The Great Divide

My excursions into classical philosophy and the great world religions have always left me disappointed. Plato and Aristotle were brilliant, the Old Testament prophets were inspiring, and Christ and his followers were lovable, but when you put them all together in a blender, as we have done with our so-called Judeo-Christian ethic, what I end up with is a confusing farrago of ideas all based on a profound misreading of the nature of life in general and humanity in particular.

The Judeo-Christian tradition wants us to believe that there is some kind of ideal person that we should strive to become, some abstract principles of right and wrong that we should follow, some utopian condition that our species can ultimately achieve if only enough of us follow the right path. Good and evil, the moral absolutes. Heaven and hell, the ultimate destinations. What is right is right because God says so, according to the true believers. The philosophers argue their case in more elegant terms, but when you get to the nub of what most of them are saying, it’s usually about how we can reason our way into discovering and then defining moral absolutes.

Darwin’s theory of evolution provides an antidote. Human societies evolved, as did other species, not according to some preexisting design, but in response to the immediate circumstances their members encountered. There was and is no master plan. We muddle along, constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Some of the factors forcing us to change are external, while others we have caused ourselves, as side effects of our own actions. But there is no human destiny as such, no ideal condition we may ultimately attain.

This is a tough pill for most people to swallow. When we start on a journey we like to know where we are going. And we feel reassured if we have someone we trust to guide us. The idea that we are stumbling along on a long trip through time, entirely on our own, can leave us feeling a bit lonely and, yes, scared. But we should not reject evolution just because it is less emotionally satisfying than old-fashioned religion. Evolution is too powerful a concept, and has explained too much of what we know about the world around us, to be dismissed as “just another theory.”

Where does that leave us? Is there no divine authority? Are ethics, morality, and other values nothing more than creations of human minds? Is it possible that their authority within a given society derives from nothing more than a consensus of the individuals that comprise that society?

Yes, it is entirely possible, and if you set aside the faith you were brought up in for a moment, and look around you with courage and clarity, you will see that it’s not only possible, it’s the only plausible explanation. Our ethics and values have evolved along with other aspects of our human cultures. The ones we like to think of as representing absolute truths have survived and are with us today because they are effective at resolving or mitigating conflicts of interest within groups. Belief in a god or gods survived not because those deities protected their followers, but because that belief strengthened group solidarity and thereby improved the survival prospects of the believers. Adherence to specified ethical standards of behavior survived not because the gods approved them, but because they worked well at maintaining internal cohesion and discipline.

But if you set aside the faith of your fathers, and take this newly uncluttered look at the people around you, what do you believe in? Everybody has to start somewhere. Everyone has to have certain bedrock assumptions that his or her world view is built on. For the modern scientist or humanist, that faith has to be in a process, not an explanation. That process is evolution. Take a bunch of similar things that are capable of replicating themselves. Put them in an environment where only some of them will survive. And watch the process unfold. Eventually, given enough time, the character of the things will change in the direction of a better fit with the environment. All life on our planet follows this essential process. So do human societies and values, though the ways in which the process unfolds are rather different.

The eye is an example of evolution. It emerged in stages, a series of incremental improvements from a simple light-sensing organ to its present level of refinement. Similarly, our view of ourselves, who we are and how we happened, is evolving slowly and through stages. The evolution from a world view based on God and revealed truth to one based on faith in the evolutionary process is like a major step up in the evolution of the human eye. We can see more clearly now. Whatever needs to be done, we can do it more efficiently.

But that evolutionary view is itself evolving. Small wonder. After all, the world’s great religions and philosophies, the ones I find so inherently unsatisfying, evolved continuously over many milennia. The search for answers to the great questions about human existence never ceased, even though none ever arrived at totally satisfactory answers. Much argument and controversy raged throughout this period. And the new world view, though unfettered by a similar search for absolute anwers, seems likely to involve just as much controversy, judging from the record. Here, for the record, is a summary of the wars that have been fought so far:

The evolution of evolutionary thought:

In the beginning was Darwin. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but this will be only a brief overview of a terribly complicated subject). His theory of natural selection was directed mainly toward explaining the diversity of the earth’s flora and fauna, and only in small measure toward explaining human origins. It was, however, the latter aspect that provoked the most controversy. Darwin was a profound thinker, and buried in his works are ideas, like sexual selection as a process running parallel to selection for fitness, that have only begun to be explored.

Next came Social Darwinism, the notion that human groups (as opposed to individuals) had always fought each other for survival, and only the fittest groups survived. Racist and Eurocentric, it was a misconstruction of Darwin’s theories that was current in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nazis and other rightwing groups in Europe used it to provide a pseudoscientific basis for their fascist ideologies, while in the USA it gave some of the more capitalist entrepreneurs of the day an excuse to justify harsh exploitation of their workers.

About a century ago the so-called Modern Synthesis arrived. It married Darwin to Mendel, natural selection to genetics and an understanding of how characteristics are transmitted from one generation to the next. A new branch of biology, population genetics, arose and opened many new paths for detailed, quantitative scientific exploration of how evolution works.

Soon after genetics started opening new vistas, a school of anthropology arose dedicated to closing off some old ones. Reacting against the excesses of the old Social Darwinism, anthropologists led by Franz Boas insisted that behavior was determined only by culture, and that genetic inheritance had nothing to do with it. They ruled the roost for several decades, until E.O. Wilson came along with a new discipline he called Sociobiology, which asserts that in fact there is an evolutionary basis for behavior. Applied to ants (which Wilson knows a great deal about), the concept is relatively noncontroversial, but when he applied it to humans, he provoked a bitter attack from the Boasites, which continues to rage as of the time of this writing.

It all sounds a little like the battles between the Canaanites and the Philistines in the Old Testament. It seems safe to predict that the war of ideas between the various camps of non-believers will continue for a long time to come. We have a new perspective now, but biologically we remain very much the same feisty, argumentative, curious bunch of primates as our God-fearing ancestors. And there’s a lot about evolution that we still don’t know, or fully understand.

True believers, non-believers, and others:

All the different schools of thought I’ve just summarized are, more or less by definition, Darwinian, or scientific rather than theistic in their basic assumptions. They all are on one side of a great divide, a yawning chasm between those who hold to an evolutionary view of humankind, and the true believers of the old religions. The latter cling stubbornly to the old way of thinking, demonstrating the power of certain kinds of ideas to resist replacement long after they have served their purpose and become obsolete.

In between, floundering around on the sides of this chasm, and down in the bottom, we find many individuals who have stopped believing the more ridiculous origin myths and fables of the old religions, but still aren’t quite ready to give up the idea of some divine deus ex machina. They are modern traditionalists, suffering cognitive dissonance and getting little reward for their pains. They are transitional.

There are even a few scientists who display a certain irrational nostalgia for the emotional security that comes with faith in a higher power. Robert Wright’s recent book, Non-Zero, the Logic of Human Destiny, covers much of the same ground as this book, in sketching out the general route humans have followed in developing increasingly large and efficient societies. But Wright ends up with a different conclusion (and one which, in my opinion, is not served by the evidence he has mustered). He regards the magnificent unfolding of an evolutionary process, in this case ours, as being possible only if some outside agent is at work. The title of his book says it all. Logic and destiny are human concepts, creatures of the human mind, and they exist only in the world of the mind we have discussed in the last chapter.

I take it as a matter of faith that there is no such thing in the physical world as destiny. My faith is in a process not a result. When I look to the future I see only probabilities, not certainties. What happens tomorrow depends on everything that is happening today, just as today’s happenings arise from the events of yesterday. My sense of purpose is not governed by some concept like destiny. I wish only to influence the present in ways that are likely to make the future more to my liking.

Thus there is a great divide, between those of us believe only in the evolutionary process, and those who believe that some unverifiable force exists that created us and still continues to control the biophysical world we inhabit. Who is right? Those of us on the forward side of the great divide cannot hope to present conclusive proof of our view, because it is logically impossible to prove that something inherently unknowable doesn’t exist. What we can do is present an increasingly detailed and internally consistent view of how life on our planet, and we humans in particular, came into being without the intervention of some unverifiable divine force.

Carl Coon 9/30/03 (posted)

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