Darwin and/or the Quest for Meaning February 12, 2009Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Tags: Darwin, meaning of life, natural selection, theory of evolution
Philosophers like to point out that the Western intellectual world has had its rug pulled out from under it three times (so far): First, with the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, next with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and lastly with Freud’s theory of the unconscious, each time causing thinkers to think again, to make a complete break with the assumptions of the past. The ongoing celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species makes it very clear that what for some is a paradigm shift that was firmly and convincingly established a long time ago is for others at best an irritant, at worst a challenge to the very meaning of their lives. In other words, the rug is still being pulled, and we are reacting—some by rejoicing, some by adjusting, and others by pulling at the other end, with all their might.
Of course it really isn’t the introduction of the Theory of Evolution that we are celebrating this year, because theories of evolution were already being formulated in the scientific community while Darwin was maturing as a scholar, but it is his principle of evolution, the concept of natural selection, that created the paradigm shift. And this principle or theory has, according to the scientific community, shown itself to be a better explanation of biological diversity than any other theory so far, because it can be clearly demonstrated, in the fossil record as well as in rapidly changing species such as insects—and now with DNA research. Furthermore, it passes the falsifiability test. So what is it that still causes such a fuss? Why are people still kicking and growling?
Whenever Darwin comes up in my philosophy classes, I experience the same phenomenon: a clash of world views, perhaps more excruciating than at any other time and any other discussion of philosophical topics, perhaps with the exception of the abortion debate. We can have heated discussions about free will vs. determinism, or whether there are any merits to psychological egoism, or the positive rights of socialism vs. the negative rights of libertarianism, but nothing brings out the sharp wit, frustration and even rage among my students as a good ol’ debate of evolution vs. creationism. According to polls from Gallup and the Pew Research center, more than 40 percent of Americans believe human beings are not the result of evolution, but have always had the form we have today. Most of my students are aware of the teachings of Creationism and its anti-evolution stance, but interestingly, even students who do not consider themselves fundamentalists or creationists seem reluctant to embrace Darwin—as though they have been warned that in doing to, they will lose their souls. And this appears to be at the core of this reluctance: The assumption that an accept of Darwin’s theories will send you down the greased slope of non-belief toward absurdity and loss of meaning—the assumption that if Darwin is right, then there is no god, and if there is no god, there is no meaning, and we have no souls, and there will not be an afterlife. In other words, to embrace Darwin is to embrace nihilistic secularism.
But isn’t this a slippery slope fallacy? Or even a false dilemma? Like many others, my students are grasping for a middle way, a way to accept science (the realm of facts) and keep God (the realm of faith). This in itself shouldn’t have to be such a challenge, since many scientists have not had any problems doing their work in the secular realm, and having their religious faith as a personal commitment, separate from their professional identity. For what it’s worth: the Vatican has come to the rescue, declaring that Darwin’s theory is correct, but that Christianity is compatible with the theory of evolution, so you can adopt a world view of evolution without thereby losing your faith. The Church of England has gone in the same direction. And creative minds have suggested ways of interpreting Genesis so that the 6 days of creation can be read as a poetic expression for the 4 billion years of Earth-time (out of the 5 billion years of existence in our solar system) needed to bring about the species as we know them today. (And, by the way, evolution has not stopped, according to biologists: Humans are evolving more rapidly now than ever before, because there are so many of us.)
Of course these creative efforts seem like a colossal waste of good mental energy to those who have no problem accepting natural selection as a solid fact-based theory with room to grow, and who are at peace with either having or not having a religion. But we all do what we must in order to maintain our grip on reality as well as our sanity. Thomas Aquinas made a valiant effort to make the biological theories of Aristotle fit into the teachings of Genesis. For a philosopher, this kind of valiant (even when misdirected) effort has two focal points: One is the relationship of the theory to available evidence—the kind of evidence we built our sciences on, the very same kind of evidence we rely on in our everyday world of mechanics and weather forecasts. In other words, can we blend fundamentally different ideas into a consistent world view, without losing sight of scientific evidence? But we shouldn’t forget the other focal point: The quest for meaning. Although that side of life tends to be neglected in our modern society, or relegated to religious groups, it is in all likelihood a genuine need residing in most of us, a need for direction and purpose—for our story to make sense. For some, it is enough that our story involves the love of family and friends, or meaningful work, or even fame and fortune, but the notion that “there must be something more to life” is alive and well, and life without such a direction seems impoverished. And if the only institution stepping up to the plate with an offer of meaning and purpose is a religious institution, then perhaps it becomes less astonishing that 40 or more percept of Americans are reluctant to believe in human evolution. But beware of other institutions rising to meet that need: This is what happened in the 1920’s Italy with Mussolini, and in the 1930’s with the Nazi movement. And some of us would say that Communism has also been very skillful at presenting itself as a secular substitute for/version of faith. And, in fact, a variety of social and political fads seem to be responses to this need for a greater vision and purpose of life. So my question to you is, if you belong to the large group of people who have a positive view of the sciences, and you don’t consider yourself particularly religious, but find yourself still searching for a personal answer to the riddle of life, where do you see this answer coming from? Can you find it in science? In philosophy? Politics? Art? Family life? Sports? Computer games? Is there an answer? And if not, do we have to invent one, or stop looking?
So: Happy Birthday, Darwin. The rug has been pulled out, and we’re standing on an interesting bare floor. It may be a little colder without the rug, but if we dance, we can keep warm…and bare floors are better for dancing, anyway.