Who do you ask when you’re wondering whether there’s really any point to it all? You can ask a scientist, but they’ll tell you life is an accident of chemistry, that there’s no inherent spiritual point to your life and that you’re just a collection of cells with a part in Earth’s food chain no different than a bird or houseplant. Stephen Hawking put it most depressingly, calling humanity ‘a chemical scum on the surface of the Earth’.
On the other hand a priest, reverend or theologian will tell you there was a reason you were born and that someone somewhere cares about everything you do. It’s comforting, but the only evidence they’ll offer for their advice is an ancient storybook and an arcane emotional practice called ‘faith’ that’s the opposite of proof or evidence by it’s very nature.
The answer is obviously to talk to someone who’s both at once, and US author and speaker Reverend Michael Dowd is doing his best to oblige, spreading the good news about evolution and science. With his book Thank God for Evolution and the accompanying website, Dowd is preaching the gospel of atomic structure, natural selection and chemical reactions as the basis for love, happiness and the sense of spirit we all feel.
In his many recordings or videos online, the quick-thinking, quick-talking 52 year old makes a lot of reference to ‘day’ and ‘night’ language. The former is what we’re using more and more in recent times. Since the Enlightenment we’ve learned more than in all human history about why rain falls down, why negative and positive electric charges attract, and why we feel jealousy — all of it locked up in the movement and chemistry of miniscule particles of matter.
Dowd believes night language is the rich mythology we use to describe things we can’t understand like the universe being created in six days (when Biblical scholars had no idea of the timescales involved in planet formation) or Christ rising from the dead after three days, which some Bible historians will tell you is mere symbolism of his ‘rebirth’ into a new belief system.
“Our life works when we have a sense of purpose,” Dowd says. “It’s important to distinguish between two distinct processes. First, what’s our best evidence from just the facts, and second, how might we interpret this?” Dowd believes there’s a danger of many people believing life is indeed meaningless, a point of view we’re seeing more of in the face of scientific discovery that paints the universe as indifferent to our existence.
In conversation Dowd talks more like a biochemist than a reverend, but most surprising of all is his frank admission that there’s no evidence for a supreme being directing our lives and loving us from some strange realm beyond the observable universe. “What we have evidence of is where interdependence and greater cooperation grew larger and wider in scale,” he explains. “And when people get that, they can see the meaning of their life and the meaning of our species in a very inspiring, hopeful and encouraging way. But it doesn’t come from evidence of a supernatural being, it’s from reality as a whole that’s been unfolding for 14 billion years.”
Dowd refers to two new lines of thought in science that seem to be flying in the face of a dispassionate universe that considers us mere specks in a void. The first is a growing body of evidence that life does better in cooperation than competition. Since Richard Dawkins galvanised Darwin’s laws of survival of the fittest for a new generation in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, many anthropologists and biologists point out areas where working together gets better results — even between species. Homo sapiens strongest characteristic is after all the empathy that gives rise to everything from love to altruism. Cooperation, it now seems, trumps selfishness.
The other is a strict scientific rule that dates back to the days of Isaac Newton but which the evolution of life refuses to adhere to. According to the laws of thermodynamics, complicated systems break down over time into their constituent parts, like an appliance dumped at the tip will rust away and break down to nothing if left long enough. According to the law, the entire universe should one day reach a state of complete equilibrium in temperature and chemical make-up, with all matter having broken down to the simplest possible particles (search ‘entropy’ online for more).
But living matter tends to do the opposite. Single celled animals formed, split to form more cells and grew more complicated, leading to mutli-celled animals, vertebrates, primates and humans over the course of the last 4.3 billion years. We’re certainly not the endpoint of life as we know it — evolution never stops and we’ll give rise to even more complicated and wonderful creatures yet — but we’re the most complicated life form around so far in this world.
So even though many in the life sciences are reluctant to assign overlord status to a disembodied supernatural being with a beard and flowing robes, the universe would seem to have built in directionality toward a being like us, as Dowd and plenty of others contend. As philosophers since time immemorial have suspected, we might be what the universe uses to know of its own existence.