Belief, Nature, and Evolutionary Ethics

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Belief, Nature, and Evolutionary Ethics


Timko, Michael, The World and I


Humans have always cherished their "spiritual" over their "natural" side, that part of their nature that represents what they feel to be their connection to the supernatural or divine or holy, that aspect (soul, essence, life-force) that validates their superiority over all other beings. That is why Darwin's book caused such turmoil when it was published; it claimed (or seemed to suggest) that humans had no spiritual side. They had no claim to divinity; they were, in fact, physical beings subject to natural law.

In 1859 Charles Darwin, an amateur scientist, published "On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." His monumental work touched on all phases of life: philosophical, ethical, social, political, and, of course, religious. Stephen Jay Gould in his "Ever Since Darwin" (1977) wrote that the stumbling block to its acceptance lay [and still lies] in its "radical philosophical content." According to Gould it was a "challenge to a set of entrenched Western attitudes that we are not yet ready to abandon."

Most significant in this radicalism was Darwin's assertion that evolution has no purpose, no direction. In Gould's words: "If the world displays any harmony and order, it arises only as an incidental result of individuals seeking their own advantage." In short, they are struggling to survive in a world where only the "fittest" survive.

Again, here is Gould: "[Evolution] does not lead inevitably to higher things. Organisms become better adapted to their local environments, and that is all."

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Darwin's theory, says Gould, is his "consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity."

In addition to disturbing many believers, the Origin also created great anxiety for many others who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. If Darwin was right, then the events recounted in the Bible were wrong. It quickly became clear to those reading the Origin that according to Darwinian chronology the world had not been created in six days. The Bible had mentioned a flood, but this hardly explained many of the fossils found in the earth. An Irish Archbishop, James Ussher, had worked out a Biblical chronology: the world, he said, had been created on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m. in the year 4004 B.C., and the flood had taken place in 2501 B.C. This theory did not help much to explain many fossils, but it was the best possible until Darwin came along.

In this context one can see why the Origin has always been a template on which people could project their various religious and philosophic responses. It forced them to think, to reconsider their place in the cosmos; it made them reconsider their role as human beings. Simply put, were they apes or angels?

Darwin himself saw the dilemma his theory had created, especially so in the light of his own mixed religious background. Religious faith was intense in one branch of the Darwin family. His maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery maker, was a devout Unitarian. On the other hand, his paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor and radical freethinker, rejected the Bible and Jesus, claiming that "no particular providence is necessary to roll the Planet round the Sun." Erasmus had been influenced by Joseph Priestley, one of the most famous English Unitarians. One of the biographies of Darwin states that Priestley's theology was so influential that it "shaped the outlook of three generations of intermarried Darwins and Wedgewoods."

Darwin's father, Robert, also a doctor, was also an unabashed freethinker, but he married Susannah Wedgewood, who, like her father, was a devout and deeply religious Unitarian. While Robert refused to be a member of any formal religion, Susannah, who gave birth to Charles on 12 February, 1809, when she was 43, was a practicing Unitarian and took the children every Sunday to the local Unitarian Chapel. …

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