Why The “Why?”
I came across Richard Dawkins’s latest impassioned plea for evolution this morning via Arts & Letters Daily. Dawkins’s medium this time is a book review (Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True), but those familiar with the world of Dawkins will find little new here. Mostly, it’s the same old tired re-hashing of his war against creationism and all who would resist the idea that evolutionary theory answers all questions worth asking or answering.
The evidence is massive, the modern version of the story would surprise and inspire even Darwin, and it cannot be told too often. Evolution is, after all, the true story of why we all exist, and an exhilaratingly powerful and satisfying explanation. It supersedes—and devastates—all predecessors, no matter how devoutly and sincerely believed.
The true story of why we all exist. Hmmm. Actually, it seems to me that of the (many) things that evolution can tell us, why we exist is not among them. It can trace the causal chain back as far as possible and tell a plausible story of how we have come to exist. It may give us some insight into when and where we first came to exist. It may do a masterful job of describing what exists, in all of its wondrous variety. But it cannot pronounce finally upon why we exist. The question of whether or not there is an ultimate “why” is something that lies beyond the scope of evolutionary theory—or any scientific theory that properly concerns itself with describing what is.
Of course, Richard Dawkins is certainly free to profess his faith in evolution as a comprehensive worldview. But he so regularly blurs the line between “scientific facts” and what he considers these facts to mean that we may be forgiven for taking statements such as the one above just a little cynically. Evolution cannot tell us why we exist, no matter how desperately Richard Dawkins wishes this were so.