February Ethical Inspiration

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Upon hearing about the theory of evolution, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester said, “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it does not become generally known.” Well, as far as I am concerned, even today it is not well known enough. So I shout, “Happy Darwin Day!!!” And what are you doing to celebrate? Have you strung the gorilla garlands around the fireplace? Cooked your primordial pea stew? Brought donated copies of Origins of the Species down to the local school library?

While coming up with traditions to celebrate this contemporary holiday may seem a bit silly, there is a growing community in which this silliness makes a lot of sense. Whether it is within Ethical Culture circles, or the broader humanist network, establishing traditions helps publicize the importance of evolution. Let’s not hide it under a rock, but declare it loud and clear.

While it is a humble effort, check out www.darwinday.org, the website for the International Darwin Day Foundation. It would be nice if more organizations listed their celebrations here. It would demonstrate an evolution towards, in Darwinian vocabulary, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” But building traditions, like evolution, takes time. It is humbling.

In my January 9 platform I spoke of the humility that comes when I contemplate my simian roots. (If you want a copy of this talk, e-mail me at leader@baltimoreethicalsociety.org.) Whether when reading Darwin or wandering through the National Zoo’s Ape House, evolutionary awareness inspires me without inducing arrogance or shame. It offers a kind of humility very different than the type experienced by those like my wife, Maureen, whose Catholic school education labeled her a sinner. For her this was a destructive humility wrapped up in guilt for being a failed experiment of God. On the other hand, when I embrace evolution today I experience a humility that includes a sense of awe for the marvelous processes of nature. This mix of wonder and modesty allows me to be more realistic about both human limitation and potential. It motivates me to seek the best and forgive the worst, whether in myself or others. It reflects the words of zoologist Desmond Morris: “I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape.”

So have faith Darwinists! Evolution can teach us, however slowly, to treat each other more realistically. Lewis Thomas, in “On the Uncertainty of Science” declares, “I take it as an article of faith that we humans are a profoundly immature species, only now beginning the process of learning how to learn.” Darwin Day is an opportunity to continue this process, in ourselves and in our children. What are you doing February 12?

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