Should Darwin Win?
by Jason Stoneking
I've always enjoyed thinking of Charles Darwin as some kind of sinister spectre, prowling the nightscape, stalking creatures of inferior genetic adaptability and dragging them off to their gruesome, howling deaths. An anti-god incarnate, mercilessly enforcing the laws of evolution on anyone or anything who tries to escape them. This, of course, is horrendously contrary to what most Darwinists actually propose: that the logical stepladder of evolutionary biology is in fact what exists rather than a supernatural battledome full of spectral enforcers with opinions about our behavior. But the way I compose narratives in my head has been so thoroughly inseminated with mythology that I still often choose to imagine him that way. Perhaps I think it unfair that other people should have superheroes patrolling a dreamy night sky where I go unrepresented.
In any case, however I do or don't dream it, I believe that most of what Darwin described is simply happening anyway. I don't think that he invented or theorized anything so much as he just observed the natural pattern of events. There is a direction in which our reality moves. Genetic mutations are either snuffed out or given rise by their ability to interact effectively with the immutable laws of physics. Sadly for all of us would-be mythological narrators out here, it is not actually required that Mr. Darwin suit up in his lime green spandex trunks and dive from the top rope to defend his findings against gods, devils and other predatory monitors of morality. If Darwin's observations are accurate, as the overwhelming majority of scientists believe them to be, then the natural laws on which he reported are doing a fine job of enforcing themselves without his assistance.
Those laws will forever continue to "win" over their mythological counterparts, taking no notice of whether or not they "should." The title question demands a moral assessment that bears no relevance in matters that lie completely outside the scope of human control. But that doesn't mean that we can't still try to answer it anyway. It's kind of a sexy challenge. Like asking ourselves whether or not penguins "should" be able to fly. Of course, whatever conclusion we come to won't have any effect on the slippery, waddling residents of Antarctica, but we will still have the self-aggrandizing, egomaniacal pleasure of casting the net of our own judgment in the direction of something far too grand to ever be caught in it. Like Xerxes, binding and whipping the sea for its insubordination. So, purely for the sake of intellectually irresponsible fun, let's cast Darwin as the protagonist in a hypothetical myth. Let's say that he is actually out there, consciously endeavoring to apply his "laws" to the citizens of Earth. Let's also say, to give a moral tension to our story, that he is rivaled by other supernatural lawgivers who each have their own differing narratives about the nature of existence and are all busy trying to influence the events down here on our little planet so that those events will appear to be governed by their specific sets of truths. It doesn't even matter who they all are. We can feel free to insert any gods, ghosts, demons, spirits or superheroes that we wish. We can even have our pick of former philosophers, clergymen, and scientists, all looking as they did at their best. This must be kinda like the fun, theological free-for-all that was had by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Pagans, and other polytheistic/pantheistic pre-Judeo-Christian peoples of the world. Ah...memory lane.
Ok, now that we've created our spectral Darwin avatar, and situated him in a celestial battlefield where the potential righteousness of earthlings hangs in the balance, we can finally get down to the business of asking ourselves whether or not we're actually rooting for the guy. Remember, we said protagonist, not hero. To decide if he should win, or if we should want him to win, we must first decide whether we think what he stands for is right. One thing that's attractive about his story is its inherently meritocratic streak. The fittest survive and keep thriving and adapting, heading onward to participate in the future. So if you're fortunate enough to be one of the fittest, then your genes will be selected to stick around. Whereas, if you're mutating in a way that is somehow detrimental to the survival of those genes, then you will be gradually weeded out. A species whose members adapt successfully will have a longer run of existence. Simply put, those who do the best job of interacting with their environment will get to continue doing so. Now you can't say that's not fair or just.
In many religious narratives however, the good people of the other faiths are left out of the equation altogether. If you're not worshipping the right superhero when your number gets called, then it doesn't matter how good a person you are or how conducive your behavior has been to the advancement of your species. Doing everything you're supposed to do isn't good enough on its own. You have to put the right label on it during your lifetime or, when judgment day comes, it's up yours. I can't say that I find that particularly evenhanded. Especially considering that most religions hold up the threat of some kind of punishment for those who land (even inadvertently) on the wrong side of the belief system at the end of their lives. If you get on the bad side of a deity or a church organization, you could be lined up for hell, or purgatory, or endless returns to your mortal suffering in a parade of different bodies but if you run afoul of Darwin, the worst thing that can really happen to you is that you cease to exist (which was going to happen anyway) and that there won't be more people made out of your ingredients in the future (but you're not going to be around to see that so it doesn't even have to concern you).
Another enticing element of the Darwinian worldview is that its future is here on Earth. The genes of the animals who succeed will stay here and continue to thrive, and their process of interaction with nature and the laws of physics will continue to improve, which means that this world will continually have positive developments to look forward to. Contrarily, in most religious accounts, there is no future for the species on this planet. We are all leaving soon and many of us won't like where we're headed. The best we can hope for is to move on to somewhere better than here. Even the reincarnation people, who plan to be here more than anyone else, are aiming to eventually earn the right to stop reincarnating. I suppose Satan does make a case for earthly pleasures, but he does so cynically, at the expense of any hope for anything so sappy as goodness or redemption. So Darwin is one of the few superheroes out there (if not the only one) advertising that we can actually make progress by staying here on Earth. It appeals to me to think that bodies and minds, and even sentience itself, are evolving to interact with reality in new and better ways. It gives me a genuine hope that someday it will all get better on some level, even if the path is sometimes counterintuitive. Neverthelsess, I can also see how that outlook wouldn't necessarily appeal to everyone.
Maybe some of us are more afraid than others to be judged by the gods, but we're probably all afraid of being judged by Darwin. We don't even really know which of our traits we should be playing up to win his approval. At least gods tend to come with a convenient handbook, outlining how they prefer to be appeased. But any handbook on the worship of Darwin is bound to leave a few questions gapingly unanswered. Is it all just about sex? And is sex always just about procreation? Is there nothing more noble (or more interesting) for us to do than acquire stockpiles of food and defend them against other animals? Damn it, Charles! We want meaning! More often we see unsettling evidence that Charles might not agree with us about what is meaningful. We have to wonder how he could favor the cockroaches while coldly disregarding the adorable giant panda. At least, with gods and spirits, we are free to imagine that they agree with our sentimental aesthetic preferences. When the cute furry things start dying off around us, we can assume that it's our own fault for interfering ineptly with the grand immaculate plan. The people in Darwin's corner, however, are stuck bemoaning the unsettling awareness that anything they find beautiful might be exterminated at any moment for its inability to adapt.
I'd like to think that human perception, our beliefs and morals, are also adapting to their environment, streamlining, becoming more conducive to their own advancement over time. I imagine that some of our ideas and perspectives are better suited for future spreading than others. I hold out hope that we can gradually become less attached to some of our dogma, and that the human mind will eventually be capable of something much more profound than what it's presently up to. Maybe we shouldn't be rooting for any of our current gods, devils or biologists to win. Maybe none of them has set their sights far enough ahead yet. We might be moving toward some deeper understanding of our circumstance than either religion or contemporary science can provide. Perhaps someday, through teamwork and charity, we can even improve on Darwin's sometimes brutal take on the nature of survival. For now, though, I guess I'll still take his version of events over most of the others I've heard. I like the fact that his system favors those who behave in a way that's good for us all in the long run. Even if it's not good for us all right now. And even if most of us don't know what's in our own best interests.