Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Good news from primordial ooze

When I was a little kid, dinosaurs were my favorite category. They're still in my top ten favorite categories, along with snacks, furniture, and mistakes.

(I like snacks because they're extra food; they're food you eat because you want to, not because you need nourishment. I like furniture because it's a humble category; chairs are for people, cabinets are for dishes, desks are for papers. No furniture exists for itself. I like mistakes because they're things that you didn't do right that you don't have to feel bad about.)

I grew up in a conservative Christian home. When my parents saw that I was interested in dinosaurs, they gave me a lot of creationist books on the topic. To be fair, my parents have always been more open-minded about origins than a lot of conservatives. The books, though, were written with a heavy anti-evolution agenda, and I think this is where my obsession with proving people wrong began. They filled me with wonder, though, and in a sense, they still do. Maybe plesiosaurs are swimming in the Mariana Trench, or what if triceratopses are hiding in jungles in Africa?

These books always went from dinosaurs to Genesis, and that's where my love of the stories in the first bit of Genesis began. I like imagining God carving oceans in the earth with his hands and scooping land together, and people living in an ideal garden, and how the world might have changed in a catastrophe. These stories in Genesis help me form meaning. I think that the idea of people being made in God's image is much more helpful for me than working out bioethics in making sense of modern moral dilemmas. That we are said to come from the dirt, but are pushed back into it by toiling as farmers helps me understand both the worth and the stress of my job.

I find so much meaning in the story of the fall. The blame-shifting, the hiding, the shame, I tell this story myself whenever I do wrong. When I was a small child, I would sit on the toilet, groaning as I pooped, asking, "Why did Adam and Eve have to eat the forbidden fruit?" I don't know that I felt at the time like that was unfair. I did feel like my pain was bound cosmically to the actions of naked strangers.

The sin of the people caused thorns and disease and everything that is not-good in the world. (More cynical people than I would complain of how this punishment is not proportional, or would blame God for putting the tree in the garden in the first place.) The problem that I have with the story of the fall is its placement of the weight of intentionality behind everything that's unseemly.

I've spent a lot of time and toil trying to find meaning in meaningless suffering. I think evolution tells a story that helps me deal with reality better. Creation says that everything used to be good, but humans messed it up, but God will make it okay again. Evolution says that everything used to be bland and dead, but that beauty has arisen naturally. The world isn't a bad place, the kinks just haven't been shaken out yet. For something that I didn't pay for, I think life in this cosmos is pretty nice, and if there's no intentionality behind it, I'd say things are working out pretty well, all things considered.

Life is tenacious. All beings are always changing, trying new ways to fit the world better. Evolution is incredibly messy, it's not an organized process. It's not the most efficient way one could conceive of that life could come to be. Natural history is riddled with false starts. There are oodles of examples of great successes, like dinosaurs, that lost whatever advantage they had and then disappeared. The plesiosaurs probably ran out of food.

Evolution doesn't say anything about what an ideal world would be or how we should live or what ultimate meaning is. What I learn from evolution is that life isn't neat, but that progress comes from trying a lot of things, most of which aren't going to work very well. If you stick with what does, and change it a little bit, and keep trying new things, you might wind up with something neat.

When I make mistakes, I think about evolution, and I smile. My mistakes aren't abysmal failures, they're just things that need tweaking, or dead-ends that can be abandoned in favor of five new ideas.


  1. But there are other "mistakes" in how humans deal with the world and one another that are abysmal failures. Can evolution say anything about those?

  2. Evolution can't take those problems away, or give any sort of absolute hope that takes you past them. It doesn't promise to. It does give good explanations as to why those people behave the way they do. I'm surprised by how well people do hold things together.

    Evolution doesn't have any absolute norms; a "mistake" as far as evolution is concerned, is merely the appearance of creatures that don't thrive in their environments.

  3. I think evolution is pretty okay at explaining some things that people do, but in general it's not particularly consistent. I think the conclusion of this post is not very useful, honestly, because you have a luxury that billions of people don't have. Namely, your mistakes and the mistakes of other people around you generally don't hurt you too badly, and so for you evolution marches on with a minority of people hanging on okay, often at the expense of the majority. Of course, when it comes to people who are proficient at using others, who is to say that that's an evolutionary disadvantage?

  4. Matthew, I think that in the West, we have the "luxury" of expecting perfection. Yes, we're more secure, by leaps and bounds, in terms of having food and shelter. If an accident, say, a natural disaster, would hit us, we'd be much more prepared to deal with that than someone in the bottom billion. I think that, in many ways, we're more easily upset by changes of plans and peccadilloes, and I think that's more what I'm trying to talk about.

  5. Okay, that helps me understand where you're coming from a little better. So, then, do you think that the message of this post is generalizable or helpful to the bottom billion in any way?

  6. I don't think they need to hear it, I think they already have a grasp of this idea. The idea in this post has helped me understand their situation in a saner way. A lot of the people in the bottom billion are held there by violence and oppression; evolution explains where this barbaric behavior came from. People who think that people are basically good can't conceive of the sort of evil that is actually pretty normal for a lot of people. I think that this belief in human goodness, on the part of the West, has led to aid being used in detrimental ways, out of a misplaced sense of trust.

    There are many others who don't have access to the luxuries that you or I do. This isn't necessarily a moral evil; they're living as they had been for generations. Technology is improving people's lives everywhere, it's just doing it faster in some places than others, and that uneven distribution can be modeled by a sort of cultural evolution.

    Evolution makes us expect evil and disparity, so we can accept that these things are real, and respond to them accordingly.

  7. Can evolution tell us anything about how to respond to evil or disparity?

  8. It can't tell us how we have to, or anything like that. It can give explanations for them, ie, cruelty often arrives out of natural selection. There are great disparities between species. Within humanity, we are most differentiated by culture, but the ideas of evolution can apply to culture, if only obliquely. We ought to expect cruelty and disparity in the world.

    Now, I don't like these things, and I think most people don't.

    If you look at the characteristic White People response to disparity, it's seen as absurd and unnatural, because most White People think people are basically good. People who understand that evil is common, and this could be religious people or people who see cruelty in nature, can see disparity as more entrenched and respond in a more strong, sustainable way.

  9. matt,

    "life is pain [. . .] anyone who tells you different is selling something" (the princess bride: 1987).



  10. Graham (and Alex),

    I don't think Jesus would say anything different (cf John 12:24-25.) Heck, you might be able to generally say that in both a Christian worldview and a naturalistic/skeptical one, we can expect pain & suffering-- but we can also expect them to result in better things in the end. However, in one the oppressed and downtrodden are (usually) not able to adapt, and there is no real significance to that in the universe. In the other, the proud & powerful are humbled and the lowly & downtrodden are exalted, and the suffering we experience is significant in some way. I think there's something to that, and I think it really helps us to deal with the suffering, violence, and oppression that confronts us on a daily basis.

  11. Matthew, you're right in saying that Christianity offers more meaningful hope to the oppressed—that is, if Christianity's claims about God's sovereignty are correct. Science makes no promises, it makes statements, and we make of those what we will.

    Even in a naturalistic worldview, there is some measure of hope for the oppressed, and that is what we have already seen of humanity. While we are capable of great acts of violence and evil, we are also capable of great acts of sacrifice. We know this to be true, regardless of what is going on upstairs.

    Globalization is now forcing humanity to reconsider what it means, what it is, how it will treat itself. People have treated each other kindly for a long time in families and communities, and violence has broken out between tribes. What tendencies will dominate?

  12. I just want to take a moment to point out that Graham is the one who quoted The Princess Bridge.