Good and better

The opening of Steven Weinberg’s review of The God Delusion made me muse on something, not for the first time.

Of all the scientific discoveries that have disturbed the religious mind, none has had the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. No advance of physics or even cosmology has produced such a shock…[A]mong the natural phenomena explained by natural selection were the very features of humanity of which we are most proud. It became plausible that our love for our mates and children, and, according to the work of modern evolutionary biologists, even more abstract moral principles, such as loyalty, charity and honesty, have an origin in evolution, rather than in a divinely created soul.

There is something both immensely fascinating, and highly disconcerting, about that possibility or likelihood or near-certainty. It is, really (and I think religious believers are missing something very rich if they reject this), genuinely interesting to consider the fact that the same kind of natural forces (predators, climate, availability of food or water) shaped whales’ ability to dive, and raptors’ ability to spot prey from a great height, and chimps’ ability to strip grass stems in order to fish for termites, and Bach’s Cello Suites and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Las Meninas’. Really – it’s enthralling. Tracing it backwards is enthralling, and following it forwards is enthralling. Our minds are an adaptation. Thinking is adaptive. It’s a tool; it has survival value; if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have it. It has a lot of survival value; it has to in order to be worth its colossal expense. That’s what it is first of all; the poetry and music and charity and justice came later. That’s fascinating, and one could think about the implications for years. (It occurred to me just a couple of weeks ago how strange and in a way sad it is that humans didn’t know this about themselves until a little more than a century ago. Imagine – they just had no idea of even the possibility that human qualities and characteristics are shaped by selective pressures. To us now it seems such a basic thing to be unaware of.)

Yet as well as being fascinating it’s also disconcerting. In that sense it is not difficult to understand the resistance of religious believers. That’s because (I think) we want to think the things we think are good really are good, that what we think is better really is better. Realizing they’re all the product of a mind that is the activity of a brain that is what it is because of selective pressures seems inimical to that. Survival of course isn’t about good or better, it’s just about survival; it’s about what works. We don’t want to think that poetry or kindness ‘work’ – we want them to be more than that, and different – we want them to be special. Not just special because we think they’re special, special because we say so, special to us – really special, special in themselves, absolutely special.

Poignant, isn’t it.

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