Humans as Creatures

Presented at The North Texas Church of Freethought, September 3, 1995

Today's service is a reflection on and consideration of ourselves as an animal species not intrinsically different - at least not scientifically - from other living things. At the same time, we don't see our household pets going off to church. Nor do dolphins or killer whales betray the least signs of being perplexed or otherwise troubled by the "big" questions of existence that so fascinate us. So while you follow the words of today's program and the thoughts and ideas that they build, pay attention also to the feelings that they give rise to and see if you don't find yourself agreeing that there is, as Charles Darwin suggested "grandeur in this view of life."

Nebular Hypothesis

In the beginning ... See it in your mind's eye: an enormous interstellar collection of gas and dust. It's beautiful, like the photos in an astronomy coffee-table book. But no human eye ever saw this nebula ... It's rotating ... very slowly, ... And after a long time, perhaps with the additional help of shock waves from nearby supernova explosions, the central portion of this cloud, which has slowly been attracting matter, begins to glow with the heat of an infant sun. As the radiant energies of the central mass grow, much of the remaining gas and dust is blown away into the void, though leaving behind smaller collections of matter that continue to orbit the newborn star.

On the third planet out in this arrangement - you know where I'm headed, now, but stay with me - conditions are severe. The surface is largely molten, and stays that way for a very long time. But the size of the planet is such that it can hold on to an atmosphere, and after a long time, the temperatures are such as to allow the condensation of the water in this atmosphere, which falls as rain.

A long time after that, when this new world has formed oceans and continents, there are places where the element carbon has, as is its habit, covalently bonded with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and a few other relatively plentiful atoms. These organic molecules, again, as organic molecules typically do, combine and recombine with other molecules. And, after a long time, with the continued availability of fresh organic materials and the input of energy, self-replicating systems of organic molecules came into being.

Water CrystalsHas anyone here ever gone out to their car on a cold day in January and found frost covering the windshield? Did you ever look at it before you impatiently scraped it away? Even water molecules form beautiful and complex shapes when they crystallize under the right conditions. Jack Frost must be doing that, of course. What other explanation is there? Could every masterpiece of symmetrical translucent splendor that is a snowflake be the result of mere chance? Did all those uncounted water molecules - billions upon billions upon billions of them in every specimen - just bump into each other in the right way so as to form these delicate works of art? Do you know what the odds are against such a thing happening - and not just once but in mind-numbingly innumerable instances?

And, yet, you'd know if you ever studied organic chemistry that the attributes of a single carbon atom are even more prodigious, more extraordinary, and more multifarious than that of the remarkable water molecule. And so, just as the complex and beautiful patterns formed by the crystallization of water are the result of the properties of that singular molecule, life on earth, and life everywhere else that it may exist in the universe, is the result of the unique properties of carbon and of the few other elements with which it readily forms chemical bonds.

Now let's come back to this planet, now in the present. Living things have covered the earth, from the deepest chasms of the ocean to the frosty heights of the Himalayas. But, strangely enough, that's still not the end of the story.

Apollo LiftoffFor one day, remarkably, on a thundering pillar of fire and smoke, one sort of living thing causes an object to rise up into and eventually out of this planet's atmosphere. On a few occasions this is to visit the planet's nearby moon, and on others merely to survey the heavens more clearly, or to reconsider the earth itself from a new vantage point. A few of these missiles continue on an indefinite voyage, on past the furthest planets and out of the region of that long-ago nebula which became our solar system. And attached to the side of one or more of these constructs is a message that says nothing so much as: "Look what we've done!"

What comes next is anybody's guess. But one thing is certain: we human beings will have something to do with it. And that all this is fact - not fiction - makes it all the more wondrous, all the more awe-inspiring, and all the more important.

WE ARE Homo sapiens

None of us came into the world bringing knowledge with us. We've all had to learn what we know, and so has every other human being who's ever lived. That what we know is not like our skin, our blood, or our bones - an instinctual, inseparable part of us - is an important part of what makes us human. It is why we are freethinkers, always willing to consider the facts, and reason, to improve our understanding - or so we aspire.

It's also the history of human progress, though the process of exchanging old worn-out ideas for newer, better ones has often assumed the character of a titanic battle. One of the most ferocious of these was set off by Copernicus in about the mid-16th Century when he stood the known universe on its head, so to speak, and contradicted the very Word of God, in asserting that the earth revolved around the sun instead of vice-versa.

Slightly less than three hundred years later, in what is yet to be recognized for the intellectual temblor that it was, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler heated some inorganic ammonium cyanate and produced the organic substance urea. That was the beginning of the end of the idea that there was anything mystical about carbon-based chemistry, which is to say, the chemistry of living things. However much we may be impressed by the biochemical reactions that sustain us, they are not fundamentally different from any of the other physico-chemical changes that we see about us in the world.

To approach the modern view it only remained to come to grips with the element of chance. And it was just at about this time that mathematicians invented statistics, as it turns out. But the influence of the random factor - chance - has even to this day not been fully appreciated by the average person.

Yet hundreds of years before the time of Christ, Aristotle argued that all the events of the natural world were a happenstance. Rain doesn't fall for the purpose of making the farmer's corn grow, he argued, any more than it falls to make it rot when threshed out-of-doors.

"So what hinders the different parts [of the body] from having this merely accidental relation to nature? As the teeth, for example, grow by necessity, the front ones sharp, adapted for dividing, and the grinders flat, and serviceable for masticating the food; since they were not made for the sake of this, but it was the result of accident. And in like manner as to the other parts in which there appears to exist an adaptation to an end. Wheresoever, therefore, all things together (that is all the parts of one whole) happened like as if they were made for the sake of something, these were preserved, having been appropriately constituted by an internal spontaneity; and whatsoever things were not thus constituted, perished, and still perish."

LifecladogramThis very idea, when fleshed out almost 2000 years later by Charles Darwin, was to become the basis for a large part of our understanding of life on earth. Evolution, it turns out, the idea that life originated naturally, and that the living organisms we see on the earth today have descended from very different ancestors of long ago and even then unguided by any intelligent design, did not originate with Charles Darwin. Darwin's innovation was simply in suggesting a plausible means - natural selection operating on inherited variations - by which evolution may have taken place. Morever, in making his proposal, Darwin made reference to a multitude of facts, even curious and otherwise inexplicable facts, in support of his ideas. And, with some minor adjustments and qualifications, the scientific evidence has tended overwhelmingly to support his scheme of "The Origin of Species." So compelling was it that T.H. Huxley exclaimed, upon reading it, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

There really is no question but that evolution is a fact. Only the mechanism of exactly how it happened, the details of its unfolding, the relative importances of numerous factors that affected it - many of them unknown to Darwin himself, from the efficiency of DNA repair enzymes to the catastrophic impacts of comets on the earth - these are the elements of thetheory that remain open to exploration.

It is true that evolution is of the nature of a historical fact. And like most historical facts, it's not something that you can reproduce at will in a laboratory, any more than you can prove that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo by assembling all the parties again just as they were in 1815 and observing the results. Yet no one questions the reality of Napoleon and Waterloo.

Some sixty-five million years ago, many scientists now believe that a cataclysmic impact of a large asteroid, which may have struck the earth in the region of what is now the Mexican Yucatan, touched off global climate changes that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. At about that time there lived small shrew-like prosimian mammals that scientists still argue over as to whether they should be considered actual primates or not.

About thirty million years later in the fossil record there appears Aegyptopithecus xeuxis, a tree-living monkey-like creature about the size of a small dog. Yet the patterns of cusps on the grinding molar teeth of this animal were nothing like those of monkey. Instead, they are absolutely indistinguishable from those of modern anthropoid apes - and humans.Aegyptopithecus, in other words, was exactly the sort of ancestral form that one might expect both apes and humans to have descended from.

Much more recent fossils, now from two to three and a half million years ago, are of the Australopithecines, of which the celebrated Lucy was one. The brain size of these creatures was approximately that of modern anthropoid apes, about a third of modern humans. The molars also resembled those of modern apes and humans, just as those of Aegyptopithecusdid. But the canines, like those of humans and unlike those of all other primates, did not project beyond those of the other teeth. Moreover, Australopithecus walked upright. It was a hominid, though not yet a human. Australopithecus, in short, possessed the same mixture of advanced human and ancestral simian features that Archaeopteryx demonstrated with its combination of reptilian and avian characteristics.

Even after the appearance of modern humans, there was a long period of prehistory during which a hunting-gathering way of life was gradually replaced by more settled living, the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry, and of written language. The rest, of course, as they say, is history. And given the astonishing and extraordinary role that chance has played in history, it's puzzling why anyone should doubt the role of the random in prehistory.

Does the foregoing affect our attitudes about ourselves and the world we live in? It should. The truth should always matter.

And the truth is that we - our flesh and blood at any rate - are very much a part of the natural world. Our physical dominion over the natural world, therefore, if it is to be grounded in wisdom, must primarily take the form of our understanding it. Or, as Francis Bacon put it: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

We've done pretty well at this, in some respects. Because of the common ancestry of life on earth, for example, we're growing bacteria in vats which are dutifully producing human insulin and all sorts of other useful things. We're accomplishing by genetic recombination techniques what we might never have been able to accomplish by the older methods of selective breeding. And we're beginning to make inroads against one of the most enduring and relentless foes of human happiness: the biochemical mechanisms of senescence and death.

In other respects, we've learned that we must be careful, that the natural world is sometimes fragile. We've learned that nature, to be commanded, must be respected and preserved.

In short, we have come to understand our place in nature through making our own place in it. We have built our way of life on constraining it, and, in turn, have found ourselves constrained. What comes next is anybody's guess. But we humans will have everything to do with it.

Voltair QuoteAt the same time, our mastery of nature and the realization of our responsibility for nature - our place as physical beings - tells us nothing of our place as thinking beings. Scientific understanding, even an "enlightened" form of it, does not create any reason or purpose for our existence. Evolution and DNA and so forth cannot answer the question of "Why am I here?" and "What shall I do with my life?"

This may seem frightening to some people. I think it would be far more frightening if some extraterrestrial or supernatural power had already undertaken to answer such questions for us.

To be sure, it's always easier to sit back and be a passive observer. Being a puppet is an effortless life - if you want to call it a life at all. But for someone else, however exalted, to have a purpose for us is still, and can never be the same as, our having a purpose for ourselves. Indeed, the saddest chapters of human history have been those in which people willingly surrendered to others the responsibility they individually possessed to choose the meaning of their lives.

I can't answer for others, of course. But to me the purpose of life is to live well, which means: in conformity with what I understand to be true, with what I understand to be just, and with what I understand to be good in the sense that it enriches my life. I'm not going to go into detail on this today but I'll just point out that what is true and what is just have roots that go deep into philosophical thought. It's nothing at all like a hedonistic "doing whatever feels good," though I challenge anyone who condemns that principle without qualification to explain to me how he or she chooses her flavor of ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins.

One thing that a freethinker who understands the place of humanity in the scheme of things will not do is to justify something in this life by reference to some imaginary "next life." If there is a life beyond this one, it's gravy for us. Freethinkers will live this life and any to come in exactly the same way: as best they know how.

Death is quite a different matter. Regardless of whether it serves some "purpose" in nature of renewing the gene pool or some such thing, death is no "part of life." Nor can any freethinker see anything "redeeming" or "liberating" about death, except, perhaps, if the only alternative is a life that is really not a life in some sense. I suppose personal preferences come into play here as with a lot of things. But, speaking for myself, I would like to go on living. Even if it became necessary to replace every bit of me with dogmeat - or with plastic and silicon chips or whatever until I became a sort of android - I would like to go on living. I'd like to see how things turn out.

Evolution could be falsified. In principle, any objective understanding could be disproven. Maybe Mark Fuhrman will even confess that he planted that glove and tampered with the evidence. You never know. The reality of organic evolution, as Stephen Jay Gould says, is anchored in an ocean of fact. But all it would take would be a finding of a fossil of a modern organism - even just a blade of grass, say - in the same strata as trilobites to cast serious doubt on a part of accepted scientific fact that some misguided people perceive as a threat not only to their religious beliefs but to the very integrity of modern civilization.

I would address this directly myself, and would if I had a lot more time. Perhaps we'll have a future service dealing just with the Creation-Evolution controversy. But for now I want to close with the remarks of Steven D. Schafersman with which he concluded his chapter "Fossils, Stratigraphy, and Evolution: Consideration of a Creationist Argument," in the book Scientists Confront Creationism.

The creationists often claim that if man believes he is descended from an ape, he will act like it. I believe that I am descended from an apelike creature, but between that ancestor and myself lies an immense journey that nature reveals to us only by our great effort. It is a journey of physical and cultural evolution, of conflict and cooperation, of moral instinct and moral learning, of growth of self-consciousness and awareness of self-responsibility, of fear and wonder at an uncaring universe and the prospect of death, of a oneness with nature and an alienation from nature, and of a struggle to know the truth. Man's evolutionary journey has prepared him to face life and the universe with acceptance in the face of meaninglessness and hope in the face of ignorance. There is, indeed, grandeur in this view of life. Thomas Henry Huxley stated that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a man who would use his restless intellect to obscure scientific questions by aimless rhetoric, eloquent digressions, and skilled appeals to religious prejudice. Apparently, some things never change, and antievolutionists continue to use their restless intellects to defend their creationist doctrine, for their knowledge of the "truth" justifies such behavior. Huxley did not inquire into the ancestry of his opponent [one Bishop Wilberforce], but today the arrogance and self-righteousness of the true believers can be explained. They regard themselves as being created in the image of God, and act like it.

For my part, I consider myself a human animal, a member of the species Homo sapiens. I also consider myself as possessing the extraordinary power of the faculty of rational thought. And, at the risk of being recognized as a sometime fan of comic books, I consider that with great power comes great responsibility.

I remind you all that you possess the same power, and I charge each and every one of you not to shirk the responsibility that comes with it. Let your life be governed by what you know is right. Let your actions, especially your actions towards others, reflect what is best in you. Give it your best effort, moreover, not because the world deserves it, but because you do.

Thank you and good morning.