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Soft Dust

The idea [of evolution], the structure itself, ...looms ever vaster and more impenetrable. It is linked with the mysteries within the atom as it is also linked with that intangible, immaterial world of consciousness which no one has quite succeeded in identifying with the soft dust that flies up from a summer road. Evolution is an idea that has seemed to many to condemn man to the life of a beast and there are those who have ordered their days accordingly. Others have seen, in the long climb upward from the ooze, a law of progress, a reversal of the dour prophecies of an earlier Christianity which had viewed the human condition as one destined inevitably to worsen.1

Within the past few weeks we have again heard about laws, both proposed and already in effect, to require teachers in schools to teach biological evolution as a theory and not a fact. These particular laws are being dealt with in Tennessee and Alabama. This kind of thing has been going on for 150 years or more now, and there is still the fear that somehow we will be less than human if we really have evolved from other species or if we even believe in evolution. This forum will not debate the validity of evolution versus creationism, since we should be beyond that point concerning this "theory," but rather will discuss the fears and the hopes inspired by the idea that we do not have a good grasp of where we humans came from or where we are going.

aegytopithecushomo habilisneanderthalensisCharles Darwin
Aegyptopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis2 Charles Darwin3

What are two of our greatest fears as human beings? One would be the fear that we have no control over our world, our environment, even ourselves. The other would be the fear that we are no better than the rocks, the creeping, crawling things of this earth and that we might even have much in common with them.

No reasonable scientist today would claim, even if he succeeded in creating a life form in a test tube, that he had thereby resolved the mystery of life. Even though we are able to identify some of the processes of life with genes, chemical reactions, brain functions and other "mechanical" phenomena, the how and the why of life remain as elusive as ever, stimulating our curiosity rather than squelching it. What a tragedy it is when we do suppress that inquisitiveness, that awe in the face of the mystery of life, by not allowing inquiry into where we came from. For it is our own curiosity about ourselves that has most stimulated the search for the process by which all life forms came into being.

One legislator from Tennessee, in defending the proposed law concerning the teaching of evolution, explained that children ought to be taught that they are created in God's image rather than evolved from apes or else they will grow up feeling inferior. The fact is, if one were to put a religious slant on it, all of nature is God's creation, with no part of it being inferior, just different.

group of australopithecinesAustralopithecine family portrait4

The tragedy of a myopic attitude toward what should be an awe-inspiring view of life becomes most evident when we pass on such an attitude to our children. As an example of what is still happening in our schools, our daughter once became involved in a debate in her class where she and one of her classmates were alone in defending evolution against her teacher and the rest of the class. It was admirable that she was able to take a stand in the face of such opposition, but consider the possibilities if a wondering view of life were encouraged rather than suppressed or ignored.

Like all great scientists or thinkers, this wonderment in the face of the world around him, even the tiniest sea creatures, was what drove Charles Darwin to ask questions and to expose to himself to whatever answers might come along, even if they were unconventional.

To return to the matter of the human fears supposedly aroused by this talk of evolution, the fear of lack of control and the fear of being inferior. Perhaps most of all we fear being reduced to a mass of cells reacting chemically to stimuli. If our survival, like that of other living things, becomes simply a matter of being able to properly adjust and respond to our environment, then what has happened to our will, to our spirit, to our soul? The theist will say that the coming of humans is entirely unaccounted for by the "laws of nature," and that we must look to some other cause for our existence. On the other hand, modern unbelieving humans have become very much at home in these earthly surroundings. We have no need for anything else. Between these two perspectives, however, are there not mysteries as elusive and inspiring as those that have intrigued us for eons?

One of the reasons for the mystery is the fact that life allows for an infinite number of possibilities. Life is infinitely creative and indeterminate. We don't always know and cannot predict what will happen. In the case of humans, whose presence on this earth is itself a chance happening which could not have been predicted, this indetermination is what gives us the capability to do those things that we feel make us human: choosing and doing good and evil, expressing ourselves with language, interacting with the world in the form of art and ritual.

The danger is that we become too enamored of our own abilities and achievements, too narcissistic, too full of what the Greeks called hubris, and therefore too fearful of something that comes along to upset our world, like the idea that we evolved from something "inferior", that our existence is in fact just a chance happening and maybe there is no real reason for our being here, that species death or extinction applies to us as well as every other living thing.

For us to be truly at home in this world, or at least to make the most of it then, we must consider our connection with all that has come before us and all that lives with us in this increasingly small world of ours. "Human beings need to be more humble... The world is full of non-human splendor, and I think that people are healthy insofar as they can interact with that splendor."5

The influence of Darwin has been due not just to the scientific reasoning in his Origin of Species, but also because he paused and interacted with the splendor of the world and realized himself to be a part of it.

If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine--our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements--they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor--we may be all melted together. 6

Pikaia - the world's earliest known chordate,  from 550 million years ago, possibly an ancestor of humans

1Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century (Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1961), pp. 325f.

2Carlo Ranzi, Aegyptopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, Hominid Paleo-ethology Unit, University of Barcelona, http://www.ub.es/SERP/EtoHom/indexE.html (February 27, 1996).

3Image of Charles Darwin from The Natural History Museum's Down House, http://weber.u.washington.edu/wcalvin/down_hse.html (Revised August 1996).

4Carlo Ranzi, Australopithecus, Hominid Paleo-ethology Unit, University of Barcelona, http://www.ub.es/SERP/EtoHom/indexE.html (February 27, 1996).

5Lynn Margulis, "1996 Visionaries", Utne Reader (March-April 96 No 74), p. 73.

6Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols., edited by Francis Darwin (London, John Murray, 1888), Vol. 2, p. 6, Notebook of 1837.


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Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

schiller@emily.net

March 30, 1996