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Evolution after Darwin

Section Introduction
by Elizabeth Debold

FEW HUMAN BEINGS, other than spiritual revolutionaries like Jesus or the Buddha, have affected our relationship with the Divine to the extent that Charles Darwin has. And what an unlikely revolutionary—modest, humble, devoted to his family, initially a traditional and devout Christian, Darwin's primary empirical research concerned the classification of barnacles. Yet, in the long march into modernity, his articulation of the mechanisms by which evolution happens—random mutation and natural selection—was itself quite a leap. Darwin's theory continued the transformation of the Western worldview begun when Copernicus first noticed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Changes occur randomly in organisms, he asserted, and those changes will affect how well a particular organism can adapt to its environment. Better adapted organisms are the ones that will tend to survive, produce offspring, and thus be naturally selected to survive generation after generation. It was astonishingly simple. There was no God, no divine plan or guidance, just a series of chance mutations in a dog-eat-dog world.

Darwin's theory nearly shattered the traditional Christian notion that humanity, poised between beast and angel, was literally formed in God's image. Darwin pointed out, long before we knew that we share 98.5 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees, that what looks back at us in the mirror is not the face of God but is kin to the earthbound apes. Western culture's faith in a God-given soul and a deep-seated moral compass was rocked: What did it mean that we came into being from such ignominious ancestors through such a vicious and cold process? As the Edinburgh Review warned at the time, "a revolution in thought is imminent, which will shake society to its very foundations by destroying the sanctity of the conscience and the religious sense." For this issue of What Is Enlightenment?, nearly 150 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, we wanted to know what happened to the evolutionary revolution that threatened to destroy the moral underpinnings of society—and what can we learn of God's future and our own from the latest in evolutionary thought?

Darwin's theory did create a revolution in thought. It took over 100 years for the shock of our humble origins to wear off and for scientists to begin to address the serious implications that Darwinian evolution has for understanding human nature. During that time, greatly due to Darwin's contribution, Western culture's faith in science grew, as faith in a Supreme Being guiding our destiny diminished. Nietzsche, the German philosopher, might not have been so convincing in his assertion that God is dead without the final blow of Darwinian theory. The most orthodox Darwinian position asserts that evolution has no direction—and certainly no purpose (which comes too close to suggesting some sort of divine guidance). In fact, this was Darwin's own view.

Yet, the theory that drove Darwin himself to agnosticism has proven to be a source of extraordinary inspiration—in ways that might have surprised Darwin himself. Talk to a few staunch Darwinists about evolution and you very often hear an excitement and awe at the sheer outrageous glory of the process itself that is usually reserved for the sacred. And what might Darwin have thought about the work of the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? Teilhard argued that the recognition by human consciousness of the evolution of life was "the most prodigious event ever recorded by history" since the advent of our capacity for self-reflection. For Teilhard, writing in the mid-twentieth century, the scientific modern world did not mean the end of all that is sacred in human life. Far from it. Our recognition of what is actually happening with life in the cosmos, the expansion of our collective view, ushered in an extraordinary possibility for humanity to consciously participate in evolution. "The human is not the center of the universe, as we once na´vely believed," he wrote in The Human Phenomenon, "but something much finer, the rising arrow of the great biological synthesis.... All evolution... becom[es] conscious of itself deep within us.... Not only do we read the secret of its movements in our slightest acts, but to a fundamental extent we hold it in our own hands: responsible for its past to its future." Our grasp of evolution, Teilhard tells us, brings conscious intelligence to what has been the agonizingly slow transformation of matter and life—it marks the point where the material and the spiritual move forward into a new creation, embodied as ourselves.

Something fascinating seems to happen when human beings begin to ponder the process of evolution. Something that calls forth awe at diversity and recognizes unity in life. Even Darwin, in The Descent of Man, used his own godless logic to envision a greater human unity that borders on the spiritual: "As man advances in civilization," he wrote, "and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races." In the century and a half since Darwin first published his theory, science has gathered extraordinary new knowledge about the explosion of the cosmos out of the Big Bang, deciphered the DNA source code that combines and recombines in a proliferation of life, and discovered underlying structures in the development of language, culture, and human cognition. More and more, in almost every corner of the universe, there is more and more—expansion, movement, undeniable diversity, greater complexity, increasingly sophisticated communication, technology, civilization. Something is evolving—and that evolution is making new sense out of Darwin's recognition that all species are related. As the mechanisms and processes of evolution—biological, psychological, and cultural—have been brought to light, an increasing number of scientists have found themselves straining at the limit of the empirical enterprise, at the edge of an emergence that, through their own intelligence, they and all of humanity are part of and responsible for.

So, what happened to evolution after Darwin? we wanted to know. What is it that evolutionary empiricists have learned about the constantly emerging patterns of life that brings them to the very boundary between science and spirituality or moral philosophy? Where is it that our current knowledge of evolution takes us as individuals and as a species? To help us explore this new terrain, which is now called "evolutionary psychology," we interviewed two avowed empiricists who, touched by the evolutionary vision of Teilhard de Chardin, have dared to step back from the details of the data, look at the cosmic dimensions of creation's inexorable forward momentum, and take from it critical lessons for future human evolution: Robert Wright, author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of The Evolving Self.


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This article is from
Our Evolution Issue