Mary Wollstonecraft: Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, p200-201 [own emphases])