Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Living in a Darwinian World

We live in a Darwinian world. All of us do. I mean that we are subject to the laws of nature including all the pleasures, pains and impulses that come with them. None of us can escape this no matter how refined or virtuous we think we are. Even individuals who are great examples of worldly transcendence are forced to live with this world’s inexorable Darwinian pull.

This is neither all bad nor all good. Yes, it means that we come into this world selfish and uncaring. And it means that we are tempted throughout our lives to do whatever it takes to get ahead or to push our children to succeed. It also means that in our rush to achieve success we can pursue very parochial and profane things. This is the moral inheritance of us all. We might call these tendencies Darwinian sins.

But this same inheritance also means that we will care for our children and families. That we will try to work hard and be respectable citizens. It means that we will be watchful and aware of the world around us. It means that, in our better moments, we will plan for a rainy day. We might call these tendencies Darwinian virtues.

In general, we are pretty good at recognizing Darwinian sins. We probably don’t call them by this name, but we recognize them just the same. Noticing a selfish act in another person is second nature even if we can be quite slow recognizing one in ourselves.

Unfortunately, we often fail to recognize when our virtues are Darwinian too. This is unfortunate because trying to live in a Darwinian world, even as we profess to live Christian lives, can lead us down the road to hypocrisy.

An obvious example is the overzealous parent living only a nominally Christian life. Suppose this parent pushes his child to be his/her very best in athletic, academic and other activities. Obviously, this is not a bad thing by itself. It’s clearly a Darwinian virtue insofar as it seeks the advantage of one’s offspring. But this parent is very selfishly engaged in his child’s life and very blind to the teachings of Christ. There is no kindness nor forbearance directed towards the opposing team or to officials, nor is there understanding when a diligent child brings home a poor grade or fails to get the leading role in a school play. The command to love one’s enemies is an impossibility to this parent who cannot even feel concern for the school across town.

Darwinian virtues don’t have to be so stark, but they often lead in that direction. Attending church and trying to look respectably religious, even as this parent selfishly drives his family to success, is an act of hypocrisy. Darwinian virtues are never really Christian virtues in the end.   

Or take the well-meaning parent that notices a talent in her child and insists that her offspring is precocious – perhaps especially gifted, maybe even a genius. I well remember being a young father and feeling a certain likeness to this parental pride. It is natural. After a while, though, hearing this same well-meaning braggadocio from unnumbered kindred parents, it becomes quite tedious. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with being proud of your child. But you will look a long time before you find it justified in holy writ. There is no Christian doctrine of Darwinian pride.

The Christian parent is to teach faith, the honoring of parents and the reverence of deity. Nowhere is it written that Christ expects us to have the brightest, the most athletic or the most artistic offspring. This isn’t because the New Testament is silent about rearing children. On the contrary: in perhaps the harshest statement of all scripture, the Lord warns those who offend them that it would be better to have a grindstone wrapped around their necks and then be drowned into the sea. How many well-meaning parents have pushed their children to the point of offense in an attempt to appease an apparently virtuous Darwinian end?

Darwinian biology doesn’t measures success by how rich we get or by how healthy we keep ourselves (although this may be part of it). It measures success by our offspring. Darwinian success posits the survival of the fittest. Success is ultimately measured by how many descendants we leave behind.

We call adultery and fornication by their proper names: we call them sins. Yet in a Darwinian world these are expected behaviors. From a strict Darwinian perspective, the cultural circumstances under which a child is born doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the child survives.

But what about abortion? Isn’t this a case where our argument fails? Many in our society seem to be OK with letting one’s offspring die. We may agree that we don’t normally see animals in the wild intentionally aborting their unborn offspring. But the fact of eliminating one’s offspring seems clearly anti-Darwinian. How can this unnatural act be considered a Darwinian sin?

The answer is not really that hard to see. A culture of abortion is a culture that fully recognizes the reality and legitimacy (if I can use that term) of extra-marital intimacy. It fully accepts the Darwinian impulse to reproduce at any cost, even if it ends up rejecting the results of this impulse.

We could give many examples regarding children. Let’s look instead at our attitudes about work. The Darwinian attitude is that hard and smart work will lead to success and allow us greater advantages both now and when unexpected events occur in the future. Most of us tend to agree with this perspective. Preparing for a rainy day is clearly not bad advice. Surprisingly, however, this sort of work is a Darwinian virtue.

This can be confusing because the argument is actually a conflation of a couple of things. It suggests that security comes from hard work, and it pretends to make us the authors of our own well-being. Christian doctrine recognizes the need for work. The Old and New testaments are fairly clear on this. But the purpose of work is not to get wealthy, or to secure our own future. We are to work because the sluggard has no place in Zion.

We are to work honestly and diligently. But it is really quite presumptuous to believe that we will be successful to the degree that we work this way – as if it were a law of Heaven. How many wealthy Christians are there in this world quite certain that anybody could be as good or well-off as they are if they only worked hard enough?

I know it makes a certain sense for someone who has worked hard to accumulate the comforts and conveniences of life to believe that their virtuous deeds have been the cause of their success. And the argument isn’t false at a certain level. It rings true as a Darwinian virtue.

But it is quite false as a Christian virtue. Everything we have comes as a blessing from God. And His promise is that He will take care of His humble followers. As Professor Nibley argued so poignantly many years ago: “work we must, but the lunch is free.” It is God that gave us life. And it is God, in the end, that allows us to live – whether with wealth or otherwise. You will work in vain if you think that God expects it of you so you can be rich. He is more likely to ask you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor – and then to follow Him.

I came across another example of this confusion a few years ago in the American South. We were at a business dinner in a restaurant where one of our party noticed someone at a distant table saying a blessing on the food. My colleague mentioned how hypocritical some people are about saying prayers. Her comment surprised me. Where I come from, giving thanks for a meal is the proper way to show respect to God. In public places, we might chose to pray silently and in a way that others would not notice. But prayers should still be said.

My colleague told us that in the culture of the South, many only pretended to be religious to show they were better than they really were. Sometimes the overt religious act (such as a prayer) is really only a ploy. I was reminded of Christ’s remarks about hypocritical Pharisees.

Darwinism is perfectly content to use religion as a means of promoting one’s self. Christ, on the other hand, requires that we put Him first and trust in Him. This devotion happens in the unobserved workings of the heart. It can never be hypocritical, or it never existed at all.

Why does any of this matter? Perhaps you have never been particularly interested in Darwin or his theories. My answer is that it matters because Darwin was right on certain points, just as he was often wrong. And sadly, many well-meaning Christians live their lives pursuing Darwinian virtues, oblivious to the fact that Christ expects us to strive for subtly – but very importantly – different ones.

So much of our religious journey requires us to take personal inventory on occasion. It requires that we ask ourselves the motives of what we do. Do we act out of convenience, following Darwinian drives, while our deeds are really only pious pretensions? Or do we honestly strive to follow the words of the Master?

It is difficult to overcome selfishness. We want to be recognized. We want people to be happy with us. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with these desires. But they are not desires that bring us spiritual strength. They are Darwinian virtues only.

Christ requires of us a selfless sacrifice. He requires that we serve Him alone and not ourselves. This is almost an impossible task in a fallen world – in a Darwinian world. But it is His gospel nonetheless.

Darwin has many followers and his theories have had very significant sway. Some of this has been quite valuable. It has allowed us to understand quite clearly what it means to live in a fallen world – the world that is our testing ground, the place we call mortality – the place of death.

But it is quite a contrast to think about these Darwinian realities in which we live and then to read through the Sermon on the Mount. There is probably no other literature in the world that opposes Darwinism to such an extent. If you are confused about Darwinian virtues and Christian virtues, all you need to do is read the 5th, 6th and 7th Chapters of the Gospel of Matthew and ask yourself the following question: what is the world’s alternative. You might do this for every example Christ mentions and compare each one to the expected behavior at work or at school.

The doctrines of Christ are the loftiest and most divine truths the world has ever known. They have endured – and will continue to endure – because they are timeless. They are also timely. Too often, however, we understand them in simple, limiting or merely contemporary ways.

Perhaps we think that after accepting Christ, our worries are over, our place in Heaven is assured. This is very dangerous attitude. Mortality, by its very definition, is not over until we die. This is where Darwin’s laws reign supreme.

It matters a great deal that we learn to distinguish between Darwin and Christ. I don’t mean to demonize Charles Darwin. I doubt that he ever intended to have his name contrasted so starkly against Jesus. But there is little doubt that many manifestations of our ongoing moral apostasy are justified by the widespread Darwinian mindset so loved by the world today.

We have learned to recognize and reject the ways of Satan. Christianity has a long history countering his deceits. Today we have other sophisticated ones to deal with. Our continuing challenge is to follow the better way.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Meeting Nature with New Eyes

You and I are mostly blind. I don’t mean that our eyes don’t work, only that we fail to register most of what we see. It is as if we lived in a library and knew the titles of all the books and exactly where each one was located, but never opened one of them to read what was inside.

As I sit in a lovely campground in the southern Sierra Nevada, I am surrounded by pines, cedars, oaks and a host of wildflowers – in full spring color. Last night as the sun was about to set, I watched a bobcat amble silently across a path. I love coming here for several reasons. I love the wild things, the clean air and the peacefulness that is here. I have also come to learn new things and to enhance my understanding of the Creation.  

I have been to this same location and watched as young children discovered the rocks and pinecones for the first time. Children have an ability to entertain themselves in a way that we adults struggle to understand. Somewhere along the path of becoming adults, we often fall into a conscious rut of superficial awareness that separates us from the excitement of discovery.

I have had the good fortune of escaping from this rut many times in my life. And I have learned that there are a few things – call them tricks if you like – that can enhance awareness and make seeing the world just as exciting for us adults as it is for children. If discovering nature is a guaranteed pleasure for them, why should it be any different for us? There is no chance that you have experienced all the magical moments that nature has to offer. There is only the chance that you will fail to get out of the rut of your own apathy.

I recently read a remarkable account of the German philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner. Fechner was born in 1801 to a poor family and his father died when he was only a child. The young Fechner showed promise though and developed an interest in medicine. He managed to support himself in his studies by translating physics and chemistry textbooks. He was clearly a gifted lad.

He also had a passion for conducting experiments and often used himself as his own guinea pig. Some of these efforts proved to be quite harmful, especially the many observations he made of the images left in the mind after looking at bright objects – especially the sun. These studies left him nearly blind for three years as well as exhausted and depressed. After he regained his sight, he wrote a description of what he experienced. It is the best account I know of describing what it is like to see nature with new eyes. He wrote:

“… I stepped out for the first time from my darkened chamber and into the garden with no bandage on my eyes. It seemed to me like a glimpse beyond the boundary of human experience. Every flower beamed upon me with a peculiar clarity, as though into the outer light it was casting its own. To me the whole garden seemed transfigured, as though it were not I but nature that had just risen up again. And I thought: So nothing is needed but to open the eyes afresh, and with that, old nature is made young again. Indeed, one will hardly believe how new and vivid is the nature which meets the man who comes to meet it with new eyes.”

This sort of change in how we see the world was experienced by my wife Kathy and me a number of years ago. It wasn’t an encounter with nature but with an old piece of furniture but the principle, I think, is similar.

I had been given an old television set that didn’t work from a friend of the family. It was well built and the frame was made of solid wood riding on small but sturdy wheels. My plan was to remove the glass, metal and other electronic portions – retaining the frame – and make a moveable bookshelf for my den. I worked hard on the project and finally painted it an anemic white, since that was the only paint I had on hand at the time. The color wasn’t important to me. I just needed it to hold some of my taxonomy texts.

Kathy wasn’t very impressed with it but didn’t complain too much since it was in my part of the house – the part that she has come to tolerate by ignoring (what else can a long-suffering spouse do when married to a naturalist?).

For my part, I pretty much ignored the improvised bookshelf too. It was doing its job, and I didn’t give it much thought. Then one day while I was away, Kathy invited her friend and interior decorator over for a visit and to discuss remodeling options. In their zeal, they ended up in my den and Kathy’s friend fell immediately in love with my little bookshelf.

She told Kathy that she would love to buy it and re-paint it. Apparently, in her eyes, there was a lot of potential in the old television frame. Later in the day, Kathy told me about the visit and we both laughed. She wanted to know if I would sell it. Of course my answer was no. To this day, we both appreciate the unusual piece of furniture a lot more.

There are natural treasures all around us that we know nothing about. Even as a trained naturalist, I pass by uncounted species that I do not recognize. The world is just too rich and diverse for one person to understand it in all its variety. I know a thing or two about some of the insects, birds, plants and mammals but I am still ignorant about many groups that I haven’t taken the time to learn about yet.

What would happen if I happened upon a rare, or uncommonly seen, kind of grass while wandering around in the deserts of the Southwest? The simple answer would be, not much. I might not even give it a passing notice. I just don’t know enough about grass diversity to recognize a grassy treasure when I see one.

A year ago, while driving through the coastal ranges of Southern California, I spotted a handful of California condors roosting on an old oak snag not far from the road. There was a small turn-off not far away, and I quickly pulled off the road to have a closer look. This was only the second time I had ever seen condors. They are not as rare in certain parts of the Golden State as they used to be but they are far from common. I was thrilled to see them. I was also disappointed that a few cars drove past while I was admiring the birds and they didn’t have a clue about the remarkable scene so near at hand.

The erstwhile (and often neglected) British author Colin Wilson spent much of his life researching and writing about our human mental energies. He was convinced that most of us live our lives under the control of our automatic selves. This “self” he often called the “robot” or that portion of our lives that gets bogged down with fatigue and anxiety. It is the passive habitual part of our existence that can drain our passions and leave us so unhappy.

On the contrary, bringing our vital energy back can be managed readily enough if we can learn to recognize its source. Religion is, of course, an important example if we are serious about it. But so are many other things if we care enough to give them our attention. In fact Wilson is convinced that vital attention (emphasis mine) is one of the key elements in gaining and maintaining mental health. And it often gets overlooked. One of his clearest examples is Victor Frankl’s well-known psychology (best outlined in the books From Death Camp to Existentialism and Man’s Search for Meaning). Remember that it was Frankl’s observation that those victims of Holocaust death camps that maintained a goal or a meaning to live managed to stay alive more often than others who lacked this vital energy or attention.

In his book New Pathways in Psychology, Wilson gives the example of the novelist Margaret Lane who, after having had a positive experience giving birth, soon found herself lacking energy and having a hard time being involved in her tasks. Then, as she learned about the tragedies of the atomic bombing of Japan, she fell into a schizophrenic depression that lasted a long time.

This state of mind began to change when Margaret and her husband made a trip to a country cottage that they wanted to rent. The new surroundings must have been a mental salve because she began to feel better. And whereas she had formerly looked upon plants (and especially grass) with a kind of inorganic disregard, she now began seeing them differently. She noticed a bluebell flower in the grass and its vividness surprised her. Then other plants also began to look real again. At this point she “burst into tears as she realized that the long emotional freeze-up was over.”

Many years ago, in a Sunday-School class, I heard the story of naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) who was troubled by the lack of natural awareness in so many people. Walking through a park one day, Burroughs heard the song of a bird that captivated him. Noticing that no-one else seemed to be paying any attention to the sound he pulled a coin from his pocket and flipped it onto the ground. It made a distinct metallic ring, but the sound wasn’t any louder than the song of the bird. But to his annoyance many people noticed the sound of the coin even as they continued to be oblivious to the song of the bird.

Sadly, human nature hasn’t changed very much since then. This is particularly sad because there is so much enjoyment and healing that can come from discovering nature again and again. One final example from my long-suffering wife Kathy should be proof enough if you are not already convinced.

Some time ago, she decided to attend a class on the wildflowers of Cedar Breaks National Monument above Cedar City, Utah where we live. She took notes and shared them with me since I wasn’t able to attend. In the following days, we looked up many of the plants and committed some of them to memory.

Then a few days later, we were able to go camping fairly close to Cedar Breaks and Kathy was thrilled. It was July and several plant species were in full bloom, including many that she had just recently learned. She was so excited that she insisted that we make plans to return to the same spot in coming weeks. In short, she has now fallen in love with a place that would have meant little to her just a few months ago. And what has made all the difference? In a word, it is awareness and attention to the natural world. It really does work wonders.


For an abbreviated account of Fechner’s story see Colin Wilson’s Mysteries (Part Three, Chapter 3, The Mechanisms of Enlightenment) published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978. The actual statement of Fechner is from Walter Lowrie’s (ed.) Religion of a Scientist: Selections from Fechner (1946). The account of Margaret Lane is on pages 248 and 249 in Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology, Maslow & the Post-Freudian Revolution (Taplinger Publishing Company, New York. 1972). The story of John Burroughs and the singing bird was recounted by Boyd K. Packer in his talk Prayers and Answers, delivered in October Conference 1979.