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Evolution Is Too Personal

ttruong's picture

Evolution is Too Personal

To think that everything and everyone present are simply part of a prodigious universal experiment is both fascinating and formidable. It is fascinating for obvious reasons, but formidable for more obscure ones. Evolution is a scientific theory that, when studied and examined thoroughly, deeply affects the questioner on such a frighteningly personal level that few other scientific ideas can ever touch. It forces humans to approach the question of the meaning of their existence in a most depressing manner--unadorned with flowery, poetic language and devoid of spiritual glow.

Though evolution has become a fact for many people due to it being “supported by such an overwhelming amount of evidence that it could no longer be called a theory” (1),  this level of profound self-involvement still causes it to remain only a theory for others. It is not necessarily because they all believe in the creationist explanation that evolution is still rejected by some, but, rather, because they can not or will not believe that they are products of “meaningless accidents,” an idea implicit in the evolutionary explanation.

Often times it is not enough for humans to simply know the when’s, what’s, and where’s; they also want to know the why’s. To know the causes is just as important as to know the effects. Then they want to know the causes of those causes, in which case the first cause becomes an effect, and so on. (2) Of course, this desire for causality extends to the issue of human existence, and difficult questions such as, “Why was I placed on this earth,” “Why should I continue living even when I am unhappy,” “Why should I even live at all, happy or otherwise,” and “Why should I strive to live in particular ways?” can not help but arise. When someone is confronted with such questions as these, he or she probably does not want to hear that it is because of chance; that it is simply because you are among “those individuals with the highest probability of surviving and reproducing successfully” and you “are the ones best adapted, owing to [your] possession of a particular combination of attributes.” This explanation then gets translated into “you are here because you just are and your purpose is simply to live and reproduce in a way that most enables you to continue to live and reproduce.” Usually, when a person becomes convinced that he or she has a complicated problem or query, a simple answer, irrelevant of its credibility, is never very satisfying, making it hard to accept.

If one is to accept evolution, one must also accept that there are no higher purposes to life, since evolution itself does not truly have a premeditative purpose, only occurring at random. Unlike a creator that creates a chair with the intention for it to perform certain functions or serve certain purposes, evolution does not make a conscious decision to create an organism with predetermined roles to fulfill. Natural selection, the main force driving evolution, is not teleological and lacks long-term goals. (1) Because of this very lack of purpose in evolution people may find it too bland, too depressing.

Not only can evolution eliminate the purpose of living, it can also eliminate something else very dear to humanity: the possibility of immortality. Given that evolution is correct, it would be logical to think that those species that exist, especially humans, can only live if they have an intrinsic trait that makes them desire to live, for those that do not possess such a trait will most likely have died out. For that reason, it is very consistent with the theory of evolution that human beings pine for immortality. The thirst for immortality may be a by-product of the process of natural selection as it selects for those most desirous of life and eliminate those most apathetic of it. Therefore, when people are presented with an idea that helps eradicate the possibility of immortality more than support it, it is a natural inclination for them to feel uncomfortable with such an idea. Ironically, it may be evolution, itself, that hinders its products (humans) from believing in it.

Despite the many psychological discomforts that people feel concerning evolution, many science-oriented individuals are not averse to the idea. It is possible that those trained in the sciences find it less disconcerting a theory because they have learned through years of training to approach science rationally, objectively, and with a divestment of emotions that often threaten to impair the categorical authority of science. Charles Darwin, himself, expressed similar sentiments by saying, "a scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, -- a mere heart of stone." (3) This demarcation of personal experiences from scientific ones not only prevents the personal aspects of a person’s life from infiltrating into the sciences but the sciences from invading those personal aspects as well. This may be the mechanism which scientists or those with a scientific bent use to reconcile the emotional qualms they might feel with the compelling observations they see. They simply choose to separate the two.

Some individuals may not know what to believe in in place evolution but they just know they do not want believe in evolution. They need something more colorful and a little more fanciful—something that does not refute immortality or destroy their fancy life’s purpose—than just evolution to explain their motivation to live. If they can not find that “something” (either due to it not existing at all or their current inability to find it), they will invent it in replacement of evolution, just as they have been doing since recorded history.

1. Ernst Mawr. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001 (pages: 12, 86, 121)
2. Karl Popper. “The Aim of Science” Popper Selections Ed. David Miller.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Wanted: A Story of Evolution with Poetic Language and ...

It would be great fun to have a symposium on randomness and evolution with you, kaleigh19 (/exchange/node/176),
Shannon (/exchange/node/149),
Elise (/exchange/node/151), and
Hayley (/exchange/node/163) as discussants. Amongst you, the problems that are associated for humans with thinking about the significance of randomness in evolution are well (completely?) outlined (your inclusion of a concern about immortality is a good addition to the list). And together you represent an interesting variety of responses to those problems, ranging from indifferent to your particular sense of regret that the story of evolution is not more "colorful and a little more fanciful"). I'm not sure that's necessarily so (see my comments on Kaleigh's and Hayley's papers), but it is certainly a challenge. Might the story be told better, more colorfully? And in a way that spoke perhaps as well to concerns about mortality (by connecting ourselves more explicitly both to past and future explorations, as we in fact are)? Maybe scientists should stop trying to separate the "scientific" and the "personal", in the interests of both? Maybe you'd like to take on the task of writing the story of evolution with some "poetic language and ... spiritual glow"?