Some notes on the last half of Chapter 4, Evolution of the Theory…
A cosmic lens
The current consensus is that the universe originated about 13.7 billion years ago, in the ‘Big Bang’. Looking at biological evolution through the lens of cosmic evolution makes life’s propensity for novelty more comprehensible. Even in the early phase, the rate of cosmic expansion was calibrated ‘just right’: the proper rate of expansion created the right conditions for galaxies with all their different bodies to form.
We do not know exactly how life originated, but an extraordinary degree of ‘fine tuning’ in the cosmos’ basic structures, laws and properties of matter-energy set up the conditions for life as we know it to begin. Placing the origin of species within the larger framework of the history of the universe casts an illuminating light on life on earth in several specific ways:
• Location in time: The 3.5 billion year story of life is a later chapter in the history of the cosmos.
• Location in space: Earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting a medium-sized star, toward the edge of one spiral galaxy. Earth’s amazing explosion of life is a rare, surprising event taking place within the space of the ongoing expansion of this lavish universe.
• Cosmic interrelationship: Life is a dynamic state of matter. The world of matter-energy, resulting from 10 billion years of cosmic history, entered into what science calls a state of information carried in the genes. This is information in the organism about how to grow itself (the embryo), how to regenerate itself (metabolism), and how to replicate itself (reproduction). Imbued with this information, matter proves to be plastic, flexible, remarkable in its zest to self-organize into complex structures and its capacity to evolve – yet it is still the same basic material that was first formed in galactic events.
• Dynamism: The adventure of life participates in the ongoing dynamism of the universe itself: once life begins, there is a disposition in biological nature to improvise, to be creative in ways that cannot be foreseen. Over time new entities, structures, and processes come into being; they change and become more complex, to be replaced by yet newer forms.
• Open-endedness: The story of life’s evolution on earth has an unpredictable character. It is not the case that all conditions were chaotic or that everything happened randomly; the universe is basically ordered, structured by a set of law-like regularities. Yet unexpected events create new opportunities for creative advance. Such is the view of 20th-century science, which has brought to an end the mechanistic view of the world associated with Newtonian physics.
• Quantum mechanics, which works at the infinitesimal level of the atom and its subatomic particles, has uncovered a realm where time, space, and matter itself behave in ways that have indeterminacy built into them.
• Chaos theory has explored a similar open-endedness in certain non-linear, dynamic systems at the macro level. (We will never have a completely accurate weather forecast weeks in advance, not because of the limitation of our instruments but because of the nature of the weather system itself.) Non-linear, dynamic systems thus represent a form of ‘structured randomness’ in the orderly functioning of the world.
• Evolutionary biology demonstrates that the emergence of life has followed no pre-determined blueprint but is shot through with surprise.
• Innate creativity: Taken together, these theories and observations undermine the idea that there is a detailed, unfolding plan according to which the world was designed and now operates. Rather, the stuff of the world has an innate creativity.
An ecological lens
The connection of biological evolution to the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ (along with its social misuse) led to the idea that evolution consists of nothing more than brutal competition among individuals. But the growing field of ecological science has led to a more subtle assessment, emphasizing the interdependence of species in local habitats. While natural selection works on individual variations, these always exist in the context of community.
Darwin’s view of life is focused on community – he saw the struggle for life as contextual, as each species takes from and benefits others. There would be no evolution without species constantly interrelating with each other in their particular environments. Along these lines, it is significant that the grand summarizing symbol in Origin is the tree of life, a branching, interconnected system with kinship in every pore.
For religious communities who believe the living world is God’s good creation:
How can we speak of the creating, redeeming, re-creating God of life in view of evolution?
How can we act toward the natural world in a way coherent with this understanding?
Ask the beasts, the birds, the plants, the fish and they will tell you, counsels the book of Job (12:7). The beasts’ story is a spellbinding drama, beyond what the author of Job could possibly have imagined. Johnson writes, “For the sake of the intelligibility of belief in our day, as well as a basis for right moral action, it is essential that a Christian theology of evolution locate this drama within the very heart of God.” (Ask the Beasts, p. 121)
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