The irony of the latest wave of evolutionist fervour is that there can no longer be any doubt that evolution is a value-free process. We know a great deal more than was known a century ago: while there remain questions about the mechanism of natural selection, Darwin’s true achievement – to expel purpose and design from nature – is more secure that it has ever been. A process of drift governed by chance and necessity, natural selection contains nothing that can satisfy the hunger for meaning. Yet once again, evolution has become a secular religion. ‘By any conceivable standard,’ Wilson intones, ‘humanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and – who can say? – perhaps the galaxy.’ It is a declaration reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin’s proclamation of the Omega Point, the end-state of maximum complexity and consciousness to which the Jesuit thinker believed the cosmos was evolving. However, unlike Wilson, the Harvard founder of sociobiology, the renegade man of the cloth understood that he was promoting not science but a heterodox brand of mysticism. When people look to religion for the meaning of life, they eventually find mystery. When they look to science for meaning they end up in mere incoherence. Memes – the conceptual units that in some popular accounts drive what is described as cultural evolution – are no more actually existing things than was phlogiston. But there are surely tropes that recurrently distort thinking, and the notion that evolution can be our guide in ethics and politics is one of them.
more from John Gray at Literary Review here.