Monday, August 11, 2008

Does Evolution Mean I'm Not Special?

"The Genius of Charles Darwin": 2
"I'm special. Made in the image of God, in the creative mind of God, creative as God is, who made me. That's the difference between the ape and me."
It's a great quote which Richard Dawkins teased out of Bonifes Adoyo, an evangelical minister in Kenya, when discussing the latter's apparent opposition to a museum displaying the oldest human skulls. But why oppose the display? Because it was to be done in acknowledgment of evolution. And that's where the 'special' comes in. I've had online arguments aplenty recently with similar evangelicals who are similarly convinced they're special because they believe it. Science and evolution however show the complete opposite - that it's staggeringly vain to believe we're special in any way. We're sophisticated, that's true, but that's because of Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection; we're a lucky twist of fate.
"There is no goal it (evolution) just happens."
A wonderful riposte once again by the famed, militant atheist. It must be hellish for a theist to think that there's no point to any of this. We do what we do, we arrange our common existence for the most part to our best mutual advantage for our best individual gain, and then we die. We are sophisticated though, and we can theorise, question, philosophise and judge. It's our constantly questioning nature that's the most difficult aspect of our humanity to live with, whilst being our greatest asset.

Dawkins also makes an excellent point about Nazism, ethnic cleansing and other forms of genocide, which many have attributed to Darwinism. It's abundantly clear that there's no connection at all. For man to determine what and who is weak is to completely misrepresent Darwinism - we have no idea what nature considers in the larger picture as 'weak'. That Hitler lost WWII and failed to pass his genes on illustrates an ironic outcome, but the decisions about who is 'strongest' and 'best' remain entirely arrogant human guesses. Evolution works through long-term processes, which can't be looked at forwards, only backwards. Surely mutual cooperation is the most Darwinist notion of all - it gives my genes the greatest chance of making it through to the next generation as much as my neighbour's, and we then leave it up to nature to find out what happens next. I'm gay, so I'm unlikely to evolve my genetic lineage, but that's not true of my sister, nor of my neighbour. And so the human race goes the way it's meant to - plan-free, but not result free.

Trust, sympathy, gratitude, altruism - what a wonderful thought that these nuanced, complicated emotions might have an evolutionary basis - that there's a natural advantage in having them. I notice that Dawkins doesn't tie the logic of that realisation into religion, nor accept that his militant atheism is most useful only as a caricature, rather than a fair and balanced perspective on spirituality and good feeling for one another. Just to argue that religion is about the worship of an imaginary deity is to miss the point surely, which many religious people haven't - that the religion is about mutual solidarity, protection and support (his 'selfish gene'), and bowing down to unicorns ultimately is a side issue, albeit a complicated one. I wouldn't presume to ask Gene Robinson if he believed in a literal God, but when I heard him speak he did use 'God' in a very general, non-personal way. I like to think from this episode that strategies like meditation, wishing good will to others, and being kind really are the pinnacles of our capacity as humans, partly because as a thinking and feeling being it just feels good to know this, but also because the goodness is borne out as a scientific necessity - it's good for all of us and we can't help doing it.

So it's 'survival of the fittest', but in our unique, human society, 'fit' is far more (blissfully) complicated than violent, strong, smart or aggressive. That our 'selfish gene' can give rise to altruism as necessity is delightfully life affirming. Dawkins' analysis that the 'selfish gene''s altruistic outcomes might arise from it's being "stuck" in its ancient mode of bringing about positive outcomes for the transmission of genes in small groups, whereas today we live in large ones where *no* favour will likely be repaid, is a challenge. It suggests, as he concludes, that we really are the first species to be able to take ourselves out of natural selection altogether. What the implications are of that suggestion might be, is no doubt yet to be uncovered, whilst we continue doing everything we can to prevent the horrors of nature impacting on the way our society operates.

Darwinism and religion aren't really that divorced from one another, what a result.

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