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Is Darwin a New Testament?

Categories: Ed Mooney, ZiR

imagesIn every true searcher of Nature 
there is a kind of religious reverence — Albert Einstein.

In his recent Zeteo post, Drew Whitcup cites a New Yorker polemic by Lawrence Krauss, who posits a necessary conflict between science and religion. But the emergence of modern science is inconceivable without the ancient and medieval assumptions of a divine orderliness to things.

The great philosopher-scientists of the early enlightenment — say, Kepler and Newton — saw no kepler-and-kircher-1necessary quarrel between science, on the one hand, and religion or art, on the other. They would have scorned a “militant atheism.”

Einstein and the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson also reject such blindness.

In a happy serendipity, after setting aside Krauss’s polemic, I found Wilson’s pleasing invitation to consider an amiable relation between science and religion.

He wants the story of evolution – the scientific story – to be our contemporary religious epic or myth, a story to be told and retold to “ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species.”  He makes the importance of story crystal clear:

The primal instinct of narrative, of continuous scenario invention, is what makes the human brain superior in performance. In dreams we construct stories of unconstrained fantasy. In gossip we evaluate others with tales of their exploits and foibles. And in religious myths we repeat the epics that ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species.

sacred-treeHe makes these remarks in his preface to Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. Evolution makes for a story of epic proportions, I suppose, but why do we need the epic told in a religious register?

One answer might be that “ennobling our lives” just is a religious undertaking – raising the dead, as it were, bringing the great and glorious back to life, generation on generation, through story and art and edifice, always on the lookout for new saints to continue the legacy.

Wilson doesn’t go there, but he does suggest that in addition to ennobling,

Religious epics . . . confirm that we are part of something greater than ourselves. They say, Death may claim your precious self, and those you most love, but it will not claim the tribe or sully the benefits that empower the tribe. 

images-1This religious epic will encase an earthly, exclusively naturalist religion preserving wonder, patience, honor, kindness, and respect for all life and all natural forms without encumbering creeds or backward institutions.

I suspect a Darwinian religious epic would crystallize within a wider set of institutions and practices so far largely unformed as such. And in addition, we would need parables, wisdom tales, Midrashim, psalms, and sacred walks.

Such an epic would float free of God or the gods (as Buddhism does) and free of the Abrahamic God on which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism pivot. It might embrace a quasi-pantheism (as in Thoreau’s religion), and would celebrate a naturalist’s deep wonder at the imaginative and narrative structure of the world and the mirroring imaginative and narrative scenarios of the sciences.

Here is Annie Dillard:

Everyday is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.

sacred_treeAnd here is E. O. Wilson’s rich tale of how epics (and poetic perspectives?) evolve:

Homo sapiens can justly be called the mythopoeic species. Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity came to be part of it. The brain’s architecture automatically makes up stories; and the mind it creates is a theater of competing scenarios. The brain is not confined, animal-like, to instant sensory impressions followed by rough associations of these impressions with past reward and punishment. Instead, it searches continuously backward across time to re-create past events, real and imaginary, and forward to invent future scenarios. Stories that are pleasing to reason and emotion outcompete others less so. Replacing them, they serve thereafter as maps of future action. During this process the self, the central protagonist of the scenarios, is perceived within the present-moment scenario as having reached a decision. 

I think he sees us “having reached a decision” in the sense that we will come to a cross-roads, and if we are settled beyond confusion and despair, it will be because somehow through balancing competing stories we indeed come down on one side or the other.  We become decided.

We might find ourselves groping helplessly toward a “cosmic sense of things,” or amidst others who are  defiantly or loosely indifferent.  Or we might find ourselves inching hopefully toward some glimmer of radiant decision.

 —Ed Mooney, Contributor

Citations: For a sample from Lawrence Krauss’s New Yorker piece, see Drew Whitcup, Zeteo 09.09.2015, “Science and Religious Freedom (and Kim Davis).”  E.O. Wilson is quoted from his Preface to Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution (SUNY, 1999), encountered in a Unitarian Minister’s blog run by Andrew Brown, Cambridge, England: http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com/  in remarks posted on September 7th, 2015. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (NY: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 3.  Thanks to google images. For more, see the Religious Naturalists Association: http://religious-naturalist-association.org/




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7 Comments to “Is Darwin a New Testament?”

  1. William Eaton says:

    Very intriguing new path into the forest! I was reminded, among other things, of how the first page of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea begins with memories of the young Dennett’s Christian indoctrination, and it was hard after that for me not to read the book as turning Darwin’s science into religion. Your point, of course, is the inverse. And thus arises this question: What would an non-religious science look like? Could there be such a thing?

  2. Tim McCollum says:

    Wonderful! Beautifully and elegantly written! Mellifluous phraseology! A testimonial to literary excellence!
    But, in many ways methinks, misspoken. First, it is important to distinguish between Darwin’s two theories, one of evolution, the other of natural selection by way of fitness. The former presently seems unassailable, but the latter is either questionable, or a gross understatement, as evidenced by way of the recently presented annual “Darwin Letter” setting out the Expanded Evolutionary Synthesis. In that a consortium of prominent international scholars posit that natural selection by way of fitness becomes only one of many possible factors. Ergo, if it is a religion, it appears to have just been significantly altered, unlike most religions that almost always focus on long-standing beliefs and immutability.
    As a perennial skeptic I would have to ask: why does humankind need any god or gods? I would certainly disagree that the religiosity of the ancients and of medieval times provides any current motivation to science. Cannot humans stand in awe of anything without elevating that to a godlike status or position? Is there any vital religious component to curiosity?
    Substituting one belief for another, no matter how counterfactual the beginning or ending points might be, may satisfy humankind’s seeming neurological penchant for belief, but to what end and effect? Other than at a personal and individual level, who cares about the relationship, if any, between science and religion? Who wants yet another asserted “Testament?” Are not two enough or more than necessary?

  3. Ed Mooney says:

    Responding to William Eaton, yes, there are endless possibilities for a non-religious science. There is non-religious bookkeeping and non-religious neurology. Moving to Tim McCollum, the sort of audience I imagine Wilson and Einstein to be addressing are people who read and are impressed by the author of the Book of Job, or by Kafka, or by Thoreau, or by Annie Dillard, each of whom offer fascinating possibilities of a naturalistic religious world-view where the abstract posit of a God is far less important than ‘existential questions’ about life and its meaning and the meaning of life in nature that some sort of religious sensibility is thought to address.
    The present claim is not that Darwinian evolutionary theory has to be religious or is a latent religion but that those who are lured by the imaginative possibilities suggested in Dillard or Job of a kind of divine orderliness or wildness might find a way to spin such orderliness as an overlay on a scientific underlay.
    What that would look like is yet to be determined (although any number of thinkers are trying their hand at such a spinning). Awe need not be given a religious articulation, even though many writers do.
    There will be room always for perennial skeptics. It’s just that militant atheists have little to stand on if their claim is that a scientist ought not to have a religious sensibility. Bookkeeping doesn’t require such a sensibility, but bookkeepers nevertheless might resent the proclamation that they ought to smother any religious impulses as incompatible with their work.

  4. Tim McCollum says:

    Not receiving answers to questions posed, I will try once again in response to your commentary. Why would any person need any kind of “an overlay on a scientific underlay?” What, if anything, dictates or drives or necessitates the same? Even further what need is there for any “fascinating possibilities of a naturalistic religious worldview…” when science seeks to provide realistic insight into the impact of nature upon humans. For only one example, of many, see today’s posting in Sciencedaily linking nature and health:
    My recent experiences strongly suggest that insofar as practitioners of biology and biological anthropology are concerned, Darwinism, as embedded in the “Modern Synthesis,” has achieved the unchallengeable status of religion. I say that having viewed the process of scientific rejection of the sub-discipline of biology called “epigenetics” for the past 15 years. Only now are the results of thousands of studies, both medical and/or otherwise, being accepted. I would again urge everyone to read and consider the alternative to the Modern Synthesis as embodied in the Expanded Evolutionary Synthesis, which can be found at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1813/20151019.full
    How much time, thought, and/or energy should be allocated to seeking to determine “the meaning of life” if there is such a thing? The same idea seems to resonate with a lot of assertions that I have heard as to the importance of an education in liberal arts. To me, science with all its foibles and likelihood of change or improvement in the future, is much more deserving as the answers it comes up with today create questions for tomorrow. Which, as physicist David Deutsch puts it, seeking those answers may provide “The Beginning of Infinity.”

  5. Ed Mooney says:

    Tim, you know much more about the world of biology than I do. So what am I doing talking about it? I think of science not as a body of TRUTH but as an historical ‘culture sphere,’ along with others such as the Law, the Arts, Business, Morality, Family Life, Education, etc. Of course the sphere’s overlap. In every age but the present there would be widespread agreement that religion is a culture sphere along with, or in some epochs, dominating, the others. Some people are happy to immerse themselves solely in business, or solely in family life, or solely in music or painting (though of course the law and the need for money will infiltrate to temper one’s dominate interest). It’s not hard to be at home in one sphere and be skeptical, not of the TRUTH, but, of the strength of the some other cultural calling or claim on one’s life. Existentially, we may be in a dark wood, being pulled now by the claims of family, now by the claims of the vocation of science, now by the claims of art. Some of us (and certainly there’s no need for everyone to follow this . . .) are pulled by the power of scientific ‘production’ AND by the power of artistic production AND by the power of great religious traditions and ‘productions’ [the latter often overlapping with those of art and music and poetry]. I’m in a dark wood listening to the allure of the Arts, of Religious Sensibility, of magnificent scenarios of Biological life and inter-dependencies an Alpine Research Lab or Oceanographic Institute might spin out for us as narratives available to non-specialists. As I see it, E.O. Wilson’s suggestive remarks belong in these dark woods where culture spheres overlap and are mutually suggestive to those whose interests are spread wide, as mine are. I think seeking David Deutsch’s “Beginning of Infinity” may indeed show up with answers, but they show up, in my view, just as much, or more, in the the ‘infinite task’ of asking good questions even when we’re in the dark about answers.

  6. Tim says:

    Once again, beautifully written. An art form unto itself.
    I would see an infinitesimally small point moving in time and space. I would call that, “a life.” I see it as a of convergence from all directions of perhaps an infinite field of ever varying incoming energies, forces, cultures, ideas, and, at the same existence a symmetrical radiance of including but not limited to energies, communications, ideas, and visions. All resulting in a balance of the inbound and the outbound, so to speak. The “inbound” might well at first be so far separated, in the fullest sense of the word, from anything else that if it had self- perception or consciousness it would likely view itself as alone, but, as it converges with other ”inbounds” a sense of those others and their ever narrowing trajectories could arise and be viewed, perhaps identified and/or understood to some degree. At least during the moment in time and space and convergences that allow for life. To me the tool of science is how one life can seek to understand itself in relation to everything else. To me, science is the flashlight, the only flashlight we possess, to provide the necessary illumination for perception let alone understanding. I say that notwithstanding my belief that the light emanating therefrom is dim, the beam narrow and flickering and produces lots of shadows and indefinable shapes. As I say that I am daily amazed by the expansion of the instrumentation and visibilities. For one example only, how long have we had such a thing as “optical tweezers?” In short, we may not be far apart in our views (your spheres and my incomings), but I would see this moment as significantly more illuminated and thereby visible and understandable, than the dark and obscure past, with that scope of understanding expanding daily. Of course, lives tomorrow will look back and say, “How could they have been so shortsighted, so misperceiving, so narrow and parochial?” My belief is that such understanding appears to be expanding exponentially

  7. Ed Mooney says:

    Very nice! I like the imagery and the drama of searching with a narrow yet ever expanding beam of light!

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