Monday, October 29, 2007

Evolution - with feeling....

A recent issue of American Scientist has a review by Robert Pennock of two books that attempt to show that a mechanistic Darwinian view of the world does not have to lead to a nihilistic ennui, but rather can satisfy our need to feel richness, purpose, and meaning.
With the familiar references to the "uncaring" Darwinian struggle, and the "mechanical" and "pitiless" action of natural selection, evolutionary biology has long been the obvious whipping boy for those who are uncomfortable with scientific naturalism. It is not just fundamentalist religious beliefs that motivate creationists' attacks on evolution; they are also driven by a deep existential angst—a fear that evolution renders the world pointless, emptying it of purpose, meaning and morality.
In "Darwin Loves You:Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World" George Levine argues that evolution
if properly portrayed, is not only perfectly compatible with meaningfulness but provides a new basis for it...He makes the important point that at the same time that evolution pulls the rug out from under anthropocentrism (which is not only a smug but ultimately a dangerous attitude), it provides a foundation for a justifiable form of anthropomorphism. Darwin showed that humans are not the apex of creation but are one with the rest of the biological world, related to all living things through our common ancestors. This discovery allows us to find common ground with other animals without denigrating our humanness, Levine argues, permitting us to legitimately attribute human characteristics (albeit in simpler or incipient forms) to them. This provides an avenue to the re-enchantment of the world, for it shows we are not wrong to find in it a recognizably human notion of meaningfulness. It is wrong to see nature as cold and unfeeling; for those who understand evolutionary processes and relationships, the biological world becomes a warm and caring network of mutual interactions that are suffused with meaning. Levine is a romantic, but not a naive one; he does not close his eyes to those aspects of nature that are "red in tooth and claw," but shows how these need not negate the positive vision.
In "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives" David Sloan Wilson, in the service of finding harmony between evolution and religion:
...discusses some of the evidence for his evolutionary hypothesis that religions are adaptive at the group level, providing practical benefits relating to the specific conditions the group is confronted with...Given the central importance of evolution in biology, the most extraordinary thing about the public's view, Wilson points out, is not that 50 percent don't believe it, but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives. One of Wilson's chief goals—one he accomplishes admirably—is to demonstrate the relevance and value of evolutionary biology not just to scientists but to ordinary people. In story after engaging story, he conveys not only the sweep and the power of evolutionary thinking but the grandeur, as Darwin put it, of this view of life. By the end of the book, the reader understands Wilson's metaphor that evolution is an artist that has helped fashion the sculpture that is the living world.

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