Our Kinship With Nature

There are, I think, two possible interpretations of evolutionary history. The first, which I call the small one, sees evolutionary history as a gradual process of progress. Life started out very simple, but slowly gained in complexity. At one point in time, the human species emerged, with the ability to create culture. This implied, a small interpretation would hold, that life jumped to a new level of reality, going from biology to culture. I believe Dawkins wrote somewhere in ‘The Selfish Gene’, that humanity is able, thanks to culture (which he describes by the notion of memes), to free itself from the shackles of the gene (to become enchained by culture, one could argue).

The second possible interpretation of evolutionary history, which I would call the broad one, sees evolutionary as a gradual process, but not of progress. Evolution is about life finding answers to the problems at hand, building on yesterday’s solutions. Different solutions may apply to the same problem, see for instance the different ways of constructing an eye. There’s no such thing as the best solution, there are only solutions that work, and those that don’t. The latter are weeded out by selection. One of the solutions life stumbled upon is a degree of intelligence that allowed self consciousness to emerge. A good example of this line of thinking is Terrence Deacon‘s ‘The Symbolic Species‘.

The big difference between a small and a broad interpretation of evolutionary history is that a small one singles out Homo sapiens, setting the human species apart from nature, while a broad one stresses the continuity between humanity and other species. I think taking either a small or a broad perspective influences how we relate to the rest of nature (and I know, by writing ‘the rest of nature’ I already take a stance). Theologian Philip Hefner uses the metaphor, which he has found in the work of Philip Ode, of ‘kinship’ to express a broad interpretation of evolutionary history and to evoke a particular kind of relation between the human species and the other members of the global ecological community:

“We flourish only within an intimate ecological fabric, and within the relationships of that fabric, we are kin to the other citizens of nature’s society. Our interrelatedness is best conceptualized according to the model of genetic relatedness. Nature’s processes have produced us, we are constituted by our inheritance from its past, and we live in the ambience of its creative balances today. There is a kind of nonnegotiability to the message that science delivers on this point. Our kinship with nature is not a matter of our preference, nor is it an issue that calls for our acquiescence. It simply is.” (The Human Factor, p. 66) “

He goes on to argue that we have to rediscover this kinship, because we do no longer have an intuitive, genetic knowledge of it. That is the role cultural systems, like religion, have to play. Religion, with its symbols, its narratives, its metaphors, its rituals, etc., can evoke awareness of our kinship relation to nature. And that, in turn, enables us to decide for of against acting according to this relationship.

The problem is, of course, that, precisely because we do not have an innate knowledge (which, by the way, I would assume to be unconscious knowledge) of our kinship with the whole of nature, we have to be reminded about it. The religious symbols that refer to it, that are able to evoke awareness about it, have to be decoded anew every generation. When transmission of certain reading keys are forgotten, metaphors turn stale. They lose their ability to change our perspective on the world, becoming like cave paintings: beautiful pieces of art, impressive if only because of their age, but completely mute about their original meaning.

Lascaux - Photy by Steven Zucker: https://www.flickr.com/photos/profzucker/
Lascaux – Photy by Steven Zucker: https://www.flickr.com/photos/profzucker/

What we need, then, is attention and care to the transmission of the necessary reading keys to decode the symbols of our religious traditions. ‘Decoding’ is not the right verb, actually. It is more about integrating symbols in our worldview, about being able to relate to these symbols. It is not about knowing the one and only ‘right’ meaning of a symbol, but about the ability to discern what a symbol could mean, rather than what we think it should mean. It is about being able to search for meaning through the symbol, to let the symbol show the world in a new perspective, and to critically engage this perspective. It is, to use perhaps somewhat loaded language, about being open for the possibility of revelation to take place. Cultural evolution does not imply a reduction of religion to a natural process. For theology, cultural evolution implies a sense of the deep history of revelation.

7 thoughts on “Our Kinship With Nature

  1. The moment we verbalize our thoughts we take stance, set us apart from nature. Our interpretation of evolution will always be the outsider’s view. The trick may to integrate this very fact into our interpretation.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Perhaps one could also argue, contra your position, that, since we are subjects of evolution, our interpretations could in principle come from an insider’s view. But I agree, cf. what I referred to as a ‘small interpretation’ of evolutionary history, that they often fail to do so.

  2. Hi tomuytt. I doubt it Life started out simple. In fact, I guess it’s beyond comprehension (evolution-wise, not limited to biology let alone culture). Being more complex over time? Sure, but maybe that’s more because of our developing understandings (over generations) of what has been going on, rather than because of anything ‘worldly-else’ (civilization included).

    I imagined that by ‘evolution’ you mean in relation with ‘culture’ (already checked your ‘About’ page). And while we can talk about the complexity of, say, social media of todays or the simplicity of, say, life in the universal sense (the fact that we still live in this egg-shell called earth), my point is that evolution (Nature) and culture (our made-up choice) don’t necessarily (now how should I call it..?) ‘go in harmony’ (?).

    Just some rant, in case it means anything. But mind you, I base all this more on notion, not science. 🙂 Good luck with your study (way beyond, not just the academic one). Cheers!

    1. Thanks for your rant 😉 I think you have a point when you say that growing complexity has to do with our growing knowledge. And I also agree that nature and culture don’t necessarily go in harmony: it takes our awareness, our commitment, to reach that state…

  3. To me, this text has a somewhat ironic ring to it. Christianity always had a strong tendency toward anthropocentrism, due to for example: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” [1:28]. Wouldn’t you agree such view fits in the small/narrow interpretation you talk about? Anyway, no evolutionary biologist i know still holds the narrow view you describe, since factually ‘simple’ microbes are still by far and large the most succesful species on earth. Funnily though, most often than not it is religious people that tend to hold dearly to the anthropocentric interpretation of evolution (if they accept evolution at all in the first place!).

    1. I never claimed that an evolutionary biologist holds the ‘small view’ described in my post, although the quote by Dawkins, when taken out of context, could be interpreted this way. And I never said a theologian does never hold such a ‘small view’. What I did write is that a ‘broad view’, whether held by a scientist or a theologian, helps in seeing the continuity between the human species and nature instead of pitting the two against each other.
      Btw: you would be surprised to learn that many religious people actually do accept evolution…

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