Contemporary biologists who write for the general public usually have more to impart than scientific information. They have lessons to teach us about how to think of ourselves and our relation to the universe. This is not surprising, since biology is pervaded by Darwin's theory of evolution, and the significance of that theory for our self-understanding remains largely unassimilated.
It isn't just that evolution contradicts the Biblical story of the creation - which the Roman Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations don't take literally any more. Darwin's theory, as usually understood, is one of the most radically reductive scientific conceptions of all time, for it says that the appearance of purpose in the intricate design of living things and in their exquisite adaptation to their environments is an illusion: the whole plant and animal creation is a cosmic accident, or rather the result of a very long chain of accidents, explainable only in terms of the non-purposive laws of particle physics. That the process ever got started, with the formation of a suitable self-replicating molecule, seems to have depended on a chemical accident, though it is not possible at present to construct a realistic scenario that makes probable its occurrence in the time available since the earth began. And it seems radically contingent that, having begun, the process should have followed a path that included the appearance of vertebrates, mammals and ourselves. All this is obscured by the purposive-sounding Just-So stories by which evolution is often explained.
LRB 1 April 1999 | PDF Download