White toddler with blue eyes on green grass, with dad's arms

Of apes and angels

I’m not generally a “fan” kinda guy.  But I’ll admit that Terry Pratchett is kind of a badass.  His prose has that dry humor that actually works really well in light fantasy books and it isn’t often you find somebody who can make you laugh out loud while reading.  And in addition to being funny, Pratchett is also deeply insightful in a way that interests not only the psychologist in me but the person.

Take his answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” in a televised interview (also, marvel at how he sounds like a wizard).  Pratchett starts by noting that he thinks people are basically good, and that we are shaped by the universe we live in.  But where he really gets cracking is when he argues that evolution is a far more interesting story than traditional religion.  At its pinnacle, the argument is “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.”

Drop the mic.

Religious folks around the world tend to paint science as rather bleak compared to religion.  The folks in the white lab coats are all doom and gloom and take all the magic out of life, where religion inspires us with the meaning that makes life worth meaning.  But what if science really does have the more optimistic view of humankind?

In Christianity, everything starts out perfect and eventually succumbs to decay.  The Bible starts with idyllic garden and ends with fiery rapture, and things as basically a linear decline in between, which a fair bit of raping and pillaging and murder and enslavement to humble us as we get closer to the rise of the Antichrist.

But science, as championed by evolution, suggests that things are always getting better.  That’s essentially what evolution is: improvement. The inherent tendency of man and animal is to gradually adjust to their environments in such a way that they’re constantly improving and adapting.  As Pratchett puts it, science teaches us that stars are common and unimportant, and streetlights are incredibly important, because as far as we know, they exist nowhere else in the universe and they were built by ascendant apes.

In no way am I suggesting that science is better than religion on any factual basis.  But when you think about it, we live life on a hedonic treadmill.  We need to be constantly improving in order to simply stay in the same place, happiness-wise.  But while religion has us standing in the same place until we slide off the back of the treadmill, or even worse, running in the wrong direction towards a catastrophic spill, science seems to suggest that the treadmill is OK.  We hold ground because we evolve and when you look at the data, we may even be inching our way up the treadmill: less children are dying, more people are being fed.

Not only does science present humankind as improving on a global, millennial scale, it also suggests that we improve within just a single lifetime.  The very concept of modern schooling suggests that as we age, we learn more things and gain more responsibility.  Human beings, over the course of their individual life spans, generally feel better off when they’re old than when they’re young.  Sure, a 70-year-old might wish he was 20 again periodically, but survey research shows us that virtually none would go back to being 20 if they had to give up all the knowledge they gained.

Religion brings comfort to millions and that’s awesome.  But I can’t help but feel like science could to, if we could just change the way people look at it.  Like Terry Pratchett, I’d rather be a part of something that’s considered imperfect but working towards betterness than a flawed version of something that was once flawless.  Even if it’s not in my lifetime, I’d like to know that I’m part of a race that’s consistently getting better at stuff.  And that I’m playing some small part in that.

In a way, this ties right back to Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society monologue.  “‘Life exists, and identity.  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?”  Regardless of what my verse ends up being, I like the idea that I get to contribute.  And if the trends of science continue, we’ll be headed towards an entirely different Book of Revelations—one where we rising apes are exponentially better at things than we are now.