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Dostoevsky and Dawkins on the Significance of Origins

There are few things better than getting free books. Last week a friend of mine happened to find himself helping clean out the basement of James Houston (one of the founders of Regent College) and was rewarded with a stack of books for his troubles, some of which, due to my friend’s generosity, found their way into my hands. Among these books is Houston’s two-volume compilation of various “letters of faith” written down through the ages and arranged into a year-long collection of daily readings.

Today’s letter was written in June, 1876 by the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky to V.A. Alekseyev, a soloist with the Marinsky theatre orchestra. The letter was written prior to Dostoevsky’s completion of his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in which the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus’ failure to turn stones into bread in response to the devil’s temptation in the wilderness (Mat. 4:2-4). Dostoevsky strongly resisted the idea that once the material needs of human beings were met, all of their problems would thereby be solved. It is in the context of his resistance of “European Socialism” that the letter containing this excerpt was written:

If the question had been simply one of satisfying Christ’s hunger, would there have been any reason to broach the subject of man’s spiritual nature in general? Besides, Christ did not have to wait for the Devil’s advice on how to obtain bread. He could have obtained it before if He had chosen to. By the way, remember Darwin’s and other contemporary theories about man’s descent from the ape. Without going into any theories, Christ declares directly that, besides belonging to the animal world, man also belongs to the spiritual world. Well then, it does not really matter what man’s origins are (the Bible does not explain how God molded him out of clay or carved him out of stone), but it does say that God breathed life into him. (But what is bad is that by sinning man can once again turn into a beast.)

What I found fascinating (and refreshing) about this letter was Dostoevsky’s almost casual treatment Darwin’s theory of human origins. He seems to not much care—indeed he assumes—that human beings are a part of the “animal world.” How God brought human beings into existence seems to be of little concern to him. It is obvious to Dostoevsky (as it is to most people) that while human beings are similar to animals in many respect, they are different in obvious and important ways. God breathed something different into human beings—something to which we are accountable to nourish and cultivate. Failure to do this, according to Dostoevsky, represents a return to the beastly part of us which we are called to transcend.

I couldn’t help but compare Dostoevsky’s understanding of the significance Darwinian evolution to the following passage from the opening pages of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth for, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

The difference between the two passages and their assessment of Darwinian evolution is remarkable. For Dostoevsky (who is writing, it is to be remembered, only a decade or so after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species),the mechanics of human origins are almost incidental; what is important—what is conveyed by Christ’s statement “man does not live by bread alone”—is that human beings have a destiny that goes beyond the material, the animalistic.

For Dawkins, Darwin’s theory represents a new kind of Copernican revolution in human understanding which fundamentally reorients our conceptions of all important questions. Elsewhere, Dawkins approvingly quotes zoologist G.G. Simpson who, in a discussion of such questions as “what are human beings for?” and “what is the meaning of life?” claimed that “all attempts to answer that question before 1859 [the year of the Origin’s publication] are worthless and we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” Dawkins sees Darwin’s theory as the hinge upon which the history of human understanding turns.

Dostoevsky, on the other hand, sees it as an unexceptional reminder that we are simultaneously “of the earth” and made for a future that goes beyond our present experience of it. While Dawkins feels compelled to write off most of the history of human reflection upon life’s most important questions as primitive, unenlightened nonsense (although he’s not entirely consistent here—at other points Dawkins is quite clear that on moral and political issues, we cannot expect much help from Darwinian evolution), Dostoevsky is perfectly able and willing, apparently, to incorporate new discoveries within an overall framework which makes sense of fundamental human needs and capacities and which has the happy benefit of not rendering thousands of years of reflection on important questions “irrelevant.”

That’s a pretty important benefit, in my estimation.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    I am not sure what you mean by incorporate. It seems to me from the quote that Dostoevsky dismisses the theory of evolution as irrelevant rather than incorporating it according to the quote above.

    March 29, 2008
  2. All I meant was that, at least according to the letter, Dostoevsky didn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolutionary theory. It didn’t seem to provoke the crisis of faith in him that some (Dawkins, for example) seem to think it ought to for everyone who becomes aware of it.

    March 30, 2008
  3. Jost ferther avidance dat e-ba-LUU-shin is creeping into da churches. Ve suure haf to wotch out. OK so maybe yur oncle was an abe bot dis idea dat ve came from da monkies – i don’t know. I tink dat vat aver dis Dusty guy says ve shud be suspishis. anavays bye

    April 2, 2008
  4. Dale, you are funny, funny man.

    April 2, 2008
  5. Have you read Chris Hedges “I Don’t Believe in Atheists”?

    April 7, 2008
  6. I read the introduction in a bookstore yesterday, but I’ve not read the whole thing. Is it worth reading?

    April 7, 2008
  7. I actually don’t know… that was my reason for asking you (he sounded up your alley). It was recommended to me by friend of mine (who happens to also be an atheist). But I heard an interview with him on CBC radio and it was interesting. I liked what he had to say – clearly a very intelligent and experienced individual. He also wrote a book on Christian fundamentalism in the States and one about the first gulf war.

    April 7, 2008
  8. I’ve heard similar things from others regarding the book, so I may just have to check it out. The problem I have is keeping up with all the books written on this topic in the last couple of years. Every couple weeks I seem to see a new one popping up. I guess I should have decided to write on some obscure fifteenth century monk or something…

    April 7, 2008
  9. The first question being asked by superior creatures from space.

    Superior creatures from space will not be asking “Have they discovered evolution yet?”.

    They will be asking “Have they discovered that evolution doesn’t account for the evolution of superior creatures?”.

    D J Wray
    Packaged Evolution – Renewing an old theory

    January 27, 2010

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