The Dissent Of Man

By JF Derry

Exploring the influence of Darwin on everyone: atheists, Christians, biologists and entrepreneurs

Darwin divided us. You barely have to mention his name in polite society and upstanding members of it are soon not standing up at all, but scrabbling around in the dirt fetching cheap shots at one another. The object of our dissension, this thing that drives us apart and can have us “behaving like animals”, goes to the very heart of humanity, and is ironically the one thing we have most in common, the one thing that sets us apart from other life: our intellect.

But, taking sides and feuding is about as far as one can get from Darwin's own philosophy. Here was a peace- loving individual, and above all, an ambassador for differences between all living things, especially people (he famously despised slavery). His was a world of continua, breaking down boundaries and barriers to difference. Aren't these values to which we should all aspire?

It is very un-Darwin-like to not recognise diversity in nature. One of Darwin’s greatest achievements was to explain how biodiversity came about. As a part of that nature, and having a nature of our own, humans also reflect a great wealth of difference in our appearances, habits, and beliefs.

The subjects of those beliefs are constructs, ancient attempts to demystify the complexity of our environment, inherited from our ancestors. Over the relatively few millennia that we have been in our modern forms, humans have used a great manner of method, metaphor and madness to inform that understanding.

What drives that passion for understanding is a inherently inquisitive brain, and an intelligent reasoning that from a very early age seeks to identify causes for effects. Coupled with a propensity for patterns and design, it is hardwired into our cognitive faculties to recognise structural design in nature and interpret a purpose for natural phenomena.

Belief is an inherent property of our brains and has emerged and evolved with us, as a product of nature. Faith is different from belief. Faith is a persuasion that is not necessarily dependent upon proven knowledge, but is often claimed to have been revealed to us by some supernatural source.

Nonetheless, faith has become conflated with belief throughout human history, simply because we did not always have the sophisticated methods necessary to disentangle natural complexity, to provide our comprehension with information about the real world. Therefore, when constructing an understanding of that world based upon inadequate evidence, our explanations largely relied upon conjecture.

Faith is the result of populating the part of our brains that is associated with belief, and reinforces the constructs in which we believe. Over the course of human history, civilisations have used metaphors to gloss over where information has been lacking. This has resulted in a host of supernatural explanations, each associating change with purpose. Clearly people are comforted in these explanations and communities strengthened, encouraged that everything happens for a reason and not at the whim of chance.

Analogous to Darwin's “Tree of Life”, faiths have evolved over time, diversifying, bifurcating and running in parallel, as related yet independent branches of thought. Some have died out and others have persisted. Some are closely related while others are quite alien.

Ironically, what initially raised my doubts about religion as a pubescent boy was this diversity of faiths. Instead of strength in their number, I saw it as a weakness. Characteristic of each is the way that they uniquely account for how complex life arose via their creation myths, with their main focus on humans. But, if one of them is right, then any one of them could be right; as the late Christopher Hitchins pointed out, “anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.

Obviously, the incompatibility of versions means that they cannot all be right, even in their most abstracted forms: the vomiting creator of the Boshongo in central Africa, the drunken clay modelling of the Yoruba in west Africa, the body carvers of the Australian Aborigines, the telepathic ancestors of Korea, the armpit of the Norse creator, the glittering world of the Navajo in the American South West, and just north of them, the Chelan god who created humans by breathing life into Beaver flesh.

There are some common themes: eggs feature frequently in many of these stories, an immediately accessible symbol of new life from observing the birds, insects, reptiles, fish, molluscs and monotremes such as the platypus and echinoderms, that surround one. Bones and blood also play central roles in many, such as the slaying of a god relinquishing the necessary body parts that gave rise to the Babylonians and eventually the Great Persian Empire.

Also prevalent and popular in these stories is mud. Bountiful, immediate, and known to give growth, it’s understandable that people would have incorporated it into their wider interpretations of the world. For example, Aristotle taught abiogenesis or spontaneous generation. Deduced from his observations of nature, he thought that the type of animal produced was dictated by the composition of the soil from which they appeared. Others concluded that if plants and animals emerge from mud, then why not humans too? The Choctaw of south-eastern USA were fashioned from the great mound of Nanih Wiya, and Adam was shaped from mud in human form according to Judeo-Christianity and Islam. Bones also appear in this version with Eve having been formed from Adam’s rib.

As a youth, what struck me is how parochial all these stories were, how they relied upon reference to their nearby surroundings to construct their narrative, how they only attempted to make sense of their immediate environment. Psychology expresses it in terms of, “the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which we are born”. So, instead of all these conflicting, localised accounts, I concluded that I needed evidence to show me what was universally true. Enter Charles Darwin.

Darwin famously ventured out and interpreted what he saw in general terms. His universal mechanism of evolution by natural selection is as applicable to Africa as it is to Australia and the USA. It is as applicable now as it was in Babylonian times and throughout prehistory. The veracity of his version is not limited by context- specificity.

I state my place clearly, it is with the Darwinists and scientific naturalists. Paramount to me is an evidence- based interpretation of the natural world, devoid of superstition and guesswork. For me, scientific evidence has been unequivocal in proving Darwin’s natural selection true, but this doesn’t mean that the case is closed and there’s no more to learn.

There is doubt in science. Uncertainty is built in to the ways scientific ideas are tested against proof. An experiment is not simply trying something out, but a strictly designed assessment. Mathematical principals underlie statistical frameworks used to test unbiased observations of the natural world against limits of acceptable doubt. You see, modesty in the face of mystery is the whole point about science.

Without doubt, aggressive dogmatism would lead to erroneous assumptions and falsities. Yet the popular face of the modern science-reigion debate seems unable to accommodate this uncertainty. Opinions are presented in clear, unequivocal terms.
Black and white. No room for grey.

Never since Darwin has this one long argument been so cynically and pervasively debated. “The Crusade Against Evolution”. “Darwin on Trial”. The “Virus of Faith”, religions as “Viruses of the Mind” and “religion equals child abuse”. Shermer versus Hovind. Ham versus Jones. Behe versus Miller. Fuller versus Wolpert. Dennett versus Dembski and Ruse. Dawkins versus, well, everybody else really. No, that's not fair. Or true. But you would be forgiven for thinking that the sides are still poles apart and ne'er the twain shall meet. However, and here's the real revelation: the truth is more than quite surprising. Dawkins considers, "anyone who thinks the earth is only 6 thousand years old ... are either ignorant, stupid or insane", or I might hazard, they are just acting naturally, in the absence of more rational deduction. This Young Earth Creationist interpretation of nature is clearly inaccurate, but because of backgrounds and education, people are unequipped to do otherwise. Ignorance isn’t a crime, it’s a victim-producing failing of an educational system. That is where the source of any delusion really lies.

When Dawkins calls for a scientific point of view, and a better science education, his goal for society is a more rational understanding of the universe and a more rational approach to life, but for this we need to be better educated towards a greater science literacy. Being scientifically informed doesn’t mean that we can understand every aspect of the most technical problem, from particle physics to plate tectonics, but instead provides us with a basic toolkit of knowledge and skills about science and technology, and a way to look at the world. We can use the tools in this kit to better inform everything from living our daily lives to running whole nations. Worryingly, because of our nature and the historically elevated position given to religions worldwide, the majority of our decision making is irrational.

Personally, I think the polemical science-religion discourse throws out the philosophical baby with the bath water, and there is a wider understanding to be learnt from the debate than the current stand-off might suggest. In a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, there is a call for a more holistic future, “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity ... Buddhism is the only religion able to cope with modern scientific needs”. Even the Dalai Llama appears to share this vision that looks beyond the constraints of dogma, “I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether”.

It seems that these great but disparate thinkers are calling for a rationalism from humanity that can accommodate a self-realisation that we are in some sense spiritual beings, even if in doing so we are forced to accept that faith is a result of our brain’s evolutionary journey. Therefore, rather than seeking to eradicate everything spiritual, perhaps better would be to improve science education while embracing the benefits to philosophy, ethics and culture that we may reap from the more fanciful side to our psyche.

Recently, Alain de Botton did great service in defining a less black-and-white, and more sophisticated, future in his Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion. De Botton has unjustifiably come under attack for appeasing the faithful by arguing for acceptance and accomodation of certain positive elements of religion, as if to invite tolerance of the practice. This misunderstands his point entirely, and what he is really calling for is reclaiming the aspects of humanity that have become subsumed into a religious outlook: an often cited example is music.

Incredulity met Dawkin’s announcement that he enjoyed carol singing at Christmas, and as much as I love listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem Mass”, it doesn’t make us religious because it is church music. While scientific understanding allows me to accurately interpret my environment, I am at leisure to decorate my life with the aesthetically-rewarding results of religions, including Hindu bhajans and spiritual jazz. Even if you consider religious views incorrect, investigating mindsets alternative to your own must be a useful way towards studying patterns in our habits and behaviour. Ultimately towards a better understanding of human intelligence.
Any good tool should provide a metric, some measure by which comparisons may be made. To investigate human belief systems and faith, think of a continuous road that stretches beyond the horizon in both directions. Close at hand we shall place a recognisable marker to identify a point by which all others can be measured in scale. The scale is defined through an ability to explain natural phenomena. Namely, nature in all it's manifestations. “On the Origin of Species” is essentially about the generation of biodiversity in nature, and the fundamental disagreement over human origins generally references Darwinian evolution. So, let us place Mr Darwin here as a totem for neo-Darwinism, the most comprehensive acceptance of his ideas.

Further rationale for choosing Darwin as a surrogate underpinning this measure is because it is his ideas that have been most drawn into the argument about whether species are dynamic or fixed, and if they survive because of fortuitous random changes in their capacity to adapt to a changing environment.

Sir David Attenborough (“Charles Darwin And The Tree Of Life” BBC 2009) Darwin’s great insight revolutionised the way in which we see the world. We now understand why there are so many different species. Why they are distributed the way they are around the world, and why their bodies and our bodies are shaped in the way that they are. Because we understand that bacteria evolve, we can devise methods of dealing with the diseases that they cause, and because we can disentangle the complex relationships between animals and plants in a natural community, we can foresee some of the consequences when we start to interfere with those communities. But above all, Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world, we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to it’s laws and processes, as are all other animals on Earth to which, indeed, we are related.

George Schaller, considered to be America’s Attenborough, once said much the same to me in a hotel room in Ulaanbaatar, Darwin, whether he is mentioned by name or not, permeates everything one does in biology, or for that matter, permeates society as a whole.

It is understandeable that biologists and conservationists inform their comprehension of the natural world from a Darwinian perspective, and that natural selection is the mechanism by which every organic entity arose. But ,we have to acknowledge, even if we do not accept them, that there are many alternative interpretations of the natural world, ones that move Darwin off his central position, and how far each of those interpretations displace him is exactly what this book is interested in discovering.

The reasons for this book do not include teaching the world the truth, and undermining religions, but an invitation to discover alternative ideas regards Darwinian evolution. This is not a polemic. Its messages are less dramatic than that. For example, it would be nice if everyone referred to “Darwin’s theory of evolution” correctly. Darwin did not discover evolution, but added to our understanding of evolutionary processes by identifying the mechanism by which evolution works. We should not forget the many other exponents of common descent that predated Charles Darwin: Comte de Buffon, Robert Chambers, Erasmus Darwin, Jean- Baptiste Lamarck, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Patrick Matthew, etc. “Darwin’s theory of natural selection” is therefore “Darwin’s evolutionary theory” or minimally, “Darwinian evolution”. That's the sort of level of tuition that you can expect to find here: clarification of understandings and correction of misunderstandings, not a historical account.

If Darwin ever did make general comments about the natural world, the fractionation of human groups mean that it is now necessary to traverse disciplines to piece together the extent of the impact of his work. The backbone of this book rests upon invited personal accounts from luminaries that will hopefully reveal the influence of Darwin on their own interests. Whilst some of my contributors chose a formal approach, there are also informal and personal accounts. Sometimes a favourite piece of literature may trigger a memory, or inspire imagination of the future. For one, it was a visit to Darwin's daughter's grave that had the most impact. It reminded them of Darwin, the compassionate man. For another, it is a passage of text near the end of “On the Origin of Species” that suddenly revealed evolution as an ongoing process, not a historical event.

Moving away from Darwin we can now position alternative explanations, each located along our road, measured out in units of “distances from Darwin”. Therefore, we are constructing a “Distance-from-Darwin” gradient. You might also think of it as an approximation of how far people are willing to accept the evolutionary links between humans and the natural world. Our journey will take us quite some distance away from Darwin until he is but a dot on the horizon from which we set out. But the order in which we distribute alternative beliefs en route may not accord to a preconceived sequence reinforced by the polemics that usually dominate this debate.

When we are done we will be able to look back along our journey and recognise the locations of beliefs included between the covers of this book knowing that space was too limited to include every possible one and that the true diversity of belief really describes a continuum spelled out by individuals standing shoulder to shoulder along our road. Nonetheless we will have our path running from one extreme to the other and between them a Distance-from-Darwinian gradient that traverses the rich and fertile landscape of human thought.

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