I was speaking with a former student recently. Like most people in their first year of college, he has become enamored of new subjects, new ways of thinking. We had a very in-depth discussion on the meaning of life, the universe, and many other things.
One of the ideas we kept coming back to was that of life’s meaning. He postulated that people can find meaning in the perpetuation of the human race and the continuation personal life. And while these are most assuredly good things, I argued that this cannot be the summom bonum or greatest good. This perspective is a bit too reductive of human nature to that of beasts.
First of all, continuation of this earthly existence is ultimately impossible. We are all subject to death. And to continue the expanse of this life for no other reason than to expand it is ultimately meaningless.
According to Darwin’s view of the world, creatures struggle for survival so that they can live long enough to pass on their genetic material to the next generation. The species that does this most successfully will continue on while other species will die out. This makes perfect sense for beasts, because they operate on sense and instinct. Humans, however, are the rational animal. And because we have reason, our motivations must be more.
I am not arguing here for or against Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Catholic Church has no issue with the idea that human beings came about through the evolution of species. The book of Genesis says that God reached into the dirt (in Hebrew “adama”) and formed Adam. He then blew his breath, his spirit (in Hebrew “ruhah”) into the man, giving him life and a portion of His own nature (reason, free will, ability to love, etc). We call this in us the rational soul.
This image from Genesis is perfectly compatible with the idea that God reached into the primordial ooze millions of years ago and slowly formed from the amino acids and protein bonds the single-celled organisms that became the multi-celled organisms that became the plants, then the animals, then mammals, then us. What must be believed is that God had the hand in shaping us and that the moment the new species of man was made, God infused the human soul.
So I am not arguing against evolution per se. What I am arguing against is a reduction of the human person that comes from a certain read of Darwin. That read has reduced humanity’s goods to the goods of the beasts. But there is an essential problem with this idea: it cannot motivate a rational creature.
Beasts simply feel and then they act. But humans have reason and so we have to think about our actions. Because of this we have things that the beasts don’t like morality, language, art, etc. But there is a burden to thinking. Reason is the grounding of our actions. If our actions are irrational, we question their value.
To be sure, humans do several things contrary to reason. Hence we have sin in the world. And the passions often act as a better catalyst to action than cold logic. But as I’ve learned from teaching several years, students become very frustrated when they can find no reason to the activity.
“What’s the point of this?” is the complaint often voiced. Daniel-san is ready to drop Mr. Miyagi as a teacher because he can see no point to “Wax on, wax off.” It is only when Daniel finally understands their purpose that enlightenment occurs.
In the same way, if we humans find an endeavor to be pointless, we cannot be motivated into action. If I told my students that no matter what they did, they would fail my class, how many would try to learn? If you found out that no matter how you voted in an election that the result was pre-determined against you, then how many of you would bother voting?
The problem with taking Darwin’s ideas and creating a summom bonum that is based in the propagation of the human species is that ultimately it is an exercise in futility.
Even if you are able to pass on your genetic material to the next generation and you could guarantee that this generation propagates to the next, the series cannot be infinite. Eventually the human race will die out. The earth as it is cannot last forever, nor the sun, the stars, or the universe itself. The cosmos will either burn out in the coldness of final entropy or it will pull itself back into a cataclysmic crunch. But in either case, all life in the universe will end, including the human race.
If the greatest good of the human race is to continue the human race, then the problem is that I know that ultimately this is a pointless endeavor because we will come to a place where the human race cannot survive. Ultimately, Darwin’s chain of evolution must reach a dead end.
But, one may object, can’t you be motivated by simple love of children? Isn’t that part of perpetuating the species? Yes, of course. Even most beasts have affection for their offspring. But the rational animal must ask: to what end? If this is the ONLY motivation, then this love must also die because it will end. Death is the end of love, if all we are only beasts, if there is nothing spiritual about ourselves.
Human beings are animals. We have bodies and appetites and sensations that all beasts do. Like them, we have a natural instinct to survive in this world and beget children. But we are more than animals. What is good for the beasts cannot alone satisfy man.
We do not want life forever by itself. Immortality would be an absolute curse if it meant perpetual suffering. As Freddie Mercury sang, “Who wants to live forever when love must die?” What we want is love forever and happiness forever. Life forever is merely a precondition to possessing those two things. And that immortality we find in the soul and in the eternal life offered by Jesus.
And in this eternal life all of the things that we desire on an intuitive level, like children, will be taken up and redeemed. Death will be a parting, but no longer a permanent one. Once our bodies go through death, they will be given back to us.
“Amen, amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jn 12:24-25
So as it is written:
“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live…” Deut 30:19
Do you choose Darwin’s dead end or Christ’s life eternal?
Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson