Saturday, May 06, 2006

Primordial soup for the soul

"Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud," said House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay some years ago, by way of explaining the Columbine school massacre.

His remark would be merely silly were not similar thoughts commonly expressed by influential folks on the religious right. I can't tell you how many times I've heard fundamentalist preachers suggest that the reason scientists embrace evolution is so they can lead dissolute lives without fear of divine retribution.

The thought is both stupid and insulting.

There is something called common morality shared by all human beings, based on -- in ethicist Bernard Gert's formulation -- our common fallibility, rationality, and vulnerability. A basic altruism that makes no reference to any particular religious code of behavior seems to be part of the human condition, evolved genetically and culturally during our long journey from the primordial soup. Atheists, agnostics, and people of all religious persuasions generally agree on such basic moral principles as do not cause pain, keep your promises, obey the law, and so on. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of common morality, rather than the other way around. Which is not to say, of course, that we all live by the rules.

I'm an evolutionist because I judge the evidence for the unity of life by common descent over billions of years to be overwhelming, not so that I can cheat on my wife or kick the cat with impunity. I live in no hope of heaven or fear of hell, but like most of my fellow humans I try to live a decent life. Some folks just can't get it through their heads that a person can choose to live ethically because civilized life among rational, willful beings requires restraint and concern for others.

Tom DeLay should have tended to his own ethical compass, and worried less about those of us who acknowledge our origin in the primordial soup.