Does reality have an ultimate, metaphysical foundation? Is there content to the universe?
Maybe I’m betraying my roots in an analytic department, but I’m pretty confident that these are questions on the order of “Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?”—gramatically well-formed, but quite lacking in any actual coherent meaning. (Perhaps they should have asked, in a slightly more Gödelian mode: Is there content to this inquiry?)
Still, I was glad to read the summary if only for the sake of this closing passage, which quotes tech guru–cum–Discovery Institute fellow George Gilder:
Thus Gilder offered a concession by way of a compromise: “Darwinism may be true,” he said, “but it’s ultimately trivial.” It is not a “fundamental explanation for creation or the universe.” Evolution and natural selection may explain why organic life presents to us its marvelous exfoliation. Yet Darwinism leaves untouched the crucial mysteries–who we are, why we are here, how we are to behave toward one another, and how we should fix the alternative minimum tax. And these are questions, except the last one, that lie beyond the expertise of any panel at any think tank, even AEI.
This is, when you think about it, a fairly odd thing to say, insofar as an evolutionist would probably tend to regard it as both true and not worth saying. It’s equally true of, say, meteorology, which also provides an alternative explanation to “God just did it” for natural phenomena, but it would not normally occur to anyone to make this point about meteorology. Mostly because nobody imagines that meteorologists think a model of the motion of cold fronts tells us anything about how we should live or why there is Something instead of Nothing.
Now, the thing is, believers in evolution who have a modicum of sophistication don’t believe anything of the sort about evolutionary theory either. It’s invariably anti-Darwinists who seem convinced we take “survival of the fittest” as a substitute Golden Rule rather than a simple description of how nature operates. The realms aren’t as utterly distinct as in the case of meteorology, of course: Evolution can say something about why, in general, we have certain sorts of urges and desires and ethical impulses, what kind of average shape they’ll tend to take, what their limitations are apt to be, and so on. But that’s just data. It doesn’t say which impulses we ought to cultivate and which suppress, or entail that our own lives have to be guided by the mindless pseudo-teleology of our selfish genes.
What’s going on here, I think, is that people get anxious about evolution because they’re applying the bundling embedded in their own worldviews to ours: Since the account of human origins in my theory is part of a single narrative that also gives an account of ethics and human meaning, so must it be in this other theory. It’s interesting to see where and how this holds: It seems to go for origin stories, but not process stories like meteorology. Gilder frames his little closing epiphany as, in essence, a recasting of evolution as a process story that displaces the origin story to some other account. The next step is to recognize that it just doesn’t matter—your story about meaning and morality doesn’t need to be an epiphenomenon of either a physical process or origin story.