We are all familiar with the idea of evolution, which in our culture seems to have the standing of holy writ rather than a theory of science, writes Rev Sydney Maitland.
As a theory of science it is subject to proof and if that proof is not sufficiently robust, it may be falsified or at least qualified. As a theory of science it is subject to all the caveat that attach to scientific theories which for all are capable of being superseded by other theories based on new data or on better and more robust explanations of existing data. Where new instruments are developed which can measure new phenomena or which can measure existing phenomena more accurately or more sensitively then any existing theory of science is capable of being overtaken. And that includes evolution.
Of course where any theory of science is elevated to a moral or spiritual principle then it is no longer scientific but takes on cultural and even political overtones. To refer to the survival of the fittest as an explanation for the development or survival of any species seems reasonable enough, so long as the data is there to support that conclusion.
The situation becomes more fragile however when political, social and moral lessons are then drawn from it. For a business to fail and for the staff, premises and other resources it employed to be used elsewhere may be fair enough in principle however the effects on the people involved may be severe. Equally when it is found that to construct and maintain an effective power or water supply and sewerage system demands resources on a scale wider than the town or city may be fair enough. That is also a form of development, even ‘evolution’ (?).
But what happens when we say that the weakest in society are disposable? This effectively was the Nazi view, and it was used to justify killing handicapped people, as well as social and political deviants, and in these categories homosexuals and communists were especially liable to imprisonment or death. And this is before we even start looking at the treatment of the Jews, innocent and non-political civilians, for whom no charge of subversion was ever going to be levelled. They were only people of Jewish faith and extraction and for this the penalty was isolation, exclusion, ghettoization and death.
But even the Nazis did not really believe their own doctrine – otherwise they would not have treated their war-wounded, whether in the field or in hospital. They would have left them to face their wounds without any kind of succour whatever – for this would have been the logical out-working of their own doctrines of survival of the fittest.
In the same manner our own culture manifestly does not use this extreme and rigid doctrine to justify the closure of the health service and the refusal to treat the sick, injured or mentally distressed. Even our own society has limits to which it is willing to press its own doctrines of ‘evolution’. And this is entirely right and proper.
Nevertheless, our own culture is still willing to use this doctrine when faced with the termination of pregnancy – could a foetus survive outside the womb? Or even in discussing the quality of life to the very sick or aged – hence the debate on the ‘right to die’. Here the socially convenient limits to the value of life become more apparent.
My conclusion is that discussion of evolution and the survival of the fittest is best confined to the scientific community for this is a scientific theory, but not a particularly useful guide in the development of public policy or morality, or in determining how resources are to be allocated in society and in the economy. A more robust scheme of moral and ethical judgments is required which understands and accepts the nature of our humanity and which is based on the relationships and priorities that this involves. In this sense the nature of life in all its richness must be central and with it the quality of its relationships in all aspects of human interaction.
It would mean beginning with God who is the author of life in all its variety. It would involve the nature of human interaction, and necessarily human interactions with God. This may be a tall order in a society which essentially rejects a form of faith based on relationships and prefers one that is individualised and indeed atomised. But then Paul saw the church as a body rather than an institution while Jesus saw His disciples and their successors as a flock in which He is the Good Shepherd.
I think that this is a far more useful starting point.