Monday, January 24, 2011

DANIEL C. DENNETT AND DARWIN'S NON-DANGEROUS IDEA: THERE IS ONE DANGEROUS IDEA, BUT IT IS NOT THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION


Early last year, I realized it was finally time to read a little more deeply of Darwin.  I had read a book I thoroughly enjoyed called Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories  by Adam Phillips. I had read a wonderful book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt called Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks But I still didn’t get how evolution was antithetical in any way to “God,” God to me being the questions of meaning, existence, and love. 

I was staying in Taos, New Mexico at the time, and limited to what I could find in the public library. So first I read Voyaging, the excellent Volume I of Darwin’s biography by the estimable Janet Browne (the library didn’t have Volume II), and then I plowed through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by a man named Daniel C. Dennett who seemed just a tad hostile toward the "people of religion." “God is greater than God,” observed the the 16th c. German mystic Meister Eckhart, a point that seemed to be entirely lost on the (why so often humorless?) folk who thought a scientific theory—a theory! no matter how painstakingly crafted, pondered, and worked over—could “disprove” God. I never did quite get from Dennett's book exactly what Darwin’s idea was, or why it was so dangerous. But after reading for about the twentieth time that the algorithmic process underlying evolution is mindless, purposeless, and stupid, I did look out my window at the sky, the clouds, the sun, the snow-laden trees, the magpies and starlings, the downy woodpeckers and the red-shafted flicker and think: Well let's see you do it.

Maybe in my
naïveté I had missed the whole point. But a God who lets us in on at least some of the underpinnings of creation, who works within time so as to allow us to discover clues, who makes all of creation a model and metaphor for, among other things, the spiritual evolution of any single human life, which, like natural selection, works in fits and starts, with seemingly wasted hours, days, years, decades, wrong turns, interests taken up and discarded, ideas that seemed revelatory at the time transpiring to be dead ends, chance encounters, random occurrences, failed careers, loves lost, homes packed up and moved, hearts shattered, years of seeming stasis followed by a barrier seemingly suddenly jumped, all the detritus of a single life which—coupled with the talents, gifts, triumphs, successes, the wild card of free will, and the mystery of the grace—like any given species, is sometimes cut down for no apparent reason, sometimes blossoms, sometimes withers, and sometimes bears one or two hard, infertile fruits and dies on the vine, struck me, from what I could understand, as entirely compatible with "evolution." 

I'm no genius but I am probably as smart as the next person and if after reading several books I still couldn't remotely see how evolution could explain everything, as Dennett insisted--again, I could be wrong, but something seemed not to add up. A theory that purports to explain the meaning of life can't simply dismiss the stirrings of human heart. In fact, the main difference between the people of science and the people of religion (assuming they're different people, which let's hope more and more they're not) seems to be that the scientists think the human heart is the least important question while the people of religion think it's the most important.

The best I could figure was that some of the scientists had taken the theory and twisted it to fit their own agenda. 
So I puzzled and puzzled--because science is a beautiful thing! I say more science, more discoveries! One thing I came up with is that a theory that purports to "explain" all of creation has to be both simple enough so that everybody of moderate intelligence can get a hold of it, and profound and endlessly complex enough so that everyone, from the most intelligent to the least, can, if they choose, make  a life's work of grappling with it. That "theory" to me is "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and your whole strength, and your neighbor as yourself." [Mark 12:30]

Also, it seems to me, the "test" of a theory or a philosophy is whether you can live by it, and if so, what the people are like who purport to live by it. Believe what you like, that goes without saying, but whatever your beliefs, they have to at least give you the wherewithal to find and do work you love, spring from some kind of basic affection for your fellow human beings and their/your terrible plight on earth, and make you marginally happy to the point where you can at least laugh at yourself once in awhile. 

Anyway, in my admittedly comically untutored (scientifically, that is) state, I grappled for several weeks myself and came up with the following:

‘If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or  year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.’” [Origin [of the Species], p. 127 [facs. ed. of 1st ed.] (quoted by Dennett, pp. 41-42)]

Natural selection:                                                   
“You did not choose me, but I chose you…”  [John 15:16].                              

Severe struggle for life:
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25: 31-40]

Malthus: animal populations, including human, “self-regulate,” both by natural and non-natural means, according to availability of resources, chiefly food:
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” [John 6: 35].

“Can [the speed of an antelope, the wing of an eagle, the shape of an orchid, the diversity of species] really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance? And if so, who designed that cascade? Nobody. ” [ Dennett, p. 59]:
“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM.”  [Exodus 3:14]
"Before Abraham was born, I AM." [John 8: 58]

Natural selection is random, purposeless, and apparently cruel:
“Do you think I am like you?” [Psalm 50]

“Survival” defined as longevity, either individually or as a species:
Survival defined as continued participation in the work of ongoing creation, even after death.

Survival of the fittest:
“But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” [Matthew 19: 30].

“Man is nothing but a more developed animal.” [Browne, summarizing Darwin's thought, p. 513]:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” [Matthew 6: 26].  
Not infinitely more--but more.

Nature abhors self-fertilization:
Hence, the sacrament of marriage.

Species are mutable and ever-changing:
Indeed: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” [Matthew 8:20].  

“We can now reformulate his fundamental idea as follows: Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree—the Tree of Life—by one algorithmic process or another.” [Dennett. p. 51]:
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” [John 15:5].

Algorithm as proof of mindless, random, force that proceeds from nowhere, goes nowhere, and gave rise by the sheerest accident to man:
“‘Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”  [John 3: 3-8]

No protagonists, no drama, no plot, no story:
“But there are also many other things which [he] did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” [John 21: 25]

The driving goal of strong, healthy parents is to produce strong, healthy offspring:
“Who is my mother and who are my brothers?...Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” [Matthew 12: 48, 50]

A loving God would prohibit or prevent suffering:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mark 8: 34]

"Why would a God devise a system which eventually renders him unnecessary?”: [Richard Dawkins, from a podcast I downloaded off itunes in which Dawkins debated I believe an Episcopal minister and in which the minister, simply by virtue of his tone and voice, revealed himself to be so happily good-humored (as well as intelligent, probing, and deeply engaged in the question of existence) and Dawkins such an ill-tempered, hectoring crab that you didn’t even have to listen to the words (though I did) to know which of the two had more deeply tapped into the "meaning(s) of life"]:
“Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate.”
[Philippians 2: 6-7]

Whoever lives longest, either individually or as a species, “wins”:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5: 3].

“Triumph” through adaptation:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” [Matthew 5:29.]

Science reigns:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41].

Procreative advantage:
The Virgin Birth.

“[W]e can see that benign or harmless memes will tend to flourish, other things being equal, and those that tend to be fatal to those whose minds carry them can only flourish if they have some way of publicizing themselves before—or while—they go down with the ship.” [Dennett, pp. 362-363]:
The Crucifixion.

“Controversy about the mechanisms and principles of speciation still persists, so in one sense [no proponent of natural selection has yet] explained the origin of the species.”  [Dennett, p.44]:
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” [Matthew 13: 11]
And:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” [John 16: 12-13]

Death is to be shunned, feared, rejected, and scorned as the ultimate failure:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12: 24]

Death:
Eternal life.  

Mind:
Mind, Heart, Memory, Understanding, Will

Pharisees:
Disciples

Professors:  
Friends

Science:
Science suffused not just by the search for truth, but by love for the truth. For love for the truth must  acknowledge that to put one’s own interests aside in favor of the interests of others, to drop out of the race to survive, to have self-renunciating love as the goal of one’s life is such an egregious failure to adapt that the trait, and its aftereffects, would be expected to die out instantly. Instead, it’s such “adaptive” traits as  arrogance, rudeness, boorishness, selfishness, narcissistic self-promotion, grandiosity, contempt, hatred, and craven toadying that, though often “advantageous” in the short run, die on the vine along with the person who exhibits them. We remember Hitler but we don’t imitate him. We remember Genghis Khan but he does not illuminate us. Love—which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [1 Cor. 13: 7]—“survives” both the person who dies young and/or the person who dies, at any age, with no offspring.

In a theory based on the biological struggle to survive, in other words, a single individual engaged in the religious struggle to surrender throws the whole scheme out of whack. For how can it be that a man who died in agony at the age of 33, betrayed by his closest friends, his life’s work an apparent failure; a lifelong celibate who chose celibacy in order to be in solidarity with the lonely, the unlucky, the aged, the deformed, the weak and unwanted, and who died childless, should have “lived” for over 2000 years? How is it that a man whom of all men “adapted” to nothing except total integrity, total truth, total humility, and total love, should have had a more profound and enduring influence on the course of mankind, and shed more light, than anyone who ever has lived?

Proof:
Scientific truth interpreted through the lens of the human conscience and heart, which in its childlike purity abhors all thought of genetic engineering, cloning, selective abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and Artificial Intelligence.“He made from one stock the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.” [Acts: 17: 26-27]. 

“Hence all the intermediate forms between the earlier and later states, that is between the less and more improved state of a species, as well as the original parent-species itself, will generally tend to become extinct.” [Origin, p. 121]:
“Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [Matthew 28: 20]
  
“I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent…If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish.”: [Dennett, quoting Darwin, p. 60]:
“And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16: 8]

“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?...A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” [Matthew 7: 15-20].

Sam Harris:
Anne Frank

Daniel C. Dennett:
St. Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old Virgin Martyr who was stabbed to death in 1902 rather than yield her virginity

Christopher Hitchens:
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Richard Dawkins:
St. Maxmilian Kolbe, who offered himself up to starve to death in another man’s place in the death camp at Auschwitz

Charles Darwin:
Jesus Christ

THE CRUCIFIXION
PETER PAUL RUBENS, c. 1610
And thus, the really dangerous idea, it seems--is the Gospels. 

14 comments:

  1. Wow, Heather. Nice comparisons. I love how life comes in and out of itself in a tapestry of similarities like this. I've never found science and religion to be in conflict, nor has God, who designed both. :)

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  2. "I did look out my window at the sky, the clouds, the sun, the snow-laden trees, the magpies and starlings, the downy woodpeckers and the red-shafted flicker and think: Well let's see you do it."

    Yes, precisely!

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  3. For a learned and Catholic perspective on Darwin, check out John F. Haught a prof. at Georgetown and a brilliant clear writer, author of, among numerous other books (including one on the currently fashionable atheists), God After Darwin.

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  4. "Well let's see you do it."

    Brought this to mind.

    One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.

    The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."

    God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this, let's say we have a man making contest." To which the scientist replied, "OK, great!"

    But God added, "Now, we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

    The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

    God just looked at him and said, "No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!"

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  5. Excellent post. Science cannot explain everything. I enjoyed your comparisions.

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  6. Thanks, all, for jokes, further reading material, and camaraderie...what fascinates me is that we can discover all we truly NEED to know simply by virtue of being fully present to the experience of being alive, by observing nature, and by the movement of our own hearts, intellects, minds, and wills as we grapple with the Gospels and grope for Christ...

    It seems one of the things the "new" (the more apt term would be "same old") atheists seem all exercised about, and write tomes and tomes about, is the fact that "nature" is random and cruel. And it's like--and? We know that. It's been said way before and way more simply: "The rain falls on the just and the unjust"...The way more difficult and interesting question is How do we live out our lives in love--with each other, for each other--knowing that, accepting that our death lies ever before us...

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  7. Nature is not "random and cruel." On the claim of randomness: Natural selection is a filtering process. A filtering process is anything but random. On the claim of cruelty: Nature is not cruel, it is indifferent.

    We, on the other hand, can appreciate emotions, and concepts like empathy, fairness, causes of pain and loss and grief. We are the first species that can represent these concepts to ourselves AND to others!

    Every living thing alive today is without a doubt related to one another. We all non-randomly share the same DNA. "The snow-laden trees, the magpies and starlings, the downy woodpeckers and the red-shafted flicker," are all cousins with each other AND with us. Isn't that an idea that you can warm up to? Isn't THAT spiritual, and beautiful, and deep? Darwinism doesn't say there can't be love in the world, it just says it's a natural product that springs up from human hearts (minds), due to their understanding of one another and their fragile place in the world.

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  8. "The snow-laden trees, the magpies and starlings, the downy woodpeckers and the red-shafted flicker," are all cousins with each other AND with us. Isn't that an idea that you can warm up to? Isn't THAT spiritual, and beautiful, and deep?"

    Of course! That's exactly my point! That, and given that it IS spiritual and beautiful and deep, how are we to live, how are we to honor and reverence this mystery, and how are we to treat each other?

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  9. I would like to say that I appreciate your posting of my comment. Thanks. Also, you've put a lot of work into your blog and it shows.

    In response to your questions:

    Q: "how are we to live?"

    A: Compassionately

    Q: "how are we to treat each other?"

    A: Ibid

    Q: "how are we to honor and reverence [sic] this mystery?"

    A: I disagree with your claim that our cousinhood with all other living things on Earth is a mystery ( if that was your intention ). Over one hundred years of biological evidence has reaffirmed Darwin's original argument: common ancestry amongst all living things on Earth by the process of natural selection. We can honor this knowledge by using it to better the lives of others, and by passing this knowledge on to future generations.
    For example, in order for humankind to be able to cure viral pathogens, e.g., HIV, measles, influenza, etc., it is necessary to understand how they work. Viral populations are able to outpace the daily/monthly/yearly microevolution of our immune systems by undergoing daily/monthly/yearly microevolution themselves.
    I would be comforted to know that every child was growing up being taught the new discoveries of evolutionary biology. In order to have capable virologists, epidemiologists and physicians in future generations, it is necessary to have our youth understand that these diseases are able to evade our immune systems by being such thrifty, stealth, fast-paced evolvers. To fight them, it is necessary to know how to attack their evolved capabilities.
    A problem we face is there are so many people in the world who are scared and/or unwilling to accept the fact of evolution for a host of metaphysically-related reasons. These reasons mostly relate to concerns like: Darwinism seems to rob us of our unique specialness as human beings, apart from other animals; Darwinism makes having an immaterial soul that guides our morals and behavior a superfluous concept; Darwinism threatens factual claims made by our Holy books, etc.
    It's not too outlandish to raise the concern that, if too many people sharing these fears had their way, the teaching of evolution could be diminished in schools. Then my comforting thoughts of future budding-epidemiologists saving the human race from an extinction-capable superbug one day would be in vain. This sort of scenario is one of the ways Darwin's idea is so dangerous.

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  10. Hi Aaron, thanks again for your own well thought-out comment.

    First, I don't think that to "know" how something happens obviates the fact that it is also a mystery. We know scientifically how conception takes place but to me each emotional/sexual/spiritual union of man and woman that leads to conception, each fetal development, each birth, each human being is still a stupendous mystery, a mystical occurrence with huge metaphysical significance. And I therefore think we tamper with, for starters, the reproductive process at our great spiritual peril.

    Likewise, the fact that we are all deeply interconnected, and connected with the plant and animal world is a mystery, no matter how much we know scientifically about how the connection came about. I'm not in any way saying that "evolution" is incorrect; accurate scientific discovery and any true religion could never be at odds.

    I'm saying that if you come from the standpoint of a loving God, as I do, then you take all scientific discovery and ask "What does this tell us about a loving God?" What does this tell us about love (love in reality, as we know, being, as Dostoevsky said, "a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams"). The way you see it, it's not Darwin's idea that's dangerous but the people who wrongly interpret it so as to refuse to, say, develop antibiotics against a powerful disease (and really? the creationists are anti-science AND anti-medicine?). In which case--and from what I could gather, this was Dennett's point--it's not Darwin's idea that's dangerous, it's the cretins who refuse to "face facts" and realize God doesn't exist who are dangerous.

    In other words, I'm not saying that "Darwinism seems to rob us of our unique specialness as human beings; Darwinism makes having an immaterial soul that guides our morals and behavior a superfluous concept; Darwinism threatens factual claims made by our Holy books." The Darwinists are saying it! I mean is that not Richard Dawkins', for one, entire thesis?

    So to me what are dangerous are the people who use Darwin's idea, or any idea, to promote the notion that progress or love or compassion consists in trying to breed imperfection out of the human race. I'm not talking about fighting viruses, I'm talking, among other things, about birth control, selective abortion, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.

    The highest goal is not the eradication of suffering; the highest thing is not science (as beyond wonderful as science is); the highest thing is not eve life. The highest thing is love. That is not to say that love is in any way antithetical to science. It's to say that all scientific discovery has to be viewed and utilized through the lens of love.

    To forgive the murderer and love the enemy is a higher accomplishment than any scientific discovery. To lay down one's life for one's friends is the pinnacle of human "achievement." That's why Christ is in infinitely higher figure than Darwin. That's why, as remarkable a figure as Darwin was, as stupendous as his intellect and accomplishments, he seems to have missed some essential point (if, as I think is true, it led him to abandon his faith, or what little faith he had) about the meaning of his work.

    I think the real problem may be the word "God" and that "non-believers" tend to attribute to "believers" faith in a kind of fairy-tale, simplistic, stupid, avuncular, miracle-granting God. My own idea is very different--I would think that Christ, nailed to a cross, is the clearest "answer" to such a charge--but that's a whole huge other discussion.

    In fact, it's not a discussion, it's a whole life, and how it is lived, which is the subject in one way or another of my whole blog...

    (Also, why "reverence" [sic]? That's the way it's spelled! And the word is both a noun and a verb...)

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  11. It is possible that meaning, morality and love can be achieved in this world without necessitating supernatural involvement. This hypothesis is a major theme throughout Dennett's philosophical literature. I think as time goes on, more and more studies into the natural world will validate that the above mentioned hypothesis is a fruitful one.

    It was a pleasure to have had this dialogue with you. Thanks for your good humor. :)

    Aaron

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  12. Oh Aaron--"studies?"

    "Man, man's heart, is made to fly.
    Thus, either this demand finds its freedom, or it turns into madness. It is impossible to suppress that thirst for happiness, for love, for beauty, for truth, for justice, that make up the very fibers of the human heart. One can curse these heartbeats, but not ignore them."
    --Fr. Aldo Trento, missionary in Paraguay

    You are a total dear and I, too, so appreciate our discussion and your courtesy throughout. More will be revealed, and my sense is you and I are closer than we might think--thanks so much and all the very best wishes to you, your reflections, and your work...

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I WELCOME your comments!!!