The Harvard Magazine recently carried an essay on Intelligent Evolution by the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson.
A compelling writer, Wilson defends Darwin (and evolutionary science) against the proponents of “intelligent design.”
Modern biology, he writes, is driven by two “overwhelmingly powerful and creative (sic!) ideas”: the first – that “all biological processes are ultimately obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry” – relates to the how of biology.
The second relates to the why: that all biological processes through natural selection.
As a scientific humanist Wilson shows no tolerance for absolutes, moral or religious, yet seems as devoutly committed to his creed as any priest has ever been to the Apostle’s Creed.
Darwin’s vision that he salutes has a kind of quasi-religious awe:
There is grandeur in this view of life,
with its several powers, having been
originally breathed into a few forms or
into one …
simple a beginning endless forms most
beautiful and most wonderful have
been, and are being evolved.
Darwin, On the Origin of Species,
(first edition, 1859)
Rejecting any theory of intelligent design (whether coupled with a belief in evolution or opposed to it) Wilson asserts that “intelligent design” is a “default” argument based not on evidence but on a lack of it.
One would like to hear Wilson crossing intellectual swords with many believing scientists and philosophers who reject any “God of the gaps” theory (i.e., that religion’s role is to explain what science has not yet established), but who yet point to recent discoveries about nature’s order that support belief in God. (See, for example, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, by Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen).
Wilson wonders, “Why does such intense and pervasive resistance to evolution continue 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species?”
We might (with tongue in cheek) suggest that Wilson’s own bedrock principle of mutation by genetic variants supplies the answer. If, as he affirms, red-eyed birds are better adapted to the environment than blue-eyed birds, with the result that red-eyed birds predominate, then it may be that religious humans (who vastly outnumber scientific humanists) are better adapted to the earth’s environment. Perhaps the recently touted “religious” gene is dominant!
Wilson doubts that science and religion will find common ground, although he does admit that a great many “well-meaning” scholars (as he dismisses them) believe that rapprochement could happen.
He is baffled at the “something deep” in religious belief that makes believers so obstinate. And he concludes with a wistful wondering as to whether the “special services” that religion provides can be offered at lower cost by scientific humanism.
I am bemused by Wilson’s brave scientific humanism, and left to think that it will take a Darwin in reverse – someone, perhaps, of the rank of the great Augustine – to explore the “facts” both of religion and science in a new unified theory of existence.
But, since I am neither scientist nor technical philosopher, I am moved to respond to Wilson with the witness of poetry!
Wilson’s quote from Darwin about the “grandeur” in “this view of life” rang a bell for me.
I remembered recently reading those same words in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday (chosen incidentally by the NewYorkTimes Review of Books as one of the best ten novels of last year.)
McEwan places Darwin’s words in the mind of his protagonist, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, who, like McEwan himself, is no religious believer. As Perowne wakes up on the Saturday morning of the novel he wonders what better creation myth there could be than evolution, one that “happens to be demonstrably true.”
As a scientist, father and husband and squash player Perowne likes everything in his life to be very much in order … including his Saturday routine of waking up early for coffee, his weekly squash game, an obligatory visit to his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother, and hopefully making love to the lawyer wife he adores.
But this Saturday everything spins out of control.
His wife is asleep and he is gazing out their townhouse window at the deserted London square on which they live. As he turns away he catches a glimpse of what seems to be a meteor flashing for a moment between the buildings on the horizon. But then he is horrified to see it is not a meteor but a jet plane with the leading edge of a wing on fire.
He wonders : is there a fight to the death in the cockpit? Are brave passengers assembling to charge fanatics who have taken over the plane?
This early morning vision foreshadows the way this Saturday will upset the comfortable certainties of his life.
On the way to his squash match he runs into a traffic jam caused by a protest march. A car sideswipes his and several young toughs threaten him unless he pays them for damage to their car. As a doctor he realizes that their ringleader, Baxter, is suffering from some kind of brain disease. He thinks for a moment about offering him help but then dismisses them and goes late to his game which also goes badly. His visit to his mother is dismal. This is not the Saturday he had planned. But he looks forward to dinner when their two children, his guitarist son and his poet daughter will join them.
But worse is to come. He and his daughter get into a spat about the war in Iraq. And then just before dinner the front door opens and his wife comes in and with her two of the thugs from the morning accident, who push their way into the house in their cloth caps and leather jackets and knives in their hands. This time they threaten to kill him and his family.
But now Baxter the ringleader sees Daisy, Perowne’s lovely daughter, and decides he wants more than money. He wants Daisy.
At knifepoint he makes her disrobe. Just as Perowne is about to try a desperate move to protect her Baxter glances at the table and sees Daisy’s recently published book of poetry.
“You didn’t tell me you wrote poems” he says, “Read one.”
Daisy says she will, if he will take the knife away from her throat. Then with a shaking voice she begins:
The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits –
on the French coast the light gleams and is gone …”
As she reads on about a “sea of faith” receding it’s clear she is quoting Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Baxter does not know that but the poem has affected him strangely.
“You wrote that” he says excitedly, “you wrote that … It makes me think of where I grew up.”
And then he says to Daisy, “I’ve changed my mind. Get dressed.”
The climax comes unexpectedly. Baxter tells Perowne he will take him up on his offer to provide medical help for his disease. And then as Perowne leads him upstairs to his office there is a sudden opportunity to overpower Baxter, and push him down the stairs where he is knocked unconscious.
Later at the hospital Perowne cares for young man, musing on the irony of his treating the man who had threatened him, while knowing it is Baxter who will die soon of his illness.
Is this his way of forgiving Baxter, he wonders? Or is Perowne himself the one seeking forgiveness for setting this Saturday chain of events into motion?
Baxter fell for the magic of the poem. But he heard
what Henry never has, and probably never will, despite all Daisy’s attempts
to educate him. Some nineteenth-century poet – Henry has yet to find out
whether this Arnold is famous or obscure – touched off in Baxter a yearning
he could barely begin to define.
All Henry knows is that an error in Baxter’s genotype – “the modern variant of a soul” – will unravel. And at the end of the day, as he lies down next to his sleeping wife he thinks
There’s always this … And then: there’s only this.
Is he still so sure that the “grandeur” of Darwin’s view of life is enough? Or did the witness of poetry also touch off in him a hunger he could not define?
The Witness of Poetry
So let me enlist in the debate with the eminent Wilson another Nobel Laureate – the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, formerly Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at UC/Berkeley.
In his Witness of Poetry (described by Saturday Review as “a classic for our time”) Milosz devotes a chapter to The Lesson of Biology. Here is his assessment of what the theory of evolution has done to the imagination:
The adversaries of the theory of evolution, invoking its conflict with the
Bible, appraised the danger correctly, for the imagination, once visited by
the images of the evolutionary chain, is lost to certain varieties of religious
belief. Copernicus’ discovery deprived the Earth of its central place in the
universe, but the discovery of man’s animal origins was no less a shock.
(The Witness of Poetry, 42)
Not only has evolution disputed the uniqueness of being human, writes Milosz, but it also disputes the significance of human death, for nature
is absolutely indifferent to the fate of the individual. Once integrated into
Nature, man also changes into a statistical cipher and becomes expendable.
This erosion touches every human being’s perception of life in terms of
salvation and damnation. (op cit.)
Is Milosz a foe of science? Or is he just taking the views of scientific humanists like Wilson and others to their dismal conclusion: that at the end of the day (Saturday or any other day) existence itself is meaningless? Perhaps he is just reframing the woes of the ancient preacher/poet Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.
Let Milosz speak for himself.
“Far from any intention to combat science or defend any flat-earth theory,” he wishes to “show the conflict in all its acuteness,” and for this he recalls William Blake as one of the first to notice the “nefarious influence of science” on the imagination. Blake, he writes, saw “the Reasoning Power in Man” becoming a specter when separated from imagination.
What was at stake, and Blake understood it well, was saving man from
images of a totally “objective,” cold, indifferent world, from which the
Divine imagination has been alienated. (op cit. 47)
What then happens in a world from which “Divine imagination” has seeped away? It becomes a world in which only the chain of cause and effect matters and the “survival of the fittest” when vulgarized leads to the extermination of millions of human beings.
This was the mark of the twentieth century: things happened that once were too atrocious to think possible.
When Milosz asked a committed Communist about the mass terror of the Soviet regime he shrugged and answered: “A million people more, a million people less, what’s the difference?”
So, responds Milosz
what is the difference? That voice of protest we hear in ourselves when we
learn of places where human beings torture other human beings resounds in
a void and has not justification other than itself.
And this, he says, has been true even of the poets in the twentieth century, “a purgatory in which the imagination must manage without the relief that satisfies one of the essential needs of the human heart, the need for protection.”
Milosz calls to his witness stand two writers, the French essayist Simone Weil, and the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy.
Weil’s voice is prophetic, pointing clearly to the loss of the notion of value early in the first half of the twentieth century. She was not ashamed to be thought reactionary when she bemoaned the loss of values.
Milosz finds in Weil’s philosophy a way to recover the lost treasure of value. She believed that all phenomena, psychological and biological, were determined in the domain of Gravity. But she also believed there was another realm, that of Grace. And the parallel existence of these two domains showed “no insoluble contradiction between divine intervention and universal necessity” (op.cit 54).
His second witness, Cavafy, found his way out of the nihilism of his contemporaries by fully exploring the Hellenic world, from the time of Homer to Byzantium, and found that his journey through time and space, as in his poem Ithaka, was also “a journey into his own interior realm.”
Here in twentieth century poetry Milosz discerns premonitions of a turning, a radical turning away from the captivity of biology, a recovery in which humanity will fully explore human exceptionality, the strangeness and loneliness of that “creature mysterious to itself, a being incessantly transcending its own limits” (op.cit.110).
From where will renewal come? “Only from the past,” testified Simone Weil, “if we love it.”
Czeslaw Milosz finally is a witness to hope. First, because he defines poetry as “a passionate pursuit of the Real,” so that poets in the very act of naming things are witnesses to a faith in their reality. (One might even dare to venture that the biblical Adam and Eve were poets in their assigned task of naming the other creatures!).
And he is also a witness to hope because science can be as much a constructive force as a destructive one, preventing the pollution of the earth and saving people from starvation. And not only that but science itself may be – dare I say – converted? At least concludes Milosz
there are signs that allow us to expect a basic transformation at the very
source, which means that technological civilization may begin to see
reality as a labyrinth of mirrors, no less magical than the labyrinth seen
by alchemists and poets.
this poetic hope there is not only a grandeur of vision more than equal to Darwin, but also a humility of vision that allows us to believe we may yet see as John the Seer did, the apocalyptic vision of
a new heaven and a new earth …. the home of God among mortals …the holy city
…coming down from God out of heaven …where the leaves of the trees are for the
healing of the nations … and there will be no more night, for the Lord God will be
A Closing Poetic Witness
Let the final word come from a poet of our own time:
I don’t believe that “scientific genius”
in its naïve assertions of power
is equal either to nature or
to human culture. Its thoughtless invasions
of the nuclei of atoms and cells
and this world’s every habitation
have not brought us to the light
but sent us wandering farther through
the dark. Nor do I believe
“artistic genius” is the possession
of any artist. No one has made
the art by which one makes the works
of art. Each one who speaks speaks
as a convocation. It is not “human genius”
that makes us human, but an old love,
an old intelligence of the heart
we gather to us from the world,
from the creatures, from the angels
of inspiration, from the dead –
an intelligence merely nonexistent
to those who do not have it, but
to those who have it more dear than life.
(From Further Words, in Given Poems by Wendell Berry)
Leighton Ford, February 2006