This I Believe:
Darwinian Theory and Hope
This I know: Humans are animals and are descended from animals. We differ from other animals only in degree, not in kind, and the corollary idea is that we are not special creations made in the image of God.
This I believe: In a post-Darwinian world, the meaning of life is constructed by humans individually and collectively, and such meaning can sustain hope that life matters. But arriving at this belief was not easy for me.
A big problem was the numbers. The universe is 15 billion years old (counting from the “big bang”). Our planet took form 4.6 billion years ago. Life began about a billion years after that. Our genus, Homo, appeared approximately 3 million years ago. In comparison with all that time my life is so miniscule as to be impossible to comprehend the smallness of it.
Deeply absorbing that perspective, while reading and teaching Darwinian theory, I started questioning all of my goals and desires. What was the point of trying to get a book published, lose 10 pounds, create a prize-winning garden, be a great teacher? In the “long run,” did it really matter if my students did not grasp the concept of natural selection?
Wasn’t everything really absurd? The desperate political ambitions of the people running for president. The desperate desire of students to ace (or just pass) their courses. The desperate desire of one little teacher, me, not to be fat, old, invisible, and irrelevant. All of it shrunk in meaning when compared to the human connection to animals and plants, which required billions of years to develop. And why? Apparently not for the sake of humanity, which will not be around indefinitely.
I asked the students to explain Philip Appleman’s statement (in his book Darwin) that Darwin’s theory was nonteleological and nonvitalist, and that this fact was anathema to theologians. As my students could have told you (then), nonteleological means without purpose, and nonvitalist means without an animating spirit, like a soul. The diverse forms of life just got to be this way, cell by cell, creature by creature, living and dying without any ultimate goal or result. These ideas were (and are still) anathema because they imply that all of our lives will end without having mattered to the process. And that God had nothing to do with it.
Reflecting thus, and dismally sunk in a perspective of Darwinian insignificance, I picked up a book that restored my spirits. (It was not the Bible.) I picked up Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of It All. Feynman, a nuclear physicist and 1963 Nobelist, stared meaninglessness in the face and was not dismayed by it. Instead, the scientist saw the situation (all those millennia!) as exciting.
It wasn’t a direct effect of Feynman. I stopped reading and let my mind wander in a Zen sort of way, staring out the window at a scene of falling rain and swaying branches. And then, I got this: What else can I see, or hear?
This tiny idea transformed my perspective. What else is possible? I remembered that I have recourse to discovery. That is what kept Richard Feynman going, and what I had absorbed from reading his words. I decided that existence always contains possibilities that have not been explored, and that is enough reason for life to matter. Thus I emerged from a Darwinian depression and regained hope based on creative discovery.
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