Friday, June 1, 2012

Evolution as a Study in Relativism

There is a lot of talk going on about creationism and evolution. A lot of it is politics, a lot is moneymaking, and another part is just bad science.

I always had the vague feeling that the loud protesting about 6000 years, fossiles and carbon dating overshadows an underlying issue that somehow seemed much more important to me.

After reading the first half of Dawkins' Selfish Gene, I think I can now point to what this issue is, and why I think it matters.

As is always the case with me, it's not so much about content, and more about forms of thinking.

See, when you start to understand what evolution means, it forces you to re-evaluate a few basic concepts. For example, what exactly does it mean to be alive? If life on earth started out as some "replicator molecules", who simply replicated themselves due to their chemical properties - can that be called "life" in a meaningful way? We might hesitate here. On the other hand, looking at the people surrounding me, I'm pretty sure that I can safely label them as "alive".

So somewhere in between, a line needs to be drawn. We need to be able to distinguish between not-alive and alive. A stone and a monkey.

Right? Right?

Well, in fact, no. I don't think so.

I'm sure that we can come up with some definition of life that would allow us to draw a line somewhere. I'm sure that scientists do that all the time. And that is a good thing.

However, I also think that those distinctions do not exist in nature. And evolution is like one big road sign pointing this fact out at every turn. It's like when you walk up a mountain and you're deeply given to all the nice flowers by the side of the road, and then at some point, you turn around, and suddenly you realize how far up you've already gone. It's almost like a shock. No one single step brought you there. It's not fair to say that the last step was the one that changed you from "not-there" to "there". Every little step contributed its part, and by themselves, none of those steps was too impressive. Only when you look at all of them, in the very order that they appeared, do they lead you up the mountain.

And this concept is pretty much unacceptable to any religious mindset, especially the fundamentalist one. For that mindset is deeply rooted in metaphysical, absolute assertions: Life is what god gave to Adam. Good is one thing, evil its opposite. Dogs are dogs, and cats are cats. There can be nothing in-between, so they cannot be related.

And, what matters more, knowledge is either absolute, or it is not knowledge. (In that one regard, I thank the presuppositionalists for being unusually candid about a subject that most christians like to sweep under the rug to some degree.)

When those assertions are shaken - who knows what might happen? Definitely nothing good, wholesome, healthy.

And so it goes, across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. It's not about whether the earth is 6000 years old, or 4 billion. Not really. I mean, sure, that's an interesting and important question, but - in everyday human experience, it doesn't really matter. The earth is not a sphere, either. It can be described, with some accuracy, as something resembling a sphere. But regardless of how accurately you phrase it, there will always remain some margin of error. And that, it seems, is completely unacceptable to our religious friends.

What DOES matter is to what degree you can accept that your knowledge is limited, your concepts are arbitrary, you are always wrong about everything to some degree, and you will eventually die.

Because that's the way to open your mind to new ideas, better theories, better solutions, which might perhaps help humanity survive the challenges that this century has in store for us.


Incidentally, rozeboosje has just explained what I meant by that mountain-climbing metaphor in a very instructive video which you can view here:

Or in other words, evolution is a bit like the distant aunt visiting the family, who sees the family's youngest and goes "Oh my, how much you've grown" (while the child is desperately trying to escape her firm loving grip). And all the while, the child and his family haven't realized how he's grown, because they've been around him all the time and never noticed the bit-by-bit, gradual change that occurred.

No comments:

Post a Comment