If I had been alive in 1859 I think I would have been convinced (maybe against my social intuitive sense) that Darwin’s theory explained everything, and I might have seen this as the ultimate “death of God”. I would have been deeply saddened, as were all those well-meaning Victorians who attended the disastrous debate between the Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Huxley in 1860. Darwin was to describe the effect of this “loss of faith” as similar to becoming colour blind – great sights no longer awakened his sense of wonder; life became “bland”.
Very many people took this stance, and many were terrified that by destroying religion as currently understood and practised, morality would fall apart. The defences went up. They were still there in my father’s mind in the 1950s. They are still there in Gateshead this very month; and they are undoubtedly there in London. To me it is strange that it is often scientists who are more vocal in their acknowledgment of the need to talk about spirituality, than are the religiously inclined to consider scientific imperatives.
One implication of “The Origin of the Species” was on the newly emerging discipline of Psychology – the study of behaviour. Psychology arose from a fusion of philosophy and the medical science of physiology – the former with a long, classical tradition of rationality, and the latter as a scientific empirical discipline. It was not an easy synthesis to make, and one of its core methodological assumptions was that the human mind was, and always had been, just as it is now. The brain, and the mind, according to psychology, never changed. They just “happened to be”. With such an assumption, psychology decided to distance itself from evolutionary theory as being both too disturbing to its methodology (how could you allow for the brain as an evolved structure?) and socially unacceptable to that section of the public wishing for a study of behaviour that would allow them to influence other behaviours into the future. The scientific study of human behaviour was therefore to be “moth-balled” for a hundred years.
While medical science embraced evolutionary theory, and has subsequently used this to incorporate genetics, inheritance, DNA and a multitude of other discoveries, psychology – as the study of behaviour – effectively excluded any thoughts that the brain was an evolved structure until way into the 1960s and effectively into the 1980s. In the past one hundred and more years medicine has been transformed, but not so learning theory. Because of that, daily, we experience the creaky joints of a rheumatic octogenarian education system untreated, as it were, by the insights.
Just over a year ago I got a most interesting email from a school psychologist at the Jakarta International School in Indonesia. It went as follows; “The biggest crisis we are facing is a crisis of meaning. The tremendous social changes of the last hundred years have stripped modern society of that which gives us meaning, be it in our roots to our ancestors, religions, spirituality, our relationship to nature… within this crisis of meaning our young people are facing a moral crisis – a crisis of values. Without these anchors young people no longer understand the value of perseverance, learning for learning’s sake, etc. Instead our daily lives are filled with the pursuit of money and temporary ecstasy. Both of these goals are unfulfillable and result in a misguided frenzy in the pursuit of the next thrill, or in depression”.
This “crisis of meaning” is I believe something that we have brought on ourselves by not thinking sharply enough about joining together the scientific appreciation of who we are, with our deeply held beliefs about our spirituality. These ideas help to explain why, some years ago, the story circulated that if you could take a doctor from 1900 and put him in a modern surgery he just wouldn’t know what to do, or an engineer into a laboratory, or even a farmer onto a modern farm. But take a teacher, so the story went, and he or she would immediately pick up the same piece of chalk and carry on as before. It was something of a cruel taunt, but you can see where the idea came from.
In other words medical science had leapt forward, but the study of human behaviour got locked into Behaviourist model, which emphasised exclusively that the only thing about learning that mattered was that which could be observed and measured. John Watson had a field day. Only very, very recently have researchers started to take seriously the idea that man is indeed a highly social creature with highly developed social senses which are transmitted from generation to generation as “innate predispositions”.
It is on the development of these predispositions that every generation is dependent. Man never has lived in a “moral vacuum”. Indeed he can’t live in such a vacuum without his predispositions atrophying, individuality disappearing and society degenerating. What Darwin sensed, and the very recent work of evolutionary psychologists is starting to show, is that as a species endowed with consciousness we are in the process of ascending, not descending. If this is divine purpose I know not, but as Robert Wright argues, “The arrow of progress is undoubtedly upwards”.
Think what a different “story” we would tell if we talk of man having “Ascended” over a seven million year period from those arguably monkey ancestors! After some four hundred thousand generations of both biological and cultural evolution we – you and I -are at the very leading edge of evolution. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato – indeed Confucius, Moses, Abraham and Noah, as well as Adam and Eve, would have relished being alive at this hour. What a remarkable responsibility we have!
With all the problems around us – including our understanding of our spirituality – we should delight in where we now are. To any of us who have had a relative cured of cancer, or any of us who hope that – if we are so smitten – we too would be cured; you must acknowledge the tremendous debt modern medicine owes to evolutionary theory. It’s time now that we caught up with a better understanding of how we think, and why it is that, in every society ever studied, there is an appreciation of a spiritual dimension to life.