I’ve had this weird sensation of late. I’m in a shop, or on the street, surrounded by others, when I get this startling feeling of being outside of myself and looking down on the world. All of a sudden it seems very strange to me. We humans seem like oddly-shaped, twittering mammals, perched up on our hind legs, and living almost entirely in a world made up of the products of our brains, horribly divorced from nature and from the planet we inhabit.
It’s a commonplace to refer to the human race as the high point of evolution. As Shakespeare put it: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
Not some of the people I know! Noble in reason? Infinite in faculty? The beauty of the world? Overweight, opinionated and petty-minded would be a better description. Drunk on their own sense of self-importance. And I include myself in that.
As it happens Shakespeare wasn’t referring to evolution when he wrote those lines. Evolution hadn’t been invented yet. In Shakespearean times the world was still made in six days, and women were squidged together out of lumps of clay wrapped around a freshly plucked rib.
How times have changed. These days we have DNA and genetic engineering. We don’t need plucked ribs. We have stem-cells instead.
I have two friends who don’t believe in evolution. One’s a fundamentalist Christian, who thinks we’re all being conned by secular relativism, and insists that the world is a lot younger than we’re led to believe. The other is a follower of Madam Blavatsky.
My friend, the follower of Madam Blavatsky, said: “There’s no such thing as evolution. Look, the lion is already perfect, the hippopotamus is perfect, and the crocodile is perfect. Who’s ever heard of an un-evolved crocodile? None of the animals need to evolve. The only thing that has yet to evolve on this planet is humans.”
I liked that line. I told it to my friend the fundamentalist Christian, and later I overheard him saying it to someone else. I should’ve warned him that the line derived from Madam Blavatsky. Maybe then he might’ve thought twice about using it.
I like planting thoughts in people’s heads.
I don’t know whether evolution exists or not. I have no scientific background and can’t argue either way about the fossil record or the processes of mutation in DNA. It sounds like a plausible enough explanation to me. I’ve always accepted that evolution must play a part in the overall form that us mammals take, in the same way that I accept that the Earth goes round the Sun and that gravity makes things fall to the ground. It seems to me that the more elegant and simple an explanation, the more likely it is to be true. That applies to gravity. It also applies to evolution.
Also—and this is where I get really puzzled—it seems that there’s no necessary contradiction between the idea of a creator and evolution anyway. After all, wouldn’t it work just as well to say that evolution was the creator’s creation? If evolution exists, couldn’t the creator be manipulating it?
Why are some people so obsessed with hanging on to one interpretation of reality and defending it so aggressively against every other possible explanation? This has always struck me as a football supporter’s version of a cosmological debate. My team vs. your team. My team, home or away, and I’ll fight you in the car park afterwards if you disagree.
This is equally true of both sides in the current debate around evolution and intelligent design. Some of the statements of the fundamentalist evolutionists are just as religious in their fervor as those of the more traditional creationist.
Here’s the difference between religion and science: science is a process, not a belief. It depends on testing theory against experiment in the laboratory. What it can’t test it can’t prove and is therefore outside the realms of science.
The idea that the universe is just some kind of a huge cosmological accident that happens to have thrown up intelligent life in one obscure and out-of-the-way corner, like Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana skin and falling down a hole, is itself only a piece of non-scientific speculation, and is more like theology than science. But Chaplin never accidentally fell down any holes. He always did it on purpose.
You can believe it if you want. Or not. I think it falls short of my requirement that an explanation be elegant and simple, since it involves all sorts of implausible convolutions of logic to work, cosmological accident after cosmological accident, not unlike the Aristotelian universe of spheres within spheres that preceded the Copernican view of the Earth going round the Sun.
But the question remains: are we merely animals, or may there be some ultimate “meaning” in our lives? To me the answer is simple. Of course we’re animals. And of course we mean something. I’d go further and say that there can be no meaning without us. We’re animals with language, therefore we’re the animals whose very purpose is to “mean” something.
Or at least that’s what some of us try to do some of the time. As to whether we can evolve enough to secure our continued existence on this planet: that’s yet to be decided.