On the Origin of Species
The concept of evolution terrifies me. I’m totally okay with the idea that my body has emerged from an aeons-old forge, chiseled out by generations upon generations of trial and error. I am even okay (on better days) with the fact that my body is indeed not a machine, not optimized for my environment, which becomes more machine-like and so less human, less humane, by the year. No, here is what terrifies me about evolution, which the field of evolutionary psychology continues to develop, echoed by millennia of Buddhist tradition. Namely, my consciousness, my mind, my sense of self, my special-ness, my delight, wonder, awe, and inspiration - all illusions. All of it a coping mechanism invented by a physical system intent only on survival in a dangerous world.
What terrified and terrifies Christians and many others about Darwin’s observations (in addition to racist fears of a universal shared ancestry) was the possibility of the de-centering of the human being. That all that image-and-likeness talk was, again, illusion. That the universe was bigger than us, who are blips, who are, in many cases, blights. That we were not put here but emerged through a process beyond our ability to fully understand.
Darwin’s work didn’t seem to terrify him. The continued work of natural science today doesn’t seem to terrify scientists. There are many reasons for that lack of existential angst, but let’s ponder a few from the “humanistic” side. I took a biology class at a Catholic college. On the final day, in the final minute, the professor announced that he knew the one evolutionary biologist who surpassed all the rest: God. This was a moment for young me, a believer. Indeed, who other than God could have designed such a network? Such unity in diversity? Though Darwin does not speak quite that language, his language is nonetheless one of awe. Are not the minutiae of nature invitations to contemplation? For the theologically-minded we can think of the word “immanence,” or what the Jesuits call “finding God in all things.” Is it not possible to divine divinity in the micro? To discover the universe in an insect?
Contemplating the immanence, the here-and-now-ness, of divinity leads us, limited and generally blind as we are, toward immanence’s cousin, transcendence. These are loaded terms, but in our context here, I just want to say something. Contemplating immanence connects me to what we have evolved from. And in doing so I feel connected to creation. That can’t be so bad. Contemplating immanence prompts me to contemplate transcendence, asking the question, what are we evolving toward? What, if any, is the raison d’etre of the whole enterprise of evolving creation? I wonder if my religious friends from across traditions, and even my science friends, could arrive with me at one word, for now: unity. Our physical bodies are united in our becoming. But our bodies have evolved to a degree that they can house what we are for now calling consciousness. And our consciousness is getting used to being on the scene, itself evolving from surviving, to striving, to thriving, to loving. To uniting.
To think in this way can connect our thoughts on Darwin to the theme of this series. Darwin thought in terms of what we now call “deep time.” Gazing beyond the concerns of his own life and times, his own generation, his own species, he was able to glimpse something. His discoveries constitute an inflection point in the history of human consciousness. He aided our own evolution. We partake of it now. The consequences permeate our daily lives. If we can perceive all of what we are now through the lens of deep time, what changes in our lives? What good is all this “knowledge,” given what we face now?
Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor