Chapter 1: Evolution

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What If We Didn’t Have To Die?

 

Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are still being evolved.

 

With the above words, Charles Darwin closed his great work, The Origin of Species, which hit the world like a bombshell in 1859. In fact, however, Darwin had already reached his conclusion nearly two decades before, but as he explained in his subsequent autobiography, which was not published until after his death, he had held off the publication of his masterwork, fearing the upset that his views would cause to society and especially to religion.  And in this he was prescient, for nothing has been exactly the same since, especially when it comes to our own understanding of human nature.

Yet, at the same time, this great discovery re-emphasized the central paradox involved in the whole phenomenon of life. It is that life, as we experience it, at least as intelligent beings, would not be possible unless it had evolved, not just through the struggle against death in all it forms, but even through the victory of death over those forms of life less capable of advancement into a higher form of living or level of being.

       Accordingly, when not too long ago a friend asked me the question, “If people never had to die, would they think at all about God or the existence of an immortal soul?”, my first reaction to this question was to admit that no, and that probably the vast majority of people would be content to eat, drink, and even be merrier than usual, confident that they would never have to die. 

       However, when my friend rephrased his question shortly after, suggesting that we “Imagine a planet on which no one would ever die—in such a place would anyone spend time thinking about questions such as whether there might be a god and whether life has any purpose, or would anyone have created elaborate religious systems or would anyone even seek anything at all beyond what we already have?”, I asked myself, on such a planet, would there be people at all? After all, if anything that lived never died, how could there have been an evolution of any life to begin with? Would we not just all be like singled-celled amoebas, content—assuming that  amoebas could think at all—to multiply ourselves by just growing and breaking into half, each one of which would be just one more copy of ones self? 

So back to the drawing board, and let’s just imagine a planet just the same as ours, except for one thing, and that is that we had finally discovered a cure for death. In a world where everything living normally has to die, humans now no longer would have to worry about that ever happening to them.  What then?

For one, I suspect that much of the motivation that has advanced civilization, or even increased the human population up to now, would gradually disappear. In this I’m inclined to agree with the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker who won a Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling book The Denial of Death back in 1974, the same year that he himself died. 

In his book Becker claimed that nearly every human activity, ranging from artistic creation through the begetting of children, the search for fame or fortune, or even the launching of wars, has its origin in the attempt, even if mostly unconscious, to escape death. And although I remember one reviewer in Psychology Today magazine declaring the book as being “wrongheaded”, I think Becker was largely correct.

However, aside from Becker’s thesis with its hidden psychological motivations, even if death were eliminated, still, given our biological drives, it stands to reason that without death we would soon have a major overpopulation problem. In fact, due to great advances in medicine and the like, the world, with seven billion now and a predicted ten or more billion by mid-century, is close to the breaking point already. So, if no one, once born, could die, even if conditions became so bad that they wanted to die, would we not end up in a situation where life had become worse than death? This is the situation envisioned by Britain’s official “Astronomer Royal”, Sir Martin Rees, prompting him to write his short book with the immense title,  A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century—on Earth and Beyond.

Yet, even if we didn’t end up in such a situation—indeed, Rees thinks we are being very foolish if we don’t colonize Mars by 2050—there is a lot more to it than that. Despite what most biologists say, it really does seem to me there is some kind of élan vital or “vital force” or “outburst” of life, as Henri Bergson, who became one of France’s most celebrated philosophers, termed it, driving evolution from beginning to end.  Although Bergson’s concept has often been attacked by biologists who generally label it as some kind of mystical “vitalism” and as being superfluous and suggestive of a teleology or goal-seeking mechanism that the evolutionary process itself can easily explain away, still, I’m inclined to see the biologists as missing the point. Or as the Jesuit priest and evolutionary paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—who greatly admired Bergson and whom I will cite more than once in this book—once noted, how can one hold for “the survival of the fittest” unless one presumes that survival  in itself is a goal?  If philosophers have long speculated about there being a God at the beginning, as a kind of “ground of being” to try to explain why anything exists in the first place, then it is just as logical, at least if it can be assumed that there is reason or purpose at work in the universe, to ask if there must not be a goal of some sort toward which we all tend, whether or not we are fully conscious of it. 

      This goal-seeking or drive is most clearly expressed in evolutionary terms focused on the competition between individuals or even between species in the struggle for life. Nevertheless, once we reach the fullest conscious level of human existence, we still tend, whether wisely or not, to want even more, be it more wealth, more beauty, more of everything. Thus, as Immanuel Kant, certainly one of the least passionate philosophers who ever lived, wrote, in the preface to the 1787 edition of his Critique of Pure Reason:  “It is plain that the hope of a future life arises in the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.”

Nevertheless, we first have to face the fact that belief that this desire could be fulfilled might be, as Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, claimed, in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, a tale told by nursemaids or else just the product of “wishful thinking”. After all, as Einstein pointed out, if we have evolved from creatures that instinctively avoid life-threatening situations, then should we be surprised if humans, with the ability to think reflectively—or as Teilhard often put it, “to know that we know”—look for some way to avoid death and prolong our lives forever?     

I still don’t know what my friend, who asked me that question regarding how humans might be affected if death didn’t exist, made out of my line of reasoning on this subject.  I found out later that he, at least as a physicist, has developed a keen interest in cryonics, which is the idea that persons who are dying from some ailment could be frozen in such a way that they could be carefully thawed out later on after a remedy had been developed to cure whatever they had been dying from. So I suppose that if this included curing people who had been dying simply from old age, cryonics could theoretically keep us alive (or at least in an “undead” state of suspended animation) until medical science reaches the level of maturity where a person could be kept alive once he or she is carefully thawed out. 

Would we really want such a life? Might we not sooner or later become bored with life as we now experience it? Might we not have evolved with the possibility of evolving even higher? In fact, the psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that it has not taken modern evolutionary thought to inspire such thoughts. For example, we have Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch or “superman”. Yet Maslow found this same theme in the very first pages of the Bible, in the ambition of the first man and woman to become, as it were, “as gods”, knowing both good and evil and possessing the gift of immortality.

However, I do not think it has been only modern evolutionary thought or psychoanalytical interpretations of the Bible that have reinforced this fact about ourselves. Some sixteen centuries ago Saint Augustine—certainly one of the most passionate of theologians—appears to have held something of a kind of dynamic view of nature when, drawing on the thought of some of the earliest Greek philosophers, he explained how each species was created in more or less of a potential state (endowed with what he termed rationes seminales) which would only slowly develop their full characteristics over the course of time.

Thus it may have been that Augustine saw even human nature as still in the process of development, or that it is even in some sense still incomplete. This would seem to be implied in one of his most often quoted sayings (Confessions, Bk. 1, Chap. 1): “Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in you.”

This is not to suggest that Augustine, or even Immanuel Kant, centuries later, were covert evolutionists, even though many centuries before them, a few philosophers, like Democrates (d. 370 BCE), had suggested that life had its origins in moist earth or slime. But what both Augustine and Kant were suggesting is that human beings are capable of, or even drawn toward, a higher or more perfect state of existence than we experience in this life.  For Augustine the theologian, this potential was the God-given capacity for humans to be united with God. For Kant the philosopher, the emphasis, as it was for many philosophers before him, was on the survival of that component—the “soul”—that makes us human in the first place.

In contrast to the above, for the convinced evolutionist, the hope that we might possibly live forever can only be founded on the basis of the evolutionary process itself. This becomes clear in description of evolution that was drawn up by the scientists meeting for the Darwin Centennial at the University of Chicago in 1959.  On that august occasion, the assembled scientists under the persuasive influence of the biologist Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Huxley, who was Darwin’s most vocal advocate and his staunchest defender, proclaimed that:

 

Evolution is definable in general terms as a one-way irreversible process in time, which during its course generates novelty, diversity, and higher levels of organization. It operates in all sectors of the phenomenal universe but has been most fully described and analyzed in the biological sector.

 

 However, such a definition was bound to, and in fact did, generate quite an argument (Goudge, 1961). After all, not all forms of life have developed “novelty, diversity, and higher levels of organization”, as Huxley and his colleagues put it. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to expect that evolution, having given birth to life, something lasting must result from all of this. Otherwise, given all the advances in cosmology and even in biology that have taken place since then—despite recent evidence in the field of microbiology that genetic patterns, once established, cannot be reversed or undone—the belief that evolution is “irreversible” could appear to be a bit naïve. Of course, at this point in our argument, we are clearly passing beyond pure science to philosophy or even something resembling theology, a kind of scientific faith built on the belief that evolution itself will never come completely to an end.

This same sort of optimism can be detected in Bergson’s writing. In the closing lines of his third chapter of his celebrated book, Bergson wrote:

 

All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.

 

Yet, even this stirring scenario has its limits. As Bergson reminded us in a footnote (#90) to this same chapter,

 

As has been more than once remarked, life has never made an effort to prolong indefinitely the existence of the individual, although on so many other points it has made so many successful efforts.  Everything is as if this death had been willed, or at least accepted, for the greater progress of life in general.

 

Thus, if we take evolution seriously on its own terms, we have to face the fact that not only individual organisms within any given species must die in order for the evolutionary process to work to begin with, but that even whole species, in fact most of the species that have ever existed, have had also to become extinct over time. In other words, the evolutionary slogan “survival of the fittest”, be it applied to individuals or to whole species, perhaps needs to be rephrased as a maxim, that is, as a law that dictates that, in the end, only the fittest will survive. However, at the same time, as we shall see next, it is precisely this scientific belief that life, in one form or another, will survive, that is being challenged, especially today. This challenge comes, not from the laws of biological evolution, but from cosmology, that is to say, what we now know about the shape and destiny of the whole universe. 

 

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