Monday, May 08, 2006

Evolutionary humanism

I was listening to NPR yesterday while I was driving. The show was New Dimensions, which is a New Agey show. They had on two self-professed evolutionary humanists. They discussed evolution and the meaning it gave to their lives. They kept using religious terms to discuss the role of evolution. At one point the woman said:

'I was thinking about why people should do good, or be moral, in a world without God, and I realized that evolution had the answer. The story of the creation of the world and our evolution had sacred meaning and that our responsibility was to ritualize it so that people can internalize it. '

How evolution can give them this meaning, I don't understand. I am a plant breeder, officially so when I get my doctorate this summer. Plant breeding is basically applied evolutionary principles and genetics to improve crop yield, disease resistance, etc. Evolution is not the same as artificial selection in that it is not purposeful. As described by Darwin and later evolutionists, there is not a direction to natural selection. It just is. There is no drive in nature to create us, as described by evolution. There is no meaning in our evolution; the biology does not attempt to discover that, nor the motivation. There is no morality in evolution. The changes in gene frequency due to selection or population dynamics hold no clues to how I should treat my brother or wife or children. They just describe the flux in the natural world.

That meaning, to me, can only be described with religion. I am also Mormon and believe in the same time in a religious creation that was purposeful. I still believe in the scientific principles of evolution. At the same time, I detest scientific creationism because it's basic message is that spirituality and creation are scientifically as valid as evolution; that they are equal. This weakens the science because it must fit assumptions of Genesis. This weakens religion because then it can be disproved as easily as Lamarkian inheritance.

My problem with scientific creationism is that it implies that the things we don't understand are "God" and the things we do aren't. I like that there are things like the dinosaurs that aren't explained in the two chapters in Genesis. I like complicated world where given time and isolation new species can evolve. I don't understand how human evolution fits with the Adam and Eve, but I can't deny that the fossil evidence exists and is pretty good. To me these things give the world a beauty and I want to understand them. It does not take away from spirituality nor does it replace it. But at the same time it is a testimony to me that so many things do fit with the Genesis creation story.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian. I heard this, too. Your analysis of it strikes me as essentially right. I'm definitely torn about it, though, because they said some things that (for me, anyway) were worth hearing. Let me begin with what I think is problematic, and head toward what I think is valuable.

You observed, "They kept using religious terms to discuss the role of evolution." You are exactly right. I think this is at the root of their problem. They say they want "A religion without revelation...a religion through discovery," but their interpretation of evolution draws on language and concepts that are only available through revelation and scripture. On this crucial point, they seem hopelessly muddled. On the one hand, they suggest that an evolutionary paradigm for religion can dispense with the need for revelation; on the other, they seem utterly dependent on revelation for the language they use to describe their religious paradigm. I think you nailed it when you wrote, "There is no meaning in our evolution....That meaning, to me, can only be described with religion." Without explicitly religious language--language that originates in revelation and scripture--evolution is meaningless.

On the other hand, I am intrigued by their equation of religious diversity and biological forms of diversity. The one guy said, "This sense allows us to see all religions as playing a vital role. Every religion has a piece of the story, a way of understanding our relationship to the whole..., but it does so based on the metaphors and analogies of their different religions." As a lapsed Catholic who feels solidarity with all humans, I admire the ecumenical fundamentalism of this proposition. It puts us all in the same boat. It is dogmatically inclusive, perhaps to a fault.

Catholic scholars have made fairly elaborate attempts to harmonize evolution and revelation, but these seem strikingly different from the Mormon ones. I remember first noticing this when Congress was debating stem cell research, and the Catholics were voting one way and the Mormons the other. I'd love to study the Mormon view on this subject. Is there a book you can recommend?

I guess you might have to change the title of this weblog when you leave graduate school. Is plain "Grumblings" available. That'd be good.


PS: My email address is, if you feel like writing.

Brian Gardunia said...

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