Monday, December 31, 2007

Evolution as Point of View

In these unread (and perhaps unreadable) blogs here and in the essay section I've talked about evolution. In the last couple of weeks there have been some amazingly articulate articles published and republished that are worth bringing up here.

First, a hats off to John Timmer of Nobel Intent for discussing the journal Nature's centennial retrospective. As its celebration, Nature is republishing some articles that became seminal in the field. It's hard to believe Nature has not only been around that long but published such ground breaking material. The one I enjoyed the most was Raymond Dart's original findings of Australopithecus. The Dart article was one of the foundations of the "Out of Africa" model of human evolution. Go read the articles. They are well worth it.

Similarly, Timmer discussed a new periodical, Evolution: Education and Outreach. It is a societal sham that America requires a journal intended to intelligently present evolution for purposes of education. But there it is.

One article from EE&O is particularly close to home as far as I am concerned. It is David Zeigler's The Question of Purpose. It seems to me that evolution presents two basic challenges to religion: loss of any shred of fact behind a given creation myth and the loss of extrahuman purpose to human existence.

Geologic time puts paid any creation myth and evolution just erects the gravestone. People who are attached to the creation myth are put into one of three positions. They translate creation into something inherently metaphorical. They attempt to channel ancient and venerable storytellers (or God), enabling them to couch geologic events in metaphorical terms. ("After all, no one knows how long a day was then." Or, "A 'Day' means a long period-- these are representations of periods of creation.") Some deny the facts in front of their noses and embrace the creation myth as fact.

Because the creation myth problem is obvious, it's the one seems to come up in discussion most often on both sides. The idea that evolution can't be true because the bible is fact and therefore nothing can exist before about six thousand years ago gets equal discussion with "Can you believe those hicks? They really believe the earth is only six thousand years old!". But the creation myth problem is only a problem in one narrow venue: viewing the religion's creation myth as fact and not metaphor. While many people in the USA view the Genesis myth as literal fact, many of good religious faith do not.

The other, much more seditious aspect of evolution in particular and science in general is the absence of human purpose. Human beings are fully capable of creating their own purpose. But within evolution and science no such purpose has been discovered. Humans model the universe. For whatever reason, we like to model the universe in our own image. We like to believe we have a purpose and therefore it must be so. One collection of phrases I've heard over and over in the evolutionary discussion boils down to: There must be a purpose to all of this or what's the point? Even the word, "pointless", has great connotations of futility, depression and emptiness.

Many modern Christian evangelists start with this in their sermons. Without God I am nothing. A pointless universe is an empty universe. A place where all the works of man are as nothing.

Personally, while I can tell the heartbreak behind such statements is sincere, it's really pretty incredibly arrogant. First, it's not true. We've usurped a huge amount of the energy absorbed by the entire planet. I deplore what we've done but not without acknowledging humanity's raw exercise of naked power. As Mister Ollivander said in the first Harry Potter film: "After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great."

But even more than untrue, it is an unnatural comparison. In a universe billions of years old with nearly everything a brilliant mystery, where life exists and shows genius in even it's smallest and most trivial actions, how could we ever expect our accomplishments of a few thousand years to be in any way comparable? Is our estimation of ourselves so inflated we must compare ourselves to the universe and invent God when we come up short? We would have to be God to play in that league.

I have to think this is a result of monotheism. In polytheistic religion man is often the foil. There are many gods, goddesses, demigods, demons and supernatural creatures to play with. Man is pretty low on the pole and rarely gets noticed. Monotheism narrows the playing field, lowers the standing of everything other than God (angels and demons alike get demoted since there can be only one God) and raises the level of human beings as the only being worthy of purpose.

We're the only game in town.

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