In the Teeth of Rainbows, Part #1

The Indelible Stamp

When words can not do, consider breathing. When you breathe in, it begins one of the most complex, beautiful and structured events to occur throughout the known universe. As air passes through your nostrils, the elimination of harmful excesses begins. It is a tough agent who is able to survive your body’s display of your immune system. After the air has passed through your nostrils, filtered by tiny hairs and mucus, it passes down into your throat. It then travels down into your lungs, caged behind your ribs. There your lungs fill like balloons. Blood is oxygenated – which attaches energy to blood cells to deliver it to every part of your body. The chemical reactions that take place, on even a microscopic level, would fill several blackboards of any chemistry lab. Yet this is happening right now, while you read this.

I have used words but words can do little justice to the intricate net of complexity, which begins its first stitching when we breathe. This is how we know we are alive. Strange as it may seem this is the answer to one of the biggest questions we face as conscious entities: “How do I know I’m alive?” Biologically the answer is: “You are breathing.”

But that does not make it fulfilling or all-encompassing of this question. Consider the Meaning of Life: in this same way the meaning of life is to pass on your genes. I do not find either of these answers satisfactory. I would never reply with “to breed” – even though this is the correct answer. I might not use this, but maybe some sexually active people might. Does this mean they are living more fulfilling lives than the rest of us? No. In fact it is, more often than not, quite the opposite.

Life and its mysteries are not dispelled by chemical equations and biology, or philosophy and religion. As Darwin said “there is a grandeur in this view of life”, viewing it through the wonder that science and open-mindedness afford. I can not sway you to accept science or naturalism as opposed to religion or supernaturalism. As I said, words can not do. But we have to ask, are we not awed at our existence through the discoveries of science? As opposed to the gibbering, slavish, pestilential existence that is so depraving on display, as grown men and women supplicate themselves before an invisible god. What monotheist god lavishes in carnal human exhibitions, as opposed to demanding us to cover our bodies, never speak of sexual doings, to shroud women from head-to-toe? Where is the humanity in feeling sickened by what makes us human, where is the humanity in hating the only gateway we have with this world, our world?

Humanism entails nothing supernatural to its tenets. We are dealing with the Here, the Current, The Brief Spotlight we have on this world. And we are unique in how we deal with that spotlight. Sir Peter Medawar (1) considers humans the only species to live in the spotlight, with a consideration for what occurred in the darkness of the past and the darkness of the future and we should not be wasting our brief time in the spotlight of the present.

And it certainly is brief. Our longing for something more, something intrinsically beyond our conception but which touches us at so-called “divine moments” is perfectly natural. But natural does not mean good. The leaves of plants are natural and there is a misconception regarding it to be healthy, or worse, good for us. Plants are a form of life – they don’t want to be eaten. To suppose that plants are healthy or good for us intrinsically is to give into the homocentric – the opposite of humanist – notion that something occurring naturally in the world is created for our pleasure. No it is not. Plants have poisons and toxins and thorns precisely to ward off groping fingers. Natural is not good: Cancer is natural, myopia is natural, but that is not necessarily a good thing.

Humanism then does not deny the numinous and transcendent (2), in fact as a humanist I’m trying to inspire it. But instead of directing our awe at something invisible, we should direct it at something beautiful. Even gazing at the incredible flagellum of Escherichia coli is enough to make any decent person pause. As I stated in an article for Skeptic (3), humans should feel ashamed at their pathetic form of transport: putting one foot in front of the other – when compared to E. coli’s powerful motors thrusting its way toward food. We fade into a monotone of ability when faced with the power of a micro-organism: creating propellers, make-shift cities that can destroy and travel, the ability to destroy hundreds of people by being inside their body. But don’t stop there: consider scientists using E. coli to create smart-drugs that can fight cancer as the cancer changes; consider it being the first organism to have its genes isolated. In fact, it is a minority of people on this planet who don’t have E. coli in their gut protecting them this instant (4).

And humans? Take a moment to look at the power of micro-organisms and reflect: It is humanity who are the slaves, not those bacteria who live in us. In fact, we could not live without most of that bacteria. My question is actually incorrect. I shouldn’t say “humans” – because if we took a measurement of DNA throughout our body, most of it would not be human. The question is actually this: where do these bacteria inside end and we begin?

1. Medawar, P.B. & J.S. (1977) The Life Science. London: Wildwood House.

2. I am averse to the word “spiritual” as it has too many connotations. But the idea is still similar.

3. Moosa, T. (2008) ‘Darwin’s Tiny White Box’ in Skeptic, Vol. 14 (3)

4. Zimmer, C. (2008) Microcosm: E coli and the new science of life. London: William Heinemann.


Op-Ed: Music of the Merging Sphere

From CFI Campus Inquirer, Feb ’09

There has been a merging of spheres within modern thought. Their harmony is conducive toward a continued enlightenment. The first is the Darwinian process of evolution by natural selection, while the second is the secular endeavors rising against the tumult of religious obfuscation, absolutism, and dogmatism. It is important to disengage the harmony to listen to the singular music of each sphere. By so doing, we are able to realize why it is that secularism and evolutionism as so intrinsically entwined.

To begin, it is necessary to give a general answer: “Darwin made it possible,” says Richard Dawkins, “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Though I find the term “atheist” superfluous, the meaning here is clear: those of us who see meaning, beauty and fulfilment of this life within this life, rather than from an external source, have a need to explain the diversity of the natural world. If one is shackled into a religion, the origin of species is easily explained by postulating a great deity. Without a deity, how on Earth (notice this pun) could this apparent design arise?

Arise, Darwin, to claim the mantle of greatness.

Darwin called his idea as overwhelming and shocking as “confessing a murder”. Why? The main reason for its tether to humanism is the removal of the godlike pedestal Man had stood on. It was from his great intellectual height and insight that he looked down upon other animals as “lower”, that he looked upon the earth made for his delight. But, placing Man squarely as part of the natural process-as just another ape-the greatness of existence, the egotistical focus on humanity’s “purpose”, crumbled into dust. Today, people are still revolted at not being “more special”, at being at base a “wild animal”. Darwin put it beautifully when he said, “Man still bears the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Given to superstition, sounds, faces, voices, conspiracy-theories, complicated over-analysis, ghosts, demons, humans want their lives to be part of something more: a battle between good and evil, governments focused on manipulating them, and so on. The natural explanations for all these things, including for the diversity and beauty of life, are somehow “less” interesting than “magical reasoning”. Science has demolished ordained knowledge, which crumbled with the edifice of Man’s egotistical “purpose” as part of a god’s “plan”. Hence, the reasoning why evolution by natural selection is often tethered with the hopes and exploits of Reason’s defenders.

The most incredible impact that something external can have on us is through the visual; thus something overwhelmingly (visually) breathtaking would have the greatest impact on us. And the natural world, surrounding us every day, demanding an explanation for its complexity, is just that.

Thus we struggle to say that something so beautiful and essential can be explained-in general, simply, and specifically, quite intricately. But it is part and parcel of the project to demolish the superstitious and supernatural and external sources of wisdom. Nothing is grander than the wonder of the world around us-and explaining it does not remove its beauty. Thus, my co-thinkers and I have a big job on our hands: fighting for natural explanations for all things (ghosts, life, nature), and instilling wonder and appreciation for life’s poetic qualities. This is all very humanist and why it is closely linked to the enterprise. Thus the sphere of evolution by natural explanation harmonizes with the enterprise to remove the supernatural and capture the present as most beautiful.

Works Cited:

– R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p. 5
– D. Quammen, The Kiwi’s Egg: Charles Darwin & Natural Selection (London: Phoenix Books)
– C. Darwin. The Indelible Stamp: Four Essential Volumes in One. J.D. Watson (Ed.) (London: Running Press).
– S. Pinker, How the Mind Works (London: Penguin Books)
– Ibid. 211 – 284