Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: Why Evolution Can Be a Beautiful Idea

I’ve decided to break up my series on tensions in religion and literature with some other writings. I plan to return to it every once in a while in the future as the spirit moves.

Even though I grew up hearing a lot about the science and religion wars (as I mentioned in another post), until last month, I really hadn’t given much thought to the debate between evolution and creation. I’m a literary critic, not a scientist, so I tend to care less about what actually happened at the dawn of time than about the stories we tell ourselves about it and how they affect the way we live. If pressed, I suppose I would have said evolution was more scientifically convincing than creation, but I would have also stressed that I find the story of creation far more artistically and ethically appealing. I would have said that Genesis 1-2 is a breathtaking storytelling feat and that I like what it teaches: that creativity is worthwhile since God himself is a creator, that humans are valuable because they are made in God’s image, and that the world is (or at least was) “good” and that we should take care of it. In contrast, I would have said, the story of evolution is never as beautifully told as the story of creation, and, at least in its extremist forms, it teaches troubling messages: that life is an accident, that success comes only with violent competition, that art and religion and human relationships are, like everything else, only survival devices.

That was what I thought of the story of evolution a month ago, before I read Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. Goodall’s book is a remarkable spiritual autobiography about a life-long study of chimpanzees, and it opened my eyes to the beauty in the story of evolution and helped me see its potential for inspiring ethical living. While I still think the story of evolution has its artistic and ethical problems, I now think it has undeniable strengths as well.

From the start, Goodall puts the debate between evolution and creation into perspective, a move I find appealing. She describes herself as an evolutionist, but, like me, she seems to care less about whether evolution actually happened than about how it influences how we live. She explains this philosophy to a curious bellhop one day:

I ended by telling him that it honestly didn’t matter how we humans got to be the way we are, whether evolution or special creation was responsible. What mattered and mattered desperately was our future development. Were we going to go on destroying God’s creation, fighting each other, hurting the other creatures of His planet? Or were we going to find ways to live in greater harmony with each other and with the natural world? That, I told him, was what was important.

However, while Goodall downplays the necessity of believing in evolution, she also does a good job of quietly demonstrating, in the example of her own life, that the story of evolution has the potential to make a profoundly positive impact on one’s spiritual life and that it can make one a more responsible citizen of the earth. Indeed, for Goodall, the story of evolution is inextricably connected with a spiritual and moral existence because if, as evolution teaches, humans share a common ancestry with monkeys and alligators and mosquitoes and daffodils, each of them are part of our extended family and must be treated with care. Moreover, if every living thing is included in our vast family tree, each can tell us something about ourselves and our place in the world.

Indeed, Goodall’s belief in the story of evolution seems to propel her toward an intimacy with nature that I find deeply moving. For example, she describes giving personal names not only to the chimpanzees she is studying, an unusual enough practice in scientific research, but also to inanimate natural phenomena–a nearby mountain, a stream, the wind. In fact, she describes having an “intuitive” connection with the trees she encounters in the forest:

I became intensely aware of the being-ness of trees. The feel of rough sun-warmed bark of an ancient forest giant, or the cool, smooth skin of a young and eager sapling, gave me a strange, intuitive sense of the sap as it was sucked up by unseen roots and drawn up to the very tips of the branches, high overhead. Why, I used to wonder, did our human ancestors not take to the trees, like the other apes?

Ultimately, Goodall’s connection with the natural world–and in particular, with the chimpanzees– stimulates her ethical development as well. Goodall talks at length about how the chimpanzees taught her, not only scientifically, but also personally–about how to mother, how to resolve conflict, and how to cope with death. Furthermore, it is Goodall’s belief in the interconnection of all life that prompts her to become a leading advocate of environmental preservation and animal rights.

I suppose Goodall’s appreciation for the natural world would have been equally possible from a creationist worldview. Genesis teaches humans to be stewards of nature, and Goodall says herself that she knows many environmentally-aware and admirably moral creationists. In the end, then, Goodall seems to be right in saying that it doesn’t much matter what one believes about what happened in the beginning; what matters is how one acts now. And, I would say, Goodall offers an admirable example of how one should be acting now, convincing me that the story of evolution can be beautiful and that it can produce at least one extremely beautiful life.

Published in: on 11 July 2008 at 9:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. I suppose it doesn’t matter which explanation of the diversity of life a person accepts, but it is nice to be right instead of completely wrong. It’s a proven fact that we share an ancestor with the chimps. If somebody wants to throw out all of science to believe in magical creation, that’s OK, but they are much more likely to respect other life if they know all life is related. I noticed most creationists could care less about endangered species.

    I’m a big fan of Jane Goodall, so thanks very much for this well written article.

  2. You and I have a common interest in thinking about literature and religion.

    I find the same beauty in the evolution story as you do. At the same time I find horror.

    After reading The Origin of the Species I think most of us, like you and like me, are ready to agree with Darwin, who wrote in the last sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    When I think about evolution, or natural selection, especially while I am hiking in the wilderness, I enjoy the connection I feel with all of life. I love thinking about my relatedness to such beauty and the long struggle for life.

    What horrifies me is natural selection’s indifference to love and hatred, to kindness and cruelty, and to beauty and hope. It is only when I forget about these things that I feel comfortable thinking about the narrative represented by the metaphor “natural selection.” It is this narrative that tells us that we are accidents in a long struggle for existence, that our lives and loves have causes but no meaning, and that in the end we suffer and die without hope.

    In spite of the grandeur he saw, I think Darwin also felt this horror. It shows, for example, in his discussion of the wasp that paralyzes its victim and then feeds the victim’s living body to its young, or in his saying that we “ought to admire the instinctive maternal hatred of the queen bee” who kills her fertile daughters” – saying “we ought to admire” seems to be a way of acknowledging that he did not, could not, and never would.

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