A Great Stephen Gould Quote on Evolution

What appears below can be found at the beginning of Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995). It’s hard to contrast the West’s religious era with its secular era more clearly. So much is implied in the way Gould has put this:

What transition could be more profound than ‘created in God’s image to rule a young world of stable entities made for our delectation,’ to ‘a fortuitous twig, budding but yesterday on an ancient and copious bush of ever changing, interrelated forms.’

What’s implied here? I see numerous things (which can be laid out as movements, as in a piece of music). The movement…

  • from an externally derived purpose for humans (we are here “to rule a young world”) to one of having no particular purpose whatsoever.
  • from nature for us to nature indifferent to us.
  • from authority (priestly rule) to expertise (the scientist’s rule).
  • from short time to deep time.
  • from entity, essence, and soul to flux and no-self.
  • from determinate history to history as contingency. 
  • from center to margin.
  • from human primacy to human belatedness.
  • from separation to interrelation.
  • from dualism to monism.
  • from man derived of God’s “stuff” (in God’s image) to man derived of animal stuff (our genetic inheritance).
  • from dignity to afterthought (or worse, no thought at all).
  • from reason to chance.
  • from The Tree as something to which we seek return (as in the Garden of Eden) to something we cannot escape (our evolutionary position as a twig on Darwin’s Tree of Life).
  • from unchanging truth wins to deconstructive time wins.
  • from human hopes win to death wins.

Is it any wonder that so many religious people are (at best) ambivalent about evolution? It is the contemporary Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It bears gnosis that is quite difficult to face (or even to wholly absorb).

In the poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1876), Gerard Manley Hopkins, as a Catholic priest, tries to make sense of an absurd contingency (the drowning of five nuns who were in route from Germany, seeking refuge in England). Hopkins’ response to the tragedy is, in many respects, parallel to religious responses to news that evolution is true. Here are a few lines from the Hopkins’ poem (parts of stanzas 16 and 17):

One stirred from the rigging to save

The wild woman-kind below,

With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave

He was pitched to his death at a blow, […]

They fought with God’s cold

And they could not and fell to the deck

(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled

With the sea-romp over the wreck.

As with Hopkins wrestling over the contingencies of a shipwreck and the existence of God, the news of evolution is a shipwreck, evoking Job-like intellectual and emotional wrestling over the point of it all. Can God exist in the face of such knowledge? Is He still there, only hiding behind His evolutionary universe? Here’s Hopkins again (from stanza 32):

The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;

Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;

Ground of being, and granite of it: past all

Grasp God, throned behind

Death […]

I like Hopkins’ phrase, “motionable mind.” Whether he is referring to God’s mind or his own, our existential dilemma is captured in a nutshell: what shall we make of change through the depths of space and time, and our own mind’s shifting (often confused) reaction to it? One moment engulfs the next, whether of thought or event, sinking it down, slowly but surely, to oblivion. How to respond to this? If God exists, it appears that this is how He set up the cosmos. It’s hard to stomach. Especially when science so unblinkingly and relentlessly confirms it, and compels us everywhere to look.

Yet to not look is part of something important in us: the denial of death. Denying the implications of evolution is part of the denial of death. And many fundamentalists obviously feel they need to deny evolution utterly to simply go on, to preserve some humanly comprehensible meaning around their lives.

Isn’t this sad? But aren’t all of our strivings against change, suffering, and death sad? And isn’t human life in this evolutionary cosmos fundamentally sad?


Here’s social psychologist Sheldon Solomon, developer of Terror Management Theory (TMT) in psychology, discussing the denial of death. He brings up evolution around the 20 minute mark.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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