Darwinism and Its Discontents - Evolution News & Views

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Darwinism and Its Discontents


A thoughtful and honest essay ("Is That All There Is? Secularism and Its Discontents") by James Wood in The New Yorker confronts the anguished disappointment of secularism, which, it's implied throughout, is disproportionately a gift of our Darwinian cultural heritage. I take away from the piece that much as Darwinian apologists would like us to think that the view they evangelize for includes its own comforts and sources of awe, enchantment and illumination, this is largely bunk for anyone who's honest with himself:

I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: "How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life -- beginning with my own, my husband's, my child's, and spreading outward -- is cosmically irrelevant?" In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties -- religiosity on one side, secularism on the other -- and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one's own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night.

There is a lot of truth in this, and for religious folks no less than for the self-identified "secular." The gnawing doubt that attacks at night and during the day is, with apologies to Francisco Ayala for borrowing the title of his book, largely Darwin's Gift.