If I had to summarize what most ails the human race, it’s the fact that we’re all still struggling to incorporate into our ideas about the meaning of life several astonishing facts that the last several hundred years of science have revealed to us. Here are three for example.
- Galileo: The earth isn’t even the center of the solar system, let alone the universe. (Only a few holdouts on that one.)
- Hubble: The universe is 14.5 billion or so years old. (We haven’t learned to think in such big numbers.)
- Darwin: Our species evolved by random genetic mutation, not cut from whole cloth 6,000 years ago. (Lots of people still fighting that one dinosaur tooth and crucifix nail.)
Don’t even get me started on what Schrödinger teaches us about whether things really do exist or not until we observe them, or the notion that we might all be holograms, or the utter lack of evidence for free will, or the baffling conclusions of string theory and M-theory and complexity theory.
Let’s look at those three conclusions again, re-written to clarify the messages they’re sending:
- You aren’t the center of anything.
- The universe is far, far older than you; the span of your life is fragmentary and forgettable.
- Humanity exists by accident.
Those are some really, really hard pills to swallow. Nobody wants to hear those things; everything about them runs counter to our whole instinctive definition of humanity. And yet: they’re true.
This is why I admire scientists so much; they have the willpower and courage to question basic human assumptions about life when evidence suggests they should. How many of us would let go of dearly-held beliefs in the same circumstances? Not many.
I believe that what allows them to do that is a kind of creativity that playwrights — all artists, really — might learn from. Let’s take Darwin, for example: after all, he’s who has inspired me to write. The man grew up being told one narrative over and over again, with the power of truth and the authority of, well, the entire world behind it. The narrative in question, of course, is the Christian creation story. (Although, to be fair, there are multiple versions of said story.) Having incorporated that narrative deeply into his sense of what it means to be human, he was nonetheless able to write an entirely new story — completely and totally new — about something as important as how we became what we are.
The writing of The Origin of Species, in other words, was really an act of the most bold and brave revision. He threw out not only everything he knew, but everything EVERYONE knew, in order to write a new story for us. How audacious! What immense vision!
And this, I believe, is really why there are still people who don’t want to believe he’s right, even though 150 years of investigation have made it crystal clear that his fundamental premise was correct: they don’t want to let go of the story they’re used to. It’s actually perfectly understandable; we all get attached to stories we really want to believe. Eventually, though, we have to let them go.