WHY THE DARWIN DEBATES?


This is a quote from the latest issue of Rolling Stone Magazine:

“ When I ask Lemmy if he has a positive or negative view of humanity, he doesn’t hesitate: “ Oh, negative. Human nature is to blame for everything, innit?  We’re just a disease on this planet. Its going to shrug us off like crabs. Its too late anyway, with what we have done to the environment. Our kids are gone be wearing gas masks. We’re all gonna fry. “

Earlier, while discussing drugs, he expressed similar sentiments.

“ There’s a lot of sh-t talked about what’s bad for you, especially in America.   Everyone wants to be safe. Well, I got news for you:  You can’t be safe. Life’s not safe. Your work isn’t safe. When you leave the house, it isn’t safe.  The air you breathe isn’t going to be safe, not for very long.  That’s why you have to enjoy the moment.”

This little piece of ersatz existential philosophy issues from the mouth of one Lemmy Kilmister, the lead guitarist of  heavy metal band Motörhead.    The 63-year -old guitarist, according to the article, drinks a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, consorts proudly with prostitutes and lives in an apartment festooned with original Nazi paraphernalia.

Motörhead, for those who don’t know, was and is one of the original heavy metal bands, formed in 1975, playing a version of  hard core thrash metal that was the predecessor to punk rock.  Now it would come as little surprise to those who know something about rock culture, that a character of Lemmy Kilmister’s orientation and milieu would be a nihilist who has little patience for exploring purpose and meaning in life.  His sense of alienation and fatalism might be said to be typical of a world-weary rock star who has spent most of his  adult life seeking gratification from loud music, women, bottles, pills and needles.

Lemmy Klimister might be a jaded rock star, but don’t think that his negative narcissism and rejection of human exceptionalism  is restricted to his goth rock contemporaries or that his interview is a mere reflection of the magazine’s penchant for showcasing outlaw personalities.  The same issue of Rolling Stone features an article  which bombastically claims that every ocean on the planet is filled to the brim with floating plastic – the result of human degradation of our environment;  It is followed  by an interview with Madonna,  who insists, after one of the most lascivious careers in pop history,  that changing one’s identity on a regular basis is healthy recipe for human contentment;  and  then another  full length article which parades  the old trope that our real enemies are not lurking in caves on the Afghan-Pakistan border but in the Pentagon.

Well, you say,  it  IS Rolling Stone, the flagship of the counterculture.  What do you expect?

Yes, its Rolling Stone, but if you think these views and attitudes reflect only a thin current in the underground press you are wrong.   Those attitudes have, in one way or another, percolated into our social vocabulary, into our attitudes toward government, into our suspicion of religious thought and practice, into the television programs we watch , into the nightly news  we view and into our academies of learning.

Rolling Stone, in other words, is an underground paper no longer.  It is the voice of the mainstream.

There can be little doubt that this self loathing, fatalism and nihilism has derived from the increasing distance the West has placed between itself and the foundational idea of our civilization  –  that human life has both purpose and meaning.    The rapid secularization of  our culture , which followed the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the scientific discoveries which built upon Newtonian mechanics and the increasing role that  rationalism and science have played in forming our understanding our world , have  turned us away from exploring intentionality and purpose as key matters concerning our existence.   The question of ‘why  are we here?’  posed so adamantly by Aristotle, Plato and  some of the greatest philosophical minds in history  is today so loaded with angst, so distant from the focus of  modern scientific inquiry, so dangerously pregnant with the threat of violating the boundaries between ‘Church and state’, that few dare openly contemplate it.

There is also no doubt that 150 years ago, the Darwinian intellectual revolution played a key role in this transformation.  Darwin himself knew that his theory of evolution by natural selection would spur a burgeoning atheistic movement and that if  his theory gained hold, there would be no turning back.  For if natural processes alone, devoid of an intelligent mind or force, were responsible for life on earth , then the notion of a God , responsible for the creation and management of all life forms, could be dispensed with.

The neo- Darwinists, those who have inherited the mantle of the Darwinist thought, passed down from Thomas Huxley, via Herbert Spencer through the Scopes Trial and on toward our own time, have adopted the atheistic tradition, which has marched in step with Darwinism in its crusade to transform our understanding of the origins  and development of life.  Thus when Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s staunchest modern defender claims,
“ Darwin makes it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist,”  he is really stating that he was now free of any obligation to contemplate  purpose and meaning for existence.  Darwin had fixed  it so that the question itself would have little impact on our appreciation of the mechanics of the universe – and that the investigation itself had become meaningless.

Today our magazines, television programs, scientific journals, academies and  even our political culture are suffused with notions which on the one hand, avoid entirely the question of meaning in life and on the other, deride the  attempt to grapple with it as an atavism, belonging to an age devoid of rationality.   In the process, of course,  they also castigate humanity as the source of  the earth’s problems, reject  democracy as a force for good in encouraging the spread of human liberty,  deny the absolute sanctity of human life and brazenly promote rampant sexual license.   The gradual secularization of our society has betokened a break with fundamental notions which underlie civilizational values.  Western civilization, in short, is rapidly ceasing to believe in itself.

Did Darwin intend to wreak such a wholesale transformation of society?   Probably not.  But the consequences are nevertheless with us and they are profound.

Need examples?   Here is Peter Singer, renowned Princeton professor and philosopher:

“ The life a new born baby is of less value  than the life of a pig, dog or chimpanzee.  All we are doing is catching up with Darwin. He showed us in the 19th Century that we are simply animals. Humans assumed we were a separate part of creation and that there was some kind of magical line between Us and Them. Darwin’s theory eradicated the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about our species.”

Or Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg:

“ The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Or the Texas biologist Erik Pianka:

” We are no better and have no more rights to life than bacteria.”

(Pianka famously advocated, at a public lecture at St. Andrews University in 2006, that over population in the world should be addressed by the deliberate spread of the ebola virus which could effectively eradicate 90% of humanity)

Or this  slice of ineluctable pop culture wisdom from the Bloodhound Gang:

“ You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals
So lets do it like the do (it) on the Discovery Channel.”

Given the shrinking acceptance of human exceptionalism and the belief  that human beings are on par with every other feature of nature,  is it really any wonder that the Spanish legislature has  recently passed a statute which extends certain human rights to apes;  that Ecuador’s new constitution extends legal rights to the environment or that Switzerland allows  biologists to be prosecuted for conducting research on plants which have been illegally harvested – the suits being brought on behalf of the plants themselves.

It is also not such a stretch to claim that the gradual erosion of  the belief in man’s uniqueness has contributed  to the spread of a radicalism, with its roots steeped in 60s liberation politics, which has redefined culture in the direction of  emancipation,  experimentation  and the casting off of  traditional assumptions abut family, education and sex.   The social thrust of our age  is to emphasize that human beings, with no purpose nor reason for existence, should, as the Nike ad says “just do it”   – satisfying any urge for individual gratification or personal fulfillment, regardless of the social costs.

But even as the movement to debunk human purpose spreads, enormous gaps in Darwinian theory continue to be exposed.  In the field of micro-biology, the investigation of cellular structure has revealed  DNA,  the informational building block of the universe, to be so complex as to be almost beyond human understanding;   In geology and paleontology, the sudden appearance of species  without  a discovered ancestry, continues to perplex ( just as it  did Darwin in the instance of the Cambrian Explosion); in astrophysics, big bang theorists are unable to approach their subject without embracing some level of cosmology  which suggests purpose.  As science probes deeper into the origins of the universe, the questions themselves about  ultimate cause and development of life grow more confounding and complex.

Perhaps at the root of this issue is not we know of the world and the universe, but rather what we don’t.  As humans have increasingly developed theories and tools to probe the universe’s deepest secrets, we are correspondingly confronted with the frustrating awareness that the human mind may not be capable of grasping the deepest mysteries of the universe’s beginnings.  This notion, that we simply can’t know everything, that we are too limited and too restricted by our physiognomy to appreciate the physical and metaphysical dimensions of the universe, is apostasy to the scientific community.   That is because over the past 150 years that community has elevated  the human mind as the supreme arbiter of universal knowledge and truth –  with science to be employed as its ultimate barometer.

But hubris and self reverence will never serve us humans well in advancing science or increasing our understanding of the mechanisms of the universe.  We should never forget that  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were among our first scientists  but, as they would have defiantly underlined themselves  – they were philosophers first,  concerned as much with why things work, as with questions of how.    The great tragedy of our age is that we have lost the desire, and perhaps even the ability, to ask why.  And that failure may leave us vulnerable to the assault of ideologies and movements that have no problem in asking that question and offering answers that are at complete odds with our views on the sanctity of human life and the necessity for human progress.

The  AFA Darwin Debates, to be held in the month celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species, is, then, an attempt to bring the question of purpose and intentionality back into public discussion.   It is not, frankly,  important to us whether  a God (or Gods) emerges from the debates as the source of  universe’s laws and their application.  Nor is it our desire to discredit evolutionary theory,  which we believe has played an enormously important role in elevating our understanding and appreciation of our origins.

But we are concerned that without such a debate, without informed discussion which embraces a range of options for understanding life, we run the risk of  allowing  our civilization to slide into a swamp of intellectual and spiritual stagnation,  convinced that we are a blight on this earth and that we have no more reason for living than trees, stones or birds.

Nothing, in the end, can be more deadly to a civilization than its own recognition that it has no reason for being. Yet while we struggle with these issues, we shouldn’t forget that the certainty that there is a purpose to life, is really not so far behind us.

After all, Lemmy Klimister’s father was a vicar.

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