A Response

Ken left me a nice comment on my previous post, for which I wrote a very long reply. I figured I might as well reproduce it as a post for anyone else to read. I’ll probably do a little editing of it over time, since it wasn’t written with the purpose of being a post.

You’re right, they don’t argue with heredity. But they do argue that evolution isn’t real. My point is simply that you can’t have heredity and not have evolution and, in fact, if you didn’t have evolution it would have to be because of something actively preventing it.

The theory of evolution itself makes no claim as to the origin of life. The logic of it points to a single ancestor of all living things, and in fact a single or set of molecules that led to every living thing. These ideas are not directly testable, but they do make observations more coherent.

There certainly is conflict when taking a literal read of Genesis, but this conflict exists in geology an archeology as well. The fact is that all animals could very well have been created simultaneously, in such a way that their genes were different in just the right parts to make it appear as if they evolved from common ancestors. There is no way to prove this right, and it is far more complicated and unlikely than the evolution alternative. But one can still believe it.

To answer your last question, I am an atheist. And have been long before I even heard of evolution. I was brought up without religion (though not as an atheist) and found that it made little sense when I started to learn about it.

I certainly do see the conflict (as indicated above), but it seems to me the same conflict that religion has always had with science: shrinking dominion. The more we understand about the world the less there is for religion to explain. Evolution is just one more of those things. I do think the reason this battle is particularly intense is that Creation is one of the most important of the unknowns for which religion has an answer (next to what happens at death).

We all want to know why we’re here. The logic of evolution provides a different answer, an answer that the religious tend to feel takes the meaning out of our existence. But that’s simply because (as I see it) they interpret meaning as being something stemming from consciousness (like that of a god). People also want to feel that they have a purpose, and if a god created everyone then s/he must have done it for some purpose. The logic of evolution (but not the theory!) removes this divine purpose and meaning.

How do I deal with this? Personally, I find that it makes my life more meaningful. I am the culmination of billions of years of chemical reactions. Billions of animals have died before leaving offspring. Most family trees end and never leave more descendants. But there is one tree that is still going, and on that tree we (and, of course, I) are hanging from the tips of the branches. We have come far enough that we can now control that tree. We can take control of our history, our family trees. Evolution brought me here, one of the extremely rare survivors on the massive tree of everything.

Because of this, I’ll be damned sure to make the most out of this life. I am unbelievably lucky to have it. It also makes me want to help humanity, and every creature related to us (which is all of them) because they are all my siblings. Everything has the same mother.

I find evolution beautiful, and very meaningful.

2 thoughts on “A Response

  1. You wrote that you find evolution beautiful and meaningful. As Darwin wrote at the end of the Origin of the Species, there is grandeur in the view of life associated with evolution: the long history of the earth, the struggle to survive, the interconnectedness of all species and the improbability of each of our lives.

    There is also an aspect of evolution that many find troubling, or frightening, whether they believe in God or not. It troubled Darwin. That aspect is the indifference of natural selection to kindness and cruelty.

    When Thoreau went to live at Walden he wanted find out whether life was sublime or mean. I think at Walden he found that it is sublime. But when he walked in the Maine woods, I think he found that it is mean. This is an old question, older than Darwin. But it is a question that I think we must ask ourselves anew when we think about natural selection accounting for the origin of species.

    As for me, reflexively I believe life is sublime. By “reflexively” I mean that this is not an argument that has won me over, but that I just believe it perhaps instinctively, without exerting any will to believe it, in spite of the meanness that I do see in the world. What I like most about Darwin’s writing is that the world as he describes it is indeed sublime, it is good, even if natural selection is indifferent to kindness and cruelty.

    You mentioned that evolution has brought us to a point where we can take control. I fear that is not the path we should take. I agree with Bill McKibben, for example, on this topic, and with Darwin, who argued that human selection is inferior to natural selection and that there is no future in it. But, I suspect that human selection is the path we will take.

  2. Thanks for the response.

    I must stress that natural selection is not a process; it is not something that is capable of being cruel or kind. Natural selection is just the term we use to refer to the fact that some things die sooner than others. The problem of cruelty isn’t a problem with natural selection, but a problem with nature. Nature is cruel. But even that isn’t right. Every creature needs to survive, and all try to leave behind as many offspring as possible that also need to survive. There is not enough space or resources for this to go on indefinitely, and so creatures must compete with one another. So it is the creatures themselves which are cruel. Not natural selection.

    So nature is cruel and I do find this uncomfortable. It makes me sad to see any type of animal suffering, and animals aren’t out to kill each other in the most humane ways possible, so this suffering can be huge. Nothing can be done about it, except to remove suffering where we can (amongst humans and our closer kin).

    For your last point, I should have said that we are at the point where we are taking control. We are selecting ourselves. As soon as we started using medical techniques to prolong life and allow for better success of offspring, we took nature out of the selection process. We are our own environment, as best illustrated by our sprawling cities. To say that we shouldn’t take control of our evolutionary trajectory is to ignore the fact that we are. It’s a matter of degree. People who would have died before child-bearing age even ten years ago can now live full reproductive lives. In essence, it doesn’t matter what your genes are, because modern medicine can keep them from damaging your chances of reproduction. This means we have removed that key item necessary for evolution to occur: there is no fitness effect caused by genetic variation.

    I should also point out that natural selection is a very broad term that encompasses all kinds of selection, and there is nothing really “natural” about any of it (or anything for that matter). Artificial (human) selection is natural selection, but where humans provide the environment. It is just as arbitrary as environments found in nature.

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