Sarah Coakley’s project of talking up the role of cooperation and sacrifice in evolution is timely and has important implications beyond theology (“Giving but not yielding”, 8 August). But it would be a mistake to suppose that the only damage the theory of evolution inflicted on religion was to suggest a distorted dog-eat-dog picture of selection by competitive annihilation. The primary blow was that it showed there could be another explanation for creation (at least the creation of the most amazing things in the universe – living things and human beings). Nietzsche’s response (“God is dead”) was crystal-clear: religion had lost its previous monopoly on explaining the existence of the universe.
The irony of the situation is that the Darwinian explanation, taken seriously, demolishes the notion that we can validly look at the cosmos sub specie aeternitatis: we can look at the universe only as human beings. This switches off an immense succession of metaphorical lamps illuminating time and space right back to the moment of creation. One unexpected consequence is that much of the weight of evolution-as-fact disappears, because the cosmos, viewed through strictly human eyes, is mostly now. The distant past – judged by what we actually know – is an unknown country: one that gets mistier and mistier the farther you try to go back. Indeed, the past ceases to be a royal road to explaining anything, because the antecedents of any event in the distant past are mistier than the event itself. There can be no mathematical model of the grand evolutionary process, because mathematical truth is timeless and allows no conceptual space for anything to “evolve”.
Clearly evolution happened. But its knowability – reckoned by human yardsticks – is considerably less than generally supposed. Within evolution, cooperation and socially expected sacrifice evidently played a major part. So, although most of us probably take the Darwinian side, there is still a long way to go in working out what it means.