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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 19, 2008

nature's cathedral

I'm very skeptical about the theory of evolution as it now exists. I don't doubt that evolution occurs; that seems to be established beyond question. What I can't swallow are the explanations currently on offer for how it happens, what the process is. On the whole these strike me, so far as I'm aware of them, as being pitifully inadequate.

What provokes this spasm of skepticism? Watching my DVD lecture series from The Teaching Company called Understanding the Brain by Jeanette Norden. I've now seen 11 of the 36 half-hour lectures. With my casual but longtime interest in the brain, much of the material is review for me, but quite a lot of it is new too. The structure and function of the brain are such as to make me certain that it cannot be merely the product of random or deterministic processes, no matter how long such processes may have been operating. But for me the coup de grace for a purely random and deterministic origin for the brain came while watching the lecture on development, in which Dr. Norden described how the developing neurons of the fetus are guided precisely into place by helper cells, who in effect shepherd them long distances in order to ensure they wind up where they're supposed to, and are wired up properly with their neighbors.

Looking at my last sentence, I see that I instinctively and without hesitation used the pronoun who to refer to the helper cells, rather than which, meaning that I see them as persons rather than as things. The cells of course are living things, but in general our language is loaded with impersonal and mechanical references, to stay consistent with the prevailing idea that physical processes are necessarily mechanical at bottom. Biologists go through contortions of language to expunge any suggestion that living things, especially low-level ones such as single cells, operate through any kind of consciousness or intention. It is still as Andrew, a scientist acquaintance back in the 1980s, asserted when ruling out certain kinds of explanation: "That would be teleology."

Teleology--the explanation of events by the idea that they are guided by a goal or intentionality--is a "third rail" in biology: an idea with which no serious practitioner can appear to have any truck. It is doctrinally forbidden, for it would appear to open the door to God and "intelligent design".

I understand the resistance to "intelligent design" by biologists, insofar as it is a codeword for sneaking the Bible into school science classes--an event that would indeed signal the intellectual decadence and bankruptcy of our civilization. If "intelligent design" means teaching Genesis 1 in science class, then OK, let's find another term. But the idea of intentionality and purpose--the universal behavior of all living things--does not necessarily mean having to invoke sacred scriptures as our scientific authorities. It does mean thinking about things in a new and more expanded way.

Even back in the 1980s my response to Andrew was, "But what if the processes are teleological--in fact? Wouldn't you want to know?"

I'd want to know--and I do want to know.

I'm developing my own ideas about evolution and life (a fun hobby for me). Maybe I'll share those in due course.

But for now I just wanted to note that in watching this lecture-series on the brain I find I'm gaining access to that important emotion wonder or awe. I think about Joseph Campbell's assertion that the first function of any living mythology is to evoke a sense of wonder or awe, and an image flashed through my mind as I watched and listened: that the brain is a cathedral.

I've visited a few cathedrals, on my trip to Europe with Tim back in 1978. I recall feelings of awe at these buildings, feelings arising from some mixture of the size of the buildings, their beauty, and also an awareness of their age and purpose. They are not utilitarian unless you regard "utility" as including a relationship with the divine or invisible reality.

The brain is incomparably more complex than any cathedral, incomparably better designed and built, by very many orders of magnitude. It's one living structure among many, it's true, but as the seat of consciousness it has a special place, and a special claim to sacred status, I think.

Given that human life is supported by such an ongoing miracle of design and complexity, I inevitably think about the uses to which I'm putting that life. Am I worthy of marvels that support my existence? Or am I squandering them and taking them for granted?

Lots to think about. Luckily, I have just the organ for it.

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