Lamps go out over cosmos

August 22, 2013

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.

Chris Ormell
Editor, Prospero

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together

man with frozen beard, Lake Louise, Canada

Australia also makes gains in list of most attractive English-speaking nations as US slips