The word evolution has become a kind of test of devotional dogma. Like the song, “Which side are you on?” If you “believe” in evolution that is shorthand for believing that humankind was once an animal. Somehow this thought is just too shocking for some to accept. The basic concept of evolution (that living organisms change gradually with time) is not disputed, just the thought that humankind is not somehow “special” and superior to all the other animals.
It is only natural to distrust claims that can’t be seen in our own personal experience. Our infinitesimally short lives of 100 years, if we are lucky. And it is completely reasonable to be uncertain of claims that can’t be seen. It really isn’t necessary for us to look back in our distant past and be certain of anything. These pictures we draw of our past are constantly being revised and I think most investigators of evolution are fine with that. It is an ongoing, active dialogue not an unmoving statue.
I view stories of our origins and our purpose as an artistic endeavor. I find the tales of the Old Testament to be of the same nature as so many of the oral mythologies of all the peoples of the world. Their origins are clearly present in Mesopotamian mythologies. I view the tale of Christ as a great human story of empathy and self-sacrifice. The stories of God creating the Earth in seven days or similar “miracles” are preposterous in a literal sense, just as preposterous any Native American creation story. But in an artistic sense they are wonderful. Art is where we try to describe the unknowable. These stories are very revealing as an artistic depiction of our human experience. They say more about us as a people who created them and the time in which they were created, then any set of dogmatic rules ever can.
Did the ancient Cave painters consider their art as accurate depiction of the world around them? Should we consider them failures because they failed to accurately depict their world? Or just child-like beginners?
What happens when these stories from our past conflict with our current observations? Should we pretend not to see what is clearly visible to us? Should we cling to our old stories even harder because they protect us from doubt?
I would suggest that meshing the past stories with the present stories is one of those ongoing challenges for any society. Our modern social structures owe a great debt to “Christian” ideas (although many of the ideas predated Christianity). Egalitarianism was one of the guiding principals presented by the story of Christ. Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” , Matthew 5:39 “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” John8:7 “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. The transition of this thought into democratic principals is natural. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
Certainly these basic principals of egalitarianism existing before Christ’s time and were also carried in parallel stories in other places in the world. But Christ framed it so prominently, giving it the utmost priority. It was Christ’s vision of egalitarianism (which runs contrary to much of the Old Testament) that was most likely the vision in the minds of our country’s founders. Which is a much different thing than claiming that the founders of the United States wanted our laws to be based on the bible.
It shows us something interesting about human nature when some groups who have attached themselves to the name of Christ are also the foremost proponents of Economic Darwinism. Also known as Laissez-faire Capitalism, Trickle-down economics, Libertarianism, Free-Market Capitalism, etc. Maybe the belief that God somehow rewards the good people with wealth and punishes the bad people with poverty has something to do with this. It has been refereed to as the “Prosperity Doctrine”. Maybe in our day and age people feel a bit shy about proclaiming that wealth=goodness and poverty=badness, it lacks sophistication. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role in how people form opinions.
The essential principal of Economic Darwinism is “survival of the fittest” this we see played out in the political-right’s ideas of governance. It is almost as though they see poverty as a state of sin in which the sinner is either lifted out by their own will or they should be punished by making their circumstances more miserable. In this world view, no one could possibly be contented, living with poverty and so the experience should be made as miserable as possible in order to motivate. Empathy only seems to fall in a narrow circle of family and friends. The lives of the aesthete, the kind soul, the artist, are valueless. Only stories of valiant triumphs over poverty are the coin of their realm.
These purveyors of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and America as God’s favorite project, actually bear a closer resemblance to the story of Social Darwinism than they do to Christian Egalitarianism. The basic premise of evolution is not really debated. That basic premise is that organisms change through repeated reproduction. Certain traits become amplified and others are left behind. The breeding of domestic animals is a concrete, hard to dispute example of this basic premise. The fact we have so many vastly differing breeds of dogs is clear to most everybody. Few people would claim that the were created is as, by God. Visible breeding changes can be seen during a single life-time. The same goes for the plants and animals we eat.
But the unseen aspects of evolution are harder to imagine and so are appropriately called “theory”. Something which hasn’t been actually observed. Though the current accumulation of observable evidence pointing toward evolution is so overwhelming that one has to remain intentionally naïve to dispute it.
The first difficult concept to overcome is; Time and just how vast it is and how slow evolution is and how much time is required. Maybe are minds are just not designed to grasp seeing our time on earth as a species as a grain of sand on a beach full of sand. Not only is at hard to understand, it is something we don’t want to believe. Because of course it means we are not as special a species as we hoped we were. This brings us to the second difficult concept to overcome; Intention. How could we as such sentient beings not be the intentional culmination of some mastermind. The breeding we can view with dogs and plants is the product of our own intentions. So shouldn’t our own breeding by some overseeing individual be the same. To imagine there is no overseeing being hurts our feelings of exceptionalism because we fear that means there is no “intention”, no “meaning”.This is a hard one for most of us, myself included. One of our underlying motivations is that of our own “specialness”. If our species is not “special” than how can we be special as an individual.
According to evolution it was our fitness to adapt to the world around us that made us what we are; alive. We were born with small differences from our fellow creatures and sometimes those small differences gave us advantages but mostly not. It is those tiny genetic advantages spread out over the eons which have created the world in which we live with its immense diversity.
The story of evolution is a kind of poetry, written in the world around us. A poetry that we read and feel everyday. It is a poetry free of anthropomorphic dominance. It is that wild world beyond us, the one we can not control. This is why I think of evolution as an artistic depiction of what we are; much like the Cave Paintings. With this picture we are much more concerned with the details, but our need to express our experiences and our ideas haven’t changed. The fascination of discovering some new site of an ancient bipedal species speaks to us on a poetic level. What we are able to deduce from the new observations is nothing but a work of art.
So in our Story of Evolution there are clear winners and clear losers or so we think. The clear winners are the “fittest”, those who survive and have have more offspring. The clear losers are those who die before reproducing. It is a story written by a world with little empathy. The death of the weak and the meek is not only common, but a necessary part of the process. However we have built our society to protect us from such vagaries of nature. Clearly we find inside ourselves a powerful feeling which ties us to our own tribe and wants to protect them as much (sometimes more so) as we do ourselves. Often this kind of empathy is considered heroic and has become an honored part of our social structure. I have never heard of this being mentioned in discussion of evolution, but it seems clear that as products of evolution, that everything we find inside ourselves is also a product of evolution. So shouldn’t we also assume that this heroic/empathetic trait which we carry inside of us, hasn’t helped our species greatly over the course of eons.
Our observations of bones, DNA, ancient sites can tell us a lot about our story as a species but it can’t tell us everything. There is always some mysteries, something which remains hidden. What was the role of empathy in our evolution? It is something that can’t be clearly observed, though there may be hints; how homonins lived as families, tribes, the weapons they made, the tools they used, but I suspect it will always remain mostly a mystery to us.
One might be tempted to connect the dots and speculate that there are many hidden drivers of evolution. Sexual attraction being the most obvious. What makes us more attracted to some individuals over other ones and how has that affected evolution. Another hidden driver may be tribal cooperation based on empathy. Or that selfish motivation; the desire for revenge, couldn’t it also hidden been a hidden driver of evolution. If our genome holds clues to this kind of history then we should be able to sense it within us, but it is only a guess. We could look at the stories we tell in our homemade mythologies. Sexual attraction, heroism and revenge are the dominate themes of so many of our movies, TV, books, and news.
My guess would be that along with heroism (empathy), revenge has also been a great shaper of our evolution. While the “selfish” quest for survival is the obvious driving force behind evolution. Revenge sits in that family of words such as; selfishness, anger, me, freedom, liberty, I, rights and justice. I have grouped what are often considered “bad” words in with some words of great reverence. They all have something to do with the importance of the Self as oppose to empathy which applies to the importance of others. If we can get beyond “good” vs “bad” I would match right-wing thought with selfishness and left-wing thought with empathy. Neither one is “better” than the other. And neither is one ever exists as pure empathy or pure selfishness. But they each hold priorities which makes their positions clear. With their strong embrace of the Capitalistic faith, a faith that claims selfishness as its prime mover and motivator, the right-wing holds “selfish” mores above empathetic mores. The definition of Capitalism is; selfishness as the glue which binds us all.
This is not to say selfishness is a bad thing. While the “political right” talks about freedom and liberty, the “political left” talks about rights and justice, both are outgrowths of a selfish outlook. While the right-wing and left-wing outlook often portray themselves as the “good” one and the other as “bad”, they both intuitively seek a balance of empathy vs selfishness. Again we have the two poles of human nature, both equally important and neither can be eliminated. The “political left” has a greater emphasis on empathy it is true, their names for it are; community, equal rights, democracy, diversity, multicultural, tolerance, peace, education or something similar. But the “political right” also holds empathetic values which they call, family, religion, work, class, Christian etc.
Yes, evolution has become a political word but I don’t mean to suggest that our current state of politics is justifiably split down the middle with the “right wing” being just as wrong or right as the “left wing”. I think the “left wing” is currently the clear underdog (and has been throughout much of history as natural circumstances tend to favor the “right wing”), politically speaking in the U.S. anyway. One strong piece of evidence is the “right wing” tries hard to portray themselves as being under-dogs. That is always a sign of excessive dominance. A true under-dog is too busy trying to fight for survival, trying to rally belief that its’ cause is winnable. It would rather portray its’ cause as destiny rather than a long shot. When Bush rallied the US to get behind the invasion of other countries, he portrayed the US as an underdog against the larger forces of evil at work in the world. He was trying to put a kind of heroic spin on the idea.
On the scale of empathy vs. selfishness I think it is pretty clear that the Capitalistic faith strongly favors selfishness, at least how it is practiced in the US. The Capitalistic faith claims selfishness as its prime mover and motivator- the glue which binds all its adherents. It might seem incongruent if one observes; that many of its adherents also have chosen Christianity as a religion. Maybe the “Prince of Peace”, the proclaimer of “judge not that ye be judged” is a perfect antidote to a Capitalistic faith patterned on “survival of the fittest.” But it should be noted that their version of Christianity is a rather dead interpretation. Christ is viewed almost as a mascot or a smiling facade. This is what a literal reading of ancient words does. It has a tendency to kill the object and stuff it like taxidermy. It is as though whatever Christ had to say was decided long ago and we have nothing more to add. Ancient words can tell us everything we need to know. What we feel and experience in the present, matters little because it has all been decided already- we just have to look back at words and figure out what they meant.
The “political right” have also begun to view our Constitution in a similar manner; as a dead document. Instead of focusing on some of the ideas that require rejuvenation from time to time such as democracy or egalitarianism the “political right” seem to want to resurrect a reality that has nothing to do with our current reality. They uphold “Liberty” as its’ lonely ideal and seem intent on forgetting about democracy and egalitarianism.
While the Story of Evolution can clearly trace the more “selfish” aspects of human nature. The struggle to adapt to a given environment, the struggle for individual genes to carry on. Things which Darwin predicted quite accurately through observation and continue to be supported with more and more evidence. It is a story which gains momentum, detail and dimension, a story which fits our times well. Our ancestors’ cave paintings serve us poorly today, no matter how much we like them.
However what the record of evolution does not clearly show, is the interplay of individuals in their contemporaneous environment. Why did certain groups of people form bonds and live in a seemingly cooperative setting. How powerful were familial bonds compared to tribal bonds. And what role did these feelings play in evolution. I’ve read a few things about how our species; Homo Sapien may have out competed the stronger (and larger brained) Homo Neaderthalensis because of our artistic thought patterns or maybe our stronger tribal bonds. It seems unlikely that the feelings of ancient early homonins can ever be completely understood. And it seems right that some things should remain a mystery, but idea that we humans are a very close relative of the great apes (though not a descendant as is still sometimes mistaken) is more of an affront to our “selfish” nature than to our “empathetic” nature. It is our selfish nature which tells us we are special in some way and has trouble letting go of this “special” ideal when evidence clearly contradicts it.
So then it makes sense that the political-right which has aligned itself with the “selfish” pole of human nature should be the strongest to deny the evidence of evolution, because it is an affront to the specialness of humankind. Whereas the political left might not like the concept because of its seeming affirmation of Social Darwinism. That sort of Ann Randian view of human interplay. The political left is more attune with the belief that a society should protect its individuals from the more brutal aspects of evolution; death by disease, death by birth, death by disability, death by torture etc etc.
While our current Story of Evolution is very detailed and supported by hundreds of thousands of distinct observations, it still doesn’t tell us everything. It seems that no matter how much gets said there is always more that is left unsaid. It does not describe the origin of thought or ideals. It does not describe how ideals and feelings have shaped society throughout our history and how these things continue to shape use today. A champion of the meek and the weak such as Christ for example has become very influential in our thinking without need for a single offspring. If an individual or a group of individuals demonstrates the powerful of social bonding nature of empathy, such a thing is not likely to show up in the fossil record or in the DNA. We also know that governance by fear held some position in our not so distant past, the builders of empire or the warring tribes. Even in the historical record, these events things are not clearly described. Evolution never stops, it continues as we live.
My point is that the Story of Evolution sticks (as it should) to what can be known, it still leaves a vast canvas of indistinct unknown. As with all great works of art it knows its limits and leaves some mystery for the rest of us.
The Story of Evolution as a scientific endeavor requires faith just as in any religion. It is a faith that those who can make the observations have let go of both empathy and selfishness when doing so. They may favor one or the other but they must let go of them when observing. They are by definition being honest with us about their observations. Where the older religions focused on either empathy (Christ, Buddha etc.) or selfishness by claiming theirs was the only “right” way of faith. Science requires something different. It requires that the believer temporarily let go of those ever-present feelings we all hold so close to us. It is those feelings which cloud our observations. Galileo, Darwin, Copernicus are examples of people who challenged existing dogma with their own conflicting observations.
Of course we can never permanently let go of selfishness or empathy, they are both an integral part of human nature, they drive us and animate us. But there are moments when we can let go and just be an observer. This is a trait which is perhaps the most meaningful to our modern mindset. And I’m guessing it is a trait which most distinguishes us from the other animals and has served us well as we have evolved as a species.