Evolution: The Answer to All Questions

by Lorna Salzman

A recent essay by a rabbi said we need a president "filled with the spirit of God". After I stopped sputtering with incredulous rage, I began wondering if this was a fundamentalist Muslim in disguise, or if he had joined the ranks of the evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians. In his essay he wrings his hands at the despair of ordinary people, and it is worth quoting how he describes American society and what it is suffering:

"wide depression and repression of what we can variously call the life-force, eros, God-energy or Spirit...(where) the primary source of pain is not about economic deprivation or non-inclusion but about how...the ethos of selfishness and materialism plays out in their personal lives ....in ways that are destructive and feel terrible...wounded and personally despairing about the manipulative and narrowly utilitarian way people treat each other and themselves and the earth...(they) want a higher meaning to life..a meaning-oriented movement to counter the spiritual depression".

I truly wish that people WERE despondent about their avarice, materialism and propensity for consuming and accumulating. I truly wish they had higher aspirations and values and "meaning". But it is unlikely they will find the solution in religion or spirituality because first they have to understand the roots of their discomfort. And, with few exceptions, these roots lie in the society they have created and participate in. Unless they uproot the old roots and create new ones, all the religious exhortation in the world will not succor them.

This certainly sounds like an End of Times sermon from a fundamentalist deploring the depravity of modern culture and frankly I don't see how this is much different from the concept of Original Sin. True, it doesn't quite accuse humans of being innately sinful or evil. But it DOES, by exclusion, pretty much absolve culture, politics and the social sphere from any responsibility for RESCUING society.

Materialism is not an inherited trait. It is absorbed through the pores of society. Materialism doesn't exist prior to material goods. Once you have these, and once a system is dependent on producing them, consumption needs to keep increasing to keep the system alive. This is what industrialism (both capitalist and socialist)is about: economic growth and consumerism. Once the system is in place and operating, anything that cuts into growth is dangerous and condemnable, even subversive.

This is why the capitalist system is now trembling before high oil prices. The high consumption patterns that sustained this country are likely a thing of the past. Smart leaders would be well advised to seek a new model on how to save democracy without consumerism and economic growth. The environmentalists can give them some sage advice; they have been proposing alternative models for nearly forty years but no one listened.

Religious leaders are simply out of the loop. From their pulpits, because of their education and belief system, pretty much everything wrong in the world is wrong because people, individually, are suffering less from the mistreatment inflicted on them by others than by the refusal of others to sufficiently relieve their plight, or in this case, because they are spiritually empty. This message would not be out of place in the southern Baptist church or even in any of the New Age churches that have sprung up.

Material disaster and deprivation have produced things like the Peace Corps, Amnesty International, Oxfam, the Red Cross, food aid and other temporary programs. Now this rabbi proposes yet another "Marshall Plan" to redress social injustice abroad. Who could fault this? Yet the real criminals are rarely fingered, often out of misguided Political Correctness, or opportunistic foreign policies (such as our cozy ties to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), In the case of the left, all of the world's evils are blamed on USA "imperialism" while the crimes of tyrants and despots abroad are studiously ignored.

These humanitarian groups are sent in to pick up the pieces and help the survivors of evils NOT of their own making. Sometimes it is natural disasters, of course. But more often it is the policies of their own governments, and of foreign institutions and forces: World Bank and WTO (glorified by neoliberals like Nordhaus & Shellenberger), the global financial markets, and of course ethnic and religious conflicts. It is a bit depressing to see that action to protect human lives and safety when natural disasters threaten comes quickly without reservation, but doesn't come at all where there is internal conflict and oppression, such as in Darfur, Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Zimbabwe.

In the case of Darfur, some extreme leftists have actually denied that genocide is taking place and blame Israel and the Zionists for drumming up a campaign over a non-existent issue. And those who propose vigorous action in these areas are actually condemned for abetting American "imperialism" and interference. (For the left, the exception is Palestine, which they defend, while condemning Israel. Apparently leftist imperialism in the cause of Palestine is just fine.)

Today, alongside these atrocities, we face the greatest threat of all to not just humans but the whole natural world: ecological collapse of all the earth's ecosystems caused by global warming. While religious leaders have awakened to the threats to what they call "God's creation" (otherwise known as Nature), they are reluctant to put their finger on those who are to blame, or on the system that is to blame. By proposing, as this rabbi does, yet another global humanitarian plan to help the impoverished people of the world, he is proposing a compensatory posture, when what we need is PREVENTION.

Humanitarian actions after the fact are ethically necessary, but they are not sufficient to prevent new socially induced disasters. Compassionate feelings towards the needy and sick are natural to all humans, but the notion that appealing to human compassion and a sense of justice - to the human sense of morality - will heal the wounds of physical harm and social injustice as well as psychological and spiritual ones is a prescription that perpetuates the belief - completely unfounded - that spirituality and religion are the solutions to humanity's suffering. If they were, why is there still suffering? If this Marshall Plan does its job, what difference does it make whether people's spiritual needs are met? Or is this plan geared to meet the spiritual needs of the givers rather than the receivers?

The secular and atheist communities believe otherwise. With a few exceptions, most of these people are reluctant to indict the religious community. Many do not understand how a religious focus can actually detract from fundamental and systemic political and social change. Moral appeals elicit donations and little more. Very few humans act solely out of compassion.Most act out of self-interest.

However, there is a higher "force" or entity that continues to be widely ignored and denied: Nature. It is not an accident that biologists and environmentalists are in the forefront of the effort to stop global warming. These are people for whom nature represents not just the foundation of human survival but a concept that inspires a sense of wonder, serenity, respect and stability, and, most of all, offers precisely that "life-force" or "God-energy" or spirit that this rabbi says we lack.

The more vernacular term for those who lack the nature sensibility is called Nature Deficit Disorder. And there is powerful evidence that the absence of Nature from our lives does indeed inflict serious psychological harm and suffering. This disorder has appeared and spread since the Industrial Revolution, but to no greater extent than in the 20th century, when Nature became not just a font of material resources but an actual barrier (in some minds) to human endeavors. Today, thanks to technocracy and anti-evolutionists as well as sorely inadequate science education, most Americans are scientifically illiterate, especially about the life sciences and evolution most particularly.

Daniel Dennett has called evolution the "universal solvent". Anyone who has read widely in both science and social sciences will readily understand what he means. The processes and products of evolution are present in just about every aspect of our lives. Biodiversity, for example, is both a prerequisite and product of evolution. Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky stated: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". Yet both secular and religious leaders fail to see that evolutionary concepts are fundamental to every environmental, health and medical issue of concern, including mental health as well as things like genetic engineering, antibiotic resistance, agriculture and breeding, medicine, epidemics, biodiversity, pollination...all of which have important implications for human economies and social systems.

We have the social sciences to thank for this, dominated for decades by secular leftists who separated out the study of human behavior from that of all other animal species, to whom they willingly granted a genetic influence, but not so with humans. One could almost say that the controversial field of study, sociobiology (sometimes called "evolutionary psychology" to escape the tainted word Sociobiology), was the result of the social sciences ignoring evolution.

Evolution, in fact, provides the soundest and most stable basis for just about every progressive environmental position, and in the end for the most ethical. The common origin of all forms of life and the evolutionary relationships that have evolved into a stunning ecological complexity should compel us to place the integrity and preservation of the evolutionary process at the center of all our efforts. The preservation of these relationships and of biodiversity is arguably the highest moral consciousness and responsibility of which humans are capable. That religious leaders fail to recognize may explain why they continue to flail and flounder in addressing humanity's dilemma.

Religious belief not only is useless in rescuing humanity and the world, but detrimental. Islam sees no contradiction in prescribing alms for its poor but assassination for non=Muslims. It is not for nothing that secularists so vigorously defend the separation of religion and state. It is not only because this is the best protection for all religions, but that the state - having a material existence via our government structures and laws as well as its citizens - is the only entity capable of changing the human condition by changing the policies that oppress and deprive people. Let's not get distracted by religion or personal spirituality to the point that we abjure institutional change. And let's defer to nature and evolution, without whom the human species would not have persisted this long.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.