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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

Not Just One Thing

In modern life, there is a tendency towards the polarisation of ideas, which can lead us towards a narrow mindset. It sometimes seems that each specialist subject vies for supremacy in the battle of ideas that shape the world. This is further complicated by the rules and language attached to each subject discipline. For a variety of reasons, it can be difficult to break through the barriers that contain separate areas of knowledge.

When it comes to human identity, a simple strategy for expanding our view of ourselves is to simply complete the ‘I am ….’ sentence a number of times. For instance, I am a man; I am a husband; I am a brother; I am a son; I am human; I am a teacher; I am a writer; I am a carer; I am passionate about books etc

A physicist might include: I am matter and energy.

A chemist might include: I am a collection of atoms and molecules.

A biologist might include: I am a collection of genes, cells and organs.

An economist might include: I am a worker.

An anthropologist might include: I am shaped by culture.

A historian might include: I am influenced by historical events.

A politician might include: I am a citizen.

A religious believer might include: I am a person of faith.

A theologian might include: I am made in the image of God.

The purpose of this exercise is to expand the horizon through which we view ourselves and each other. A human being is not simply one thing. I find this exercise useful when I’m reading scientific claims about human evolution.

In broad terms, some atheists use evolutionary biology to argue that we are simply the product of evolution. In this view, even our morality is the result of evolutionary forces. While there is likely some partial truth to be found in this way of thinking, it does not capture the fullness of human life. For instance, the whole ‘survival of the fittest’ argument misrepresents human nature as well as evolutionary biology. Evolution doesn’t select for something as if it is some master designer. Instead, evolution selects against features that are less compatible with survival.

In simple terms, we are not just the product of our genes because not everything that humans are capable of doing as a result of our genetic inheritance is morally desirable. It is broadly accepted throughout the whole world that murder is abhorrent. In other words, evolution may have contributed to the development of some moral and amoral behaviours, but it does not account for the fullest potential of our moral behaviour.

Even if one subscribes to the notion that evolutionary biology has led us to a time in which we can now overcome its dictates, it is difficult to see how this argument can be made without inherent contradiction. It is this simple but compelling truth that always leads me beyond the confines of evolutionary biology.

Ideologies that seek to centralise evolutionary biology as a foundation for ethical living will always fall short of real human experience. In other words, evolutionary biology is not a replacement for metaphysics or religion. Indeed, each subject area on its own can only provide a limited view of reality. The same is true for economics or anthropology or physics.

In this regard, I find my Catholic faith useful for encouraging believers to explore the strengths and insights of all subjects while holding fast to the truth of God’s love, a truth that brings together and makes sense of all knowledge.

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