This morning I finished Richard Dawkins "The Greatest Show on Earth," a fascinating book that demonstrates why evolution is almost certainly true and intelligent design /creationism is almost certainly false. (In science, there are no 100% certainties.)
I've been reading a few pages every day before I meditate. Now, I find more inspiration in science books than in spiritual books. Reality is uplifting.
Dawkins' final chapter was especially enjoyable. He goes through the last paragraph of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" (first edition) line by line.
Thus, from the point of view of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Yes, there's a beauty to natural selection.
Which isn't something far or distant, but as near to us as our current experience. Dawkins says there are four "memories" that provide information on how to handle the present so as to survive into the future.
One is our DNA repository. This shows how our ancestors dealt with ancestral environments.
Another is our immune system. It is a database of past diseases and how to survive them (this is how immunizations work, by tricking the immune system into "thinking" that it has suffered a disease, thereby producing the proper antibodies).
Third is the memory that resides in our nervous system. At its simplest, Dawkins says, this works on a trial and error basis.
The nervous system has a rule that says, 'Any trial action that is followed by reward should be repeated. Any trial action that is followed by nothing, or worse, followed by punishment, for example pain, should not be repeated.'
This is how we evolve during the single life we're living here on Earth: by living and learning. I performed a lot of religious'y actions when I was an active member of an India-based spiritual organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
I experienced certain results from those actions: meditating, vegetarianism, giving up alcohol and drugs, providing service to the guru, and such.
I've shared what I learned on this blog and in books that I've written. All that has become part of a fourth memory, culture.
The database in my brain contains more than just a record of the happenings and sensations of my personal life -- although that was the limit when brains originally evolved. Your brain includes collective memories inherited non-genetically from past generations, handed down by word of mouth, or in books, or, nowadays, on the internet. The world in which you and I live is richer by far because of those who went before us and inscribed their impacts on the database of human culture.
We're all connected. Not only with other humans, but with animals, plants, insects, bacteria, everything alive.
For me, this is the grandest grandeur of evolution: realizing, as Dawkins writes, that "today we are pretty certain that all living creatures on this planet are descended from a single ancestor."
Why? Because the genetic code is universal, "all but identical across animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea and viruses." So when Darwin said into a few forms or into one, science now knows that one is most likely.
Meaning, there hasn't been two or more independent origins of life. Just one. But we don't know how that living entity arose.
Dawkins reviews various non-theological theories concerning the origin of life. He ends up arguing that given the seeming rareness of life in our corner of the universe (no alien beings have made an appearance so far), the probability of life arising on a planet is vanishingly small.
The theory that we seek, of the origin of life on this planet, should therefore positively not be a plausible theory! If it were, life should be common in the galaxy. Maybe it is common, in which case a plausible theory is what we want. But we have no evidence that life exists outside this planet, and at very least we are entitled to be satisfied with an implausible theory.
I like this reasoning. It can be applied to other Big Questions also. How did the universe come into being? What is the essence of consciousness? From where did the laws of nature arise?
We look for explanations that are plausible to our human cognition. Yet when we venture into the deepest mysteries, is it plausible to expect that their secrets will seem plausible?
I'm probably going beyond what Dawkins meant. But that's OK. Meanings evolve. I just found the notion that our notions can't encompass ultimate truths of the cosmos to be strangely comforting.
For most of my life I've had a strong desire to know what lies at the heart of reality. Science is one way of trying to fulfill this desire. Mysticism and meditation are other ways.
Now I question, as Dawkins implied in the quotation above, whether ultimate questions ever can be answered. Increasingly it seems OK to me that they can't be.
Regardless, evolution is something that we can understand, albeit imperfectly (as is the case with all of our understandings).
The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not 'reduce' them to a plane of indignity. It doesn't even claim to explain them at the sort of level that will seem particularly satisfying, in the way that, say, the Darwinian explanation of a snake-mimicking caterpillar is satisfying.
It does, however, claim to have wiped out the impenetrable -- not even worth trying to penetrate -- mystery that must have dogged all pre-Darwinian efforts to understand life.
...When you think about it, our own existence, together with its post-Darwinian explicability, is a candidate for the most astonishing fact that any of us are called upon to contemplate.