Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, September 22, 2006

What's wrong with evolution?

I mentioned in my last post that evolution is the buzzword for the spiritual world these days. Eckhard Tolle, Ken Wilber, and lots of others (some of whom I don't care to grace with a better PageRank by mentioning them) are talking about an evolving universe, one strugging to know itself, and we are sitting on the cutting edge of that evolutionary process. "You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are!" says Tolle.

Let me start by saying that I go against this wave of spiritual opinion at my peril. I think it is largely true . . . or, at least I can't come up with a more elegant theory to explain what God is up to with this crazy universe. And yet . . . something bugs me about the way people have embraced this framework for thinking about spirituality, and I keep coming back to trying to articulate why it rubs me the wrong way.

The evolutionary camp holds up the physical evolution of the species as Exhibit A. "See, life is becoming increasingly complex! God's highest creation has emerged, and continues to emerge, in a process of evolution!" This is superficially true, and at the same time seems to ignore some inconvenient truths about the nature of physical evolution:
  1. Evolution is a chance process. There is no teleology to evolution, no direction. Yes, more complex forms of life have emerged as a result; so have less-complex forms of life. The human and the virus share the same planet, and have equal claim to God's love. So it seems a little presumptious to leap to the conclusion that evolution is "about" making more complex, self-aware life. Evolution results in whatever is most appropriate to the environment; usually, it would prefer the less complicated solution. I sometimes comment: "Gee, if God is into complexity, he sure likes bugs a lot."
  2. Evolution doesn't have any winners. We might be tempted to think that we're the pinnacle of evolution, the "cutting edge", and therefore the purpose of the universe. Yeah, well, the dinosaurs probably thought the same thing. And they're dead. Like, really dead. They aren't alive, and not even their descendents got to inherit the earth. Some lousy mammals took over, the bastards. So, maybe we're the wave of the future . . . but it is also equally likely that we, too, will expire as a species, and Nature will try again with something else.
  3. Evolution has lots of losers. When people talk about participating in the evolution of the universe, they think of themselves as contributing to some great overarching work, like they were posting to God's Wikipedia or something. They imagine that their life is somehow a cumulative, concrete, permanent addition to the progress of the universe. But evolution (physical evolution, anyway) is not like that. For every useful adaption, there are thousands, maybe millions of individual lives that don't do dick to help evolution. In fact, most of the variation that happens will probably be retrograde -- failed experiments, if you will. Most people don't like to think of themselves as "a failed experiment" -- but evolution would suggest that, most likely, yup, that's what you are.

Now, it may not be fair to carry over the nature of physical evolution to the realm of mental, or cultural, or spiritual evolution . . . but hey, if you're going to latch onto all the positive aspects of an idea, and ignore all the negative ones, I'm going to get suspicious. In fact, I'm going to start suspecting that the current crop of evolutionary-minded thinkers are doing what many thinkers of the past have done: project their preconceived ideas upon the world, and presume they have found "evidence" for their ideas in the nature world.


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