For some folks, pondering our origins in rock and mud leaves them cold — gazing at celestial bodies arouses only emptiness.
And yet through science, I have come to feel a sense of transcendence — through science I have come to know beauty (even comfort) in rocks, mud, and celestial bodies. By understanding the vast and wonderful complexity of not only ourselves but of an orchid or a dung beetle, by coming to terms with the kind of beings that we are, by taking into consideration the millions-of-years of struggle that has lead up to the actual and particular beings sitting here today — I have realized our profound and inescapable connectedness. Consider that under my skin lies the implicit history of my entire biological, social, and pre-conscious past. The mechanics of my mitochondria, the heredity of my ribosomes — they tick with the history of the earth, history is in my veins.
My DNA carries the footprints of squid — or pre-squid, pre-t-rex, pre-chimpanzee. The social hierarchies of dogs and horses, the predatory prowess of the big cats, the preening and pretentious displays of wealth as practiced in the mating ritual of the Bower Bird — all these impulses and pasts are (maybe only in trace amounts) under my skin and behind my every thought. Each of my emotions is the result of eons of fine-tuning, my altruism and my hatred are useful to “nature” and to me in some, perhaps mysterious, way. My survival, my success depends on the right combination of sympathy and pride, of self-consciousness and desire.
In the explanatory framework of science I have found a kind of “spiritual” comfort, because in the explanatory framework of science I have found real and fundamental oneness — and more, very good reasons for why I am the way that I am. My quirks and insecurities, my sensitivities and aggressiveness, my tenderness and my denial — it all makes such good sense when I consider where it is I came from and how it is I got here.
Would not any wandering “religious” seeker, deep in the desert of human loneliness and alienation, yearning for connection in a disconnected world, deep in the abyss of the consumerism of our materially-motivated society — would not that seeker be grateful to know and to understand from where that loneliness has come — that why, without a healthy social structure, without love and compassion in our lives, no amount of cash or new clothes will ever create real happiness. Would not the knowledge of who we are and a thoughtful understanding of our past be a glass of cool water to such a wandering seeker? To know why we yearn to transcend the boundaries of our bodies and to connect with the oneness of the living world? That knowledge is not to be found in holy books or religious hocus pocus, it comes from astronomy and physics, from biology and sociology, from anthropology and evolutionary psychology. We must get dirty with scientific facts, to dig into the complexity and history of our evolving consciousness, if we are ever to feel more whole, more complete than we presently do.
Contrary to religion, science has this on its side: predictive success. Unlike the declarations of preachers and gurus, of pastors and mystics — we have good reasons to believe the revelations of science. It has earned our trust, and when we have found science to be false or inaccurate, it has revised itself — it has accommodated itself to what is, not to what it has been told to be. And yet, for many folks, pondering our origins in rock and mud leaves them cold — gazing at celestial bodies arouses only emptiness.