What we humans believe about our origins influences how we treat each other, our planet and the rest of the life forms that live here. Some religious fundamentalists and creationists don’t much care about the Earth as they await the rapture, or whatever, from within their fantasy universe. Everything is controlled by their pissed-off deity, so maybe they feel a certain helplessness, channeling a judgmental god by being judgmental themselves.
On the other hand, some religious people are very Earth and science friendly. Not all of them believe that ethical behavior requires a religious foundation, but many do. There’s no doubt that many of the prophets and teachers central to various religions had mostly good things to offer. Whether from fear of your god’s retribution, or the guilt of not loving your neighbor, or the innate meanness of being mean, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Then again, by some contradicting interpretations, if you are fat with wealth, no matter how you got it, your god (or maybe natural selection!) must be smiling on you.
Still, no religious versions of the origins of humans should be taught in the science classroom – save it for comparative religion class. Religious folk often believe that humans sprang, in one way or another, from some sort of creator. But it could be the other way around. It could be that religion, like language and art, springs from us Homo sapiens as part of our evolving complexity, as we struggle to explain our own existence.
Anyway, I’m more interested in those who believe in some version of evolution, that more recent species developed from earlier forms, even if I think we usually invoke the wrong theory. What we should be doing in the biology lab and science classroom, among colleagues and with older students, is opening up the debate on evolutionary theory, a debate that excludes anything religious. But there is no such debate going on – to believe in evolution is usually to have no choice except evolution by natural selection. We should be examining other theories of evolution and the evidence supporting them, comparing them to the standard dogma. But this happens only rarely, and when it does the debate is scorned and marginalized. I don’t know if it’s from stupidity or malice, but the debate should go on anyway.
I don’t think the standard neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by mutation plus natural selection offers an accurate description of nature. “Fitness.” “Competition.” “Cost / benefit.” “Adaptation.” (Though all life forms are minimally adapted.) “Mutation.” (Just what is it?) “Selection.” (Selection comes in many forms – sexual or mate selection, species selection, kin selection – all have been questioned except selection itself.) These words summarize the central themes of neo-Darwinian theory, a theory so embedded in our thinking that it is often confused with the actual products of evolution. Organisms exist, fossils exist, and the ancestral traces that connect them can be pointed out as well. Theories of evolution can be generated to explain these factual characteristics of life, but the theories are not the same things as the evidence. Neo-Darwinian theory, an argument that says the evolution of life on Earth can be explained by mutation plus natural selection, seems to be the only theory available most of the time – so much so that any alternative explanations are ignored (and we rarely even give poor Lamarck credit for contemplating evolution 50 years before Darwin). But the accepted dogma is really just a theory, and as such it is open to criticism, just like any other theory. As Popper said, “All knowledge is human.”
The biggest single problem with natural selection is that it is a variation-decreasing force, not a “blind watchmaker.” It has no creative aspect. It can only destroy that which is not “fit.” Some evolutionists speak of “selection pressure,” as if the destruction of one variant causes the generation of new forms. This is irrational. If you cut off one tail of a standard bell-shaped curve, something new doesn’t come squirting out the other end. The high point of the curve, the mean or median, may shift, but nothing new will logically be generated. The creativity in evolution is left to a black box known as “random mutation.” Life on Earth is diverse and often surprising, but very little of it seems to be random. We’re still pretty clueless about the workings of mutations. We know that if we tweak genes or take pieces from one organism and stick them into another, we may end up with something we can patent, but we don’t know how or why this all happens, or what other effects there may be. It’s a shotgun approach, occasionally lucky and sometimes lucrative. There is no theory of morphogenesis yet, and we really don’t know how we get from DNA to organism. What’s worse, we focus most of our attention on the molecular level, forgetting that the reason we study DNA (in addition to making money) is to figure out how organisms generate themselves. It isn’t enough to simply say the magic word, “mutation.”
At its core, “mutation plus natural selection” seems to be nothing much more than a breeding program applied to nature at large. Part of the trouble with the idea of either natural or artificial selection is that Darwin’s Victorian plant and animal breeders were already working with fully developed organisms, cultivated strains of species that had already evolved and were simply being tinkered with. Then as now, breeders mated sexually replicating forms to achieve certain results, but the basic, functioning, complex organisms already existed. Darwin’s world was Dickens’s world and it seems to me the theory comes from that time and place, too. A crop breeder might rip up all the plants that lacked the desired characteristics, making sure they didn’t breed with the others. A cattle breeder might slaughter all non-conforming calves, keeping only those animals that seemed to be the fittest, the most well adapted, to breed. And the same goes for people. Natural selection plays the role of “breeder” and there’s no assumption of equality among the creatures being bred. Then as now, a few controlled most of the resources while the majority scrabbled for their survival – this is the essence of Darwinism. “Survival of the fittest.” Such a theory can’t avoid taking us to places like eugenics, a logical outcome. And it seems to fit nicely into a hard right, Ayn Rand mirage of the world, too. Banksters and CEOs like it just fine (when they’re not manipulating the religiously credulous). They are the most fit, the smartest guys in the room, after all! They didn’t steal all the money, they “earned” it. But they didn’t. Check out the chapter summaries in More Than the Sum for the outline of a much more accurate theory!