Evolution and the Grand Design | Congregation Beth Am

Evolution and the Grand Design

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
May 31, 2002

It took me a long time to appreciate abstract art. I first encountered it in junior high, when for some bizarre reason, I used to pick up random volumes of the encyclopedia and read through them. In volume 15 of the World Book there was a long article on "painting," with reproductions of all the great works of Western art. There I discovered modern classics like Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" - vibrant geometric shapes of red, yellow and blue, bisected by black lines. Later, wandering through various art museums, I encountered Jackson Pollock's frenzied splatters of paint, Kandinsky's vivid, swirling squiggles, and Mark Rothko's vast canvases filled with bold, luminous bands of color.

To my untutored eyes, abstract art was strange and disturbing. It offered no pleasure to the eye and, what's more, it offered no evidence of intelligent design. Some of these works seemed to be slapped together in haphazard, even chaotic, fashion. No harmonious patterns of color, form and line were apparent. Instead, my brain had to work hard to make any kind of sense of them. It took lots of reading and explanations by museum docents, and lots of stepping back from the painting to take a second look, before I began to see these works as beautiful.

I thought about volume 15 of the World Book and my introduction to abstract art last week, when the world mourned the passing of Stephen Jay Gould. For Gould, who brought science to the masses through his monthly magazine columns in Natural History, and his many popular books, was best known as an evolutionary biologist. And Gould expressed with great eloquence the challenge that the theory of evolution poses to religion.

I don't mean the low-level challenge to religious fundamentalism that was dramatized back in the 1920s in the Scopes "monkey trial." Very few people today, in the Jewish world, at least, believe that God created the world in 6 days and that the dinosaurs never existed. Liberal Jews, and even more traditional ones, long ago made their peace with a non-literal reading of the Biblical text.

Many Jewish scholars have argued that the purpose of the creation story is not to give a factual account of life's origins but to teach moral and ethical lessons: that the universe is constructed with order and harmony, for instance; or that human beings must be caretakers of the natural world, or that all humanity is one family. Some have pointed out the similar order in which various forms of life take shape in Genesis and in evolutionary history. It was easy for many Jews to conclude that belief in evolution is compatible with religious faith and that God works through the processes of natural selection and evolution.

We are open to science and reason, liberal Jews declared; in fact, we welcome the insights of modern scientific investigation. The more we learn about the cosmos, we said, the more we can appreciate the beauty and elegance of its design. But Stephen Jay Gould forced us to confront a shattering question. What if there is no design? For Gould argued that evolution is the product of blind forces without purpose or intention; natural selection is driven simply, as he put it, by "the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success-nothing else, and nothing higher..." And human beings, he said, are not the crown of creation but an incidental byproduct.

There has been no steady, purposeful progression upwards, he argued -- no programmed development from primitive amoebas to homo sapiens with his laptop and cellphone. Rather, life has evolved randomly, moving to more complex structures simply because that was the only direction in which one-celled organisms could move. And if we want to talk about evolutionary success stories, the real heroes would not be people but bacteria, who have been around a lot longer than we have, and whose population has exploded far beyond our own. "After all," Gould said in an interview, "humans have only been here for a geological eye blink in the three and a half million year history of life, and that leads to the frightening thought that we might be an insignificant little twig that was never meant to be and is here only by accident..."

Gould told us, in other words, that there is no supreme intelligence, no grand, shaping hand, no master plan at all behind the great pageant of the universe. And that assertion challenges more than the literalism of biblical fundamentalists. That's a dagger in the heart of religious faith. It gives us a world based on nothing more than chance - the haphazard interaction of random, swirling electrons; a cold and uncaring cosmos rather than one infused with goodness and love; no ultimate meaning, no absolute truths, no purpose beyond those which we dream up for ourselves.

Liberal religion can readily incorporate science; we can even, with some difficulty, come to terms with the possibility that MUCH of the Bible is not literally true - as long as we can say that it is true on a deep level - that the moral lessons it imparts are rooted in reality. We do not have to believe, in other words, that God formed man out of the dust of the earth in order to believe that we are made in the divine image - that there is something of irreducible value in every human soul. But even the most liberal and progressive religion falters when forced to confront the possibility that none of it matters; that nature is amoral, that there is no supreme Power that unifies all life and summons us to respond with compassion and justice; that we are simply here by accident.

Reconstructionist Judaism, which denies the existence of a personal God, still clings to the idea that there are moral laws in the universe as powerful as the physical laws of nature. A great force for goodness pervades all creation, said Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism. That force draws us to pursue the good just as magnetism draws the compass needle north. So a Reconstructionist can speak metaphorically of a benevolent God, a God who cares, who commands, who calls us to righteousness.

And though Reconstructionists may not see the world as something deliberately and consciously fashioned by an artist, they still insist that the universe is art; for there is order and coherence, meaningful direction, beauty, truth and moral purpose in its structure. But no theology I know of, and no religion I have seen, can accommodate the idea of a universe without design.

As a Reform Jew, I cannot close my eyes to science; I must have the courage to think through its teachings and grapple with their implications. But I can also say that science need not be the only lens through which I view the world, nor should its teachings be the only ones that define how I live in the world.

As Francisco Ayala, a professor of biological sciences and philosophy at UC Irvine, wrote: "science is a very successful way of knowing, but not the only way. We acquire knowledge in many other ways, such as through literature, the arts, philosophical reflection, and religious experience. A scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. Science seeks material explanations for material processes, but it has nothing definitive to say about realities beyond its scope. Once science has had its say, there remain questions of value, purpose, and meaning that are forever beyond science's domain, but belong in the realm of philosophical reflection and religious experience."

It's all a matter of perspective, you see. One person looks at a Jackson Pollack and sees only chaotic splashes of paint - a mess fit for the wastebasket. Another sees a coherent composition with its own integrity and beauty - a precious work of art to be cared for and cherished. Or more to the point, one person looks at Picasso's "Guernica" and sees an assortment of colored pigments and distorted figures arranged on canvas. Another sees a devastating statement about the evils of war. Science feeds us data. But it's up to literature, philosophy, religion and art to offer us another perspective, and to help us figure out the meaning.

Stephen Jay Gould and other biologists can bring us news that evolution proceeds in ways that seem random to us. But we know enough, by now, to be humble about abstract art. We know that what looks to the untutored eye like randomness and chaos can actually be the work of a genius. So who are we to pass judgment on the artistic merits of the cosmos? To me it seems quite possible that this vast and complex universe, exploding in every conceivable direction with intricate and diverse forms of life, expresses the creative energy of a power our minds can't even fathom.

Robert Pollack, professor of biological sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, explains why he accepts the theory of evolution, but remains a believing Jew. The world view which evolutionary theory implies, he says, "is simply too terrifying and depressing to me to be borne without the emotional buffer of my own religion." For him, Judaism introduces a "certainty of meaning and purpose to a set of data that otherwise show no sign of supporting any meaning to our lives on Earth beyond that of being numbers in a cosmic lottery with no paymaster."

So is Professor Pollack simply a coward - afraid to face a terrifying and depressing reality? There's nothing intellectually wrong with being an atheist, he writes. "[That position] used to be my own, but as I have gotten older, I find I no longer can honestly hold to it. When I asked my teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz how to respond to ... criticism of my [faith] by non-believing friends, he said, "If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: Almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves."

So yes, I suppose it is a form of cowardice that leads Dr. Pollack to accept the God of our ancestors. He's afraid of a world which has given up on religious ideals, and has placed some person or some ideology in God's place, revering the self, or the state, or science itself, as the Most High.

Genuine religion, like modern art, is ultimately about humility. It teaches us not to see ourselves as the center of all knowledge, goodness and power. It teaches us to be gentle and tentative in our conclusions about the universe, or about God, or about truth. It reminds us that there is something above, something beyond, a mystery that transcends our limitations. So I step back from the swirling squiggles of color and movement in which we live on this complicated planet. I step back, and take a second look. And for the time being, I will continue to believe that beauty exists, that goodness matters, that life has value and purpose and meaning. And I will continue to cherish this world as a precious and spectacular work of art.

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