Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Problem with Evolution

Maybe I should have titled this "A Problem..." I'm not trying to debunk the theory or anything and I really should begin with 2 caveats. First, this is absolutely not some kind of "flat-earth, fundamentalist propaganda, anti science rant." I'm not trying to prove or disprove anything about the theory of evolution, the age of the earth or whatever. Second, the degree to which this is coherent and valuable is based on the degree to which I can recall my musings of yesterday evening.

I don't exactly recall how I got thinking about Evolution - so is the way my mind works. But I realize there is a fatal flaw in the theory - or at least in its extrapolation into the rest of our spheres of knowledge and ideas about our world. But in truth, it's not so much the theory itself that is particularly flawed - well, that is not exactly what I'm concerned with here. Whether or not macro evolution as well as micro evolution occurred/s, whether or not all life originated as the descendants of single-celled micro-organisms that through millions and millions of years of accidental mutations got to humanity - well, I'll set that aside. What I want to raise up is something slightly more foundational - something that I can only believe was planned in the mind of Darwin, well before he ever ventured onto the Galapagos Islands.

As a 19th Century intellectual, Charles Darwin was brought up under the enlightenment ideals - of which the linear movement of human progress was one. Whether incrimental or exponential, everyone understood that we were moving forward as a species - to a better place, one that was to be more prosperous and more advantageous. New worlds were literally and figuratively opening up (at least for white-European males). Progress was obvious. You might say that nothing much has changed a century and a half later. We still believe in the limitless possibilities of our intellect and our ambition - if we just try hard enough we will eventually be able to cure cancer, vacation on the moon and eat whatever we want and still look like Hollywood actors.

In Darwin's theory particularly, there is the idea that through genetic anomolies, members of different species will inherit traits that will be advantageous for their survival. And hence, Surivival of the Fittest. It's hard to argue that in a "natural" environment, where the laws of said amorpheous being/entity/book as nature is followed, the strong - or well equipped will survive and those weaker - less equipped will eventually die. But I believe there is an assumption here that is not being admitted - one that we all might be making equally without admitting to it - one that if we are to be intellectually honest, we must accept as an apriori assumption.

The assumption is this: Life, and life in our environment on this earth, in this situation is good. The idea of course, if we are the supreme example of evolution - the height of natural selection, is that we - as we exist now - are inherintly good because we have been able to adapt to our surroundings. This is an assumption - and one that can be thrown on its ear with this question:

What if our world is NOT good. What if the environment we inhabit is corrupt, dying, decaying. If natural selection is true, and again, my goal in this post is not to refute the theory but to expose a fundamental flaw in its foundation - which leads us to believe something that is quite possibly very far from true - If natural selection is true, and our world is NOT good, then we are actually breeding the fruit of corruption, death and decay. If those of us (and I'm talking both about humans and animal/plant species) who have survived, who have been selected by nature for fitness, are being bred to survive in a - well, "bad" environment, then we too must by extension be bad. We would actually be breeding the very things that we would not want, should we take this to another arena - like ethics.

But in our fragmented world, these kinds of connections do not take place. All we need to do is look to the news to see that the 19th Century Liberal (I'm not talking politics here) idea that the world could be perfected, that we are moving towards that now, is all wrong. Do I need to name Rwanda, Somalia, Hiroshima, Auchswitz, 9-11 or the myriad of sensless violence we see on the news every night? But we still cling to some idea that eventually - through technology or medicine or sheer force of will - if not collectively, at least individually, we will wake up tomorrow better than we go to bed tonight - we will evolve into something better.

I think Charles Darwin was right - natural selection occurs. What I think he failed to see, was that evolution by natural selection, instead of leading towards a better place, is breeding creatures that are adept at surviving in a fallen world. And maybe, just maybe Jesus was right when he claimed, "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." (Lk 17:33)

*This is an aside*
I couldn't find anywhere else to put this, but there is one more unintended consequence that is particularly troubling in the whole idea of progress - and that is the infatuation of the new and the denegration of the old. There is the belief - felt if not always uttered - that if someone said it today, it's probably more accurage or valuable than if someone said it 100 years ago. Even worse is that an opinion held today is more valuable than tens of millions of people who had an opposing view 100 years ago. Somehow, by virtue of our continued evolution into more intelligent beings, whatever trite we propose now is surely more advanced than what one believed a century ago...


jes said...

What if cumulatively to exist as humans is good, not bad, as you imply? (I don't mean by this that humanity is inherently or intrinsically good but that the existence of humanity is good, not bad.)

Assume, for the sake of the argument, that our real, collective human existence is "better" than an unreal, essentially inconceivable situation of our non-existence. In such a view, human life is not necessarily inherently "bad," as you propose, irrespective of how "bad" some, many, or all humans may or may not act; instead, human life is "good," regardless of the reality or nature of its particular, fleeting acts, precisely because such life exists and thus is "better" than human non-existence. Simply put, perhaps it is "better" that humans exist than should they not; therefore, human existence by definition and extension is "good." The sad fact of humanity's historic, ongoing (partial, not total) proclivity towards any and all forms of violence and other aspects of the "bad" does not necessarily deny or otherwise disprove the essential, overall "goodness" of humanity, which is entirely due to its existence.

In such a view, it matters not how or in what way humanity appears or comes into existence, whether by evolution, creation, or some other means.

jlee said...

Strong argument based on the patterns of thought that dominated the 19th century and have informed our thinking ever since. You take the argument away from the history or no history focus and refocus it.

What prompted these thoughts?

Don said...

Jonathan - while I'll grant you that it is more than possible to view existence as better than non-existence and that doing so is not a value judgment on the type of existence, I still believe that the theory of survival of the fittest means that the particulars of this existence are what we are evolving and adapting to. One therefore has to make a value judgment as to the type of existence that we have. If the world and nature is basically good, we are evolving - if the world and nature is basically bad - we are devovlving so to speak. In either case we are adapting by the process of natural selection, to our environment.

My main goal is to essentially flip the idea around that it is just as possible to view our evolution as a positive as a negative and if that is the case, we must admit to this and not simply assume that our adaptation and "progress" is positive. If indeed objective ideas of good and evil exist it is just as plausible that what we understand as positive evolution, adapting to our environment - could be our devolution, adapting to, dare I say, hell?