Genius author and thinker, Richard Dawkins, wrote in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, how there is wonder and awe in a scientific — “non-theist” — view of a universe built on both fortuity and logic:

Richard Dawkins

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. 

We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

There is an undeniable elegance and grace in evolution divined by one simple question and answer: Does it benefit me or not? If not, adapt or die. Richard’s latest book is “The God Delusion” and you may read the first chapter for free on his website.

Here’s an electric taste from the first page that sets the fairness of his perspective and frames the persuasiveness of his overarching argument:

The boy lay prone in the grass, his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and even – though he wouldn’t have known the details at the time – of soil bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the micro-world.

Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican priest and became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that I had religion forced down my throat.

In another time and place, that boy could have been me under the stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.

A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief. In his boyhood at least, my chaplain was presumably not aware (nor was I) of the closing lines of The Origin of Species – the famous ‘entangled bank’ passage, ‘with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth’. Had he been, he would certainly have identified with it and, instead of the priesthood, might have been led to Darwin’s view that all was ‘produced by laws acting around us’: Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

“Most beautiful and most wonderful” indeed.

29 Comments

  1. Faith in science doesn’t necessarily have to exclude faith in a higher power, according to my church’s beliefs. I believe God created the laws of science.

    Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.
    Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul.

  2. Don’t we know for a scientific fact, Chris that the world is not of an infinite age?
    So you’re saying a Catholic would have no trouble believing the earth is millions of years old and that there was an evolution of the species, right?
    How does your quote about “man’s body developed from previous biological forms” conform to the story of Adam and Eve?
    Is it possible, in the church’s view, that human beings — both male and female — existed before Adam and Eve?
    How long ago did Adam and Eve live?
    How does evolution, in your church’s view, explain Eve being created from Adam’s rib?
    Or is their story one of many symbolic myths for teaching catechism?

  3. I find it puzzling that some Creationist I know laugh at the Theory of Evolution because they say that it is impossible for people to evolve from lower life forms that originate from the primordial soup, dirt and eventually, if you go back far enough, a rock… but at the same time they believe that Adam and Eve were created out of clay. They don’t seem to see the inherent hypocrisy of their argument.
    I know other people that try to reconcile the two by saying that God created Adam and Eve through creation. Some theologians have a Gap Theory and believe that the age of the earth could have been millions of years old, stating that Genesis 1:2 should have been properly translated, “the earth became formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (as per the footnote at the bottom of the page) because Satan was cast out of the heavenly realms on to this planet so that the world existed beautifully for a long time before people were created.
    I believe that accepting either Creation or Evolution takes a faith as none of us was there when it happend.

  4. A S —
    Evolution takes faith?
    I know there were dinosaurs that came from the sea and then evolved to walk the and that is fact, not faith, because it can be proved with me or without me by an established scientific method. It doesn’t take faith to make it so.
    Your argument also claims the Civil War is faith, and not fact, because “none of us was there when it happened.”

  5. Hi David,
    That’s the beautiful thing about faith — it requires faith. 🙂
    The Church doesn’t try to explain the laws of physics. That’s not its purpose. It’s job is to lead people to salvation.
    Of course, the same is true for scientists. Their job is to learn as much as possible about the Earth to increase our knowledge of the universe and to discover useful things for human beings.
    What does it mean when the two combine, as they do at the University of Arizona where the Vatican has an observatory?

  6. Chris!
    Faith requiring faith is like death requiring death — it goes nowhere as a logical argument and it’s a bit repetitive!
    😀
    Why wouldn’t the church want to explain the laws of physics if they were created by God? Why wouldn’t it be their divine duty to determine the meaning, purpose and rationale for the role of physics in a religious life?
    The Vatican observatory seems to be another way of providing God in a public institution in exchange for money and influence:

    This new tower for studying the stars has been erected during the XV year of the reign of John Paul II on this peaceful site so fit for such studies, and it has been equipped with a new large mirror for detecting the faintest glimmers of light from distant objects. May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God.

  7. The Theory of Evolution takes a great deal of faith because the probablity of everything aligning for life to come out of the primordial soup is more than astronomical.
    How do you know for a fact that the dinosaurs that came from the sea and then evolved to walk the land? The recent discovery of the Dolphins with extrenous external fins lead some scientists to believe that there were some dinosaurs that were land dwellers that became aquatic and not the other way around. Though carbon dating could put certain things in a certain era, they are not completely accurate. There are also differing rates of deterioration. The level / location of a fossil is also not a completely determining factor as previously thought because certain seismic activity has pushed pieces of the earth higher up allowing newer life forms to be imbeded and fossilized at a certain point.
    The Civil War was a reality it is near enough to our time and historically documented by humanity whereas creation was not “none of us were there” meaning humanity and human record. If humans had existed prior to the exodus from the priordial soup then we would not have emerged from it. This is strikingly different than assumptions / presumptions made based on a tooth and a fossil.
    Additionally there are newspapers, photographs, cannons, Civil War uniforms which more tangibly shows the historical record of such an event.
    One must admit, however, as none of us were physically there during the Civil War, to accept the historical documents as precise detailed account of everything that happened and disregarding the element of human embelishment would take a great deal of faith as well. Suppose in a few hundred years the only “historical documentation” that remained were our tabloids, what would the future think happend during our time?

  8. In Luke 10:27 Jesus says states the “Greatest Commandment” which includes loving God with all one’s mind. Faith is not the absence of a reality check. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” If the day is completely cloudy and there is no way for me to see the sun I have faith that it has not disappeared. You may call it fact, while I may call it faith. You may call on the Laws of Physics, I may believe that it is because of God that the Laws of Physics are stable and not in perpetual state of flux. We may both be “certain” of the validity of our own argument. But I maintain that either one is still faith.

  9. Chris —
    Are you saying you are not sure if dinosaurs walked the earth?
    Are you saying you are not sure if DNA exists?
    Are you saying HIV isn’t a precursor to AIDS?
    Are you saying the Hawaiian Islands were not created by volcanic activity?
    This false argument of “Direct Knowledge” as the only way of knowing something or learning something — “If I didn’t experience it, it didn’t happen” — is the prime argument used by religious fanatics to shout down the facts of history. Facts exist before us. They will exist after us.
    To question the validity of scientific fact with religious dogma and Bible quotes isn’t an intellectual argument at all. It is an emotional one that cannot be engaged or defended.

  10. How do you reconcile Entropy & Evolution? Wouldn’t it more likely to head towards a chaos than order?
    Or Evolution and Humanity? If the survival of the fittest (smartest, fastest, etc.) why help the weaker of the species?

  11. Hi David,
    I can accept facts that I haven’t personally witnessed or experienced. When I read court cases, I take all the facts presented in the opinions as being true.
    Maybe I was setting up a “straw man” unconsciously to see what you’d do with it. 🙂
    I do like Fred’s Nietzche quote. 🙂
    Even in clear cut criminal law cases, there are people who clearly lost on the facts and the law as evidenced by a Judgment against them who maintain their evidence. It’s part of human nature to interpret and hold beliefs that might not be based in reality.
    Of course, my believes are correct, whereas I can’t say the same for others. 😉 But, that’s the nice thing about beliefs and faith. They can’t be proven or disproven.
    I believe in string theory — the very little bit I have heard about it — but I wouldn’t have the ability to prove that it exists or not. Is it faith, since Fred asserts string theory isn’t provable in a lab just yet, or is it something different than faith because there is a likelihood at some point it can be proven with scientific certainty?

  12. fred —
    You are incorrect in your consideration of Darwin and the evolution of the eye. You have accepted the Creationist view that Darwin was uncertain and confounded when he was being merely scientific and wondering — that was the writing style of the day — and if he knew then what we knew now about the eye, he would have been able to cogently explain the eye’s evolution quite cleanly — and if you keep reading Darwin where the Creationists wish to cut you off and disassemble his context, you find this in the whole of a single paragraph:

    To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/origin/chapter6.html#eye

  13. fred —
    “Survival of the fittest” is just that — you move forward by any means possible. If you do not propagate and adapt, then your line of DNA dies out to be replaced by a hardier and more aggressive version that seeks the future and not the now.

  14. A S —
    I’m not going to be drawn into your false semantic debate on the competing theories you propose. Straw Man arguments and hypothesis do not interest me.
    As for Mother Teresa — she was in it for her own glory and beatification — and as proof of that contention, I point you to Christopher Hitchens’ revelation of her as a fanatical fraud:

    I think it was Macaulay who said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved great credit for, and owed its longevity to, its ability to handle and contain fanaticism. This rather oblique compliment belongs to a more serious age. What is so striking about the “beatification” of the woman who styled herself “Mother” Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism.
    It’s the sheer tawdriness that strikes the eye first of all. It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for “beatification,” the first step to “sainthood,” until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated MT a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or “devil’s advocate,” to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2090083/
    I also point you to Hitchens’ book where he eviscerates Teresa in “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.”
    The test for a fireman’s altruism is to ask the fireman to relinquish all pay and benefits and other worldly chits for saving people from burning buildings. Few would do it without a paycheck — and that’s why we pay them — not because they are heroes, but because they have a job to do.
    An adrenalin rush has nothing to do with it and is another Straw Man argument that holds no real value to the discussion at hand.

  15. I know you don’t believe in evolution, A S, and that’s cool — but because I do, I ‘m just not able to entertain your Creationist arguments.
    You are welcome to share any insight and thoughts and feelings and philosophy here as you wish as often as you like — just please don’t be hurt or insulted if I am incapable of directly answering you.

  16. The test for a fireman’s altruism is to ask the fireman to relinquish all pay and benefits and other worldly chits for saving people from burning buildings. Few would do it without a paycheck — and that’s why we pay them — not because they are heroes, but because they have a job to do.

    I know some volunteer fire fighters, so I’ll jump in because I know that statement above will likely draw some attention when it gets indexed by Google.
    Most U.S. fire fighters don’t get paid to do the valuable job they do. Often, these brave men and women also serve as volunteer paramedics.
    About 73% of fire fighters in the U.S. are volunteer, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The group estimates there are 1,096,250 paid and volunteer fire fighters in the U.S. Of that total, 800,050 are volunteer fire fighters.
    Source: http://www.nvfc.org/pdf/2005-fact-sheet.pdf

  17. Chris —
    Volunteer fire departments are limited to small towns and villages that cannot afford to pay for and sustain a full time dedicated firefighting staff. Of course those volunteers have a vested financial interest in joining because if they don’t the entire town will burn down! They are not altruists.
    The true altruist firefighter would be located in a big city, refuse all pay and benefits, pay for their own training and always be the first to step into a burning building. I fear there is no such being alive today because it goes against the evolutionary track of risk and reward. There’s too much risk and too little reward for that kind of person to perpetuate and exist in the long term. There may anecdotal examples but there aren’t any sustained over a lifetime of generations.

  18. “just please don’t be hurt or insulted if I am incapable of directly answering you.” Don’t worry I am neither.
    To clarify my previous statements, I believe in micro evolution or adaptation but not macro evolution changing from one species to another which too would need to be reconciled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
    I was doing some research online because I wanted to find some sort of an answer. Theory of Evolution & The Second Law of Thermodynamics are argued in this link. I still need to do more research on this before I formulate an opinion since The Second Law of Thermodynamics was described as the sock drawer having a tendency to go towards disorder. This oversimplification was not taught to me by a creationist but it did push me towards that belief.
    Also, I am not trying to say that Evolution is false when I call it the Theory of Evolution – “A theory, in the scientific sense, is “a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena” [Random House American College Dictionary]. The term does not imply tentativeness or lack of certainty… Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness.” My previous comment mentioned the Theory of Creation is errant according to Mark Isaak as it fails meet science’s final requirement for Theories- that of usefulness.

  19. Hello, Mr. Boles. Only tonight have I come across your site and at first, admittedly sketchy, reading I am impressed and intrigued. I will come here often and am taking the liberty of adding you to my blogroll.
    My background is very conservative: I was born a Pentecostal baby to a minister, married a minister and have two sons and one grandson who are ministers.
    Not willing to accept philosophies and beliefs merely because of my childhood teachings, I daily scrutinize my life and its direction. I’m an extremely happy and fulfilled woman and have been blessed by a quality of life, that probably, I in no way deserve. In no way an intellectual, I nevertheless am drawn to those who speak to ideas and philosophies and who strive for superior standards.
    Often I have considered the miracle of my birth and have reckoned with the “ghosts” who will never have a chance to die, knowing full well that except for chance (or is it God?) I too would have slept with those ethereal billions. Had my parents had sex another night and had their parents…and theirs…
    Thank you for your excellent site.
    Blessings and joy.
    Shirley Buxton
    http://www.writenow.wordpress.com

  20. Dear David
    I have read through your postings on this topic with great happiness, as I believe in my heart that the only way any of us are going to become a better species is by conversation and understanding that differences in opinions exist and wont hurt us if we don’t let them.
    I am a born again Christian, with a major in Physical Anthropology. My main research interest is Human Evolution. I absolutely have both my God and my Science together and happily so, because as I went through my studies I was introduced to Gods evolutionary style every single day. Some of us can and do actively marry the two thoughts with no problems.
    I am glad to see how well written a blog this is, with interesting topics.