Thursday, August 31, 2006

Founders versus forgetters

«   Part 2 of the series, Genesis for the rest of us   »

FoundersReligions, whether ecclesiastical or civic, devote extraordinary effort to their stories of origin. Cosmology forms the foundation of virtually every religious tradition. American constitutional law expends enormous energy deciphering the thoughts of a very small and unrepresentative group of eighteenth-century elites. Foundings matter in political theory because political theorists say they do.

By contrast, science has no use for origins. "A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost," said Alfred North Whitehead. Or, as E.O. Wilson rephrased this aphorism in Consilience, scientific progress is measured by the rate at which a discipline's founders are forgotten. Most wonderfully cynical of all is James Lovelock, who noted in Gaia that the prominence of an individual scientist may be gauged by how long she impedes progress in her discipline.

Founders? Forget them. They are dead; we are not. As I observed in my essay, The Midas Touch, nothing shows the gap between C.P. Snow's "two cultures" more starkly than the literary culture's obsession with origins and the scientific culture's disdain for them.

CosmologyWhich of these cultural extremes is humanity's natural propensity? Or, to restate the question in the argot of behavioral psychology and evolutionary biology, does the adapted mind treat the question of origins as an emotional, symbolic necessity or as an impediment to intellectual progress?

Ironically, the scientific evidence suggests that purely prospective science is a learned behavior, or at least far less instinctive than a nostalgic regard for beginnings. Religion, invariably containing a cosmological component, is a human universal. The need to understand one's origins, evidently a condition built into Homo sapiens sapiens' genetic code, arguably explains why the most politically active strains of Christianity in contemporary America put such enormous weight on Genesis, to the point of denying this inconvenient truth: Life on this ancient earth of ours is shaped by forces no more mysterious than random mutation, natural and sexual selection, adaptive radiation, evolutionary convergence, and the occasional meteor strike.

Next in this series: The Hebrew paradox -- why so many American Christians favor the Hebrew Bible over Hebrews 1:1.


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