Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Living with Darwin

In the culture wars, Charles Darwin is the icon of our conflicting attitudes toward science. His portrait is familiar: unsmiling, the troubled brow reflects the disturbing hypothesis generated by years of careful observation in the field and laboratory. We humans are, he conjectured, the outcome of an unsupervised process of natural selection. We are distant kin to the very earliest life forms, close cousins to chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

The study of biological evolution has amply confirmed what Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett calls Darwin’s dangerous idea, dangerous (to some) because the scientific explanation of human origins manifestly competes with the traditional religious belief that we are God’s intentional creations, made flesh in his image. Indeed, because he knew his hypothesis would be deeply controversial, Darwin delayed making his ideas known. Only when he learned that Alfred Russel Wallace was working along similar lines was he finally moved to publish.

On his 199th birthday, Darwin’s legacy still disturbs many of us. But the potential to upset our most cherished convictions is the hallmark of science, the cognitive discipline that places public and experimental evidence above intuition, tradition, ideology and received truths. If we want to know how the world works, we must necessarily submit to the truths of nature, not cling to conventional wisdom, whether religious or secular.

The drive to fully comprehend the human condition sometimes leads to disconcerting conclusions, so it’s little wonder we are of two minds about science. Cognitive neuroscience now joins evolutionary biology in the search for self-knowledge, and again the findings challenge our fondest hopes, in this case about the existence of the soul. The material brain, we are learning, accomplishes consciousness, perception, feeling, cognition, and the control of behavior quite nicely on its own. As Harvard neurophilosopher Joshua Greene suggests, this puts the immaterial, immortal soul out of a job.

Given such (literally) dispiriting conclusions, science is sometimes portrayed as the big reductionist bully, robbing us of necessary reassurances. But these insults to our certainties are self-inflicted, since after all science is a quintessentially human enterprise. It evolved in response to one of our highest aspirations: the desire to discover, to the limit of our abilities, what is real and true from a culturally and personally unbound perspective.

Precisely because it aims for universal knowledge, science can draw those of different cultures and backgrounds together. So it is, on the occasion of Darwin’s birthday, that the organizers of international Darwin Day invite us to a “global celebration of science and humanity.” Despite its discomforts, science has given us much to be thankful for, and celebrating Darwin’s contribution is an apt expression of our appreciation.

Still, as we probe deeper into the cosmos, and into the brain, it remains to be seen whether we can assimilate the scientific truth about ourselves. We are caught, it seems, between competing desires, for knowledge on the one hand and existential security on the other. Will we come of age as a species, daring to fulfill our potential as knowers, or will we retreat to empirically unwarranted consolations?

As this drama plays out, we might recognize the nobility of staying unbowed under the impersonal gaze of science, of refusing the comforts of the soul and the supernatural. Moreover, as Darwin himself put it, there is grandeur in the scientific view of life, the majestic sweep of nature that has now produced us, a creature mindful of its own contingency. We may not play a starring role in existence as science reveals it, but we are nevertheless privileged to be here in Darwin’s world, marveling at the scale, complexity and diversity of what might well be an unscripted universe.

Happy birthday, Charles!


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