Cosmic Evolution

I have been thinking about something that came up in the discussion around my last post. It was something that Carl had said early on when he remarked about how a large part of the American population doesn’t believe in evolution and then wondered how they could possibly ever be interested in anything like evolutionary spirituality. Good question? In fact when I spoke about evolutionary philosophy in America last week in Philadelphia someone there asked exactly the same question.

This question is a good reintroduction to what I have wanted to get us engaged in speaking about. It has to do with the way that we think about evolution. I think that what is commonly called the evolution debate is too narrowly limited to a view of evolution that was popularly created during the early part of the 20th century. It was during that time that the debate about evolution heated up, reaching a pinnacle with the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1926. This court case was instigated by the American Civil liberties Union to challenge a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach in public schools anything besides Divine Creation as the ultimate origin of humanity.  

It was the trial of the century with so many people coming to watch the deliberations that they eventually moved the trial proceedings outside. The case ended with the Tennessee law upheld, which was expected from the start, but the move to go to trial did achieve its main goal which was to take the evolution debate to a national stage. The result of this heated national debate was a deepening polarization between religion and science. Christian fundamentalism tightened its grip on a literal interpretation of the Bible and science wrapped its arms around a deterministic interpretation of evolution that increasingly denied the possibility of God.

Along the way the evolution debate was set in terms that are still with us today. The language of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” reduced the essential question at hand to “Did men evolve from apes?” The view of evolution that was on trial, at least in the public’s eye, was limited to the evolution of species on Earth and most specifically, the evolution of human beings from primates. I think in many ways the debate in the public mind often remains limited to this interpretation, which I think is too narrow a definition of evolution to encapsulate the reality of cosmic evolution.

Another typical sentiment that was expressed during the time of the Scopes trial was, “Do you really think that your great, great, great grandmother was a gorilla?” Nobody would think that. The time frame through which one species might turn into another is larger than the human mind can truly hold. The way this question is framed makes it sound like an ape at some time in the past gave birth to a human-like baby. If that is the framework in which you are considering evolution, it is no wonder you would not believe it!

There seems to be a huge emotional challenge for human beings to see themselves as human beings having evolved from other species, but we don’t seem to have any difficulty imaging a tree growing from an acorn, or an adult human growing from a baby – and these transformations are equally awesome and impossible to fully understand.

Perhaps it is more useful not to think about humans evolving from apes, but simply to think of humans having evolved from the universe. We are like a leaf on a tree. The leaf didn’t come from the branch, it came from the acorn. What ever coding lies within the acorn that allows it to grow into a tree includes coding that allows for the gradual unfolding of all of the parts of the tree. One part of the tree doesn’t grow from another; all the parts grow as part of the same unfolding process over time. My consideration of evolution is not scientific (although I am familiar with some of the science of evolution) it is philosophical. I think that when we consider evolutionary philosophy it is valid to leave all that we know about evolution from religion and from science temporarily aside and look anew at how the universe seems to work. The universe grows, and that fact alone is worth contemplating deeply before we get to the more complex questions of how does it grow? is that growth guided or not? and ultimately who or what is guiding it?

There have always been religious people, and specifically Christians, who have embraced the reality of evolution and saw no need for conflict with their faith. And there are also scientists who don’t see their belief in evolution as an obstacle to their faith in God. I think that the way the evolution debate is most popularly framed might be part of what causes what sometimes appears to be an unbridgeable divide between science and religion.