Growing up one of my great passions was biology. Indeed, as a child my ardent wish was to be a marine biologist. Towards this end my days, much to the dismay of my mother, would be spent in the creek behind the house observing wildlife and catching the unfortunate critters that came my way. My bedroom was filled with aquariums that stank to high heaven from the stench of the tadpoles, crawfish, frogs, fish, and turtles that I had caught. I loved all wildlife– and for no reason one way or the other, I was just, for inexplicable reasons fascinated with all things that walk, fly, swim, and slither –though, in retrospect, I see that I wasn’t particularly loving to wildlife (the cruel act of imprisoning it in aquariums).
Not surprisingly, my first encounter with Darwin was love at first sight. In one way or another, I have maintained a lively interest in biology since my childhood, with Darwin, contemporary versions of evolutionary theory, and various theoretical works in biology continuing both as a constant area of research and to inform every aspect of my life. It is my background in biological theory, for example, that has made me suspicious of the structuralists, siding instead with the cyberneticians and systems theorists. I felt, for example, that the cyberneticians and the systems theorists could do everything the structuralists could do and could do it better.
I generally don’t like to get into the religion debates. Part of this is because I feel that part of the great thing about being an atheist is that you really just don’t have to have these discussions anymore. In the ideal circumstance, you’ve moved on and just no longer inhabit that intellectual atmosphere anymore. Sometimes it’s important to speak up on these matters– sometimes the religious, who make up the vast majority of the population, assume a sort of default “theonormativity” in social affairs not unlike heteronormativity, forgetting that not everyone shares their beliefs –but usually I just don’t think it’s very productive or necessary to poke this hornets nest like Dennett, Hitchens, or Dawkins. I can’t see the point in writing a book that denounces all religion or that argues that all religion is bad. While I’ve never felt the spiritual urge or need that many of my fellows seem to feel, and while I do think that religion can sometimes exacerbate problems, I also do not think that it is the source of all human misery, nor that it is inherently bad (plenty of good things seem related to religion, e.g., Martin Luther King). It’s just not for me.
However, as I listen to the debates between intelligent design/creationism and evolution in the United States (it’s bizarre to me that there’s a real debate here), I wonder if there isn’t a fundamental mischaracterization of this debate. Often “the trauma of Darwin” is characterized as arising from the manner in which it contradicts the creation narrative of genesis. Here, then, you’ll get a leftist version of Christianity that says, in fact, that evolution and Christianity are entirely consistent because “perhaps evolution is how God created species” or “we don’t know how long a day is” or “the Bible itself says that man was created out of mud”, etc. As an aside, let’s also note that there’s a lot of unease about Darwin outside of religion. The early Marxists were extremely uncomfortable with Marx. It’s not unusual to encounter Lacanians denouncing evolution in print and at conferences (not to mention Lacan himself on occasion). Distinguished analytic philosophers like Jerry Fodor attack evolution. I’m sure examples could be multiplied. There’s something about evolution that generates unease for people across a wide spectrum, whether they come from a religious background or not.
All of the religious arguments– “evolution violates the Genesis creation narrative” and the left-religious arguments about the compatibility of religion and evolution –can be found out there, but I really wonder if they touch on what is most traumatic (within a monotheistic framework) about trauma. If Darwin is traumatic or disturbing, I don’t think this is so much because he contradicts the Biblical creation story, but because evolutionary theory undermines the centrality of humans within creation.
There are three components to this trauma. First, evolution teaches us that every species is a contingent accident of heritability, random variation, and natural selection. Every species is a product of chance, and this includes human beings. At any point in time, there are a variety of different directions in which evolution can go and the processes of natural selection that decide these directions are a mere accident. They could have been different. Second, and in a closely related vein, evolution is radically without telos. There is no aim or goal to evolution. It was in no way inevitable, for example, that the lineages of natural selection end up producing humans. Neanderthal, for example, could have ended up being selected for or primate lines could have ended up with bonobos. Moreover, every species, in an evolutionary framework is doomed to disappear because the three great principles of speciation never cease. Humans too will eventually become something else and this something else need not be “more advanced” or “more intelligent”, but could be a species descended from us that has no language, rationality, or intelligence whatsoever but has found other ways to grapple with the challenge of its environment. Evolution might generate greater complexity in species, but this doesn’t entail that it generates “more advanced” beings according to the sort of standards by which we generally measure advancement. Finally, evolution is radically anti-hierarchical. Where the Great Chain of Being ontology posited a hierarchy of beings from the least to God, for Darwin all organisms are on equal ontological footing. A bat is not inferior to human beings, but has “discovered” one effective way of solving the problem of its environment. Evolution isn’t about “getting better”.
It is very difficult to see how this doctrine can square with the theologies of any of the monotheistic religions in any possible way. All of these traditions, as far as I know, are premised on the idea that there is something necessary about the existence of humans (that our creation wasn’t a mere accident), that there is a telos to natural and human history, and that humans occupy a place within existence that ontologically differs in kind from that of all other entities (that our existence is a privileged and a special existence). Yet it is precisely these three claims that evolution calls into question. None of this entails that we can’t begin to posit goals for ourselves and direct ourselves, only that there is no indwelling principle in nature itself that has a goal or aim.