Posts Tagged ‘mortality’

SERMON: “Denying Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

It seems that the number of people denying the reality of evolution is growing, and for a hundred reasons that may all be expression of the most basic one: we don’t want to be alone.

So I’ll trot out the evidence that is so obvious we can easily miss it: the particular breed of dog or cat you have in your house (or pet rat for that matter); the banana you had with your breakfast cereal; the wheat that was ground to make your cereal; the breeds of cows from which your hamburger came; the tomato slices on top of that burger; and the ear of corn you had on the side.

Every single one of these items are the products of selective breeding, which is the intelligently determined action of humans (and, as we now know, other animals as well) upon living things with the aim of producing a desired change in the inherited traits of those living things.  This is different from natural selection in that there is an actual person fiddling (either directly or indirectly) with the genes of the plant or animal in question.  But it was the (rather dramatic) results of our meddling in nature that provided the first great clues that something was up with nature that didn’t fit with the idea of God having created each species as it was and as it always would be (immutable).

But corn was a small seed product of a grass like wheat is now, and wheat was a much smaller seed pod before it was altered by human intervention.  Dogs have been bred for particular traits, cats for color, cows for meat and milk production and tomatoes for color, size and thick skins to withstand mechanical harvesting.

All of these changes to naturally-evolved plants and animals can only happen because human farmers and breeders have been able to take advantage of the way that genetics works.  There is something in living organisms that is subject to change over time, and this turns out to be the natural reproductive process that involves the replication and recombination of genes.  Unnatural selection only hastens the natural process (and directs it in a specific direction it might not naturally take) but make no mistake: the exact same process is “directed” by purely natural forces at all times and in all places that life exists, and it always has, from the time that life began.

Although some creationists argue that what we see in such cases is not a fundamental enough change to warrant a belief in the evolution of one species into another (that the modern banana is still, essentially, a banana and not an apple, for instance), the fact of the matter is that a basic and underlying process for mutation and adaptation over time is revealed in these human-driven experiments in unnatural selection: the most basic doctrine of the immutability of creation does not hold up.

And that, my friends, is why evolution is so blatantly “true”.  What the pigeon breeder could accomplish over a handful of years, the evidence shows natural selection and the pressures of environment and competition have produced over several millions of years, turning not only a wolf into an Irish Setter but a fish into a human.  The processes at work are exactly the same, except that one is directed by another mind, the other by natural forces.  The only other differences are the timescales and the intelligence of the forces at work.

So when that idiot Ray Comfort holds up a modern banana as proof of evolution (because it was “designed” to “fit” the human hand), he is holding up a smoking gun aimed at his own fundamentalist face.  He is holding a product of 8,000 years of selective human breeding that turned a hard and nearly inedible fruit into the tasty yellow one that he is holding.  (I suppose he could argue that ancient, tiny bananas fit perfectly into our ancient monkey fists, but, well, that would be problematic for him as well now wouldn’t it?).

When people talk about “Intelligent design”, they are essentially imagining that a being (conscious in the same way that we are) intervened in nature the way that plant and animal breeders intervene in their domains.  There is a certain reasonableness to this idea, insofar as we humans behold the “end result” of eons of natural selection that can give all life the appearances of “design”.  (In truth, we could easily refer to the evolved eye of the eagle or the fang of the snake as “designed by nature” but for the implication of consciousness such a term brings with it).

We can now reasonably infer that the collection of forces and conditions that we call “nature” does it’s “work” without the need for any consciousness at all.  There is absolutely nothing about nature that requires the addition of an intelligent, thinking force to make it make sense.  So why do we try so hard to imagine nature a being like us?

Well, for the same reason that we have to have a god so much like us.

The hardest cognitive transition for us humans to make, it seems, is the shift in perspective that allows us to see ourselves as the creators of our ideas about the universe, and not the other way around: to see ourselves as the source of the intelligence we project onto the mindless canvas of nature.  Even science (based as it is in testable, verifiable evidence) has to rely on mutually-agreed upon terms that have no meaning outside of that which we assign them.  A gorilla is not really a gorilla, and a gene was not called a gene before we called it that, but we all go along with the nomenclature because we have an overriding desire to be understood when we describe something.

Now it’s easy for folks to trip up on this, and turn such a notion around to make an argument that since scientists coin new terms for their discoveries, that this is somehow the same as having made up the discoveries their terms describe.  This is clearly a defense against the troubling truths that science reveals to us.  But the problem with this sort of reasoning is that it ignores the reality that whether we named them or not, gorillas and genes would still exist (did the animals in the Garden of Eden not exist because Adam pulled their names out of his butt?).  Words are a tool we use to categorize the world in a way so that we can communicate facts and ideas and feelings to each other.  If we all decided to call gorillas “Judys” tomorrow, they would still be the same animal they have always been (only called by another name).

So much about irrational belief (be it religious or other) seems to be an effort to wiggle out of an awareness of just how precarious and passing our presence is.  Even though it will be a couple more billion years before our life-sustaining sun collapses into a white dwarf (obliterating the earth in the process) the very idea of a thing so huge and essential to our lives  (and seemingly unchanging) blasting itself into nothingness is rather troubling.

And so it’s easier to believe that all of this was created just for us than to ponder the fact that untold numbers of “suns” in other galaxies have already lived out the entire life cycle (that ours is still burning its way through).  (It is deeply troubling to contemplate that there could have been other “earths” where life also evolved and thrived, perhaps even leading to intelligent, conscious beings not unlike ourselves, who have had all of their history erased, and returned their elements to the cosmos, as we will do one day.  Despite the likelihood that none of us will live to actually see the earth meet that fate, we understand, on some level, that some living thing that follows us may be there when it does).

I admire humans.  But I admire them in the way that I admire all of life.  We are driven to live by impulses ancient and mindless, as if we, too, must expand like the universe until we can expand no further.  As humans we have the unique opportunity to observe, understand and comment on our own experience of this conscious existence.  And this is both a wonderful and troubling burden to carry.  No wonder we wish to see ourselves as fundamentally different than the ants who rush to rebuild the anthill we stepped on so casually.  But are we, really?  Is there enough difference between us and them to justify the belief in an intervention of divine forces in our creation?

I don’t think so.  Not when you look at things with a clear eye — cleared of the wishes and fears that make so many deny the facts of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Wrong Question” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”?  Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.

To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.

The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form).  Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion.  Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth.  Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment.  (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us).  So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives?  That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I.  We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities.  (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us.  We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).

There is irony in this.  I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are.  In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all).  I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.

Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine.  Consider the following:

“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”…  Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious.  Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.”   — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)

In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.

And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs.  Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).

But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.

It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that.  Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection.  But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships.  For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.

In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God.  This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.

This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again.  Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it.  But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct).  But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions.  We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security.  Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.

That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.

Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short.  Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.  We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress.  This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!).  Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.

But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science —  carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with.  And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic.  And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”

I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years.  Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.

t.n.s.r. bob