Sunday, May 06, 2007

Planet of the apes

Surely by now, everyone is bored to death with the debate (if you can call it that) between evolution and creationism—everyone except those directly engaged in it. Those who know what science is have said all they can say, and will certainly not be convinced otherwise. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have long ago made up their minds, or had their minds made up through obedience to literalist doctrine. The battle is over the minds of those who don’t know what science is, and yet are not necessarily fundamentalists. But the educational needs of this group are far greater than encompassed by the mere teaching of evolution.

The fundamentalist view was best summed up by a preacher in the film Jesus Camp. He said that evolution tells kids that they came from monkeys, whereas the Bible tells them that they came from God and are therefore sacred. Which teaching, he asked, is more affirming?

This is a seductive point of view, provided one doesn’t devote too much thought to the question. (And it would seem that shallow thinking is a sort of precondition of fundamentalist teaching.) The assumption, which is by no means atypical of the Christian world view in general, is that monkeys are not sacred. To be more exact, kinship with animals is denied while a special relationship to God is maintained.

The reason Darwin has caused such offense, while the Copernican revolution and other scientific findings undreamt of in the Bible has not, is clearly not because the glory and power of God is somehow maligned by evolution, but because of a perceived injury to the pride and self-regard of man. That the concept of the power of a creator could possibly be diminished by any scientific determination of the manner of creation is absolutely absurd. If one believes in a creator, tracing the process back in time eventually leads to the paradox of creation ex nihilo. So creation itself retains its mystery no matter how one describes the history of the world post-creation.

Of course we are dealing with a specific cultural tradition, and the investment of absolute truth in a particular book, and this conflict therefore extends beyond Darwin to the astrophysicists and their cosmological speculations, such as the “Big Bang,” and so forth. Once the idolatry of the book is in place, science itself is automatically in conflict with religion regardless of specific findings. This does not, however, account for the special animosity towards Darwin. I would argue once again, therefore, that when it comes to evolution, the fundamentalist feels (whether consciously or not) that the pride of humanity is at stake. And why should this be so? Because the idea of being directly related to the animals—not by analogy but literally, i.e. by blood—is experienced as obnoxious and insulting by the fundamentalist.

If we look to the mythology and folklore of the ancients—especially the ancient cultures preceding the establishment of large city-states, kingdoms, and empires—we see that animals occupy a prominent role. In tales of the hero’s journey, various animals typically aid the hero along the way, imparting wisdom and special skills to the hero in order to help him attain the goal. Very often it seems that almost all the knowledge and labor of the quest is provided by the animal helpers—all the human hero needs is a little bit of courage and determination, and the willingness to follow the animals’ advice. Animals are also frequent providers of cultural gifts, imparting the ceremonies, songs, and other life-ways of the people. Sometimes this is connected to the animals as sources of food (sacrificing their lives for the good of the people), but not always. In myriad tales, animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics—the things they do and say indicate a mythic blending of human and animal.

Kinship with the animals, and in fact with all life, was simply assumed by the ancients. Nothing could be more obvious or reasonable. Human beings found themselves in a world where other beings moved, fed, procreated, and died just like they did. Far from being ashamed of this relationship, human societies made it one of the central themes of their mythic and religious structures.

With the advent of authoritarian religious forms, accompanying the increasingly centralized city-states and kingdoms, this gradually changed. Humanity’s mastery over animals (domestication) helped foster a different relationship to nature. The great monotheistic religions of the Levant created a mythos of alienation from the natural world. Man was exalted above the animals, and no longer recognized his kinship with them.

It would be foolish to believe that this development was nothing but a mistake, or a bad move. The gods (and God) taking on a human face meant that the human as such—including reason, justice, art, and human love—was growing and becoming more refined. Human capacities were increased immensely by the recognition of human consciousness and individuality.

There was a negative aspect, though. Alienation from nature resulted in an imbalance not only with the environment (the consequences of which are now facing us with dire immediacy) but with ourselves. For one thing, sexuality could never be divorced from the natural per se, so the human alienation from our own sexuality caused many complex and often contradictory problems affecting every aspect of life. The rise of science inevitably clashed with the religious world view, despite the fact that scientists themselves were heavily influenced by their own alienation. For science is preeminently the study of nature, and the proper and rigorous study of nature led to the inescapable conclusion that man was not separate from nature. Darwin’s work brought our kinship with animals back to center stage, and our alienation is so far advanced that this kinship causes feelings of revulsion in those most invested in the religious doctrine which separates us from animals, placing us forever above them as masters.

D.T. Suzuki once quipped: “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion.” The mainstream religion we know today, the public face of religion, opposes the reality of connection with a mythos of alienated life that is increasingly beset with contradiction, taking refuge in obscurantism and fear.

If you question a fundamentalist regarding the characteristics of animals, it would be impossible for him or her to deny that human beings breathe, feed, defecate, circulate blood, procreate, and die in a manner identical to other mammals. The more reasonable among them would even admit the definition of man as a “rational animal.” But to admit that humans once were a species of ape, a species that has admittedly evolved into a form that seems unique (at least for this planet), but nevertheless “came from monkeys,” as the preacher put it, is to bend one’s mind more than the ingrained habits of human pride and entitlement are accustomed to do. It offends fundamentalists because it feels like humiliation—having to admit that our attitude to nature was wrong, perhaps even sinful, and having to admit that we share a fate with, as the good book says, the beasts of the field.


fiddler said...

If one doesn't believes in a creator, tracing back in time also leads to the paradox of creation ex nihilo, except of course without the one doing the creating. The believers postulate a beginning, an absolute zero of time (the Jewish calendar is even designed that way), but time is such a fundamental a priori experience that a phrase like "in the beginning" (i.e. before day 1) becomes logically meaningless.
Unbelievers OTOH have the option of the simple, honest truth: "I don't know." ;-)

As for the preacher, the basic mistake is of course that coming from monkeys and coming from God are mutually exclusive. If God made monkeys and also made us come from them (as for sure an all-powerful God would also be responsible for the laws of nature), then how do we not come from God as well? It seems to me rather contemptuous toward their God, as well as toward human intellect (although denouncing as "hubris" the use of one's supposedly God-given brain is quite what we're used to from zealots).

Chris Dashiell said...

Good point about the absurdity of a zero of time. I agree also with the second point, and I would add that this indicates the limited nature of traditional god conceptions. In other words, although God is endowed with the nature of an absolute in every respect (infinite power, omniscience, etc.), in practice God is made to be a very limited entity indeed, a pale reflection of human urges.

Anonymous said...

The argument is between atheists and Christians, in this country. Science is a word for knowledge arrived at by a particular method of proof. That particular method of proof does not, in fact, rule out or prohibit a divine cause. It merely provides that the experiment must be reproducible by others than the original investigators. However, despite this neutrality toward divine causation in the scientific method itself, scientists have, in the majority, elected to stand with atheists. This has been a political decision, not a scientific decision, by the science community.

Scientists have enlisted and have been enlisted in political controversies, in order for their credibility to be exploited in these matters of opinion. In return, scientists have acquired political favors which can be cashed by way of political appropriations for research, studies, and the like. Similarly, political grants buy political science.

The Theory of Evolution is the scripture of the religion of atheistic science, the religion in which scientists can be prophets and a judging priesthood and can believe that data collection somehow propels the evolution of the species, their godhead. As time goes by, it becomes more obvious to more people that these are priests for hire.

A theory is a poor foundation for a religion. One fact will explode it. The argument has only begun.