There is no single idea, which has been more profound or impactful in the history of modern science, than Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
The Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
The ball that Darwin set rolling in 1859 with his blockbuster book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” continues to be unstoppable. When it first arrived, it dealt a body blow to, and spurred a refinement and tempering of Christianity. Over the last 150 years, it has encouraged a wholesale abandonment of religion. An idea that came to the fore even as Industrial Revolution took roots in Western Europe and America, Darwinism accelerated the transformation of these societies into free market havens, architected around the principle of natural selection. Initially, countries that accepted evolution more readily than others were Protestant nations like England. Although the United States, at that time, was in the middle of a civil war, Darwin’s theory did not go unnoticed. It is no coincidence that these nations turned ‘economically atheist,’ believing in the natural’ capacity of capital to allocate itself to the most deserving recipients, when competition is unfettered. They rejected economic theories that bet on God-like governments to distribute resources efficiently. Although Darwin’s initial inspiration came from economists such as Malthus and Adam Smith, his theory later provided moral justification and has helped shape the course of modern economics in the Western Hemisphere.
Evolutionism’s impact was perhaps felt the greatest in disrupting centuries old social and religious power structures. By adding impetus to political thought, it paved the way for western monarchies to transform gracefully into democratic systems. It captured the imagination of scientists, philosophers and men of letters alike. For the first time, there was a logical explanation for the evolution of life. Darwin provided copious evidence from nature. Most significantly, he provided no role for God in the process. It disabused Christians of their belief that an all-powerful God had created the Earth with all its animals, plants and human beings, in a mere six days. Darwin won such a convincing victory in such a short time that, by the early 20th century, the debate between science and the Church had shifted from the factual integrity of evolution to God’s role in it. The debate within the scientific community had turned towards its mechanisms and speed within a short ten years after Darwin’s pronouncement.
“I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”
“It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”
From ‘Carry on, Jeeves.’ By P. G. Wodehouse.
The theory of evolution has been co-opted in ways Darwin may have never intended or predicted. Social Darwinism, as it came to be called, had its dark side. Men in power such as Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson drew flawed conclusions, and took evolution as ‘nature’s sanction’ to enthusiastically propagate a fundamental superiority of a “fitter, more powerful” Caucasian race. Such ideas were openly and widely disseminated in the 1920s and 1930s to justify the imperialist ambitions and domination of the British empire. Churchill stoutly believed that ‘inferior’ societies in Africa and Asia (including and especially India) were ‘better off’ for coming under the rule of the English, who, he believed, brought “civilization” to the uncivilized. In another example, several thousands of mentally disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 1920s, under prevailing eugenics laws. A decade later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would take eugenics to horrific lengths when they systematically murdered the old, the disabled, the weak and eventually large numbers of Jewish people, in the name of Aryan supremacy. Darwin was one of the lucky few scientists to see his theory gain acceptance within the scientific community, in his lifetime. He was also fortunate that he did not live to see the perversions, which were wrought in his name. He would have been horrified. There is no other scientific idea from which society has reaped as much inspirationally positive and horribly negative consequences, as the theory of evolution.
There is no other scientific idea, which is as widely misunderstood as the theory of evolution. Over a hundred and fifty years after Darwin, a large majority of the world population has not even heard of it. Millions of children are not yet properly schooled in it. A huge part of the world population outside the western hemisphere continues to stay largely unaware of this remarkable scientific discovery, save for mischaracterized representations in popular culture. Amazingly, belief in God among Americans has not been as much dented by the theory of evolution as in Western Europe. Even today, over eighty percent of Americans profess to belief in ‘some sort of a God.’ Close to a third reject Darwinist evolution outright as a scientific theory. Less than fifteen percent of Americans understand and accept evolution to the point where they are willing to profess to atheistic beliefs.
As denizens of this wonderful Earth, filled with curiosity about our origin, cause and purpose, it is well worth our time to grasp the power of this single idea which, directly and indirectly, led to world wars, created new memes in popular culture, pitted science against religion in an epic clash, triggered the field of modern medicine and changed human history like none other has done. We must do this, regardless of our personal beliefs about the existence, nature and role of God. For, if we fail to do so, we run the risk of missing out on one of the most spiritually uplifting lessons that Mother Nature dangles every day in front of our eyes; that everything, organic and inorganic, shares a common progenitor. That this brief journey each of us has been afforded is but an opportunity to soak in wonder and awe, as we witness the wonder that we call creation.
Evolutionism over the ages.
Charles Darwin was not the first to envisage a creation without the hand of a Creator guiding it. There have been philosophical utterances to this effect from the Greeks. The Ionian philosopher, Anaximander (611 – 546 BC), believed that the world had arisen from an undifferentiated, indeterminate substance, which he called the Apeiron. Vedic thought, from some of the oldest Hindu schools, took a more nuanced position, even going to the extent of describing Gods as those who came after Creation and attributing the origins of our universe and life to no one in particular.
The Nasadiya Sukta, known as the Hymn of Creation, asks-
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
He, whether He fashioned it or whether He did not,
He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
Perhaps He knows. Or, perhaps even He knows not.”
This hymn from Rig Veda has been interpreted as one of the earliest accounts of agnosticism and skeptical inquiry into the origin of all things, not just organic life on earth. Carl Sagan, scientist, describes the Vedic tradition of inquiry best, as one “of skeptical questioning and unselfconscious humility before the great cosmic mysteries.”
However, such speculation was abstract and philosophical, and lost favor as they failed to satisfy large parts of populations, which preferred the simpler, linear narratives of mythologies and gospel.
Fast forward to the early 19th century.
It’s interesting to pause momentarily to examine the times into which Darwin was born, and did his work.
Aristotle-ian natural philosophy, which held sway for over two thousand years, had yielded to the Baconian scientific method, which insisted on formal experimentation, repeatability and falsification. Europe had already entered the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, which saw science and philosophy flourish, frequently to the benefit of each other. French revolution and the Napoleonic era had played out by the end of the 18th century. Newtonian classical mechanics had unleashed the virtuous forces of Industrial revolution by mid 17th century, which led to machine based manufacturing processes. Chemistry had matured as a science. Historians of nature had begun meticulous classification of flora and fauna, leading to the development of biological taxonomy. A Swedish botanist and a first rate scientist, Carolus Linnaeus, filled 180 books with precise descriptions of plants and animals, and logically classified them. To him, we owe our, often, unjustified name, homo sapiens, which literally means ‘wise men.’ There was new understanding of electricity and magnetism, which led to speculation about connections between such phenomena and life forces themselves. Was life a mere electrical impulse?
Geology had progressed, and with it our understanding of the nature of Earth’s hidden layers. Consensus grew that the Earth had gradually evolved over millions of years, and not magically created in one fell swoop as the Bible claimed. Critically, scientific consciousness expanded to consider enormously lengthy periods of time, in contrast to the Biblical time scale of a few thousand years. As new cities emerged in the fervor of industrial expansion, fossils were uncovered. Paleontology quickly grew to be a discipline unto its own right, providing invaluable clues on how life may have evolved.
Even as Industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe and America, a new field of study emerged with intent to drive efficiency in production, and allocation of capital and labor, leading to the development of what we now know as economics. Industrial revolution changed societies dramatically in ways never envisioned. It raised the living standards of citizens, propelled large-scale urban migration and led to construction and expansion of modern cities. Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ and Robert Malthus’ ‘The Principle of Population,’ were written in 1776 and 1798 respectively. Such treatises popularized the idea of “selection” as the natural behavior of free and unrestrained systems. Such thoughts would provide crucial insights to Darwin later as he pondered the mechanism by which life may have evolved on earth.
Most critically (for Darwin), there had been men of science who had already begun questioning the Bible’s version of creationism. Early closet evolutionists included Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who believed that life had evolved “over a period of millions of years.” Of these, the most important was a Frenchman named Jean-Batiste Chevalier de Lamarck. In early 19th century, Lamarck offered a theory, which explained evolution through a process of conscious adaptation and acquired inheritance. Lamarck’s theory posited that organisms adapted body parts to suit their environments during their lifetimes. Lamarck also believed that such changes acquired during a lifetime were inherited by offspring. The most famous Lamarckian example is that of the giraffes. Giraffes, Lamarck said, evolved long necks by straining and stretching them further and further to reach leaves on tops of trees. He added that this long-necked-ness was inherited by succeeding generations of giraffes, thus leading to long necked giraffes of today. Lamarck’s hypothesis was bold, powerful, intuitive and easy to understand. Unfortunately, it was also wrong. It is conceivable that necks may grow longer as a result of stretching and straining. But, it wasn’t so readily apparent that such traits acquired in one generation could be inherited by the next. For example, children of bodybuilders aren’t muscular unless, of course, they too engage in bodybuilding. Lamarck’s brave attempt was noted widely, but quickly fell into disrepute and suffered ridicule by both the Church and the scientific community for several decades. Notwithstanding this failure, Lamarck was a topnotch scientist and his courage paved the way for Darwin, by bringing the topic of creation into public debate, and dislodging a brick in the wall of dogma that religion had built over the course of a thousand years.
The stage thus came to be set for the event that changed the course of intellectual history of the world.
Evolution by Natural Selection.
Darwin spent five years aboard the HMS Beagle, during the course of which he sailed to the Galapagos Islands among other places, collected large numbers of samples, and recorded meticulous notes. Upon return to England, he married his wealthy first cousin, and dedicated his life to analyzing the samples he had gathered and unraveling the mystery of evolution.
Side Note: It is a remarkable coincidence that two men who most profoundly shaped the course of events in the Western Hemisphere, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, were born the same day – February 12, 1809 – on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Darwin, at first, went to study to be a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to stand the sight of blood and even fainting once, he dropped out of medical school and went on to study his first love- natural history, at Cambridge University.
Although the scientific community had warmed up to the prospect of evolution, the theory had suffered grievous wounds during Lamarck’s attempt to storm the fortress. To gain acceptance of his fellow scientists, Darwin knew that it was not enough anymore to merely say that organisms had evolved. He had to explain *how* they had evolved.
It is said that Darwin was influenced by the writings of Robert Malthus, as he pondered the mystery. In his influential essay, Malthus predicted extraordinary growth in human population driven by a rise in the standard of living caused by the Industrial revolution. He argued that such growth in population would lead to a massive increase in the supply of labor, which in turn would cause lowering of wages and lead to poverty. He described such mechanisms as ‘competition,’ ‘survival,’ and ‘allocation.’ They struck a chord in Darwin. If artificial systems could allocate and optimize in the their own best interests, it seemed conceivable to him that nature could do the same.
In a book published in 1859, Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution based on the principle of natural selection. He explained it along four dimensions: Variation, Inheritance, Selection and Time.
Variation aka Why are there so many species and how did they come about?
Darwin defined species as a population of organisms that is capable of inter-breeding only within its own population. Inter-breeding produces a population of offspring that, in turn, inter-breeds, and so on. Over long periods of time, species undergo “evolution,” which are variations that cause a new species to arise. Thus, all species have descended as a consequence of modifications of species that came before them.
To put it simply, Darwin theorized that all species must have a common origin in some sort of an irreducible ‘lower’ life form. ‘Higher’ life forms are no more than lower life forms that have evolved over millions of years. He said that this was the only way we could explain the vast diversity of species found in nature.
Inheritance and Selection aka Why does a species appear the way it does?
Darwin then explained why survivors survive and how others go extinct, using a mechanism called natural selection. This answers questions such as, “Why do giraffes have long necks?” and “Why are zebras striped?”
Darwin observed that nature typically erred on the side of producing more organisms than it could support. These organisms struggle to survive as a result because they have to compete for resources. He pointed out that competition tended to be fiercer within species than between species. Within a species, there are variations in traits. He believed such variations to be random, and not acquired through conscious effort or deliberate strategy, as Lamarck had stated. When changes occur every so often in the environment, those members of a species, which happen to have a beneficial set of traits suited to the environment, are selected by nature to survive. Such evolutionarily advantageous traits are inherited by successive generations until the environment changes yet again, which may cause a potentially new set of beneficial traits to propagate, in a fascinating theater of survival and reproduction.
In the Darwinian world, giraffes didn’t deliberately stretch and grow long necks. Instead, there were once many variations of giraffes, with necks of varying lengths. Long necks happened to prove to be “evolutionarily advantageous” for survival. Consequently, over millions of years, all giraffes but the long-necked ones were filtered out by natural selection.
This, in essence, is the principle of natural selection. Natural selection, has also been described – first by a philosopher, Herbert Spencer, and later by Darwin himself – as “the survival of the fittest,” an unfortunate turn of phrase because it led to much misunderstanding of the principle.
Side Note: “Survival of the Fittest”
Being taller, faster, more intelligent, fair-skinned or stronger is often misunderstood as “fittest,” by those who incorrectly grasp the implications of Darwin’s theory. “Fit” in the evolutionary sense is merely the possession of those traits, whatever they may be, which are most advantageous in a given environment, at a given period in time. For example, if the environment were to somehow change to favor pygmies in Sub Saharan Africa, nature would favor them over non-pygmies and the population of pygmies would rise faster than others. In fact, it is conceivable that the environment could favor “lower” life forms over “higher” life forms in the case of a drastic event like a nuclear holocaust.
Darwin’s theory does not imply the superiority of one species over another. It does not imply a hierarchy within species. It merely attempted to explain what is seen in nature, without being judgmental about the merits and outcomes of nature’s approach. Comprehending the term, ‘evolutionarily advantageous,’ may be the secret to understanding much of the workings of nature and human behavior itself.
A Gradual Process of Change.
Darwin emphasizes the role of time in evolution by describing it as a process of gradual change. In his book, he wrote, “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”
Since Darwin explained natural selection as a slow process, it came under fire almost immediately, from paleontologists and field naturalists who had observed discrete jumps in speciation from the fossil records. Indeed, natural selection was discarded (even by Darwin himself) within a decade of his book being published.
Nevertheless, Darwin had achieved a stunning coup. Within two decades of his book, evolution came to be accepted as a scientific fact. It also marked the beginning of a long running feud between science and religion, which has not abated yet.
You, my friend, are an outcome of an extraordinary process, which started billions of years ago on earth.
As the American author, Bill Bryson observes, in his inimitable wry style,
“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”
Why Darwin is a hero.
It’s interesting to note that Darwin did not set out with an express agenda to destroy Christianity or religious belief. He was not religious himself, and did not hold a grudge against religion. In fact, he agonized over the consequences of his theory on society, and delayed publishing the book by over twenty years until Alfred Russell Wallace (whose details I have unpardonably skipped) forced his hand by independently coming up with natural selection and writing to Darwin about it.
What makes Darwin exceptional is that he was a scientist in awe of nature. He sought to answer the profound question of our creation, and once in possession of what he believed to be the truth, spoke it with grace and humility. None exemplify the spirit of science better than Darwin. He started with an admission of ignorance and remained open to ideas that challenged his beliefs, until his end. For this reason, he is one of the great modern heroes.
Coming back to natural selection..
Darwin’s natural selection ran into rough weather pretty quickly. Paleontologists, who saw discrete, sizable evolutionary jumps in fossil records across eras, refused to get on board. Later biologists challenged the theory on grounds that it did not satisfactorily explain certain quirks in nature, such as altruism. Given the damning counter evidence from fossil records, Darwin himself abandoned natural selection and shifted towards Lamarckian-ism in the latter half of his scientific life.
The question of ‘how do traits pass from one generation to another’ began to consume biologists after Darwin published his seminal work. An Austrian friar, Gregor Mendel, a forerunner in genetics research, had done work in cross breeding hybrids of pea plants. He recorded but didn’t go as far as to analyze the implications of his observations. He even shared his findings with Darwin, who unfortunately failed to see their significance at that time.
When Mendel was re-discovered in 1900, things began to move at a rapid pace. Hugo De Vries, a Dutch botanist, introduced the words ‘gene’ and ‘mutation’ into the vocabulary. By 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American, had provided evidence for inheritance through chromosomes. The most significant post-Darwinian inflection came from Ronald Fisher’s work on Mendelian inheritance. Fisher is considered the founding father of modern statistical science, design of experiments and biometry, and has been described as the ‘greatest biologist since Darwin’ by none other than Prof. Richard Dawkins. Fisher combined statistical analysis of genetic evidence and Darwinian theories into what came to be known as “modern synthesis,” and architected the emergence of “evolutionary biology,” starting in 1918.
Side Note: Interestingly, Fisher became a vocal proponent of eugenics, a principle that encouraged society to select fitter humans for survival. Fisher showed, using census data, that fertility was inversely proportional to social class. As families became more affluent and climbed the social ladder, they became smaller. Fisher hypothesized that these smaller families unfairly thrived, in spite of their lower reproductive output, solely because of their economic advantage. He campaigned for subsidies to lower income, larger families based on the earning potential of the father. Not coincidentally, Fisher himself had a large family and his financial resources were meager.
Eugenics caught the imagination of politicians, philosophers, writers, journalists and others. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, about a mythical society based on eugenics was published in 1932. Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes were prominent personalities who subscribed to the concept, which at its core, played to the idea of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race. Although Hitler and the Nazis took inspiration foremost from Nietzche’s Ubermensch ( ‘Superman’) which was not based on racial grounds, their eugenics laws were based on similar laws which prevailed in California in the 1920s. Today, eugenics is (rightfully) considered scientific racism, as it pre-supposes an erroneous principle of racial superiority, which is supported neither by Darwinism nor by genetics.
By the 1940s, the onion had been peeled yet another layer to reveal the presence of DNA and RNA as the main constituents of chromosomes, and DNA as the primary carrier of genetic information. In 1953, DNA structure was resolved to be a double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. By the 1960s, the genetic code, a set of rules by which information encoded within genetic material is translated into protein by living cells, was ‘cracked’ by a team of scientists which included Har Gobind Khurana. By 2003, 99% of the human genome had been sequenced with 99.99% accuracy. The last hundred years have truly belonged to genetics and genomics.
The Modern Synthesis.
Incorporation of genetics and population studies led to Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. These theories emphasized the roles of mutation in causing variation within species. Natural selection, in Neo-Darwinism, was re-interpreted to define the natural process by which the frequency of genes in a population was determined. Neo-Darwinist theories have been subsequently replaced with current views of evolution known as the Modern Synthesis.
Per Modern Synthesis, several mechanisms, not just natural selection, are responsible for evolution. Of these, genetic drift is considered to be as crucial as natural selection. Traits are carried by discrete entities called genes, which are inherited. Variations within a population are caused by alleles, a “sub-type” of genes. Genes are composed of chromosomes, which in turn are constituted of DNA and RNA, which are the repository of genetic information and the messenger for carrying genetic information respectively. Speciation (formation of new species) occurs as as small changes (mutations) in genes. In other words, macroevolution is a consequence of a lengthy series of microevolutions.
In Modern Synthesis, evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes (observable external traits) and populations, while Darwin’s theory was applied at the level of organisms, species and individuals. Research in evolutionary biology is now heavily focused on speciation, addressing debates around the speed and size of mutations.
That thing that makes you, you and no one else but you…
It is now believed that all genetic information is contained in DNA, which exists in the form of a double helix structure, and made of chemicals called nucleotides. The most crucial part of nucleotides is the base, where the genetic information resides. The sequence in which bases appear in the DNA is somewhat like how letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. The ‘sentence’ or the sequence then provides the information required to create and sustain an organism. In other words, DNA is that thing which makes you, you and no one else but you. Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of these bases are the same in all people. Biologically, there is very little to distinguish one human from another.
An important property of DNA is that it can replicate; that is, make copies of itself. The double helix structure of the DNA is interesting because it provides two strands, each of which can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases, thus providing tremendous resilience and stability to DNA. The ability of DNA to replicate itself is critical because when cells divide, each new cell is required to have an exact copy of the DNA that was present in the old cell. When new cells are formed through mitosis and cytokinesis, each cell receives a copy of DNA, which they check for errors in duplication. Errors are usually caught and the flawed cells are destroyed. However, it is possible that errors may not be detected occasionally and allowed to exist. These errors, known as mutations, are the cause for microevolution, if they happen in gametes, which are cells that participate in sexual reproduction. Such errors may also lead to cancer and genetic diseases. If DNA couldn’t replicate, there would be no life as we know it. On the other hand, errors in DNA replication can lead to the worst of diseases. In that sense, DNA is both the giver and destroyer of life.
In a nutshell aka ridiculous simplification of some very complicated things…
Genes, which are made up of DNA, are the basic functional units of heredity. They are commanders. They contain the blue print, for how to create an organism, and provide instructions for the creation of proteins, which are required for the structure, function and regulation of a body’s tissues and organs. What are proteins? They are complex molecules, which are made of long chains of smaller units called amino acids. The sequence in which amino acids are found in the chains determines the type of protein. Amino acids, in turn, are created from nitrogenous (containing nitrogen) bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. In humans, genes could vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to over 2 million bases.
Every person has two copies of a gene, one inherited from each parent. A huge majority of genes are the same in all people, excepting for a small number (less than 1 percent) which are slightly different from person to person. Such genes with minute differences in their sequence of DNA bases are called alleles. It is these small differences which contribute to each person’s unique physical features and make us look different from one another.
Equally remarkably, just four nitrogenous bases, which lead to the formation of 20 amino acids, account for the diversity of all life on earth.
Our distant cousins.
It may not be apparent to us, at first glance, that a wine grape may be a distant cousin. We share a quarter of our genes with that fine fruit. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago. Every lineage that descended from that progenitor retained parts of its original genome, which embodies one of evolution’s key principles: ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’
Side Note: We share close to half our genes with fruit flies, over 80% with dogs and 90% with chimpanzees.
On a lighter note: It is now increasingly believed that those who work in the Indian news media may be our closest cousins yet, bridging the gap between chimps and humans.
Of course, we aren’t really much like a wine grape at all. As Carl Zimmer points out, “The genes we still share, we use differently, in the same way you can use a violin to play the music of Mozart or Benny Goodman. It is less surprising that we share more genes with chimpanzees than with rice, because we’ve shared most of our evolutionary journey with those apes. And in the small portion of our genes with no counterpart in chimpanzees, we may be able to find additional clues to what makes us uniquely human.”
Ever wonder why we all don’t look the same? (and thanked your stars for it?)
This is another intriguing question. Of all species, humans have the highest diversity in terms of external traits. There are all kinds of people on the planet. This is especially true of the human face. Why is there such a breathtaking variety in the human face, compared to animals which aren’t as diverse in this regard? For example, most elephants (within a gender) look similar, except for the girth or the height. How and why did we learn to process facial patterns and be able to tell friends from strangers when we meet them? For animals, the need to be identified as individuals doesn’t appear to be all that important. For humans, it’s everything. Why? As it turns out, evolutionary pressures may have pushed humans towards this vast variety of facial features and structures that we see today. In other words, to be distinguishable from each other has been evolutionarily advantageous for human survival. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where having identical humans could lead to problems. Clones of an individual being mistakenly killed off by an enemy. Being wrongly accused of murder. We would have many problems if we all looked identical.
Bringing home the Baconian..
In the last few decades, a large part of Christianity has sought to come to terms with evolution by steering towards a middle path between the prevailing evolution view point and the Biblical account of creation as prescribed in the first chapter of Genesis. While continuing to stress God’s initial act of creating the universe and all it contains, they try to reconcile evolution as an expression of His creative activity. Although such hybrid views may provide comfort to some, the fact remains that scientific evolutionary ideals see no role for God; neither in the origin of the universe, nor in the origin and development of life and man.
A mountain of evidence makes modern evolution theory undeniable. There are those who deny it on the grounds that the biologist’s method is not Baconian, and based on circumstantial evidence. It is true that a large portion of the evidence for evolution has been circumstantial. But, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like one, the chances are pretty good that we’re looking at a duck. Deciphering the mystery of evolution has rather been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with myriad pieces. As each piece falls into place and fits neatly with others that have come before it, and as a picture emerges, it is but the most obstinate dogmatic that will turn his face away and deny it. Further, biological research has come a long way since the days of Darwin, incorporating complex statistical, mathematical and computational methods, and now resembles work done in quantum mechanics or chaos theory, fields that are unquestionably scientific. The “theoretical biologist” is a dying breed, and biology merges more and more into computation and mathematics with each passing decade.
So, where does evolution leave us?
According to the mechanistic evolution theory, the universe and life in general, including humans, are products of impersonal interactions between matter and energy over eons of time. Everything was an accident. The universe appeared for no presumable reason or purpose, as did life.
As the French molecular biologist, Jacques Monod pointed out, “Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, lies at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution…. The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”
The belief that our existence can be attributed to nothing more than a long series of fortunate accidents, raises interesting questions about our ability to comprehend the nature of truth. In other words, is it possible that our reason and intellect are wired to comprehend reality only in ways that suit our survival?
Charles Darwin himself agonized over such implications. He wrote, “But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”
Darwin intuitively comprehended that nature was terrific at optimizing, but terrible at strategizing. If living organisms survive only on the basis of a tactical, non-strategic natural selection process, then it follows that human logic and reason are products of such natural selection too. In which case, conclusions drawn by human reason may never be known to be true, but instead only as valuable in their contribution to the survival of the human species. In utilitarian terms, truth that arises from human reason can then only be defined as what works, and not necessarily as what is true. We may thus be irreconcilably divorced from being able to discover the purpose of our existence, for we cannot determine if of our conclusions are true or if they are premeditated by survival instincts. Indeed, all scientific and spiritual inquiry may thus be undermined.
Natural selection implies that a man does not possess free will. Instead, he is programmed by forces of natural selection to act solely upon million year old survival impulses, which deny him freedom of action and thought, just as a fanatical religious believer would shut the doors to Heaven on the face of an unrepentant sinner. To hang on to evolution and simultaneously, even in the face of unavoidable conclusions of that theory, to hold on to belief in human purpose, dignity, free will, and ethics outside of the context of survival, is an unresolvable dilemma. One could try to escape the quandary by theorizing that life and man are not solely products of natural selection, and that “other factors” may be involved. But, to do so would not just undermine the central tenet of the theory of evolution, but would also re-introduce the role of the divine into creation.
As humans, we possess an intriguing affinity for virtues such as goodness, kindness and happiness, which may not always be consonant with survival. It is not obvious if such spiritual aspirations have survival value. Are those who cast aside their quick-to-judge-and-act survival instincts in favor of kinder-gentler non-judgmental ones destined be martyred by evolution? Are we to be denied happiness, because it may not have survival value? Implications of a naturalistic worldview such as evolution are simultaneously liberating and ominous, even for the most modern and secular parts of our selves.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously portrayed a madman walking through a marketplace, proclaiming, “Where is God? I shall tell you. God is dead. We have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” Science has sought man’s liberation from God. It has sought God’s death, through a mechanistic theory of evolution. But, even as we find ourselves alive and liberated from the tyranny of God’s salesmen, we come face to face with the death of our own reason and intellectual freedom. This may just be the great dilemma of modern, secular humans; that by embracing truth as we come to understand it, we make ourselves ineligible to receive any further knowledge on its nature.
- “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” By Charles Darwin. Free Kindle book. Must read for science lovers. Read it often and early.
- The Great Courses, “Theory of Evolution, A History of Controversy,” by Prof. Larson. Six hours of lectures, beautifully done. Great for commutes.
- “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson. A genius raconteur of history. You haven’t lived if you haven’t read Bryson.
- “The Selfish Gene,” by Prof. Richard Dawkins. A book that changed my life. Authored by a scientist extraordinaire.
- On the Nature of Time and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
- Why is there something and not nothing?
- The Cosmic Calendar.
- On the Nature of Light
- On the Hindu view of Time and Cosmology