Survival of the Wisest

Back in the days before cell phones, in the Spring of 1976, I pulled over to make a call from a pay phone along a busy street in southern California.  I wasn’t planning to have a long conversation – just a quick call to confirm an appointment.

                               Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri

                               Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri

A friend and I were spending a few days camping along the coast north of San Diego, working on the manuscript for a book.  It was a posthumous collection of papers and lectures delivered by Haridas Chaudhuri, a proponent of integral philosophy who personified the synthesis of science and spirituality.  He had immigrated to the United States in the early '50s from India, seeking to help bridge the gap between East and West. He founded the Cultural Integration Fellowship and the California Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco.

Reflecting upon the evolutionary nature of spiritual development, the book we were working on was on its way to being published as The Evolution of Integral Consciousness … and we were shortly to be on our way back home to San Francisco. 

Before we drove back north, however, we were heading to an appointment with someone who knew a thing or two about evolutionary processes.  A few years earlier, he had published a book entitled The Survival of the Wisest

Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the first effective vaccine for polio, had us on his schedule that day & my call was simply to let his office know we were on the way.  Something had come up that needed his attention, however … something fairly significant. 

                                                                            Dr. Jonas Salk

                                                                            Dr. Jonas Salk

The woman who answered the phone broke the news to me:  “I’m sorry, Dr. Salk isn’t going to be able to meet with you today.  He’s just been called to Washington to help the President deal with swine flu.”

He’s just been called to Washington to help the President deal with swine flu.

That certainly wasn’t what I’d expected to hear.  And then the woman on the phone said something else I didn’t expect:  “Hold on, Dr. Salk says he’d like to speak with you.”

With one hand over the opposite ear to block the traffic noise, I pressed the receiver to my ear and took a deep breath to collect my thoughts.  I really wasn’t quite prepared to enter in to a conversation of any significance with anyone, much less with someone of his stature.

When Jonas Salk came on the line, he apologized for cancelling our appointment and asked me to remind him about our intentions in meeting with him.  I said that we wanted to speak with him about changes taking place at our school and to solicit his input, particularly in regard to his views on the process of cultural evolution.

I can’t really say much more about our brief conversation, although it was exciting and frustrating at the same time.  I was excited to be talking with this well-known scientist and frustrated that we couldn’t communicate so well due to the noise of passing vehicles.

Our conversation only lasted a few minutes. I hung up the phone somewhat stunned by the unexpected turn of events as well as by the rare opportunity to connect with such a legendary figure. 

Dr. Salk flew back to Washington that day to provide his counsel to President Ford, who was faced with a decision about a mass inoculation campaign designed to prevent a pandemic.

                    Dr. Salk sitting to President Ford's right.  Dr. Sabin sitting two people to his left.                                                                                                        Photo:  Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

                    Dr. Salk sitting to President Ford's right.  Dr. Sabin sitting two people to his left.

                                                                                                       Photo:  Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

In order to bolster his case with the public when announcing his decision, President Ford asked Salk and Albert Sabin (who developed the oral polio vaccine) to stand beside him as he addressed the news cameras. 

The fact that the president saw the need to confer with the best scientists at his disposal and to enlist their assistance in “selling” that decision to the public underscores the critical role that science has played in our society.    

Such a health crisis can emerge at any point in time and we can only speculate how the current administration would deal with it.  Would the president call it a hoax and label it as fake news?  Who might he call upon to assess the crisis and stand by his side as he addresses the nation?

I’ve read that Jonas Salk was dismissed as an intellectual lightweight by some of his colleagues, while others noted his thinking incorporated an intuitive sensibility that may not have been fully appreciated.

In terms of our evolutionary journey, Salk’s notions regarding “survival of the wisest” may be more pertinent to us now than Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest.”  But what does it mean to be “wise” or to live wisely?

The answer to that question is open to debate.  It’s multidimensional and open-ended.  It requires a basic understanding of evolution as well as an acceptance of evolutionary theory, which continues to be a challenge for many who think it conflicts with their scriptural teachings.

In the meantime, there really IS a health crisis confronting us – global warming - and the current administration continues to deny its reality.  We’re also experiencing an ongoing expansion of the world’s population that continues to place increased pressure on the Earth’s life support systems.

The havoc wreaked by a changing climate will most likely increase in the years ahead, exacerbated by the strains placed upon the environment through population growth.

Does it look like we’re positioning ourselves well to meet the growing challenges and to alleviate the suffering experienced by displaced and starving human beings?

Do you think it’s possible that we’ll be able to overcome the greed, ignorance and selfishness that’s dominating the political process or are we spiraling toward a crash landing on a decimated planet?

It’s been almost half a century since Jonas Salk published his thoughts on this subject.  In the intervening years, many others have expressed similar views, sounding the alarm and calling upon us to wake up before it’s too late.

The new NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitation might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.      Credits: NASA

The new NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitation might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.      Credits: NASA

Looking for a silver lining to our present situation, I wonder if the extreme case of denial fever may possibly provoke an immune response that rallies us toward recovery.  It may not yet be too late to avert the worst-case scenarios, but we’d better wake up and “wise up” soon.  Our very survival is at stake.