Spirituality and Evolution

A good friend recently steered me to a radio interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of the best-selling book How We Die. I am far too impatient to listen to the online stream of the interview, but fortunately a transcript was made available, so I could read it quickly. The title of the interview was The Biology of the Spirit, and it was based on Dr. Nuland’s theory that human consciousness and spirituality are based in evolutionary biology.

Nuland believes that humans have evolved to have a sense of spirituality. Although he comes from a Jewish background, Nuland’s theory is not based in religion, but rather in his understanding of human biology and how evolution works. In his view, spirituality tends to make people happy or relaxed or content – a position that is hard to argue with. And whichever one of those words you use, it implies being well suited to survival, and thus should be selected by evolution. Or, as Nuland puts it:

“When a stimulus comes in and the brain has 50,000 different ways of responding to it, some of those are useful for survival and some of those will either prevent survival or mar survival, and the human brain, in classical evolutionary pattern, will pick the one that is healthiest, that gives greatest pleasure. What gives greater pleasure than a spiritual sense?”

What struck me about Nuland’s theory is not just how common sense it is – assuming you believe in evolution – but how it resonates with the work of theologian Gordon Kaufman. Although I was unable to get into Professor Kaufman’s class while in graduate school (a fact which still mildly annoys me), I did study his great book In Face of Mystery, in which he discusses evolution. Kaufman’s view is that when you look at the history of evolution on earth, the general trajectory is up, toward what he calls the “human and humane.” This trajectory, this evolutionary path away from animals and toward all that is human, is, for Kaufman, God.

Kaufman comes at this as a professional theologian, an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church, but his position is not far from that of Nuland, the surgeon, who says “…for the past 40,000 years since modern Homo sapiens appeared on Earth, the way we have adapted to stimuli from the outside, we have relentlessly pursued this upward course, I believe, toward creating the richness of the human spirit.”

The fact that the minister and the surgeon have come to the same conclusion, from opposite directions, doesn’t mean that the conclusion is true, of course. But for me, it gives that conclusion some intellectual valences, a certain righteousness, that it might not otherwise have. Maybe that is because I agree with the conclusion; I have long argued that being human has a spiritual quality. But I think that even if I wasn’t on board with the results, I would pay closer attention to a conclusion that was reached by two such intelligent, yet opposite, thinkers.


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