February 2009

Darwinism and the Meaning of Life

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

Arthur Falk begins his article with his definition of the “meaning of life”. To quote Mr. Falk, the meaning of life is: meaningfulness expressible in the first person, one’s sense of one’s situatedness, from which one’s projects (i.e., large life-purposes) and one’s values spring. He then states that Darwinism is seriously misunderstood by the general public and is in fact noncommittal on the question of the meaning of life. The plausible reason he gives for this is that the meaning of life involves the first person point of view, and no scientific theory says anything about this orientation of life.

Falk states that Darwinism does not tell us that there is just one meaning of life, the same for all living things. There are some people who think the meaning of life is the competition that leads a few to great success, many to lesser success, and many more to utter failure. This view, he maintains, says that the meaning of life is natural selection itself. “Do unto others before they do it unto you.” This is used as an excuse for some people for oppression of others based on “social Darwinism.” This is not what Darwin perceived as natural selection. A science based Darwinism does not espouse the predatory route to fitness and reproductive success as the meaning of life, first of all because that claim ignores the various ways evolution has in fact occurred, some of which are quite pacific. Predation is only one of several mechanisms by which evolution by natural selection occurs. There are cases of evolution by mutual aid or symbiotic evolution.

Nor does biology endorse the old view that pleasure is the meaning of all sentient life. A sybaritic life of false pleasure is a meaningless life. Darwinism does not reduce all life to a single meaning, in that it is a theory of the evolution of each and every species, each one of which has its own way of living. There is a danger of reading the very un-Darwinian idea of essentialism into the question of the meaning of life, leading to the idea that one size fits all.

Mr. Falk then proceeds with positive claims about Darwinism and the meaning of human lives. He proposes that we own our humanity, and each of us own our variant form of it. There are three ubiquitous features of human life, which he calls the three C’s: Copulation, Culture, and Consciousness, particularly the consciousness of time passing.

Copulation: He states that monogamous sex or the centrality of matings within families is a strong central tendency within family groups. Family life is central for the meaningfulness of the lives lived in families and good social policy would protect and further the family, Families are self protecting and good for survival therefore natural selection should favor strong family groups.

In discussing variant sexual behavior he feels we should tolerate it, but Darwinism doesn’t provide any excuse for the way they are. In the case of gays behavior it certainly isn’t sexual selection because they won’t procreate. “Using biology to make excuses is a misuse of biology, even if genetic determinism was strictly true, and it is not.”

Culture is another biological fact about human beings. Again it is clear that one’s culture helps settle the meaning of one’s life. It does this by defining modes of excellence and providing projects. Youth are naturally idealistic and will emulate those who manifest meaningfulness and nobility of spirit in their own lives. Darwinism tells us that human beings are culture-driven animals, and so we should look to a culture for the specifics. These human values are the creations of a population that recognizes and rewards with status those who pursue their realization. Differing cultures are cornucopias of differing varieties of human excellence.

Finally there is consciousness, another result, along with culture, of the brain. Because of consciousness we reflect on the spread of our existence from the past into the future. “I want to say consciousness of time’s ephemerality enhances positively the meaningfulness of life.” Mr. Falk then scrutinizes the religious or theistic view. The religious story about life portrays our temporality as a negative thing. “Notice how it fights the temporality of existence.” The concept of immortality erases the consequences of being temporal beings and it gives us the false idea that only achievements that are eternal are lasting ones. Does it erase the value of achieving an Olympic record, just because some one will beat it next year? “How does it subtract from the value of a sublime piece of music that it has an ending?” Contrarily, Mr. Falk states, “One’s situatedness in time is exactly what makes values relevant.”

Darwinism puts a positive spin on our temporality. We human beings with our culture and consciousness recognize a condition we might call the acme of our lives and the golden age of our culture. As long as there is time, there is hope of achieving it. Even when we are past our prime, there are still ideals to strive for. “So I follow Spinoza who said that a virtuous person thinks of death least of all.” “Meaningfulness stems from one’s temporal situatedness, as noted earlier”. “So as I live my life, I should focus on the considerations that give it meaning then and there.”

Mr. Falk then speaks about the tension in the meaning-of-life-as-you-live-it. The “buzz” of life can’t go own forever. However, there is an abiding element of this type of life because, although nothing lasts, much persists. This leads to the meaning of life through commitments. People who “live for the day” can still have commitments. Commitments are the true glue of family and society, within which most people, religious or not, find meaningfulness. One does not need to be religious to have commitments.

Finally Mr. Falk concludes with comparing modest Darwinism with grandiose Darwinism. Modest Darwinism allows “God” to play a role in evolution, and is open to religion, while grandiose Darwinism is not; Theism versus atheism. Mr. Falk believes that the issue between the theist and the atheist is no longer over what it is to be rational. It is rather over what it is to be human: Does being human fit together with being god-dependent? Does the latter complete the former somehow? Mr. Falk rejects this view. In other words, one need not be religious to obtain the meaningfulness of life described in this article. Finally to quote Mr. Falk, “My sense of what it is to be human makes the existence of a god unimportant for the meaning of my life; so I no longer give a twig whether a god exists or not.”

Modern Genetic Science Confirms Darwin’s Theories

As the prelude speaker to our Darwin Day celebration in February, Dr. Wayne Davis, PhD, presented formidable and knowledgeable information about his work as a research in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.

This year is 200th birthday of Charles Darwin who, on a voyage of nearly five years on ship HMS Beagle, put together natural history collections and gathered data about previously unknown species of plants and animals. From this journey he kept careful notes of his observations and theoretical speculations.

Studying and analyzing the data from these field notes, Darwin was able to qualitatively support his theory of evolution. Ultimately his book The Origin of Species was the synthesis of this information in which he made his earth-changing arguments. Of import also is that subsequent research by generations of life scientists has quantified in striking detail the facts that Darwin qualitatively observed. Part of the later quantitative research that confirms Darwin’s qualitative observations lies in the study of the nature and history of plant and animal DNA.

DNA is unique information material, explained Davis, that is contained in every cell of every organism; DNA directs when, how much, and what proteins are produced to develop and maintain a particular life form.

As Davis articulated through colorful graphics geared for a lay audience, DNA is what is known as a “double helix” of extremely small building blocks which, if uncoiled and straightened, would be about 2 meters (about six and a half feet) in length: this double helix is contained in each and every cell!

A section of the DNA strand, which collectively produces a specific protein, is called a gene. Through more graphics, Davis showed how genes in some well-known species help to illustrate evolution at work.

Beginning with a yeast organism that has 12 million base pairs and 6,300 genes, Davis next displayed a C. elegans worm, the creature Davis observes for his research, which has 97 million base pairs (In molecular biology, a base pair is two nucleotides on opposite complementary DNA strands that are connected through hydrogen bonds. The size of an individual gene or an organism’s entire genome is often measured in base pairs because DNA is usually double-stranded. –Wikipedia) and 19,100 genes.

A fruit fly has 180 million base pairs and 13,600 genes, while a plant has 125 million base pairs and 25,500 genes. A white rat has 2,500 million base pairs and 30,000 genes, and we, Homo sapiens, have 3 billion base pairs and 30,000 genes.

Some sequences have lasted a long time, and chromosomes show a common origin. Over time, genes can be in any order on a chromosome with no functional consequences, while they also rearrange in predictable ways. Evolutionary history can be seen in the order of genes in chromosomes

Through more graphics, Davis explained how modern lab techniques have been developed in which the building blocks of genes can actually be colorized or “painted” to allow visual inspection of genes from the simplest to the most complex plants and animals. This discovery tremendously aided the progress of gene research.

For instance, made possible because of this colorization, a careful study of plant and animal genes indicates clearly that all life forms contain much of the same information.

Evolution is due to random mutations, and the distinct changes made in a species’ DNA as a result of these mutations, can be traced backwards in history. Davis illustrated this phenomenon by showing examples of changes within humans like skin pigmentation, eye color, lactose tolerance, and cholesterol levels. According to Davis, we are all mutants; each person has approximately 100 mutations.

To add a little levity to a complex and technical subject, Davis concluded with two quotes:

You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

The Thing: Didn’t they come up with a cure for your kind?
Wolverine: You got a problem with mutants?
The Thing: I meant Canadians.

–X-Men:Reloaded, Issue 7

In succinct summation, Davis ended by stating that genome technology shows us the deep similarities of life, while showing the unique nature of every being.

–Sarah Smith

President’s Message

Our chapter’s “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah” is close at hand. It will be held in the Pano East room in the Student Union building on the campus of the University of Utah, the same place as last year. Several members of your Board of Directors are busy with the last minute details. This year, the event will start at 6:00 PM. on Thursday, February 12, 2009. There will be a reception with some “finger foods” to enjoy while you check out the literature, merchandise, and display tables. At 7:30 PM. Dr. Frank Brown will speak on the subject “Time and Life on Earth.” After the presentation we will serve up pieces of birthday cake bearing Charles Darwin’s likeness. Look for our ads in the February issue of the Catalyst and the February 9 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle.

After Frank agreed to speak to us, I decided to look at the area in Africa where much of his work and the efforts of other groups and individuals have been taking place. That set me on a frenzy of web surfing that took me to sites such as “The Leakey Foundation” and the “Turkana Basin Institute,” among others. Lake Turkana and the surrounding basin are part of a rift basin in Kenya where a great deal of the study of human origins and discoveries of fossils have been made. If human origins are of interest to you, as they are for me, these are good sites to start with.

I urge you to take the time to join us for an informative night, a time to meet and socialize with other individuals with similar interests, as we honor the memory of Charles Darwin, a man who made some of the most important discoveries to date in science. I hope to see you there.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Ann Dunham

Member Recommended Websites

Ann Dunham was President Obama’s mother. This Wikipedia page details her history as a freethinking feminist who was in many respects, years ahead of her time. President Obama has acknowledged that she had great influence on his thinking. This is apparent by his recurring inclusion of “non-believers” when he talks about the people of the United States.

Thanks to Flo Wineriter for suggesting this page.

Ann Dunham Soertoro