Finding Spirituality in Science

This is a lecture I gave at the 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 three questions about life to which our biological history offers possible responses.

 

Finding Spirituality in Science

Introduction

Thank you for coming today. You may be wondering what a speech with a title that puts together the words science and spirituality will be about. First, here’s what it won’t be about. I won’t be talking about creationism. And I won’t be discussing the god-of-the-gaps arguments—those are the announcements that science can’t explain this or measure that, and that therefore, there must be a deity in the gap.

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 refers to non-material and supernatural entities, to matters of the soul, spirit, ghosts, karma, and the like. I’m not using it that way. I’m using spirituality here to refer to human feelings and ideas about life’s biggest issues, issues that are not really covered by any other term.

night skyFor many people today who approach spirituality in this secular sense, the central organizing story 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 many 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 distinctive in this epic, in the view of its proponents, in that we embody the part of the universe that has gained consciousness and thus we might see ourselves as the universe coming to know itself. We have only to look up at the stars at night, they say, to feel that the universe is a sacred thing, that it is the source and foundation of our being.

But I have to tell you that for me personally the Universe Story goes only so far. The universe, even perhaps the 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, doesn’t do anything for 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 feeling questions of a sort that could not be answered by this “wow” reaction to 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 very strongly, hey, I’m really am getting older and this is getting to be serious. I’m getting closer to my final chapter and there are a bunch of 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 me 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.

Dying

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.

life_timeline_imageConsider 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 mammals successfully dodging the footsteps of the dinosaurs 150 million years ago whom we can count as ancestors 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 biblical 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.”

George WaldWe 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 one before it and the one after. Does this vision console me about dying? Not perfectly and not all the time, for our revulsion at death is in part our organic surge to stay alive. And I think we have an unconscious tendency to feel that when we die, all life, even the universe itself, will disappear. So it calms me quite a bit to remind myself that when other people have died, others carry on, fully alive, and that the same will happen after my death. And I remind myself also that if it is life itself, being alive, and not ego that is ultimately precious, then that life indeed is old, huge, and enduring.

Morality

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 neurosurgeon 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 should interfere. For Harris, similar arguments apply to female genital excision, foot binding, and slavery.

But Harris’s approach is an argument for change and 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 the reverse, that good and loving actions have their origins in ancient levels of cooperation and organization, and hatred and evil have their roots in competition when it is distorted 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.

ants cooperatingCooperation takes its earliest form in living things as the organization of molecules in the first cells that enabled them to create energy and to expend it. (Any form of organization, even our being gathered here today, is a mode of coordination.) And early on, 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.

E O wilsonIn 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.

Purpose

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.

purpose of lifeLet’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.

Thank you.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

Here’s how many people, if they are not in denial about it, view the current environmental crisis: global warming has begun, weather will become more extreme, and the changes in temperature will impact agriculture, the habitability of sea coasts, and the survival of some species. The last item—species extinction—sits like an afterthought in such a summary. The description minimizes the prospect that we are probably entering the sixth of the planet’s massive extinctions.

The first five mass extinctions took place over the last half billion years as the results of sustained volcanic eruptions, large meteors, and ice ages. They lasted for millions of years. Today, though, in the popular imagination, they seem like little more than fantastical events far in our past that are pictured occasionally in magazines and science fiction movies.

dinosaurs and meteors

A picturesque extinction. Dinosaurs looking alarmed. (rainbowdolphin.com)

The current mass extinction is man-made. Called the Holocene extinction for the present geological epoch that began in 10,000 BC, it results from the steady increase in human numbers and, in modern times, from global warming, environmental destruction (rain forests, for example), overfishing, pollution, and the movement of invasive species and diseases around the world. It seems likely that each of these plagues is just getting warmed up.

The first five extinctions saw the loss of more than half of existing species, most often around 70% or more (apart from microbes). The most recent mass extinction, about 65 million years ago, has gained some  reknown. A six-mile-wide meteor hit the Yucutan peninsula and its impact on the climate wiped out the dinosaurs as well as an estimated 75 percent of other species. (For comparison, the normal rate of extinction is a few percent annually, as species evolve into new ones or succumb to competition or normal environmental change.)

timeline of mass extinction

The first five mass extinctions. The dinosaurs came into their own after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction and went out with the Cretaceous-Paleogene one.
(historyoftheuniverse.com)

The severity of the current, sixth, extinction is debated. According to Wikipedia, estimates run between 100 and 1000 times greater than the normal extinction rate. Ten years ago, E.O. Wilson famously predicted the loss of half of the current species 100 years from now. The exact rate aside, the losses have already cut across the organic spectrum. Amphibians, including frogs and toads; bird populations; fish species; invertebrates, mostly insects; plant species—all have declined. Mammals are vulnerable because they are dependent on plants and other animals down the food chain. In part because humans live almost everywhere on the globe, our species is not likely to be pressed to extinction anytime soon. But we can’t know the long-term impact of the next several decades’  addition of billions more humans and their demands for water, minerals, meat, and cars.

No matter whether the current extinction turns out to be a major one or only a middling one, its severity will earn it a place among the turning points for life on the planet. The chain of earthly life that is billions of years long has been tested in the past by meteors and volcanoes. It’s painful to think that it will be tested this time by one of its own.

Dinosaurs in the Backyard

utahraptor

Utahraptor, up to 7 feet long, with early feathers
(palaeocritti.com)

Not dinosaurs exactly, but their descendants for sure. Look outside for the creatures that lay eggs and walk semi-upright on two legs, with a stiffened tail. Imagine that that robin is many times larger, without feathers but with scales, with a large jaw instead of a beak, with long forearms instead of full wings, and you have a creature out of Jurassic Park. A topic of speculation since Darwin’s time, the descent of birds from dinosaurs has been confirmed by recent fossil discoveries. Natural selection works in wondrous ways.

How did the dinosaurs of 200 million years ago get feathers? The feathers first appeared because they helped a dinosaur stay warm. But they had a second, accidental benefit. When a dinosaur was running, its feathers provided balance and lift. Eventually, according to the most widely accepted theory, lift became lift-off. (The familiar Pterodactyl flew on wings of skin and membrane; it was neither bird nor, officially, a dinosaur.)

archaeopteryx

From dinosaur to bird. Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago and was about the size of a crow. It had both a dinosaur’s sharp teeth and a bird’s feathers. This 1880 photo shows feathers that were later removed. (wikipedia)

And where were our own ancestors, the mammals, while all this was going on? Early mammals were small and stayed  out of the way of the meat-eating reptiles. They bore young that had grown inside the mother instead of inside eggs, reptilian style.

early mammal

Juramala, a mouse-size mammal living 160 millions year ago. Like humans, it had a neo-cortex and nourished its young until birth through an umbilical chord. (physorg.com)

And they carried a brain more complex than the old “lizard brain.” The bigger brain, with its neo-cortex, improved their sensory perception and movement. We also use it to think and imagine.

Feathers and wings, and the new brain—all of them selected for survival and adapted for soaring.