Well, it is the evolutionary story, of course. The story of simple beginnings, and gradual development; the story of characteristics inherited through genes, with slight adjustments that accumulate over the generations. The story of finite lifespan in an environment offering limited resources, with the consequent filtering process known as natural selection. All this can be discovered by scientific research, and it has been so discovered by all the people who joined in with the mainstream scientific community.
But what is the story of this story? What kind of a narrative do we have here? Is it tragedy? Or a comedy of errors? Or a heroic epic? Or farce? Or is it a tale of boundless exploration? Or a triumph of the aggressive? Or a triumph of the adaptable? Is it the story of brute force? Or is it the story of courage in spite of brute force? A story of increasing depth of experience? Is it a good story? Is it a story of good? Is it good?
Modern-day advocates for atheism tend to assume, and imply, or even dogmatically assert, that biological evolution is “on their side”. They don’t detect any miracles in it, so they infer (illogically and incorrectly) that it has nothing to do with G-d. That is not true, but, let me immediately admit, to say what G-d has got to do with it is not easy. I will attempt to say something about that in this post. Before I do, let’s at least drop the false idea that biological science is all done by confident atheists while some confused theists try to refute it, and other timid theists go along with it. There are, sadly, some confused theists who try to refute good evidence using poor arguments, but this is not the main picture. The mainstream scientific community, as a matter of fact, is made up of a mix of people. In the biology and zoology labs in most major universities you will find some thoughtful Christians doing high-calibre biological research, alongside their colleagues. They are a minority, but the truthfulness of their or anyone else’s ideas is not measured by counting heads.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there were no miracles on planet Earth before the Neolithic period (9000 BP). Here, by a “miracle” I mean a process falling sufficiently outside the ordinary patterns of nature that it could not be attributed to those patterns, nor to inspiration nor providence, nor to chance. If this is the case then of course when looking at the fossil record, and the genetic record, and the chemistry and the geology, and so on, you will not ever discover, in any specific process, the finger-print of some influence outside what could happen within the parameters allowed by the ordinary patterns of the natural world. That doesn’t mean there is no meaningful sign or “finger-print” to discover; it means that the meaningful sign, if it is there, is expressed in step with or in tune with those patterns, and it is also expressed by the process as a whole. It is not a finger-print but a hand-print.
My allusion to fingers and hands conjures up some rather unhelpful anthropomorphic images. Let’s throw out those images, then, and simply ask: does this whole process of biological history signal anything? Does it have any significance?
Various writers have attempted to express something of what they see as the possible significance here. Bertrand Russell, for example, concluded that the lesson was that impersonal, thoughtless force and chance is all you can find outside the human race, but humans somehow have more to offer. Some writers express their dismay at the unrelenting suffering they see. But those same writers also often say the whole process impresses them in a rather more positive and fulfilling way, and they devote much time and energy to exploring it in detail. The suffering is there, but so is the life. The death rate is precisely one hundred percent for all organisms that ever experienced life. And yet death is not the overall winner. Life is still ongoing, after all: death has not won yet. The big picture, so far, is neither stasis nor decay but the realization of ever-changing varieties of wonderful life.
Some writers say this ever-changing variety is simply that: change, but without any sense of direction. I think this is a half-truth. The true part of this half-truth is that we don’t find the idea of some sort of over-arching directive force (directing towards increased complexity, for example) either necessary or useful in making sense of biological history. Nevertheless the fossil record and the genetic record is not one of mere change. There is clear and abundant evidence of not just change but also development. Simple life-forms come first; complex ones later (alongside further simple ones). You won’t find any rabbits, nor any creatures with a skeleton, nervous system and regulated body temperature in the pre-Cambrian period. This is too obvious. But a rabbit is not just different from a bacterium; a rabbit is a richer realization of the verb to be. That is what I mean by development as opposed to mere change. The whole story is somewhat like an example of percolation: at every stage, life on Earth percolates into the available adjacent space of ecological niches, and what is available is significantly influenced by what has gone before. “Tools” such as nuclei, cell-walls, sexual reproduction, eyes and livers are handed on and built upon or reconfigured.
At the molecular scale there is the driving force provided by the solar-powered heat-engine which provides low-entropy light and drives chemical reactions. At the large scale there is, instead of a driving force, simply the meaning of the verb to be. This large-scale aspect is not a force but a space of possibility, waiting to be populated. It is the truth about the ways in which things can be, especially things that have to live alongside one another. Evolution on Earth cannot go absolutely anywhere. It cannot go in all directions, completely randomly. It can only go into the space of possibility, not impossibility. It can only explore the class of all ways of living alongside one another that can persist on Earth.
Conditions are sometimes harsh. In periods of climate change, large numbers of species have died out altogether, and this has happened several times. This is why people are sometimes drawn to talk of farce. Or, to take another tack, if you weigh up the biomass, you find it is mostly bacteria, then insects, with mammals and humans coming down the list a bit. So if you think mass is the main indicator of significance, then you would say life on Earth is mostly about bacteria, with some incidental complex creatures providing some of the habitat. However, I don’t think any sane human being can seriously assess the overall significance or meaning of living things by counting how many kilograms they weigh. In any case, this essay is not addressed to anyone who thinks that (with such a person, I would have to start a long way further back).
If anyone thinks that a rabbit is no more worthy of attention than a dead piece of fur flapping in the breeze, then this essay is not addressed to such a person.
Sometimes people feel that questions about meaning are not well-posed questions. Perhaps they are non-questions. If you found some random scratches on a stone, it would be simply a waste of time to ask “what do they mean?” in the sense of some sort of written message. That would be an example of a category error, or a failure to understand what sort of thing you are dealing with. The only “meaning” such scratches have is that something randomly scratched the stone. But if you found the Rosetta stone, then you would be right to ask what the scratches on it mean.
Asking about the meaning, if there is one, of life on Earth is very close to asking about the meaning, if there is one, of the whole Universe. I think it is right to be hesitant about volunteering answers to questions as big as that. But we can’t help but answer, up to a point, because we have to live. What I do today is my answer, whether I like it or not. I detect what I think matters in the world around me, and I contribute to that. This is what we all do.
This is no small issue, either. We talk of things going wrong when someone suffers some affliction, a cancer or a famine or an enslavement. We say we are trying to make things right or better when we study medicine or develop agriculture or liberate slaves. These are all judgements about value and significance. They are saying that life on Earth is not a farce. They amount to saying that we see ourselves as some sort of trustees, who think there is something worth preserving and improving, and we have volunteered for the job of preservation and improvement. Starvation and shared food are not just different ways that things happen to fall out. One is objectionable, one is not.
I think the only appropriate answer that a human being can give to the question “is the story of life on Earth a good thing?” is to say, “how can I possibly pass judgement on such a question? My resources of knowledge and wisdom are utterly inadequate to take everything into account or even to know what should be taken into account. I can only acknowledge that I am part of this process; that, for good or ill, it gave birth to me, and my role is to play my part, and make it a part for good: for making the process better.” Gerard Manley Hopkins put it this way in his poem As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
. . .
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces
Instead of passively voicing abstract answers to abstract questions that are too large for us, we have to be. But there are many things a human can be. Most of us feel that, even after looking squarely at all the parasitism and pain, the mass extinctions and the locust swarms and the predation, nevertheless this story of life on Earth is tremendously valuable, and even, yes, good. Every parent has voted that it should continue.
So what has G-d got to do with it? By “G-d” we mean the reality that both sources the universe as a world with its own integrity as a world, and that also continuously relates to that world, on every level. Not by overturning it, but by working with it. An atheist will want to say that that reality is something strictly abstract and impersonal, such as “mathematics” or “the laws of nature”. The theist asserts that there is more to G-d than that. We are not talking about anthropomorphic super-beings. But we are talking about the human experience of being known, and the experience of sharing the world. We show the world to G-d, and G-d shows the world to us. Also, certain people have told us that our truest parent is one that understands the nature of poverty and suffering, as well as the nature of joy, and these people seem to be among the wisest and best among us.
We are also talking about the fact that our genetic inheritance is not enough for us. One of the important lessons of evolutionary biology is that genes do not make us good. At the level of inherited nature, you and I are not, deep down, innately committed to good. Deep down we are thoroughly compromised, and have to make an effort at good, finding the strength to do this, if we ever do find it, somewhere other than in our genes. (This truth about human nature is plain enough from observing what humans do, and it was asserted by Christian thinkers well before the modern era; evolutionary biology has added some confirming detail.) But that other component—the one that does not come from our genes—is also at work in human history, and something like it has been at work in biological history. In unconscious living things it is an astonishing, continually reasserted, deep resource of beauty somehow woven in to the very fabric of the world—the deep beauty that Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein, among many others, talked about. In conscious living things it is a hunger for truth and goodness, a hunger that is met, deep in who we are, through a process we do not comprehend, but whatever is the reality at the source of it, that is our truest parent.