I love my life. I love watching my children grow, walking hand-in-hand with my wife, listening to the sound of the waves against a sandy beach, feeling the warmth of the sun and smelling the freshly-opened flowers on a perfect spring day.

I love reading about the world around us and the ways that men and women, using their ingenuity and imaginations, have discovered how it works. I love watching the beauty of a well-played baseball game. And of course I love teaching.

On this eve of Darwin Day, I find myself reflecting on how much of the wonder of life springs directly from 1) understanding the lessons that Darwin has taught us and 2) utterly ignoring them.

This is so often misunderstood by Darwin haters. Darwin’s view of the world, they feel, is bleak, without purpose or deeper meaning. In some ways they’re exactly right. But what they miss is that it isn’t what Darwin discovered that matters, but that he, as a representative of the human species, was able to discover it at all.

In a Darwinian world view, the currency is offspring. The more offspring you have, and the more resources you can give them, the more successful you are. And that’s it. Really. But most of us don’t live this way. Most of us have discovered that the path to a good life inevitably involves fooling our genes. Something strange happened to human beings during our evolution, something that (as far as we know) has not really revealed itself in any other living species. We humans have discovered a way to trick evolution. Consider this list:

birth control

artificial sweeteners

organized sports

literature

music

cosmology

public education

adoption

gardening

art museums

salt substitute

the library

I could keep the list going for a very long time. The point is, most of our everyday actions are not aimed at propogating our genes, which is the only currency in Darwinism that makes any sense. We’ve awakened in this universe, a place we’ve entered (so far as we can tell) totally by accident, and we’ve found it to be full of wonder. We’ve found ourselves with these marvelous brains, and we’ve found that – if we do it just right – we can sometimes spread the ideas our brains concoct even more efficiently than we can spread our own genes.

We write books. We paint. We sculpt. We perform plays. All this with the goal of showing something of ourselves, having others find value in that piece of us, take it up and incorporate it into what makes them. We’ve circumvented the genetic need to reproduce and, in many ways, replaced it with an intellectual need to spread our thoughts.

But it’s more than that. We’ve also discovered joy. The joy of a sunset or a shooting star. The pleasure of playing a sport or singing a song. The wonder of watching atoms explode and molecules dance. The mystery of listening to a story while staring into a campfire. These things are internal. They make no difference to our ability or inability to reproduce our genes. Instead, they feed something inside us, a craving that sprang up, as far as we can tell, as an unintended consequence of those marvelous brains that so define our species.

Unlike Darwin’s co-discoverer of Natural Selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, I do not claim that the brain is so wonderful it cannot have been shaped by natural selection. I think it is certainly true that our brains (the one piece of our anatomy that truly distinguishes us) have helped humans successfully reproduce. I think the brain is primarily a sexual organ, and I think it is certainly true that art, literature, even (despite the stereotype) science can be and has been used to aid the  performer in obtaining a mate. But I think the brain is so complex, is such a case of runaway evolution, that unintended consequences were inevitable. And, I argue, it is precisely those unintended consequences, the ability to both create and appreciate a beautiful sonata, a beautiful painting, and a beautiful scientific theory, that make life worth living.

Happy Darwin Day everyone, and enjoy your unintended consequences!

Advertisements