Darwin, Sacks, and Humanity’s Identity Crisis

February 12, 2014

A few years ago, while researching a talk for Darwin Day, I came across an article by Steve Silberman called “The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks.” Though it seemed unrelated to Darwin, I soon realized that Sacks and Silberman could help me get a better understanding of the cultural controversy over evolution and find an even greater appreciation for the gift of Darwin’s grand idea.

Dr. Oliver Sacks is probably best known for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of case histories exploring a variety of incredible neurological experiences. Each story describes patients struggling to live with conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome, autism, musical hallucination, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In his writings, we discover remarkable people: a Tourettes patient who becomes a successful surgeon, an Autistic patient who flourishes as a doctor and engineer, a painter who sees more when he loses his color vision.

At a time when diagnosis was the end goal of clinical studies, Silberman explains that Dr. Sacks went beyond the naming of a disease to figure out how patients might survive it, how they might go on living despite the chaos in their minds. Faced with a new and challenging condition, how could they discover a new identity in a world completely changed by their disorder? Each story is a triumph of understanding, acceptance, growth, and adaptation. By digging deep into the mind, by reforming and retraining functions of the brain and by mastering new skills, Sacks showed how patients could redefine their existence and become whole again, in some ways, even more “well” than before they got sick.

Along the way, he discovered that the act of recovering one’s own story was itself healing.

We all know that Darwin and his ideas of ‘descent with modification’ and ‘natural selection’ caused problems from the very beginning. The implications of his research seemed to say that man might have descended from the apes. This was heresy against the well-established truth of the day: namely, that man was the child of God, created in His image, special, and set apart from earthly life. Apes? Ridiculous! Who does he think he is? Who does he think we are?

Of course, Darwin was not the first scientist to challenge the status quo.

Johannes Kepler discovered mathematical consistency in the music of the spheres. He found patterns in what had been thought a formless void and gave us the first inkling that the mysteries of the universe might actually be knowable. So now there’s a pattern, but the heavenly ether was still separate from the four baser elements of nature: air, fire, earth, and water – until Isaac Newton demolished the artificial boundary between the ‘heavenly’ and the ‘earthly’. The apple and the moon are indeed made of the same stuff and therefore fall for the same reasons. With the heavens no longer an unknowable mystery and no longer set apart from earth, the stage was set for Darwin to show us we are no longer made of god, but, rather, of earthly matter.

So what’s the matter with matter?

In our time, the most fervent attacks against Darwin and evolution have come from a group of Creationism/Intelligent Design advocates housed at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, a group formally known as The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Like many faithful people, their identity is defined by God – it’s bound up in his attention and love. Their relationship with God defines meaning for their lives and brings purpose to their existence, so each time scientific research pushes humanity another step further away from special creation, they attack science for diminishing man’s relationship with God. For faithful believers, science causes an identity crisis. It creates a disorder and becomes a source of mental chaos and worldly confusion.

We’ve seen their anxiety play out across our society for years in the form of their chosen coping mechanism: a “Wedge Strategy” to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies; to replace materialist explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

But here’s the thing: thanks to Darwin, we now understand that we are material beings, made of matter and part of the earth, an animal species among millions, part chance, part natural selection, and just the most recent iteration of bipeds to grace the planet.

With humanity now removed from the comfort of a special hallowed ground at the right hand of God, many blame Darwin for bringing about a sort of cultural depression and degradation, a nihilistic decline in morals and morale. Without a heavenly father and the meaning he brings to life, we must be just orphans, left alone, adrift, and without direction.

In fact, of course, the opposite is true. Kepler gave us direction. Newton gave us force. And Darwin gave us company – 7 billion cousins! Every day should be a big family reunion.

Darwin has given us our diagnosis: Matter. We are of the earth. We are not special creations, but part of a vast continuum of life. No longer children of god, we are children of nature. This is our condition. But if this new understanding is a disorder, if it has caused an identity crisis, then science, too, as in so many other cases, offers relief.

How do we find a new identity in a world so utterly changed? How might we go on living despite Darwin’s diagnosis? Remember Dr. Sacks. We know we have an innate capacity for recovery and growth, creativity and adaptation, the very adaptation that has enabled us to come this far.

Darwin’s work was and is a shot across the bow because it challenges our cherished beliefs – our definitions both of god and of ourselves. As Adam Phillips explained in his book, Darwin’s Worm, because of Darwin, we must rebuild our identity and retool our hopes. But also because of Darwin, we know we can. He has given us our story, but it is not a nightmare of a meaningless existence. Darwin tells us stories about what keeps life going.

If the reality of evolution cuts too deep, Darwin has given us the freedom to discover our own story and thereby begin to heal. In many, many ways, we’ve become more well than before we got “sick.” Far from crisis and despair, the hope and promise of Darwin is that the world we live in is made more livable because of his description of it. By sharing his stories of human nature, we discover who we truly are, prepare for transformation, and come back to life.

This essay originally appeared in the March 17, 2006 episode of Point of Inquiry. Image via Shutterstock.


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