I'm a day late on celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday with a blog post. But yesterday I listened to disbelievers in the theory of evolution hold forth on the radio, so I was thinking of you, Charles.
What Darwin did, brilliantly, is point us in a vitally important direction: reality. That's what science does so well, and religion so poorly.
Now, I realize that "reality" is a dirty word to many people, not all of whom are fundamentalists, because it sounds so elitist, unspiritual, objectifying, divisive.
One guy I heard on a talk show claimed that he wasn't religious; he just wanted students to be exposed to different beliefs in science class, so they would realize that some people believe in this and some believe in that.
At first I thought he was joking, because this notion is so nonsensical.
Are there no facts, no shared sense of objective reality? What allows the guy to talk over the airwaves, using words that all English-speakers can understand? Isn't this reality, rather than belief?
Is everything to be questioned in some sort of post-modern circus? "In this ring, believers in a flat-earth dance with believers in a spherical planet. Over here, believers in alchemy perform with believers in chemistry."
I doubt anyone, even the most fervent true believer, is asking for the elevation of all beliefs to an equal footing. Only certain facts are to be questioned -- those which threaten a particularly precious belief system.
Almost always, a religious one.
It's strange, really, how supposedly godly people are so frightened of mankind being dethroned from a privileged position in the universe. Aren't they supposed to be more humble and egoless than the rest of us heathens?
Susan Jacoby wrote a interesting piece, "Darwin the Disturber." What he disturbed is a fantasy that humans are special creatures uniquely favored by God, occupying a position in the cosmos outside the realm of nature. She said:
I do not understand why it seems so important to theologians (and some sociologists) to find an explanation for human behavior that extends beyond the purely naturalistic. If the genetic research now being conducted in laboratories around the world tells us anything, it is that the interaction of genes is far more complicated than scientists imagined even a decade ago.
Worrying about whether we ought to "play God" is somewhat premature, given that the more we learn about the human brain, the more we learn about how much more there is to learn. But if, as I believe, everything about human beings that we call "spiritual"--our ability to love, to create art, to imagine our own deaths--is inescapably housed within our material corpus, why is that so disturbing?
It has been almost a year since I watched the person I loved most in the world move inexorably toward death, his great mind shutting down as a result of the inevitable, degenerative, entirely physical process of Alzheimer's Disease. Now he lives only in the memories of those who loved him--and our memories are as dependent on the physical health of our bodies as his were on his body.
It does not enhance human dignity one bit to find a "spiritual" explanation for our higher mental functioning; nor does it decrease human dignity to look upon our highest achievements as part of nature, inexorably tied to the body that is ours for a finite period. This finiteness renders life more, not less, meaningful: we are enjoined to use the brains within our bodies to leave as much as possible to those who will inhabit the material world after us. Darwin faced reality, and that is why he was a human as well as a scientific giant.
Guess what? Humans are a barely noticeable insignificant blip at the very end. That's real. And it doesn't bother me at all.
Because I no longer consider that a single specimen of Homo sapiens, me, is significant in the cosmic scheme of things either.
That's Darwin's gift to us all: a humble sense of where we stand in the vast expanse of the still-mostly-mysterious universe.