Sunday, November 11, 2007

Darwinians Don't Have to Be Jerks (or Clap If You Believe in Fairies)

I believe in Darwinian evolution. It does the most thorough and convincing job of explaining who we are and how we got here. It also prompts men to say some pretty ignorant things. Consider, for example, Richard Dawkins' thoughts on polytheism in The God Delusion:

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a seperate god? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it (Dawkins 35).

The sneer is one of the ugliest human expressions. Frederick Crews, in his foreward to The Literary Animal, takes a similar tone:

Although I am not a champion of evolutionary criticism, I do happen to be a committed Darwinian... Those of us who embrace Darwinian knowledge without cavil are convinced that all existence is unplanned and therefore quite pointless, leaving humanity with the task of rendering its life dignified in moral, intellectual and aesthetic ways scrounged and adjusted from our evolved heritage of repertoires. When the gods have been shipped back to fairyland to rejoin the Easter Bunny, we can direct our awe toward beings who actually deserve it--Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Einstein--without cheapening their achievements by ascribing them to mysterious infusions of spirit (Crews xiii. Let's leave aside the question of how a literary critic who who "embrace[s] Darwinian knowledge without cavil" can fail to espouse evolutionary criticism).

In my opinion, it's the "mysterious infusions of spirit" that make life worth living. We humans render our "pointless" lives meaningful and dignified with our techne and our poeisis, including religion. The Bible, the Q'uran, and the Bhagvad Gita are no less great works of art than Hamlet or "Bathsheba in Her Bath". If Occam's razor can dispatch the gods to fairyland, it can do the same to Antony and Cleopatra, or to Florestan and Leonore and every other character in Beethoven's Fidelio. If this so-called "fairyland" is the world of stories, dreams and myth (i.e. information), then the gods probably never left it in the first place. Unfortunately, some Darwinians have grossly misappraised its value and efficacy and have adjudged themselves exceptionally clever for doing so.

Darwinian atheists who see fit to ridicule the spiritual practices of most of the human species would do well to remember that natural selection, the preeminent explanatory model of life's origin, does not automatically confer its elite status to its adherents. Darwinian discourse should enlighten and instruct, not abuse and alienate. Snide rudeness and narrow-mindedness are unbecoming to Christians and scientists alike.

Also, the uber-Darwinian claim that scientific and religious truth will be forever incompatible may be jumping the gun somewhat, although it has provided some thinkers with a kind of "bad boy" notoriety that undoubtedly boosts book sales. As Hamlet said, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet 1.5.166-7). Conflicts insoluble in their own terms are among the most universal structures in existence, and history has proven again and again that such snarls and double binds can eventually be worked out, provided time and imagination get the chance to embed them in a richer and more comprehensive informational framework.

With effort and luck , the great theme of the 21st century might turn out to be syncretism--the transformation of humanity, the reenchantment of lovers, the Alchemical Wedding, the mapping of Tifareth, the Great Work. Subsequent generations of scientists, scholars and clerics will hopefully be able to see the appeal and necessity of renaissance, and will work on the fringes and underground, if necessary, to bring such a future to fruition while waiting for the (tenured) hard-liners to die off.

Of course, if no one believes in fairies and no one claps, then no fairies emerge. The philistine is then justified in his denial, and Tinkerbell dies before she is even born. If we dismiss the great human virtues of faith and imagination as mere credulity and delusion, then our lives will become "pointless" indeed, and we might very well while away our miserable hours by taking potshots at people who seem more whole and happy than ourselves.

And that would be a shame.

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