On Animals

“But I don’t hold with the idea that man is just a higher animal,” I was saying.

“I think you’re right,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “Maybe instead of seeing humans as higher animals, we’d be better off thinking of animals as lesser humans. Or maybe ‘lesser’ is the wrong word.”

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On the ‘God of the Gaps’

“I’ve heard it called a ‘God of the gaps’ argument,” I was saying. “He thinks there are some things science can’t explain, and that’s what proves there is a God.”

“If I were a theologian,” Mr. Magundi replied, “I’d never allow anyone to make such a foolish argument in my presence. The idea seems to be that God exists in the empty spaces in our knowledge; the inevitable corollary would be that, as we fill in our understanding of the way the world works, eventually God will be squeezed out like the last drop of toothpaste.

“If I were a theologian, I’d say your friend has it exactly backwards. Wherever we know that the world is explainable; wherever it operates according to elegant and simple mathematical laws; wherever astonishing complexity rises from utter simplicity with beautiful inevitability—there is where we see God plainly. Where there are gaps in our scientific knowledge, those are the places where we don’t quite see God yet. But we keep working toward filling in those gaps, coming to a closer and closer understanding of the mind of God.

“That’s what I’d say if I were a theologian. But, since I’m not a theologian, you’re free to pretend I never said it.”

On Human Evolution

“Otherwise,” I said, “you end up with something like Lysenko, and that’s the end of science.”

“Lysenko was a tyrant and an ignoramus,” said Mr. Magundi, “and the damage he did to biology in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of human lives—was incalculable. He seems not to have had the slightest idea of how science works. Yet for all that, by some lucky instinct he grasped a truth that eludes most armchair biologists. He did not believe that Darwinian evolution could account for human progress, and he was right. Human evolution is Lamarckian. The forces of natural selection have been largely neutralized, because we cherish our weak and infirm; but we pass on our acquired characteristics to the next generation. One generation discovers a cure for polio, and the next generation is immune to that disease. One generation laboriously builds up the Internet, and the next seems to be born with a Facebook account. We progress as a species by extrabiological means: because we have language, and tradition, and writing, and education, the accumulated experience of all previous generations is ours, and our lives begin where our ancestors’ lives left off. In a way, you could say that old man Lysenko was right about that. He was just wrong about everything else.”