Evolution and Consciousness

24 11 2009

The Origin of the Species was published 150 years ago today. It’s publication ushered in a new era for biology and began a debate between science and faith that rages still.

As yesterday, I have to declare an interest. I’m a zoologist. Yes, really I am. I have been lots of things in my life so you’ll have to get used to the things that I say I am ….most of which will be true!

My own copy of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is a very well thumbed paperback with a classic introduction by another great zoologist J. Maynard Smith. As you can guess I am a fan. It is as good an explanation as you can hope to get of how the world came to be the way it is. The theories that Darwin postulated 150 years ago have been supported by all of the geological and physical discoveries made since then and have withstood all of the challenges thrown at them by scientific and rational minds up to the present moment. The theory has also survived the abuse and misuse it has been subjected to by eugenicists and supremisists and assorted cranks over the years.

The theory of evolution tells us how the current state of the living world arose but making sense of it is a different matter. As living breathing creatures we have awareness and, maybe uniquely, we are aware that we have awareness. This is what we typically call consciousness and it opens up a whole pandoras box. We look for meaning and purpose to our existence and for answers beyond our 3 score years and ten. We look for answers, and having found them, formulate yet more questions.

When Buddha was asked whether the universe was finite or infinite he refused to answer, saying that any answer would be speculation.  We may never have all of the answers to all of the questions but how we use our self-awareness is important. We can choose respond positively and with creativity and, as buddhism has it, evolve morally and mentally without limit.

We can look to the wonder in the natural world and the explanations that Darwins fantastic theory brings and learn to respect and value all around us.  That is a sensible use of our self-awareness in these times of credit crunch and climate change.