Evolution Theology: Prelude – The Myth of Progress/The Myth of a Golden Age

January 17, 2014

This is the beginning of a series on Evolution Theology–by that I mean an (admittedly novice) attempt at sketching out a potential theology capable of incorporating progressively, cohesively, and enthusiastically the science of biological and astrophysical (cosmic) evolution, including natural selection and quantum theory and all that such fields may include. I have no pretensions of doing this definitively or expertly–this is more of a journey and fumbling attempt by a reader and a constant student, and at that one better versed in world religions and philosophy than science. As such I fully expect to miss some of the disparate opinions and nuances of much of what I introduce, so I fully welcome comments and corrections in the appropriate sections at the end of each column, by whoever wishes to dialogue with me. I welcome all resource suggestions any may provide.

I not only hope to sketch out what a hopeful attempt at  a true, science-affirming theology–not just one which concedes to science that which is of science and then ignores the field in all practical and spiritual concerns but rather incorporates and enthuses all that which is of merit–but also to tie those concerns to the idea that religion itself in its denominational and global variations also follows the path of evolution in a cultural and perhaps even transcendent sense. That all which we see in religious diversity is part of a “tree” of religion. For this thread I owe much to the excellent scholars and their proposals in “Three Testaments.”

So bear with me and I hope you enjoy.

The Myth of Progress

To begin with, I offer this prologue musing on a concept argued expertly by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his work “Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Darwin to Plato.” I acknowledge some controversy to his work—from allegations that his ideas are correct but not original,l to the arguments against some of his premises by other evolutionists. Yet the idea he proposes, whether accepted earlier or argued since, is certainly convincingly made and seemingly in line with most of current biological theory and one that, if not challenging to his fellow scientists is certainly challenging to many laypersons. Gould argued that perhaps the most common misconception regarding evolution is that it is always progressive–that natural selection as a theory works itself out in an “upward” manner. Gould argues that the traditional way of envisioning evolution is as a chart, a progressive march from apelike ancestors to the modern human being as the pinnacle of evolution. I would concur that it seems likely that this is indeed what most of those who commonly accept evolution envision–overlooking the hardline creationists and science-deniers on the one hand and the full-on scientists on the other, I wager that common laypersons typically see the progression of primordial substances to human beings as a constant chain of progression and the example par excellence of all that natural selection exhibits. Even in everyday language “evolution” is often used synonymously with “progress,” as if the “evolution” of something is always an obvious higher stage.  Gould cuts the wind from under that by laying out different case studies which force his readers to learn to look at data from different angles; but the short of it is that bacteria far outnumber human beings and each life-form we would label as bacteria today exhibits remarkable versatility, adaptation, and “perfection” in that they function as they ought to and often better. Per Gould (and most modern evolutionary biologists) human beings with their consciousness and deliberating abilities are a minority–or as Gould put it, a short tail on a large dog (and everyone knows the tail cannot wag the dog). The truth of evolution is that it is adaptation–not always up, not always better. Life that adapts to its geography and climate for survival is rarely “better” in any subjective manner–i.e., a wooly mammoth was no better than an un-hairy elephant, just better suited for the cold. Variation is the normative state of life according to this line of thought. Difference, originality, creativity. There is in fact no objective “normal.” Life varies and no upper echelon for any branch of it is guaranteed.

The myth of progress runs deep. It was embedded in rationalism and enlightenment philosophy. It took root in Western political philosophy and inspired both great and terrible things. Evolution, when absorbed under its umbrella, fit nicely when viewed as the scientific leg of a system which envisioned optimistically an ideal future in which the bulk of problems could be conquered. Some of the greatest liberal theologies and political philosophies were grounded in the myth of progress. Not all that grew out of this was (or is) bad; but today the problem likely is not that too many embrace a theory of constant, perpetual progress but rather that too many believe that all is slipping from what was once great.

The Myth of a Golden Age

I’ve written before of the problem with nosalgia. The problem often today is that far too many assume there was a better, often going just shy of claiming a perfect, time. Politically, nationally, religiously, once was better and we are falling away from that time. Gould used the example of baseball in his “Full House” book; the disappearance of .400 hitting, according to Gould, is evidence of an overall improvement in baseball skills not a sign of decreasingly skilled hitters as “golden age of baseball” cynics (and retirees) opine. In proving this argument he managed to prompt readers to learn to evaluate data differently, more broadly, more accurately. I am tempted to digress into a similar bit of argument here on a cultural issue–the often exclaimed “they just don’t write ’em like that any more, play ’em like that anymore” argument by those who argue that music has slowly slid downhill decade by decade. I love the Beatles and Miles as much as any serious music fan but I also recognize amazing current artists. The fact that once such artists garnered more popular airplay than they do now, the issue of media consolidation and the uptick of “artistic” capitalism, and the bias of those with nostalgic ears are all issues that have nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. I may come back to this later more depth, but for now I assume you get the idea.

No, for our issue at hand, I can simply say that the idea of a once pure religiosity, religious body, or religion itself is fallacious. We very likely will traverse the dispersion and inter-connectedness of religious bodies, tenets, and thought throughout this series of explorations but that core of originality was not more perfect than what might be found today; religions are connected, springing from common ancestry, but they have neither fully progressed to more perfect forms today nor were they once golden and now forever tarnished. Diversity and adaption are the norm in religion as well as biology and we will explore how this understanding might affect a newer religious sensibility as well.

I hope you will follow with me and converse, argue, and correct me along the way as I dip my toes in these various subjects throughout the upcoming year.


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