SCIENCE AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria. 
Richard Dawkins, English biologist, in The Richard Dimbleby Lecture: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Science supplies as with a new representation of the world, of life, of the human being. Science can liberate us from the views imposed to us by nature, to our senses and minds. Science offers new answears to the meaning of life.

But doing so, science contradicts the ancient vision of man as a being belonging to a race created by God, with a place apart in the Creation.

To science we are just descended from bacteria and, more directly, apes. Many of our genes are common to animals such as the rat or even the fly. And that changes all, that destroys many of the myths and values that sustained ancient visions and ancient sources of meaning...

What's life? Who are we, according to science

Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. 

Man’s ancestor is a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits.
Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, English naturalist, The Descent of Man 

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 flow.

Man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature!
Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, English naturalist, Correspondence of Charles Darwin 

Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

They swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
Richard Dawkins, English biologist, The Selfish Gene

You contain a trillion copies of a large, textual document written in a highly accurate, digital code, each copy as voluminous as a substantial book. I'm talking, of course, of the DNA in your cells. 

We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes - the gibbons and orangoutangs. There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangoutangs but excludes humans.

There is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes or digital information.
Richard Dawkins, English biologist, River out of Eden 

Some reactions to the revelations of science

Scientific revelations have caused, and are causing widespread rejection. Creationists refuse to accept the scientific view of life, namely Darwinism.

With modern science, man is no more at the centre of creation and the earth is no more at the centre of the Universe and God’s purposes. Science reveals that man could not exist, that he is a product of a blind logic. This is a rather troublesome view, far short of our dreams.

It is... idle to pretend, as many do, that there is no contradiction between religion and science. Science contradicts religion as surely as Judaism contradicts Islam - they are absolutely and irresolvably conflicting views.  
Bryan Appleyard, English journalist and writer, Science and the Soul of Modern Man

If it is an illusion that human essence is venerable and estimable, let me live and die in that illusion, and do not strive to open my eyes to see my own species in a humiliating and repulsive light.
Thomas Reid, 1710-1796, Scottish philosopher, 1775 Letter, cited in Carl Sagan Sombras de Antepassados Esquecidos

Any reputable man feels indignation growing in him against all those who dare to discredit his relatives and his country; why then shouldn’t this indignation grow against those who discredit mankind?
Thomas Reid, 1710-1796, Scottish philosopher, 1775 Letter, cited in Carl Sagan Sombras de Antepassados Esquecidos

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a spender of their own.
Bertrand Russel, 1872-1970, English philosopher and mathematical, What I Believe 

Recommended reading (right): 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 

Essay on Science and the meaning of life

«Earth is our mother, and we are its sons», according to an old Hindu saying.

«Human kind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it», someone wrote, proclaiming rather obvious evidence (and attributing it to Chief Seattle...).

At the bottom of our hearts we all know of the web connecting us with other animal life, even when we sometimes deny it.

But we also don’t like to be animals, or to be mere animals. We don’t like the idea of being close relatives of apes, or descendants of insignificant bacteria; we don’t like not to be at the centre of the Universe. Hence the resistance to scientific revelations of our affinity with apes and other animal life.

It wasn’t by chance that for years Charles Darwin postponed his Origin of the Species. He anticipated the reactions awaiting his discoveries (which denied his previous most intimate religious creed and hopes.)

The scientific view has put an end to the traditional place of man in the Universe. With scientific revelations, man has lost his special statute, and become just a trivial product of a «blind watchmaker», to use a metaphor of Richard Dawkins. We become apes descendants and «survival machines», largely captives of genes.

We can obviously contest some interpretations of the scientific data. We aren’t «survival machines», «robots» or «apes», in the narrowest senses of these words. Richard Dawkins, who uses them, admits this. We are born egoists, but we can teach ourselves «generosity and altruism», he says. We have the possibility of upsetting the gene designs, «something that no other species has ever aspired to do».

But should or can we refuse scientific statements when clearly supported by experiments or proof? If we want to be honest with ourselves and embrace the truth, the answer can only be: No.

The cruelty of life incites us to dream and fantasy. Death and pain, always surrounding and peeping in, are an invitation to evasion. A part of us tends to deny reality. «Men have always denied reality with all their might» (Jean Servier). This is something we can excuse as part of our weaknesses.

But we can’t live off chimeras, illusions, or cling to old fashioned honoured ideas or puffed up notions of our essence just to satisfy our dreams. We shouldn’t feel ashamed about our low and humble origins. It isn’t them that depreciate us.

What can make us lose our prestige isn’t our belonging to the ape family or our insignificant role in the Universe as revealed by science. What can discredit us are our wrong acts - including our refusal to accept the truth, or the intellectual cowardice that leads to the acceptance or the promotion of myth and untruth.

Our dignity is in our thought, is in our capability of discovering, creating and accepting truth, raising our standards through our intelligence, going beyond the illusions dictated by our senses. Our dignity is in truth, however much she cracks our dreams of greatness and immortality. It isn’t in the denial of reality.

«Our insignificance as human animals can’t affront our conscience and the dignity of rational men», stated Immanuel Kant in a rather inflated way, but stressing our intense desire to be rational. But if so, it would be good not to plunge into myths...

 

 

 

 

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