The Enchantment of Life - Evolution News & Views

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The Enchantment of Life

Let's talk about a word I've been thinking about a lot lately: enchantment. As often happens to me, and probably to you too, a number of things going on in my life have converged to get me contemplating a particular idea that I hadn't thought much about before.

One is reading Richard Dawkins's bestselling The Greatest Show on Earth. The famous evangelizing atheist seeks to make the case for Darwinian evolution, defending it against the critiques of naïve creationists and other amateurs whom Dawkins cites and argues with contemptuously -- for example, a lawyer who runs a conservative website, a lady who's an anti-abortion activist, and a guy with an Internet ministry. He meanwhile ignores intelligent design theorists with their far more challenging objections and weighty science backgrounds. Cowardly and bullying, the book is an embarrassment.

But what struck me more is Dawkins's oddly persistent cheerleading. He's got a twitchy way with certain adjectives. He is constantly assuring us that his demonstrations of evolution's wonders are "beautiful," that discoveries are "exciting," results are "startling," Darwinian scientists are "excellent," plants and animals provide "lovely" or "amazing" illustrations of his thesis, experiments supposedly proving Dawkins right are "almost too wonderful to bear," and so on. After a while, you wonder what he is trying to compensate for. The unusually lush and expensive full-color plate illustrations that adorn the book raise the same question. 

It's not as if he writes dull prose that needs sprucing up. In fact, very few science writers can match his lucidity. But you shouldn't have to bludgeon the reader with promises that what he is reading is "exciting." The excitement should come across from the material directly.

What Dawkins is compensating for, I think, is the dullness, the flatness, the aridity of the evolutionary picture of how the world works. It squashes everything in life flat as a lead pancake, explaining the wonder and mystery of it all in the infinitely monotonous terms of natural selection operating on random variation. This is so different from a writer like David Berlinski, who emphasizes that the more science discovers, the more we discover we don't understand about the deepest, most interesting questions we can ask.

This brings me to enchantment. My family and I live in a Seattle suburb. We are Orthodox Jews and so on the Sabbath, instead of driving, we walk. To get to our synagogue, we take a shortcut through a densely wooded park. In the park, there's a tree that when I walk past it with my children, I always feel a twinge of regret.

More than forty years ago -- a year after I was born -- someone carved a message on that tree where a thick branch had been cut off. You can still read the message, if faintly. It says, "The Enchanted Forest," and then the date, 8/27/66. August 27, 1966. I think of it with regret because our increasingly secularized world is one where the sense of enchantment is diminishing very rapidly.

By enchantment I mean our intuitive sense that something else, something more, lies behind and somehow all around the façade of ordinary material reality. Darwinism is not just a scientific theory, with its Tree of Life and its proposed mechanism that explains how one form of life transforms unguided into another. It is that, but more importantly it is a picture of reality. It is a whole worldview that seeks to explain all the beauty and wonder of life by reference exclusively to blind, churning, purposeless, mindless, meaningless natural forces. It excludes all enchantment.

The phrase goes back to Max Weber who taught about it dispassionately: "The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.' Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations." That was in a lecture he gave, "Science as a Vocation," in 1918. Since then, the sense that life is pervaded by secrets has retreated even further, with heartbreaking results.

As he recalls in his memoir, Carl Jung once treated a distraught young Jewish woman. Her family had lost faith in Judaism, starting with her father though her grandfather was a rabbi and a mystic whom Jung refers to as a "tzadik," a wonderworking saint gifted with some sort of prophetic "second sight." As Jung tells it, the girl was pretty, chic and flirtatious besides being neurotic, "a well-adapted, Westernized Jewess, enlightened down to her bones." Her unhappiness brought her to seek help and Jung recalls that he saw the problem and cured her swiftly.

Typically, Jung followed hunches derived from dreams he had. Sensing "the presence of the numen," he learned from her that her father as an "apostate to the Jewish faith," so Jung himself put it, had "betrayed the secret" by "turn[ing] his back on God." The girl's problem? "She knew only the intellect and lived a meaningless life. In reality she was a child of God whose destiny was to fulfill His secret will. I had to awaken mythological and religious ideas in her, for she belonged to the class of human beings of whom spiritual activity is demanded."

Don't be put off by the word "mythological." It only means enchantment. If Jung's story sounds like a too easy cure -- he says it took one week -- that may be because as with physical diseases, the spiritual disease of disenchantment builds in its effect. Its power is cumulative as, leech-like, it sucks the mystery out of life. Liberal religious strains seek to accommodate rather than fight it, fearing it will get worse if opposed, but that only gives the leech encouragement. This is one problem with accommodationist strategies like "theistic evolution." In the context of alcohol or drug addiction, they would be called forms of co-dependency.

Simply revealing to a pretty young Jewish girl that she needed to repair her connection with God was enough for Jung's patient. For us today, under the gathering influence of the leech, that's often not enough. The solution is not so easily discerned.


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