In our touring debates on science versus spirituality, Caltech physics professor Leonard Mlodinow and I take turns claiming to be the underdog. This is never more confusing than when it comes to debating Darwinism. Evolution has been a wedge issue for a century and a half. Biologists consider Darwin’s concept of the evolution of species incontrovertible; indeed, it may be the single greatest idea in the history of science. But the toppling of Genesis and its creation story hasn’t convinced the public. Presidential candidates on the right can still win support for Biblical creationism as an “alternative theory,” while only a third of Americans claim that scientific evolution is adequate to explain the origin of life. The vast majority believe that God’s influence, whether small or large, must be part of the story.
All the contentious issues are aired in our book, War of the Worldviews , but in a debate one can only choose a few arguments. As the side defending spirituality, I find myself squeezed. I’m not willing to defend creationism, the Bible, or even the traditional concept of God. But there is no doubt that evolution is welcome as both scientific and spiritual. The “versus” in science versus spirituality doesn’t apply except for the noisy atheists who have used Darwin to bash all religious and spiritual beliefs.
How is evolution spiritual, then?
The answer is easy if you accept certain tenets of the world’s wisdom traditions, such as the following:
— Human awareness has its source in higher consciousness, which is universal.
— We are capable of raising our consciousness.
— As awareness evolves, it comes closer to universal consciousness.
— The goal of evolved consciousness is freedom.
— The physical aspect of evolution expresses the unfolding of creativity and intelligence.
— Such creativity and intelligence is inherent in the setup of the cosmos.
Naturally, there are many scientists who would find one or all of these assertions anathema. They are committed to a strict materialism in their interpretation of evolution. Its tenets are familiar: higher life forms developed through random mutations; natural selection is based on competition for food and breeding rights; through survival of the fittest we can explain every trait in living creatures, including intelligence and creativity; there is no need for nonphysical influences to explain evolution (these influences are typically disparaged as superstitious or supernatural).
Yet classical Darwinism, however solid its victories, has run into various difficulties that cut-and-dried materialism cannot address adequately, such as these:
— Mutations in the human genome are known not to be random. These are so-called “hot spots” in DNA where more mutations occur than randomness predicts.
— Inheritance was thought to be “hard” in that no trait could be passed along except by new genetic mutations. Now we have a wide array of “soft” inheritance by which one generation can pass along a trait without having to pass on a new gene.
— Human beings learned to take care of the weak thousands of years ago by caring for the sick and providing food for the poor. This took us beyond the scheme of pure selfish competition that rules Darwinism. Does that mean we were not evolving when compassion, love, and altruism appeared?
— In nature, countless creatures cooperate, either through symbiosis or by simple sharing. In a scheme where competition and cooperation both exist, any simple notion of survival of the fittest (a phrase not used by Darwin, by the way) becomes suspect.
In our War of the Worldview debates, these points of disagreement are hard to drive home when the audience arrives with a simple pro-science or pro-religion bias. Looking for common ground, what I offer is the evolution has shifted its focus in human beings. The late Jonas Salk was prominent in calling for a higher kind of evolution that would save humanity form the threat of destruction. This “metabiological” evolution is based on conscious choice. We can favor what benefits humankind as a whole. In that regard, evolution is certainly spiritual. Having been released from the purely physical, random, and unconscious side of Darwinism – not that I accept those aspects entirely – human beings can take control of the future. We already shape our future, starting with the discovery of fire and the use of tools. But at the same time we’ve allowed the darker forces in our nature to prevail far too often.
It turns out that human nature is the last refuge of pure Darwinism, insofar as we shrug off our responsibility and let greed, anger, envy, and violence have their way, as if they were like hurricanes and floods loosed upon us beyond our control. Without using loaded terms from conventional religion, anyone who cherishes the spiritual aspirations of humanity can, and should, support evolution as the most hopeful force for saving all life on earth.
Authors Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow will be touring the country discussing these and other topics from the book. To find a location near you check out the tour schedule.
Published by The San Francisco Chronicle