By George B. Kauffman
“Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution, do you believe in it, do you accept it?” was a softball question lobbed by a journalist on Feb. 11 in London. A potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, responded, “I’m going to punt on that one, as well.” He added that evolution is an issue “a politician shouldn’t be involved with one way or the other.”
Therefore, Carl Coon’s latest book is both necessary and timely. Coon, the recipient of the American Humanist Association’s 2013 Lifetime Activist Award, is a longtime career diplomat in the Middle East and South Asia, including a stint as ambassador to Nepal. His previous books include Culture Wars and the Global Village and One Planet, One People. In this slim (65-page) book, in simple, straightforward language, he distills billions of years of natural and human history to show why there is no need to believe in any magical, supernatural force at work to explain how things came to be the way that they are, and how everything has happened according to a natural order of change.
Coon’s subtitle refers to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica Variations (Op. 35). His book is divided into 11 chapters–a theme, nine variations and a concluding coda.
Theme: Entropy and evolution. Evolution exists as a universal force that functions as the opposite of entropy (diffusion or decay of energy). Evolution creates complexity out of simplicity and concentrates energy.
- First variation: The origin of life. Parts of the environment favored the combination of molecules into increasingly large aggregations, and eventually some of the more complex aggregations developed the capacity to reproduce themselves.
- Second variation: Natural selection. Evolution as explained by Darwin is the modern equivalent of the Bible for those of us who wonder about how things got to be the way they are. Natural selection is an evolutionary, anti-entropic process that concentrates energy and produces complexity out of diversity.
- Third variation: Deconstructing the Promethean spark. Progress occurs when selfish individuals combine for mutual advantage, not when individuals act against their own advantage.
- Fourth variation: Our earlier human ancestors. About 10,000 years ago, the introduction of agriculture kicked off further radical changes in the ways most people organized themselves in communities.
- Fifth variation: The Neolithic era. Beginning about 12,000 years ago, a fertile region could support a much larger population by farming than by hunting and gathering, but in a few generations the population would multiply and something would have to give.
- Sixth variation: The gods of war. The great world religions of our modern era began during periods of social unrest and frequent war, but we learned to live with war, and we can learn to live without it.
- Seventh variation: The dynastic era. When a society grows, it becomes more complicated. One trigger that paved the way for a new political environment was the development of fossil fuels as a major source of power.
- Eighth variation: The modern era. We have become too efficient at waging war to have a good brisk one that is serious enough to scare the countries on the cutting edge to make them start pulling together. Climate change may be coming back to replace war, as war replaced it 10,000 years ago. We’ve come a long way toward gender equality and are busily engaged in reestablishing the essential unity of our species, culturally and even to some extent genetically.
- Ninth variation: Morality. If you’re born a sinner, you can’t go to heaven automatically, you have to earn it. This harsh view of human nature was seized on by Christians, who made it a central pillar of their faith, an idea that persists today. However, there are more humane ways of encouraging responsible social behavior.
Coda. The population bomb has already exploded. We cannot keep expanding out into new turf as in the past because the earth’s surface is finite and we’re coming close to filling it. The central issue for our species is governance, how to build systems that bring ever larger groups of individuals into cooperative relationships. We must keep the peace in the more quarrelsome neighborhoods, where people still think war is the answer, and create a stronger central authority that can govern on issues of global concern—a stronger United Nations. The United States hasn’t even sorted our own internal problems, while an increasingly impatient world watches and considers alternatives. It’s hard to be optimistic when reading about the latest happenings in Washington or at the UN headquarters. But, who knows, evolution has a way of asserting itself, even when shortrun obstacles look overwhelming for years.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.