Who's Afraid of Charles Darwin?

by Lorna Salzman

The idea of progress must be genetically determined in the human species, or so it seems when one looks at both fiction and non-fiction. Whether embodied in imaginary kingdoms, Eco-topia, Utopia, the alchemist's genie-in-a-bottle laboratory, the irrationality of nuclear scientists promising "energy too cheap to meter", or most recently the fevered speculations of pharmaceutical companies hawking their genetically engineered snake oils as the solution to all of humankind's ills, citizens - or rather their consumer morphs - are offered the answers to all their problems, and then some. "You can't stop progress", they say.

Progress, it seems, is anything we dont have now and what we will inevitably get in the future, if we will only trust its vendors, open our minds and empty our pockets. Progress, it also seems, is everything that has happened for the past five million years, since the human species struck out on its own.

Progress, above all, is abstract and non-empirical. It exists only in the words and images offered us. It is conceptual, though its ideas are framed in material terms: convenience, aesthetics, recreation, health, self-improvement, consumer appeasement. Progress is overcoming our primitive brain and urges, ending our reliance on instinct and emotion and replacing them with rationality and enlightenment. Progress is abandoning everything that came before us, or at least re-packaging or re-naming the aspects we want to keep. Progress is the triumph of intellect and reason. Progress is the promise of order, purpose and above all of certainty.

Charles Darwin would have been horrified. So would Alwyn Rhys, who said that when you are standing at the edge of an abyss, progress is taking a step backwards..or turning around 180 degrees and walking forwards. Different kinds of horror are involved here. Rhys' kind is the one that looks at what humanity has done with and to Nature. Darwin's kind, however, would arise not from the social or ecological impact of the Industrial Revolution but from his own work, from the principles that future scientists tweaked from his spectacularly radical (though elegantly simple) theories of evolution and natural selection (Thomas Huxley, Darwin's major defender, exclaimed: "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that"). The irony of this is that Darwin ends up, in some leftist circles at least, as a reactionary, even though his work laid the foundation for radical ecological thought.

Darwin was not only the father of all modern biological science; he was the first biocentrist. Why this is true is something that needs to be learned by those who consider themselves social justice activists, and it can only be learned by understanding evolution, and particularly by understanding why there can be no objective thing as progress. Progress, like the notion of a god, is a human invention, and the angry arguments about what constitutes progress are sufficient proof of this. Progress, in other words, is the elephant featured in the fable of three blind men.

Now, some may argue the exact opposite, and in fact I have seemingly done so myself in a different context by pointing out the fact that the disciplines of biology, ecology, medicine and agriculture could not have flourished without Darwin. The refinement of food crops, the principles of natural selection that enable us to treat infectious disease by developing better medicine - these would seem to be prima faciae evidence of scientific progress. People live longer than they used to. Isn't that progress? Well, the jury is still out on that. With nearly eight billion people living on earth now, do we really want to keep a lot of them around for another decade or so, especially since the chosen few will without a doubt be those in the rich industrial consumer economies whose impact on the earth is the greatest? I myself wouldnt want to live so long that all my family and friends die while I go on living.

However, every advance in medicine and treatment of disease has its costs, side effects and unforeseen consequences. Because of natural selection, certain individual insects or microbes are resistant to chemicals and antibiotics, forcing the pharmaceutical companies to continually reformulate their products. This is now hitting home where it hurts with regard to the AIDS virus as well as the malaria parasite and the tuberculosis bacillus; these three diseases now constitute the greatest health threats to the world's populations. Malaria is presently the largest killer on earth, killing almost 20 million people each year) with a new, deadly resistant strain; new strains of influenza, which also killed 20 million people (some scientists say 100 million) in 1918, must be ascertained in advance every year to develop an appropriate vaccine. Every example of medical progress inevitably has evolutionary consequences. Progress in the health field means little more than staying one step ahead of disease, which will forever dog our steps.

So, let us agree, progress is relative, contextual, subjective, and above all it is not guaranteed, though it is often offered as if it were. In fact, we probably wouldnt be in the ecological predicament we are in today if people realized that there are no guarantees. And this is where evolutionary principles come in, and why Darwin matters: the biological uncertainty principle rules all aspects of life on earth, genetic engineering notwithstanding.

Random errors in gene duplication and gene mutation do and must occur to provide the latent genetic diversity needed for populations to draw upon in the event of environmental change, i.e. needed for the process of natural selection to operate. Evolution sorts out the possibilities offered by genomes (the full set of our cell's chromosomes) to achieve not progress or perfection but workability with variability: never perfect, never predictable, never planned, never fixed. Evolution provides us with possibility, not guarantees; it provides us with potential, not progress..

First, let us reiterate that no original aspect of Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection has been proven wrong (except for his dallying with the notion of inheritance of acquired traits, due to the lack of knowledge about genes and inheritance).The basic precepts of Darwinian theory remain the working hypotheses of scientific research and experiment. Despite repeated attempts to discredit "neo-Darwinism" (the synthesis of evolutionary theory with genetics), nothing has indicated that these precepts are flawed or erroneous, though the original theories have been expanded upon. In every laboratory, field study, analysis and re-analysis, evolution and natural selection have proven unshakeable and valid, as reliable as the math and physics used by engineers to build bridges and airplanes.

The contesting of Darwin's theories - aside from religious fundamentalism - arises from philosophical and ethical implications to a degree, and from politics as well, but mainly because most people are unfamiliar with science and how it functions; because they have expectations that it can provide "final" answers and solutions; because they are unable to regard science as a process rather than a collection of "facts"; because of the reprehensible emphasis of the mass media on discrete events rather than on functions, processes and systems; because of the prevalence of a broad spectrum of disagreements among scientists interpreting the same data; but above all because of the reluctance of many scientists to acknowledge the role of uncertainty in science.

But one must go back to Darwin, who, when properly understood, can provide us with the intellectual fortitude - biological guts so to speak - to acknowledge and exist under the permanent cloud cover of uncertainty. Darwin invented biocentrism and fully recognized the social consequences of this idea: that there was not only no creative deity, no grand design, no immutable structure, and no pyramid of life forms with humans at the top, but instead that there was no such thing as a "higher" or "lower" life form, and no necessity for the human species to exist. At one fell swoop Darwin swept away the foundations of and justifications for temporal power, religious dogma, superstition, and the basis for the arrogance of humans regarding the rest of nature. He also eliminated any scientific justification for dominance and hierarchy in human systems and social relations, the vast liberatory implications of which radical social change movements continue to ignore today.

Indeed, one of the reasons Darwin withheld publication of The Origin of Species for so long was not because he feared antipathy from theologians but because he was well aware that his theory inferred that humans arose from a material basis. This materialism necessarily infers that the human brain evolved in a similar manner to other organs as well, leaving no room for any conclusion except that humans evolved similarly to other animals. If our brain has a material basis, so does our mind and its products, including religious beliefs, leading further to the conclusion that the notion of a deity is a similar product of our mind. In this light we can see that present-day arguments about creationism and "intelligent design" are not merely attempts to refute evolution and impose irrational religious beliefs, but ultimately to rebut materialism per se.

Biocentrism contains the seeds of a world-view that precludes progress. The understanding that all life forms are conceptually and functionally equal (if regarded from outside the universe through the "eye of God") infers, almost proves, that not only was there no plan or design but that all life forms have a material origin and basis consisting of the chemical foundations of life, manifesting a strange combination of chance (in genetic recombination) and necessity (in the forces of natural selection that confer reproductive advantages on better adapted organisms).

Anthropologist/poet Loren Eiseley described this curious conundrum within evolution eloquently: "Form, once arisen, clings to its identity. Each species and each individual holds tenaciously to its present nature. Each strives to contain the creative and abolishing maelstrom that pours unseen through the generations. The past vanishes, the present momentarily exists, the future is potential only. In this specious present of the real, life struggles to maintain every manifestation, every individuality, that exists. In the end, life always fails, but the amorphous hurrying stream is held and diverted into new organic vessels in which form persists, though the form may not be that of yesterday" (The Star Thrower, 1978).

Materialism in the evolutionary sense thus involves at virtually every stage of life the omnipresence of uncertainty, that same lack of guarantees that applied science and technology try to pretend doesnt exist. There is a straight line of causation from biocentrism to materialism (or vice versa) to the prevalence of uncertainty in human endeavors.

Thus uncertainty circumscribes not only human existence and survival but the future, which we still associate with the notion of progress. Humans have, it seems, the ability to live with misfortune and tragedy but not with the notion of uncertainty. They also have the talent for tolerating, even welcoming, the most maladaptive, ugly, dangerous and unfriendly kinds of technologies, such as automobiles, toxic chemicals, assembly lines, shopping malls, ORVs, cell phones, spike-heeled shoes and tobacco. Yet many who readily accept these for their convenience, amusement or profit have trouble attributing the decline in the quality of life to these very same things. One woman's poison is another's profit.

In some ways the rejection of uncertainty and the idea of progress are paralleled by the resurgence of various brands of irrationalism. Irrationalism never really goes away. The medieval burning of witches to counteract the Black Plague, the propitiation of gods, contemporary religious hysteria over the liquefaction of Christ's blood, and most tellingly the resurgence of psychic communication, seances, astrology and so forth, attest to irrationality as being deeply ingrained in the human psyche, arguably the biological by-product of human brain evolution that once had real adaptive value biologically or culturally. A physician once argued cogently why we often translate everyday objects into threatening creatures, postulating that for primitive humans living in wild nature with dangerous lurking animals, it was far safer - and therefore adaptive - to turn a large dark rock into a tiger and run away; the human who mistook a tiger for a dark rock left no descendants and had no future.

Admittedly it is hard to talk about evolution without reference to change, the future and progress. The word implies some kind of movement, presumably towards a desirable goal, not an undesirable one like extinction. Some criteria that have been suggested for measuring "progress" in the evolution of life forms are: adaptability, ability to manipulate the environment, resilience, longevity, complexity, abundance, and dominance. By some of these criteria humans are the most successful (environmental manipulation, complexity, dominance) but by others (longevity, resilience, abundance) we lose out to bacteria and insects, of which we recognize 750,000 species, with more to come, vs. 4000 species of mammals and one human species. For humanists and the religious, and especially New Agers, human consciousness is often pointed to as proving human superiority, arrived at through evolutionary "progress".

Perhaps it might make more sense to define the most successful species (if not the most highly evolved) as that which recognizes the unity and equality of all life forms and acts to preserve them, a definition the recognizes both our intellectual endowment as well as our moral obligation to the rest of Nature. Such a dual recognition - based on our evolutionary origins as well as our cultural and ethical choices - is thus both morally correct and evolutionarily adaptive.

Many people despair at the notion that the human species may not be the "purpose" of life or evolution, and even agnostics find it difficult to live with pervasive uncertainty. They have yet to learn that there are many unfathomed aspects of life on earth which neither religion nor philosophy nor science will ever explain (though they may keep trying). No one has been able to demonstrate that evolution has any goal or that evolution towards conscious life forms was inevitable and a sign of progress, nor has anyone been able to devise criteria or tests for any of these beliefs; they remain irrational and not amenable to rational discourse or scientific argument.

To postulate a goal in evolution would be to endow its forces with direction, suggesting intent or design. Believing that we humans are the culmination of evolution is an article of blind faith that suits our personal world view or spiritual needs, but it often serves to justify dangerous, immoral or counter-adaptive behavior. But we need not turn to a deity or the concept of purpose and progress to understand the mysteries of life. Evolution and natural selection, properly understood, are fully capable of explaining how life evolved, how it works, and why it persists. And also properly understood they can signal to us what we need to do or not do in order to preserve biodiversity by preserving the long-standing evolutionary relationships of species and biotic communities.

Those who are suspicious of Darwin and evolution overlook the fact that the grand plan of the Industrial Revolution and early natural theology were threatened, not strengthened, by evolutionary theory. The material basis for evolutionary processes is inherently subversive of and contradictory to abstract ideologies. While today's industrialism rationalizes control of people and Nature in its own brand of social and technological determinism described as "progress", evolution's lessons contradict a technocratic, hierarchical view of the earth as much as they did in the 19th century. The lessons of evolution and natural selection are not those of hierarchy, dominance, violence and inequity but of unity, continuity, diversity, interdependence, mutuality, equilibrium, adaptation and sustainability. In a sense we must re-do what Darwin did for his day: crumble the foundations of anthropocentrism and rebuild an ethics of biocentrism in its place.

The apparent mystery, beauty, diversity, changeability and fascination of Nature are by themselves worthy of reverence and homage; the fact that, to paraphrase Darwin, from primitive beginnings such wonders have unfolded is as miraculous as any theistic dogma. The spiritual inspiration we gain from the endless miracles of Nature's work is surely a foundation for human values far sturdier than any organized religion or cult, and thus far more capable of re-defining and resolving the major moral crises of our time through new adaptive values and structures.

Ecology and evolution are in fact the only extant ideas with a future. The recognition of the common origins and interdependence of life forms within the biosphere is perhaps the highest moral awareness of which humans are capable. The challenge to global citizens is to create a new politics and social realm out of this awareness.

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