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Optimism and Evolution

I’ve been mulling over this article that Olivia Judson wrote in yesterday’s New York Times over the last couple of days.  The article is about the omnipresent battle in American schools about whether/how to teach evolution.  Judson, a biologist, thinks that the fact that there is even a debate about the matter is a “travesty.”  Perhaps she’s right, but I’m less interested in the status of American school curricula than I am in her linkage of the terms “evolution” and “optimism,” and the assumptions at work in her arguments for teaching evolution.  

I should preface my remarks by saying that I have no idea what (if any) Judson’s religious views might be.  Specifically, I don’t know if she is a thorough-going naturalist a la Richard Dawkins or if she leaves room for some kind of purpose in the cosmos.  Having said that, Judson’s language in the second part of her article is reminiscent of an issue I recently posted about.  She seems to assume, throughout her discussion, that human beings are something other than “nature.”  Throughout the article, she refers to the impact “we” are having on nature, how “our” behaviour is causing other species to adapt too quickly, etc, etc.  In each of these statements, there is a “nature” and there is an “us” who is having this or that deleterious biological effect.

Ultimately, of course, the justification for teaching evolution is located in the familiar context of needing to understand and appreciate the impact we are having on our environment:

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

Even if Judson is right about this—that an impersonal, unguided, dysteleological process has blindly produced a species whose survival depends upon understanding and appreciating the process which produced it—the question I have, from a strictly naturalistic perspective, is “why should I care about the preservation of species?”  After all, if 90+% of the species that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct via natural processes, why shouldn’t we view the extinction of species hastened by human activity as just one more ordinary result of the evolutionary process, one more species not proving adaptable enough to make it in the harsh survival game that is life?

We, like other animals, are a part of nature, after all.  We, like other animals, are seeking to preserve ourselves in an environment that is not always hospitable to our aspirations.  If the evolution of other species is accelerated or if our behaviour leads to the extinction of this or that species, why should we view this as anything other than one more meaningless chapter in the relentless evolutionary grind?

The reason we do not (and should not) think this way is because most of us (quite properly, I think) feel quite free to smuggle in an implicit teleology into our thinking about the world.  We should act responsibly and do our best to preserve other species because non-human species have value and human beings have the unique ability and responsibility to understand this and act accordingly.  The world should not be greedily consumed by ravenous human beings because the world is (or ought to be) more than a brute survival game.

Without some variation of these assumptions operating in the background, it seems pointless to argue that understanding and teaching evolution is important for the sake of the world we inhabit.  On a consistent naturalistic worldview, any consideration beyond naked self-interest seems peripheral at best, if not completely irrelevant (Judson does appeal to self-interest in the quote above, but, interestingly, only after what seems to be a moral plea for the preservation of other species).

Judson concludes on a very interesting note:

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Here I agree with Judson, if not with the somewhat misleading title of her article.  While evolution, in and of itself, cannot realistically be described as “optimistic,” studying evolution can certainly be a source of optimism because it can help us better care for the world God has made.  It can foster in us the sense of wonder Judson writes of while soberly assessing the cruelty and waste in nature  that she omits from her discussion.  It can provide us with a picture of a world with tremendous beauty and tremendous pain, and give us tools to do what we can to make it a better place, for ourselves, and for the creatures we share it with and to respond appropriately to the spiritual reality that the world we inhabit points toward.

The preceding is not meant to disparage the impulse toward optimism in Judson’s article.  We are creatures who need optimism, who seem to be hard-wired for understanding the world teleologically.  But only a God who stands over and upholds the natural world and who promises to one day heal it and make all things new can render evolution or the study of it optimistic.  The evolutionary ground, in and of itself, simply will not yield the optimistic fruit humans require.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I agree with your analysis here. It shows a deeper understanding of what is at stake than hers does.

    I wonder if she understands evolution to mean that natural selection is sufficient to explain the origin of the species. I wonder if she understands that holding this belief also generally means believing that chance and necessity are the authors of life. I wonder if she understands that biology, and perhaps all of science, operate on an assumption of teleonomy rather than teleology. I don’t think she does.

    I have noticed that many writers seem to think of “evolution” as simply referring to change and to the idea that our species came from others, without understanding that biologists use the term “evolution” to refer not just to that, but also to the belief that natural selection, and thus chance and necessity, teleonomy not teleology, cause wihout purpose, account for the origin of the species.

    Many biologists suspect that life emerged from dead matter in a teleonomical way as well, although that has not yet been proved nor the cause, nor the means found. Buried as the beginning of life is in history, it may always remain a mystery. If there is optimism in biology, this is it: we can create life and put an end to death.

    I hope schools do not advocate the ideological, political, moralistic version of evolution that she advocates. Her version is not science, and it reflects a superficial understanding of ethics. I think the fact that evolution, understood as working through natural selection, is the paradigm that underlies biology is sufficient reason to teach it. I also think at some point in a person’s education it is important to study the history of the idea of evolution and about its philosophical, cultural and political implications and to study this: while more and more people believe in evolution, there remains skepticism, not just within theology, that chance and necessity are sufficient to explain life.

    August 14, 2008
  2. “But only a God who stands over and upholds the natural world and who promises to one day heal it and make all things new can render evolution or the study of it optimistic.”

    That’s a lot of evidence-free wishful thinking.

    August 14, 2008
  3. Thanks for your comments Ken. I think that articles like this tend to shift back and forth between evolution as a descriptive theory and evolution as a worldview or a philosophy of life. When they go the latter route, it is very difficult to be consistent. I think Charles Darwin would have been fairly surprised to learn that in the twenty-first century the teaching of evolution was being described as a source of optimism!

    I think you’re right – students would be well-served by learning not only about evolution as biology but how evolution is used and understood in the broader culture. There’s no lack of the former, but the latter is, I think, severely lacking.

    August 14, 2008
  4. bobxxxx,

    Thanks for clearing that up.

    August 14, 2008

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