Evolution: a photo series

Breaking ourselves apart from beginning to end

By Andrea Zhao

Since those days, the human has been searching for a sense of meaning. Andrea Zhao/The Varsity

Part I: the gene

In the beginning there was nothing, and perhaps it should have remained that way.

Then, there was life — no heart or lungs or legs, but life regardless — and that life gave rise to another, and then there was life across the face of the blue planet, which fought the cruel tantrums of nature and won.

Through some series of wondrous mistakes, one life — which came many iterations after the gene — learned to talk and think, and to scorch the very earth it came from, to paint in the caves, to sing around the fire, to heal the sick and feed the weak.

It learned to kill the beasts it kept for food and warmth, to kill its brothers for pride and glory, to kill itself for the very sake of it, and it gave every other life a name they would not understand. It called itself human and declared itself the ruler of the world.

The human, since those days, has been searching for a sense of meaning, unwilling to realize what has always been evident: we are no more than a fallible concoction of uncertain ideas and empty space — skin over flesh, flesh over bones.

We are tangles of proteins and chemicals, built of abstract, unforgiving molecules, the stuff of mere probabilities.

We are the oscillations of the waves — rising, flying, crashing, in search of shores we will never reach. We are the lights that guide us to blind us, stardust chipped away from constellations now extinct. These are the things that we are made of, when we look past the fact that we are made of very nearly nothing at all.

We’re never able to escape the form we take, nor escape the weight of how others perceive our own. Andrea Zhao/The Varsity

Part II: the form

For all of our lives, we must reside in the body, the delicate vessel for the mind, with our broad, flat shoulders and round-barrel rib cage; the curves and angles of hands and knees; rapid blinking of the eyes and soft motion of the lips. Never able to escape the form we take, nor escape the weight of how others perceive our own, we must carry ourselves though this day and the next.

We drape ourselves in colour and shape, metamorphosizing space from one persona to another. Today, we could be red — proud and senselessly bloodied, ruthlessly and remorselessly commanding. Tomorrow, we could be black and white — a game of dominoes and chess, squared shoulders, and sharp-toed shoes. The day after, we could be blue — glassy and deep, a tranquil kind of remorse for our younger years and a wary regret for the ones yet to come.

We make ourselves in our conduct, as we warmly grasp and shake hands, our shoulders swaying left to right. We must bear the burden of being known as the shades and contours of a face, the teetering syllables of a name. And we must accept the fact that we exist in minds beyond our own complex, contradictory images of who we are and who we are not, taking a new form of life in the eyes of each person who passes through ours.

We are the accumulation of a million arbitrary decisions that we make every day. Andrea Zhao/The Varsity

Part III: the persona

At some eventual point in time, we begin to know ourselves and understand the world, seeing our reflections in the faces of the people around us, crafting the characters we are destined to play. What we are becomes what we do — what we can give to the world and what we take back.

We are the accumulation of the million arbitrary decisions we make every day — everything we do when we wish to do the opposite. We are the taste of tingling sweetness or acerbic salt on our tongues after we take each bite; the films playing on our screens; the beat in the background when we walk, work, or lie down. We are who we love, and who loves us, by chance or by choice.

We devour the lives of others in the crawling lines of words stacked together on pages. We stare wide-eyed at the sickly blue glow of our screens as characters love and hate with such a vigorous appetite for life that we know them to be fake, and groan as they hurdle toward the tidy, happy endings found only in scripts. We piece together the parts of them that we wish we could be — beautiful, charming, brave — and weave them in between the parts of ourselves we wish we were not.

We build our spines from the books on our shelves, and our smiles from the heroes of the silver screen, and our speeches from what we steal away from the evening news, and when we are satisfied, we look in the mirror and see that what little was left of us has also since gone.

We are specks passing through the histories of great sprawling cities of junk and marble and glass. Andrea Zhao/The Varsity

Part IV: the self

This is what it comes down to: the self, the understanding of what it means to be, the realization that our ideas cannot be entirely our own when they have passed through so many minds before us. We must reconcile the myriad parts of our identities, the warring mannerisms we have absorbed and digested and regurgitated, all of which fight to take control of what we are.

We have all been burdened with this realization, cursed to carry the impossible weight of life. It is the most fantastic of miracles and the most unbecoming of truths.

Everything unravels.

We are specks passing through the histories of great sprawling cities of junk and marble and glass. These cities themselves become insignificant when stuck together by our bloody jigsaws of borders and walls to make one nation and then another, one continent and then the next, unyielding in our pointless quest for domination. And then, at the end of it all, we look around to see our efforts rendered futile, the Earth unconquerable as it has always been.

Beyond our world lies a cold and uncaring universe, a swirling, dark vastness that we can never comprehend. This is a silent, unending, and empty space where burning stars go to die. To the faceless universe, our existence is negligible. We live and then we die — and it makes no difference at all. For now, being; for eternity, nothingness.