Ever since I was regularly bored to distraction by the tedious sermons preached at my English boarding school each Sunday, I have been seriously unconvinced about the presence of a supposed God who was all-powerful, but nevertheless did nothing to cure my adolescent unhappiness, nor to improve conditions on this small planet, nor even to give a positive indication of his existence. I am aware that many profoundly disagree with my sentiments, but my own skepticism developed over the years to anger at the constant instigation of mass conflict and slaughter in the name of religion, and the plainly mistaken diatribes of preachers as to how belief in Jesus would deliver mankind from its sorrows. These feelings of cynicism have invariably surfaced from time to time in my writings, notably in my stage play, ‘God and Stephen Hawking’ and more explicitly in my novel, ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ which concerns a modern-day detective search for a lost Charles Darwin postscript to ‘Origin of Species.’ This fictitious item, in which the great scientist describes his own feelings about the source of religious belief, ends the novel but remains undiscovered. It supposedly still resides in the archives of Britain's Royal Society under strict instructions from its author never to reveal its controversial contents to the public for fear of the furore it might create.
However, I now reveal it here to readers of Meer, with the thought that it may provoke some discussion, if not the anticipated furore.
Addendum to 'On the Origin of Species by Means OF Natural Selection' by Charles Darwin (1859)
Homo sapiens is a strange species. By far the most intelligently advanced of all that inhabit the earth, yet by far the most perverse and consciously self-destructive. Of extraordinary intellectual powers, yet prone to illogical prejudices, dogmas, and superstitions. The only species to have developed an analytical and a moral sense, yet the one most subject to irrational drives, unnecessary cruelties, and unreasoned fears. There has to be an explanation for this.
Over the years my exhaustive research into many of the families, genera, and species on the planet has convinced me of the one simple fact. Despite the persuasions of much of humanity, nothing is planned. Nothing is ordained. It is a matter of simple evidence that the universe operates in a way that is completely fortuitous. The earth is but one planet amongst innumerable planets which happen by chance to have the resources to support life. That life comes and goes with fickleness and ruthlessness that is total and disinterested. Whatever the biological form, it suffers plague and pestilence, contest and brutalism, deprivation, and extermination, without respite and without structure.
Whole generations die at a circumstance, entire species become extinct at a change in the weather, and complete life forms disappear through the whim of a natural disaster. As I have, I hope, shown in my writings, natural selection is the ultimate decider in the great struggle for survival - one superior developed form superseding another, one better-equipped species outliving another - each succeeding generation either extending its superiority through its inherited characteristics or yielding to a still better-endowed competitor. Extermination is a universal and brutal necessity. If it were not so, if all life were to proliferate unchallenged, then the earth would have suffocated through overcrowding millions of years ago.
This is a difficult circumstance for humans to comprehend. It is anathema to many. For they recognise only the beauty of nature and attribute this to the beneficence of the Almighty. But were they to look more closely they would observe that, beneath the surface, nature is of necessity savage, merciless, dispassionate. It’s a perpetual contest for survival. The ichneumon deposits its eggs to feed within the living bodies of other insects, the queen bee slaughters her own daughters as they are born for the preservation of her own community, one ant community destroys or enslaves another for the sake of its posterity. And of course, man perishes in his thousands at the advent of a drought, the onslaught of a plague, or through the insanity of war. In nature justice has no sway, virtue is irrelevant, and circumstance is all.
The very fact that man has become the dominant creature is, I believe, pure chance. It is probably due largely to the fortuitous fact that his ancestors developed dextrous fingers to find safety in the trees and probe there for fruit and other foods, which then enabled them to hold sticks and stones as weapons, and thence to fashion tools, and so begin thinking creatively. Had the first wolves developed fingers instead of claws, or birds become more adept with their own talons, then the lords of the earth might have been canine or had wings.
This is not a message easily accepted by many, perhaps the majority. That we are the product of simple circumstances. That we are here by accident - this is a concept inconceivable to all who have been conditioned by generations of earthly dominance, by centuries of religious teaching, and indeed by their own arrogance. But it is, I am convinced, a fact. Once it is understood all things become clear. The vicissitudes of fortune, the aberrations of behaviour, the injustices of ordinary existence. We are tempted, amongst the mysteries and the travails of life, to seek explanations in the stars and in the unseen blowings of the wind. We desire above all things to believe in a strategy behind the turmoil, a guiding authority amongst the havoc. We crave the assurance of a benign paternal power from the first glimmers of awareness – a loving father, a wise schoolteacher, an infallible political leader, and ultimately an omnipotent god. I was brought up in that tradition and accepted it until well into adult life. However, the more I developed my theory of natural selection the more I realised it was incompatible with such beliefs.
I tried in my principle writings to accommodate the possibility of an Original Creator in order that too many readers should not be offended, and so become distracted from my major argument. I would describe myself as an agnostic in such questions. I concur that the first origins of life or matter is a question that may never be proven, although even here one has to ask why a supreme authority would start such a process and then abandon it to mere anarchy. However, it seems unequivocal to me that, whatever the initial spark, no such authority has since taken any hand in, or exerted any influence over what occurs in nature. One only has to observe the progress of life objectively to realise this is true.
Does a divine power decide which hundred gnats a swallow shall snap up in its flight, at what moment a hawk will stoop upon that swallow? Does a supreme being determine that a good man shall be struck by lightning under a tree, causing his wife and children to be cast into the workhouse? Does God instigate the destruction of mass populations of species, having first created them? The growth and then decline of inferior genera, having first designed them? The agony of premature death by slaughter, starvation, or disease of the vast majority of organic beings through the ages, having supposedly brought them into life? I cannot accept such a concept. I listen to prelates preaching about the love of the Almighty, the power of his protection, the might of his omnipotence, and I see no atom of evidence of such in any circumstance of the observable world. Truly there is beauty, there is goodness, there is advancement, as well as savagery. But these are random and inconstant, due solely to the fortunes of the moment and to individual instigation, not to any organised design.
Likewise, the dreams of a heavenly afterlife. These are comforting no doubt to man in his tormented existence, but I do not see the reason. I cannot envisage the method. That we are put here to struggle and suffer and perish, only then to attain celestial eternity? It is surely a pointless preliminary to a supernatural sequel. Even more meaningless is the notion that we suffer eternal perdition if we transgress here on earth. Why then allow random tragedy and barbarity to exist in the first place? Simply to challenge us? A divine entrance test? And if so what of those who die in infancy? Do they qualify for a place in heaven? The idea that God gave us free will precludes any function for God in the first place. Such reasoning has no logic, except that its promotion is a powerful means of instilling moral conformity in the interests of the community.
Yet, if one puts aside these primitive concepts and considers dispassionately the principle of survival of the fittest, it becomes evident that this must be the remarkable and efficient tool by which the progress and development of life is achieved. The simple fact that a chance variation in the emergence of a new generation can fortuitously equip that generation better for survival in a particular environment, and so lead by further procreation to an improved species, is so obvious and so logical, and furthermore is scientifically demonstrable. Thus it is that, over aeons of time and thousands of generations, the giraffe procured an ever longer neck for access to higher branches. Although having the same number of vertebrae as an elephant, the rose developed ever brighter colours to attract fertilising insects. Although, plants fertilised by other methods such as the wind have no need for gaudy colours. The bat developed its flying abilities and extraordinary hearing system to enable it to go hunting in the safety of darkness. Although, it has similar eye and finger bone structures to other mammals. Natural selection is the means by which the first microbes crept from the sea to the land, the means by which the first flora took root, and the first fauna drew breath. And the means by which the species of man has attained his extraordinary powers.
Those developed powers are so astonishing that he is in fact the first creature to have some hope of controlling his own future. The first organism to escape the ruthless process of natural selection and begin to make its own selections (as the farmer, the rose grower, and the pigeon breeder already select). Dare I say it, it is a man who is the supreme authority, on this planet at any rate. But only for as long as he utilises that authority for the ultimate benefit, else he too will go the way of all other extinct forms.
Of course, man wishes to have faith in a greater power. He requires such to make sense of a mystifying and capricious world. He has ingrained beliefs stemming from his primeval past, when the stars, the mountains, and the seas were things of awesome mystery, his imagination endowing them with supernatural properties and divine occupation. And although he has now explored much of the mystery he carries these concepts still, buried deep in his psyche. And he passes the myths on to the infant in the cradle, as a means of reassuring the child that all will be well in a precarious existence.
Yet it seems to me strange that so many intelligent and educated persons should carry such beliefs into adult life. Curious that they should cling to an irrational conviction in the face of all the evidence - the myriad of conflicting ideologies, the lack of any true verification for any of them, the evident randomness and inequity of existence, even the wholesale oppression perpetrated throughout man’s history in the name of a chosen deity. All this, one would think, should outweigh the resolute insistence on ‘faith’. Yet still, they pay homage to ancient prophets and supposed divinities, ignoring the questions as to why none such have succeeded in changing the general course of man’s behaviour, or why their belated appearance should be necessary in a created universe in the first place.
One must ask why this is. One must wonder that this supposedly advanced species still clings to such groundless conceptions. Why do humans place reliance on external powers for which there are no proofs and no evidence? Why do they travel hundreds of miles to shrines with purported miraculous features to cure their infirmities, when the ordeal invariably proves ineffective and even in many cases fatal? Why do they create and congregate in the most magnificent constructions ever built-in to seek salvation from deities who patently exert no great effort on their welfare or survival? And above all, why do they act in defiance of all the moral codes supposedly imposed by these omnipotent authorities, and continue to behave with depravity in pursuit of spurious benefits?
The only explanation I can discover is that homo sapiens, notwithstanding his extraordinary accomplishments, is still at base a primitive animal. He is an undeveloped creature who, despite being able to design a steam engine or compose a symphony, is yet a prey to primal urges and instincts. There is not so much discrepancy in this paradox as might be thought. One only has to consider the astonishing technical achievement behind the creation of a spider’s web or a bee’s honeycomb - two organisms that have the basest intellectual development, and both completely subject to the motivations of inherited instinct - to see how nature can achieve such contrast. In my writings on instinct in species, I have described at length how my research has led me to the conclusion that these hereditary traits form one of the most powerful tools of evolution.
Inherited instinct provides modus for both the individual and the community, and the strongest instincts protect and enhance a species’ existence, hence the examples of the ichneumon, the queen bee, and the ant described above. So, it is with humans. The instincts to conquer, extend territory, defile and terrorise opponents, and beget maximum progeny are all deeply embedded in the human psyche. As are the instincts to venerate and placate conceived superior powers or divinities. Inherited mythology is a powerful thing. And I must accept that it has been necessary, perhaps essential, for humanity’s well-being to maintain belief in the absolute authority and a final reward in heaven. Without such concepts how could we have survived the appalling vicissitudes of fortune? How could we have endured so cruel a life where a little semblance of order or hope exists? In primitive times such faith was almost a condition of survival.
Nevertheless, as I have said, it is also true that man has now evolved from his early state, and is, compared to the other denizens of the earth, a much-progressed creature. The instincts within him, acquired for his early survival and assurance, are mostly redundant. I would suggest that to properly employ his newly developed dominance, he should by now be discarding them. It seems to me that, just as his savagery is no longer of use in a largely ordered world, so his superstitious inclinations are now a constraint on his awareness of reality. Indeed, I would go further and say that a reliance on a supreme authority could well be a hindrance to man’s progress since it encourages him to place the burden of salvation on God’s shoulders and not on his own. It exonerates him from responsibility.
Furthermore, there is a liberation in forsaking such concepts. Once freed from the constraints of historical ideologies man will be able to explore morality for its own sake, seek individual fulfillment objectively, to grow old with acceptance. Then his appreciation of the glories of the universe, his knowledge of the remarkable way it works and develops, and his ability to exploit its limitless powers, will so far eclipse his innumerable visions of paradise and mystically ordained structures that he will wonder at his early innocence. He will appreciate his contribution to the whole gigantic pattern, as each plant contributes to the life of the forest around it, and thus be free of his need for lone benediction.
I would offer an alternative philosophy, albeit one that will no doubt earn me accusations of sacrilege. For me, it is the gradual progress of man, and far beyond man of the universe itself, through natural selection and towards an ultimate perfect self-design, that is the only concept of heaven that is credible. One might say that God is the end, not the beginning.
I have been remarkably fortunate in my own life. Chance has been kind in my case. Despite my share of tragedies and afflictions, I have seen the marvels of the world, I have experienced the love of family and humanity, and I have discovered a vocation that goes to the heart of existence. I know that life itself is the only thing that merits faith. Evolving life in all its extraordinary forms, the changing firmament in all its spectacular beauty, and the infinite possibilities for future attainment are what justify worship.
The method of my own worship has been through biological research. Scientific exploration has been my fascination, my joy, and at times my demon. In that, it is the only path reliably to discover and exploit the truth. It is, I believe, man’s destiny.