(What's this all about?)
Among the two million living species on earth, Homo sapiens alone has this big problem: we understand the finality of death, but we can't accept it.
Our desperation to escape death makes us easy marks for impossible promises. Don't want to die? Hey, our god offers eternal life in heaven. Worried that you've done bad things? Wait, our god will forgive all your sins -- and you get your own personal saviour! You want specific prizes in heaven? Over here, over here -- we have this 72-virgin special!
The Young Atheist
To me as a young teenager at a Presbyterian church on Long Island, NY, religion sounded like a scam -- we promise you whatever you want to hear, and you drop your money in the collection plate (or pay your Zakat as a Muslim).
As you know, I'm a skeptic. But I'm not selling skepticism. In fact, I half-envy the multitudes who seem content with their religious beliefs. They don't have to work out their own positions on the morality of issues. Instead of facing death, they look forward to eternal life, where they can be together again with their loved ones in heaven.
But I started asking unwelcome questions as a little kid -- "How does Santa Claus get in a house if they don't have a chimney?" -- and I can't stop. Like "Why does the bible (Numbers 15:32-36) say you should be stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath?" Or "Where are all the people in heaven? If there are just souls, how do they recognize one another? And what if your mom's soul wants to be her 22-year-old self, before you were born?"
The answer, if I get any response beyond a stink-eye look, is always the same: religion isn't about logic; it's about faith. But I'm simple-minded enough to agree with former preacher Dan Barker: "Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits."
In hindsight, it's clear that I was groping for nothing less than a convincing explanation of mankind's ancient "Big Questions": our destiny, the existence of a god, life after death. Why am I not surprised that I failed to find that in a Christian bible study class?
Later, in college, I dabbled in Eastern religions, inspired by an Alan Watts lecture. Oy, such meanderings! Finally, I decided that Hinduism and the rest were -- how to say it -- too Eastern for me.
I found it interesting, though, that Jainism and Buddhism and others had no god -- at least nothing like the Abrahamic god of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That opened new possibilities. Something other than a god as the basis for a theology? Like some previously undiscovered primal force? Perhaps even something which would incorporate the 1400 years of new scientific knowledge we have gained since the last major religion was founded?
Or something that looks far ahead, like the vision of writer Arthur C. Clarke: that an intelligent species could eventually evolve to the status of gods?
So, for about 50 years, I've looked for something -- preferably based on science -- which helps explain the "Big Questions." And I kept an eye on the field of evolution.
The Answers Slowly Appear
During that 50 years, a huge development was taking place in science. Roughly 150 years ago, the theory of evolution was described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. It was quickly accepted as valid by the scientific community. Unfortunately, it was also immediately and relentlessly attacked by religious fundamentalists. This controversy has left the public uncertain about evolution ever since.
Then, starting in the mid-twentieth century, fossils began to be discovered -- skeletal remains of living creatures which were clearly neither Chimpanzees nor modern humans. As these fossils started to accumulate over the last fifty years, they created a vivid picture of how humans evolved.
Not only did the fossils provide irrefutable evidence of evolution, they gave us a fully detailed DNA trace of our ancestors -- proof that's good enough for any court in the world. Evolution is no longer just a theory from the Nineteenth century.*
Having only recently emerged as settled science, evolution has not yet drawn much attention outside the scientific community. But evolution goes far beyond bones and DNA. The history of the universe shows the hand of evolution in action: the primal matter of the Big Bang evolving into the first stars and galaxies, and then into succeeding generations of more-complex stars. Could it be that evolution is the life force of the cosmos?
That explanation makes more sense to me than imagining some God, supposedly omnipotent over the entire universe but portrayed aptly as an old human with a beard, impotent to end genocide on one small planet.
An Evolution-driven Universe?
It was the "Big Questions" themselves that kept pointing me back to evolution. If you're looking for a guiding hand for the entire universe, what has shaped it but evolution? If you're looking for a life force in the universe, what but evolution keeps transcending death with new and higher life? If you're looking for something that we are part of which appears to be as eternal as the universe itself, what is that but evolution?
If I'm right, evolution is in charge. We're just along for the ride. And it's about to become a very wild ride in the next 100 years. (We'll come back to that below.)
Most people want the old guy with the beard; they insist on a human-centric explanation for everything. For me, though, the idea of an evolution-driven universe is very exciting and far more believable. And it serves me better than any religion. I feel connected with past generations, grounded in this Earth, and part of the future of the cosmos.
If any of this tickles your curiosity, I offer two ways to proceed: For the fifteen-minute summary, jump ahead to "Evolution's Implications." Or, for a full grasp of evolution's role in the universe, read the following sections in order.
These include an update on evolution, a little mini-course which will take a couple of hours of your time. It is based on the latest science and is probably the most current short version of evolution available in English at the moment, incorporating the latest DNA findings.
But it's a special, non-technical version of evolution, emphasizing the emergence of humanity rather than the names of fossils. Its intent is to tell the story of evolution, to reveal its drama and power.
My hope is that you will accept the science of evolution, absorb its story and make it part of yourself. If you do, you will be one of the relatively few people who understands how we came to be, who we are and why we act the way we do. That knowledge will benefit you for the rest of your life, regardless of your religion or philosophy.
Having read the story, you will smile with me at evolution's most intriguing circularity: We have evolved to search for meanings, so now we ask, "What is the meaning of evolution?" Evolution will not answer, but it points. We have only to look in that direction.
In the distance are answers to mankind's "Big Questions": our destiny, the existence of a god, life after death.
Read the Story of Evolution
Jump to "Evolution's Implications" (Summary)
* As reported in a 2006 National Geographic study, America lags far behind all Western countries except Turkey in understanding and accepting the facts of evolution -- a sad commentary on the state of scientific literacy in our country.