The following is an introductory lecture on spirituality and science presented at a college and community Science Seminar at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey in January 2016. My thanks to Dr. Paul Scheuler, organizer of the series. The talk focuses on our biological history as a resource for thinking about three life issues..
Finding Spirituality in Biology
Thank you for coming today. You may be wondering what a speech with a title that puts together the words biology and spirituality will be about. First, here’s are a couple of topics that it won’t be about. I won’t be talking about creationism. And I won’t be discussing the god-of-the-gaps arguments—such arguments are the announcements that science can’t explain this or measure that and that such a gap shows the limitations of science and the presence of a deity.
What I will talk about are some possibilities for using science’s description of our biological history as a resource for addressing three big human questions: How can I face my death? What is the foundation of love and hate, of good and evil? And what is the purpose of my life?
You should know that I am a non-theist—that’s a low-key term for what is sometimes known as a soft atheist, the kind of atheist who simply doesn’t have a belief in a god, as opposed to a hard atheist, those who insist that there is no god, deities are nothing more than human fabrications, end of story.
I’ll also mention that I know I’m taking some liberties with the word spirituality. The dictionary will tell you that the term usually refers to non-material and supernatural entities, to matters of the soul, spirit, ghosts, karma, and the like. But I’ll be discussing spirituality here in its secondary sense, its emphasis not on the supernatural but on human feelings and ideas about life’s deepest issues, issues that are not easily covered by any other term.
For many people today who approach spirituality in its secular aspect, their central organizing story of the cosmos is what is known as the Universe Story or the Epic of Evolution—the development of the universe beginning with the Big Bang. This is the story articulated by Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson among others. It’s a story that gives us an epic comparable to traditional religious creation stories in that it tells us where we came from and where we fit in the scheme of things; it is our modern cosmology. Our atoms were molded in the births of stars, the emergence of galaxies and life itself is partly understood scientifically but is at the same time utterly miraculous, and indeed there is even room in the epic of the universe to see the hand of God for those who are looking for it. Humans are viewed as distinctive in this epic in that we embody the portion of the universe that has gained consciousness and so we might see ourselves as the universe coming to know itself. We have only to look up at the stars at night to feel that the universe is a sacred thing, that it is the source and foundation of our being.
But for me personally the Universe Story goes only so far. The universe, even perhaps our own solar system, is too big and too remote for it to do much more than remind me of my insignificance. The idea that my death will not be so terrible because my atoms will return to the universe of atoms from which they came—a popular refrain among spiritual naturalists—doesn’t mean much to me. I’ve always felt curiosity about the stars and planets and awe that they are out there in their majesty. But at some point in my life I began asking questions that could not be answered by this wonderment about the universe.
Such questions and moods come to different people at different times. My time came in my late 50s as I began to feel strongly, hey, I really am getting older and this is getting serious. I’m moving closer to my final chapter and there are important things I’m still not clear about. What am I doing here? Is there a purpose in my life, a thing I’m supposed to be doing, or not? Is there some foundation for the difference between right and wrong that is bigger than than my conscience and deeper than society’s expectations? And then there is this nasty business of dying. I’m pretty sure that there is no other life after this one, so how am I going to face death with anything but fear? Such questions became urgent.
I couldn’t find answers to these questions in the epic of the whole universe because my questions were about life itself, so I began thinking about a narrower evolution, the emergence of life on the planet, our biological history. Gradually some connections have come clear. I’ll warn you that none of these may seem completely satisfactory to you. On some days, they aren’t completely satisfactory to me either. They don’t offer the certainty and fervor that traditional religions and a mystical mood can offer to religious believers. But maybe that’s just as well and I do think they’re a start.
Let’s start with the most dramatic issue, the fact that we will die. In what ways can science’s story of life itself, as understood by a generalist like me, console us about death. It can console us, I believe, because it reminds us that we are part of an incredibly long and vast chain of living things that has far preceded us and will far outlast us.
Consider that each of us has a genetic past that is more than 3, almost 4 billion years long. Pieces of our DNA go back that far. We can’t wrap our minds around a number like that. Nor can we easily appreciate a corollary of it, which is that for each of us, the line of our ancestors is unbroken. All our ancestors, as Richard Dawkins has put it, all 3 plus billion years of them, every single one, was a success. Each one survived long enough to reproduce. Each bacterium for the first 2 billion years whose DNA eventually led to us was a success. So was each of the first tiny, multi-celled creatures in the water. Each of the swimmy things that eventually crawled on to land. Each of the small early mammals successfully dodging the footsteps of the dinosaurs 150 million years ago was a success. Our human ancestors over the last several million years were relatively recent forebears and they too were biologically successful.
Individually, then, we will die, but the chain of living things that we are part of is massive and powerful and old beyond imagining. Look around you at every living thing you can see, imagine all of them, imagine the microbes that you can’t see, even the three pounds of bacteria that you carry inside you, imagine all that life that we belong to. My death will be another link in this massive chain, and that just may be okay. And all this life will stretch into the future for a long time to come. All that past and all that future may not be literal immortality, but it is long enough for me.
But I would like you to hear another voice on this theme besides mine. Here is what the Harvard biologist George Wald said about it in 1970 in a lecture entitled “The Origins of Death.”
We already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.
I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here?… All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying.
I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having—and we have it.
I share this vision, though I find myself thinking less about immortality and more about the chain of living things, individual organisms all linked to the ones before it and after it. Does this vision console me about dying? Not perfectly and not all the time, for our revulsion at death consists in part of our visceral, necessary surge to stay alive. And I think that many people, like me, carry an odd, unconscious fear that when we die, all life, even the universe itself, will disappear, an anxiety about annihilation. So it calms me quite a bit to remind myself that when other people have died, other people carry on, fully alive, and that the same will happen after my death. And I remind myself also that if it is being alive itself, far more than our egos, that is ultimately precious, then that aliveness itself is indeed old, huge, and enduring.
Let me move now to a second question and my attempts see if science’s description of life could help me with it. That question is, what is the moral basis of life, what are the roots of right and wrong, and how are the good actions that I try to take grounded in a larger natural order and not just in cultural traditions and social trends? Certainly, people look to the religions for answers about what is right and what is wrong and they rarely look to science. Scientists are fine with that. They emphasize that their field is about knowledge as best as they can establish it and not about judging human behavior.
But there are exceptions to this belief. One popular voice these days is Sam Harris. Harris is a neuroscientist who argues in his book The Moral Landscape that human values may be intangible, but still they are—or they should be—based on solid facts about human behavior. If the facts show that some piece of human behavior is destructive, then it should be wrong. That behavior should not be considered to be right just because it is a tradition or because it is approved of in an old book.
Here’s an example. Statistics show that physical punishment of young children increases the child’s later tendencies towards violence and social pathology, so such punishment, Harris argues, should not be acceptable. Outsiders may not want to interfere in the practice of corporal punishment that is legal is 21 states in the US and is justified on religious grounds, but they certainly should interfere. For Harris, similar arguments apply to female genital excision, foot binding, and slavery.
But Harris’s approach does not settle my question about the ways that my inclinations to help people and avoid harming them are linked to the larger order of life. What I’ve found most meaningful is learning about the pervasiveness of harmony and collaboration along with competition in the history of life on the planet. My argument here is that friendship, love, and moral good are rooted in organic cooperation, through pathways that aren’t fully understood, and that hatred and evil are similarly rooted in competition and its own long history.
I am not saying that all cooperation is virtuous—certainly people can cooperate in doing terrible things—and I’m not saying that all competition is bad—healthy competition, between individuals, between groups, is real. I’m saying that good and loving actions, when they occur, have their origins in ancient levels of cooperation, and hatred and evil have their roots in competition when it is intensified by fear and envy. I won’t say much about competition here because it’s a theme that is already familiar to us since Darwin, especially under the heading of survival of the fittest. But let me say more about the other half of the story.
Cooperation takes its earliest form in the simplest living things. Molecules in the first cells enabled each cell to create energy and to expend it. And single bacterial cells even cooperated with each other. More than 3 billion years ago, bacteria organized themselves into stromatolites, layers of mats in piles that filtered sea water for sediment and chemicals. Stromatolites were the first communities and they can still be seen in Australia. A billion or more years later, single-celled creatures evolved into multi-celled ones whose various types of cells carried out specialized functions such as motion and sexual reproduction. We should appreciate this sort of organic coordination because the next step up, from multiple cells to multiple organs, is us. The harmony of our bodily systems working together is what keeps us alive. The same can be said of not only animals but also any flowering plant with its diverse flowers, leaves, stem, and roots.
The next level up of living coordination is the coordination among individuals in a species, especially bees, ants, and humans. Why and how did we humans get to be so sociable—and so clever at it, capable of loving one person one moment and plotting revenge against another one the next?
Let’s listen to Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who pioneered the field of sociobiology, the evidence of hard-wired, elaborate social instincts in certain animals, most notably ants. Wilson explains that in humans, our irresistible tendency to form groups is both our virtue and our curse, the source of our unity and also of our bigotry. Here’s an abridged account of how our social sophistication began, from his recent book The Meaning of Existence.
In Africa roughly two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian austalopithecines evidently began to shift its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely disperse source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young….It was more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters… Mental growth began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation.
The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored pre-humans evolved as a kind of nonstop game of chess. Today, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal.
Here then is what seems to me to be a basic answer to the question of the natural context for human morality. It is on the one hand our sociality and empathy, built on the ancient foundation of organic organization and cooperation. It is also the destructive instances of equally ancient struggle and competition. I can’t say that this understanding has changed my ethical behavior in any way. But it does clarify and confirm for me how deeply engrained in us our best and worst aspects are. The two paths of right and wrong are not solely the products of recent human culture or religion. They are as old as the stromatolites, as old as life itself.
Now I’ll move on to my third and broadest question: What is our purpose in life? You may at this point be able to guess where I am going with this one. I see the answer as Darwin probably saw it and as Wilson does see it. It is in the nature of living things to, above all, reproduce, and to survive until they can do so. Life for all plants and animals is about continuity in its two forms, the continuity of the individual in simply staying alive until he, she or it can reproduce, and the continuity of the species through time, by means of offspring.
That’s easy enough to say about the purpose of plants and animals, but humans? Is my life, your life, really about, at its most profound level, surviving and reproducing? I will argue that it is.
Let’s look at survival first. Our brains were molded over millions of years when physical survival, especially having enough to eat, was touch and go every day of the year. Such desperation is still the case today for about one billion of the 7 billion people living on the planet. But here in suburban New Jersey?
Our brains haven’t changed much in that short time and, for better and worse, concerns about survival are always just under the surface, driving more aspects of our lives than we like to admit. Food, money, violence, disease, even the weather, are almost always on our minds. You should have seen the crowds in the supermarket on the day before the blizzard blew in last week. And how many of you are thinking right now about lunch? Are you worrying about someone you’re close to who is suffering from illness or injury? Are you thinking about money, the coin of survival for humans? Are you outraged about guns, about the dangers of either having then or not having them? What about terrorists? Car accidents? GMOs? All such concerns are about survival. Even when they are not life and death matters, they are never far from it.
Still, that observation seems crude. What about the purpose of life in the higher sense, whatever that means? What about the meaning of life that is supposed to be a precious, obscure secret. I think the answer to that question concerns reproduction, and not just biological reproduction.
Certainly, for many people, both men and women, having children and raising a family is the cornerstone of their lives, their greatest pride, an achievement that allows them to feel a little easier on their deathbeds. But for humans, reproduction of oneself takes many different forms. Our future is alive in our imagination and ambition as well as in our yearning for biological offspring. In much the same way that we hope to see ourselves reflected in and carried into the future by our children, people also hope to see themselves reflected in and carried into the future by achievements of many kinds, by our influence on students or voters, by our fame, by our quiet caring for friends and family, by our social service to the poor or our medical service to the sick, or by works of literature or other art that we create. Such self-fulfillment has its ancestry in the reproductive instincts that also drive animals, plants, even bacteria.
So the question was, what is the purpose of life? My perhaps not entirely satisfying answer is that being alive is, in and of itself, purposeful. It is always full of needs, drives, and goals. Not just for humans but for growing plants and hungry birds as well. Our goals, in one form or another, are the intrinsic ones: to stay alive, to foster other life, to live into the future.
Let me close with this thought, especially for the science students here. Science is supposed to be an unemotional business. The scientific method is designed to start with a hypothesis and then to pull away away as much human bias, error, and subjectivity as possible. The conclusions are cautious, the accumulated knowledge wins respect slowly. But I urge you to do the opposite, to take science personally any time you can. When you come across a bit of scientific information that catches your attention for some reason, grab it. Ask yourself why it resonates for you, how it might change the way you see things, how it fits in your view of life. Make it personal, in other words. Make it maybe even a little bit spiritual.