In re-reading a few books on evolution, it occurred to me that there is a common thread running through many of them, which is the reverence that the authors hold for life itself. Unfortunately, there exists an idea out there that to explain something in nature is equivalent to “explaining it away.” The fear is that this may deflate a person’s sense of wonder. But this is far from the truth. For example, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher commented that her career studying the biology of love (by definition, one of the most romanticized topics possible) has done nothing to diminish her appreciation of it. The same applies for those who study other aspects of science, including evolution.
Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many laypeople the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” However, contrast that view with how many scientists write about nature. The sense of awe and reverence that they exude is palpable.
Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan (“What is Life?” 1995: 232)
Life is too shoddy a production… to have been designed by a flawless Master. And yet life is more impressive and less predictable than any “thing” whose nature can be accounted for solely by “forces” acting deterministically. The godlike qualities of life on Earth include neither omniscience nor omnipotence, although an argument could be made for earthly omnipresence…The cosmos, more dazzling than any sect’s god, is enough. Life is existence’s celebration.”
Neil Shubin (“Your Inner Fish” 2008: 201)
What do billions of years of history mean for our lives today? Answers to fundamental questions we face – about the inner workings of our organs and our place in nature – will come from understanding how our bodies and minds have emerged from parts common to other living creatures. I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.”
Richard Dawkins (“The Ancestor’s Tale” 2004: 613)
The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple – just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not – the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing – is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even that is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.”
Richard Fortey (“Life” 1998: 322)
In your mind’s eye imagine you are an eagle easily gliding above the rain forest canopy, and as far as you can see in every direction, there are billowing canopies of trees reaching upwards into the light. Each one of these trees might represent the branching history of a species, and the forest itself might be a crude representation of the density of the historical past. We shall never know every detail of every tree, but we can understand the vitality of the whole, and thus see the forest for the trees… A review of the history of life should provoke awe, above all else.”
In an email exchange with me a few months ago, David Jackson of the University of Georgia referred to this as “the aesthetic response” to scientific inquiry. Of course, whether a scientific fact stirs an emotional response within us is a separate issue from its veracity. It is not enough to simply be enamored with an idea; the merits of the argument are also essential.
That being said, all arrows point to living species, including humans, as being evolved creatures. For example, Caitlin Schrein has put together a wonderful compendium of resources delineating the evidence for human evolution. And while the nuts and bolts of the scientific process are often tedious, difficult, and subject to revision, together they paint a panorama for us. It just so happens that the story is an inspirational one. It is striking that for many scientists it is not enough to merely report the facts, but also the sense of reverence they feel from those facts, as seen above. Somewhere, science and poetry dovetail.
Yet even this feeling of reverence is subject to scientific inquiry. In a moving lecture reflecting on his career as an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed similar sentiments when talking about our kinship with the rest of the universe and the feeling of awe that accompanies it.
“I want somebody to put electrodes on my head, and when I reflect on our kinship with the cosmos, when I do the calculation that shows that a 15-ton meteorite that we have in the Rose Center for Earth and Space… that if you take all of the iron from the hemoglobin of the people in the tri-state area of New York City, you can recover that much iron out of their blood. And realize that the iron from that meteorite and the iron from your blood has common origin in the core of a star. Tell me what part of my brain is lighting up, because that excites me. That makes me want to grab people on the street and say ‘have you heard this?!’ “
If you’re looking for meaning in life, science is not a bad place to start. One can even look to the man himself, Charles Darwin. In an 1836 letter to his sister, Susan, he wrote: “A man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life.”
What else is more precious?
Life is Beautiful (May 15, 2010)
Teaching Human Evolution at a Public University in Boston (Jan 30, 2011)
Cosmically Connected Primates (March 8, 2012)
Dawkins, Richard. 2004. The Ancestor’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin.
Fortey, Richard. 1998. Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. Knopf.
Margulis, Lynn and Sagan, Dorian. 1995. What Is Life? University of California Press.
Shubin, Neil. 2008. Your Inner Fish. Pantheon.