I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.
It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.
Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]
So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms
As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.
So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.
Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.
But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality – life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.
The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency.
She goes on to cite Darwin:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.
Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.
Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.