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18.10.05

Evolution is Disquieting

PZ Myers points out a quote from Barbara Forrest about how evolution upsets religious notions of human specialness:

We have established scientifically some disquieting facts: (1) human beings have evolved from nonhuman life forms, meaning that (2) at one time we did not exist, and that (3) according to paleontological and astronomical evidence, at some time in the future we shall cease to exist.


I don't completely agree with points 2 and 3. It's not too disquieting that there was a time without humans -- most religions postulate such a time. The really disquieting finding about human origins from evolutionary biology is that the emergence of humans (or of any sentient life form) was not inevitable. The book of Genesis records five days (believed by some to last the equivalent of thousands, if not millions, of years) during which humans had not yet appeared. But you can trust that they were in God's plan all along, and that no matter what, on the sixth day Adam would show up. On the other hand, evolutionary biology* tells us that if the environment had not been such as to select for intelligence, and had the right raw materials not been present in pre-human species, Homo sapiens -- or any other sentient creature -- may never have come about. Personally, I find that fascinating, but I see how others, particularly those committed to a strong version of externally-imposed teleological meaning, might find it disquieting.

I would rephrase point 3 in a softer tone -- there are many species that have survived for millions upon millions of years, and it's possible to be optimistic about our chances. But even as it stands, it's only disquieting if you take a certain interpretation of it**. Contemplating the end of Homo sapiens is disquieting if you think of our extinction as an evolutionary dead-end. But what if Homo sapiens disappears because we evolve into something else? Only a very crude and literal species-centrism would declare a priori that our descendants were not "us." If Homo habilis were still around, a good case could be made by either species for including the other as part of its human community. The same may very well be said of Homo futuris.

*Real evolutionary biology, not the mystical-teleological variant that one presenter at the Open Meeting used as his theoretical approach.

**Not all religions believe in eternal life -- the Norse thought that everyone, both the might warriors in Valhalla and the sickly sols in Hel, would be destroyed for good during Ragnarok.

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