Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Evolutionary Entitlement


My first semester at UMass I was banished to live in one of those jail cells, more commonly referred to as dorm rooms, atop a secluded hill in the Sylvan residential area. Despite being seemingly miles from campus, or civilization for that matter, I made the best of it by decorating those cold, concrete walls with posters and hipster magazine cut-outs. I am not sure if it was because of the seclusion of where Sylvan was and its close proximity to a more woodland area, or the fact that I lived on the seventh floor, but there were these insects that always managed to find their way into my room, no matter how many times I shut the door or closed my window. And it was always just one of them- never two or three. I never saw more than one at a time, making me almost believe that there really was only one of them in existence that would return to my lodgings day after day for some mysterious reason.

These insects frightened me. These weren’t your average run-of-the-mill “bugs,” but rather massive flying beetles with large antennae, long intricate bodies and expanding, delicate legs. They were the kind of insects so large the thought of hitting it with a rolled up newspaper or crushing it under one’’s heal was frightfully unnerving – – sending involuntary chills throughout the body. Usually I had a boy from across the hall come and capture it and release it back outside, or otherwise let him be the one to deal with the violent squashing and clean-up of what I came to discover as the West Conifer Seed Bug.

When I wasn’’t pathetically screaming at a mere bug on my pillow, I was learning much more than I ever had in school. I was taking classes about art history and saw the Paleolithic handprints that had marked the cavernous depths for tens of thousands of years. I was learning about bonds and the chemical composition of matter and molecules, which to my own natural eye I would never be able to see, but nevertheless, was it fascinated me by to understand how and why they were there. I also learned about common ancestry, and the theory that at one point all living things stemmed from a single organism. Suddenly, I began to look at the West Conifer a whole lot differently in a different light as I began to apply this theory to all living things around me.

I’ve always been a naturalist. Since I was five years -old, I’’ve collected rocks, gems, and seashells. I used to read field guides for fun and thought that dinosaurs were just about the coolest things to ever have roamed the earth. I created my own games and arts and crafts projects dedicated to a world long passed. You could almost call it an obsession- – this fixation on where things came from and why they did what they did. I began to look at the Canadian geese walking across my lawn and wouldn’t see those majestic, avian creatures, but rather saw a conspicuous resemblance to the bipedal walking mannerisms of the carnivorous Coelophysis, a bird-like dinosaur of the Triassic Period.

As the semester continued on I began to see less of the West Conifers, probably due to the rapidly approaching winter of the Pioneer Valley. I couldn’’t help but think whenever I did see one though, how terrifying yetthough simultaneously beautiful it was. Here was an animal , an insect, which somewhere down the line shared a common ancestor with me, – with all of us. There were traits that were characteristic of each species before we broke off all those years ago. This concept blew my world open, and I concluded that it is not only completely egotistical to suggest our species will live forever, but totally and unequivocally wrong.

We think that as a species, Homo sapiens, we are striving towards something better, some sort of extraordinary pinnacle of achievement or survival climax. Really, though, we are always living that moment. The here and now of today and tomorrow is the peak of our potential, and this assumption that we aren’t there yet is where I believe we’ve made a grave sidestep when theorizing evolution. The environment and our DNA are going to determine our change and adaptation. Let’s face it- – there is no grand scheme, or illustrious plan of destiny, only the controlled chaos of our reality and our minimal understanding of it. We think of ourselves as the coolest organisms in the universe, and for all the data we’ve gathered in our galaxies, it looks like, for now at least, we’re home alone having quite the party. But it’s so easy to get a big head about how fantastically developed we assume our small, blue planet to be when there is nothing to compare it to. So keep in mind that absence of evidence doesn’’t necessarily mean evidence of absence.

I don’t wish to paint the insignificant picture – the “everything is meaningless, we’’re alone in the universe” frame of mind. But I don’’t think anything within our reality – as far as I’’ve seen or been told, and I’ll admit, I’m no physicist – is infinite. We live and die every day. Moons move across the heavens and suns burst into supernovas light years away. It is now autumn and as the earth will begin to exfoliate itself all the West Conifers of the world will go back into hiding. Nothing is infinite, nothing is constant. All variables are changing as we move through space and time with each passing second. Right now the world is turning and isn’t where it was two minutes ago, and it will never be there again with that same set of exact variables and circumstances.

We have unfortunately assumed that since we have some notion of consciousness – this self-proclaimed understanding of the natural world- – that we can outsmart it. We see ourselves as the most highly evolved species that is, destined to conquer the universe. We are most certainly a curious bunch. What other species wantss to spread, rapidly and everywhere, all at once? Agent Smith puts it best to Morpheus in “The Matrix” by stating, “There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern … A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” There are species alive on this planet today that are descendants of lineages predating our own by millions of years. What is the explanation for why they have not yet taken over and dominated the world? Dinosaurs lived for millions of years, so do you ever wonder if we as humans will break that record?

We think there are answers to be had, and that we are entitled to the prolonged existence of our species. In Latin, “Homo sapiens” roughly translates to “knowing man,” but something tells me the West Conifer is going to be here a whole lot longer than we are if we think humans are the end all and be all. Species are faced to choose between two dilemmas: adapt or succumb to extinction. We could die out, but if not then I must ask: you didn’’t really think that the buck stopped with us, did you?

Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

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  • K

    Ken Jacobson Adjunct AnthropologySep 29, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Emily, great essay. One thought you might want to ponder: Is the process of evolution one involving “hard wiring” in both body and brain; or might it be a process of evolved potentials that are triggered by environmental conditions? For example, we know that diet will effect the body both externally (height/weight) and internally (the onset of menarche). How environment shapes mental processes is a contested academic question (again because many researchers are willing to settle for a biological determinism of “hard wiring.” So do you find variation in the behavior of those West Conifer Seed Bugs?