By James Haught
James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.
Evolution is astounding. The mind boggles to realize that natural selection – driven by weak hydrogen bonds that let the long DNA molecule unzip and replicate itself – could produce the planet’s incredible array of millions of living species, including humans. It’s almost unbelievable. How could such amazing diversity come from a self-replicating molecule? How can an assemblage of amino acids and cells write symphonies or put manned space stations into orbit?
However, honest, intelligent people must accept scientific evidence that evolution produced all living things, because no other trustworthy explanation exists. There’s no evidence whatever – zilch – that a magical god created life.
Evolution is ruthless, heartless, killing off most creatures it spawns. Almost 99 percent of all species that ever lived became extinct – and humans nearly did. National Geographic genome expert Spencer Wells says the last Ice Age, perhaps coupled with a super-volcano in Sumatra, almost exterminated humans before they migrated from Africa. He wrote:
“While homo sapiens can be traced to around 200,000 years ago in the fossil record, it is remarkably difficult to find an archaeological record of our species between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, and genetic data suggest that the population eventually dwindled to as few as 2,000 individuals. Yes, 2,000 – fewer than fit into many symphony halls. We were on the brink of extinction.”
That’s stunning. Despite our large brains and survival skills, we humans nearly vanished. We almost were lost like dinosaurs and other victims of cruel evolution. We narrowly pulled through.
But we survived and eventually dominated Planet Earth, manipulating nature to nourish ourselves. Humans are a bizarre mix of genius and inventive abilities, entangled with primitive superstitions and paranoid warmaking savagery. Evolution made us kind and cruel, intelligent and stupid, admirable and absurd.
A scholar who probes deeply into the puzzle of humanity is sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who has written several deep books – repeatedly denouncing the human tendency to concoct imaginary gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, miracles and other supernatural figments.
In Consilience, analyzing how knowledge grows and becomes verified, he said there are two ways to look at reality: Empiricism, believing only what evidence reveals – and Transcendentalism, believing that a hidden order rules events. If any proof ever upholds the latter, he wrote, “the discovery would be quite simply the most consequential in human history.” But no proof ever emerged.
In his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, Dr. Wilson lambastes religion mercilessly. He concludes that evolution caused humans to be tribalized, and to invent imaginary gods suited to their tribes. He says: “The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods.” (p. 158) Other observations:
“The great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is… deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious and ideological struggles.” (p. 176)
“The principal driving force of mass murders… is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religions – in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (p. 154)
”Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding.” (p. 26)
“We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above.” (p. 15)
“The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality…. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.” (p. 150)
In his final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” Dr. Wilson concludes that scientific understanding of evolution has become the bedrock of biology, and it explains why humans became tribalized, with tribal religions.
Evolution gave people large brains capable of imagining invisible gods – and it gave some people keener minds capable of seeing that imaginary gods are nonsense.
This essay appeared in the United Coalition of Reason newsletter, January 2018.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: James Haught.