Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence
by Michael Meacher
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 24.
I always remember the first time I looked at the famous painting ‘The Betrothal of Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck, painted in 1434. I dismissed it as a rather formalised picture with the two principal figures stiff and lifeless, and with no vitality or any special meaning in it. I was soon put right and was stunned. It is in fact an extraordinary painting (Van Eyck was the inventor of oil-painting) with exquisite detail when you look closely which imparts a whole new understanding of what he was conveying. The mirror on the wall behind the figures, which at the first glance I hardly even looked at, contains in the minutest detail a reflection of the whole scene, including the two witnesses to the event (one of them the artist himself), with all the precision of a modern digital photograph. But first time I missed it completely.
I have come to the conclusion that exactly the same applies to the way we look at the world around us and the amazing story that science has uncovered about our universe. When I began to examine this across the piste – the cosmology, physics, biochemistry, environmentalism, socio-biology and spirituality that has brought us here and made us what we are – I came to realise as I looked deeper that there were significant nodal points which were easy to pass over, but which once identified and understood shed light over the whole landscape.
So why was I doing this anyway in the first place? We live today in the West in a secular age where the old certainties underpinned by religious dogma and an unquestioning morality have largely faded, to be replaced by a pervasive consumer materialism in thrall to wealth and celebrity, but equally devoid of much sense of purpose. I asked myself (as I suspect many do) what do I really believe in? Are our lives simply a temporary rite of passage which quickly vanishes away with little or no meaning in the relentless treadmill of the universe over billions of years? Or is there some greater order of things which gives meaning to the human species? If so, where is the evidence that I can safely rely on which is consistent with all the enormous range of scientific data that has accumulated, particularly in the last 300 years?
Unlike some more fortunate persons who have had an overpowering experience which has given them an unshakeable inner certainty, I have never had any such experience. Brought up as a Christian (my mother wanted me to become a priest), I concluded after graduating in Philosophy and History from Oxford that this was not for me. I opted instead for social work, as a probation officer, but then became strongly focused on achieving social change instead through the political process which took me into Parliament for the next 40 years. Whilst that offered important opportunities in fighting for the values and principles I believed in (and still strongly believe in), it gave no respite from the puzzlement still gnawing at me about the deeper meaning of human life and what it is ultimately for – if indeed it was ‘for’ anything.
Despite my humanities background I have always had a life-long passion for science. Over the decades I have read the books and journals very extensively, particularly about cosmology, and given that reality has to be one single indivisible unity, I increasingly turned my mind to how it all fitted together. It has always seemed to me strange that some people assert that modern science has ‘disproved’ religion, since this is clearly a category error – science and religion reflect two entirely different paradigms of experience so that neither can invalidate the other. On the other hand they should be consistent, and science can certainly massively expand the wonderment of the religious message.
I decided to write the book deliberately from the standpoint of the spiritual agnostic – not from the point of view of a preconceived and settled prejudice that sought to persuade everyone from a position of unchallengeable certainty, but rather from where I think most people in modern society are, namely uncertain, sceptical and unwilling to make any intellectual or emotional commitment without explicitly being shown the evidence and being convinced it is strong enough to believe in.
What relevant evidence then is available to us? The book systematically surveys each of the critical dimensions – the origin some 13 billion years ago and evolution of the universe, the formation of the galaxies and our solar system including the Earth, the possible origins of life some 4 billion years ago in the extremely inhospitable conditions of the early Earth, the fantastic subsequent proliferation of exotic life forms leading through a chain of the most unlikely improbabilities but perhaps inevitable convergence to the human species, and an assessment of the intellectual, cultural, moral and spiritual uniqueness of human beings.
The angle I bring to this at every turn is not of course to present any new scientific finding – that is not my locus at all – but rather to ply the question relentlessly: what does all this mean? What is it telling us, if only we look at the interesting and sometimes hidden detail (like searching for the minutiae of the Van Eyck painting that illuminate the whole and bring it to life)? Focused on like that, some patterns emerge which draw together the threads in coherent but often unexpected ways.
Science has uncovered that the world has been constructed with mind-boggling precision. In order to produce the stable universe we know, the balance between the original outward explosive force at Big Bang and the gravitational forces pulling back the galaxies is precise within an accuracy of 1 part in 1 followed by 60 noughts! All the particle masses, force strengths and fundamental constants interact with unbelievable precision, without which there would be no universe conducive to life. The mathematician Roger Penrose has calculated the likelihood of such a universe being random at 1 chance in 1 followed by 123 noughts, a degree of unlikelihood verging on infinity.
Then there is the view regularly asserted by the neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins that the evolution of life forms is determined by gene mutations driven by blind pitiless chance. Yet the latest evidence suggests that early life on Earth was in fact driven for billions of years by symbiotic and co-operative networking, not randomly by purposeless mutations.
And most recently, evidence is accumulating of how matter and energy spontaneously transpose into new higher organisational states at certain thresholds of complexity, not only in biological systems, but also in cosmological systems involving galaxies, as though we are gradually becoming aware of some cosmic blueprint. We are indeed seeing the development of models of the universe which are subjective, holistic and purposeful, not analytic, reductionist or arbitrary as previously was thought.
We need to be careful, however, with what all this means. The evidence in favour of the universe being designed is very strong, but that does not automatically equate with a personal God. For that, a different set of criteria is necessary. Religious experience is validated, not by scientific verification, but from quite separate sources: the awesome sense of numinous power found almost universally in human societies, the revelations proclaimed by the founders and prophets of the world’s great religions, the ineffable witness of the mystics, and the authenticity of overpowering personal experience which transforms lives.
For all that, the narrative of the universe and the link with religious experience seems often contradictory – a mystery we can still only dimly penetrate. The paradox of design is that it is accompanied by an uninhibited free play of natural forces, including episodes of cataclysmic destruction such as supernova explosions and mass extinctions of life. Yet the universe cannot be dismissed as purposeless. Even the spiral galaxies display autocatalytic cycles of energy and matter that develop qualitatively different orders of organisation as complexity increases, just like those that underlie the ecology of the Earth’s biosphere.
Other mechanisms too indicate the purposeful dynamics at work in the natural world. A convergence can be seen in biological systems leading down multiple paths towards similar higher order outcomes and more advanced creatures. Gaia theory posits a global feedback process, including between living creatures and the non-living environment, which keeps the Earth habitable in the face of external shocks. And symbiotic network theory shows that cross-communicating and mutually cooperative global networks of bacteria performed the absolutely critical role of pushing evolving creatures into new and higher levels of complexity.
Our knowledge of the external world is still growing. At present science remains stuck at certain questions. What lay behind the original singularity when our universe began? How does one explain fantastic degrees of fine-tuning? How do we adjust to the rediscovery of final causes (extraordinarily the rehabilitation of Aristotelian teleology) in terms of the self-organisation and holistic properties in astronomy, biology and computing? It is tempting to posit God as the answer to all these and other puzzles, but that is to be resisted: God is not a convenient answer to unresolved scientific problems.
What then is our destination? For three centuries science has progressively narrowed the significance of humans against the almost infinite backdrop of the universe, and maybe an almost endless series of universes. Yet it is pointing now to an ultimate reality, certainly not of the human race as the summit of evolution, but of an overarching cosmic plan of which we may well be a key part.
About the author: Michael Meacher was first elected to Parliament in 1970. He served as junior minister under the Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and was one of the longest serving ministers in Tony Blair’s Labour government, from 1997 to 2003, and gained a reputation for being able to master a complex brief. Since then he has attacked the government on a number of issues, particularly on genetically modified food and the Iraq war. He stood for the leadership of the Labour party in 2007. A long term campaigner on the issue of climate change, he brings both passion and intelligence to the question of our destination as a species and the purpose of life.
Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence
£9.99, Available from Watkins Books