Know Your Roots
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Know Your Roots

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Identity: how can you know where you're going if you don't know where you came from?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.1

Of all the subjects taught in school, the one that most often fails to stick in students’ minds is history. In fact, according to a 2011 study by the National Assessment of Education Progress, in the United States “only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were proficient on a nationwide test of history knowledge.”2

As an English professor, I have witnessed this phenomenon first-hand. Most students enter college with little sense of the overall shape of history or how the actions of past nations, groups, and individuals have impacted our own day and age. Even students from ethnic groups that have traditionally kept alive their own unique experiences (Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, etc.) have lost connection not only to the history of their home countries but also to the struggles that their ancestors endured to give them a chance at a better life.

This ignorance of history is often bemoaned by social scientists and politicians who track standardized exams. But the danger goes much further than the fear that Americans will fall behind in global educational statistics. What is really at stake can best be summed up in an oft-quoted bit of proverbial wisdom: If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going?

People without roots are, well, rootless. A tree without roots will wither from lack of nutrition and topple over from lack of support. Without the sense of identity and direction that comes from a firm knowledge of their personal, national, and ethnic past, many people find it difficult to discover their place in the present and make decisions about the future.    

Ultimate Origins

This takes on even greater significance when the past we speak of is not historical but metaphysical. That is, when we begin to ask: Where did I, as a human being, come from? What is my ultimate origin? What bearing does that origin have on my purpose?

It’s a shame that one of the key questions raised by Darwinian evolution—Are humans descended from apes?—has so often been parodied by people on both sides of the creation–evolution divide. The question is far from frivolous. It carries with it deep implications about our status as human beings and our purpose as individuals and as a species.     

If we are nothing more than glorified apes, simply the product of blind evolutionary forces that did not see us coming, then we must abandon any sense that we are a “special” species with a unique destiny and purpose. We are just an accident of nature, a species that can gauge its success and worth only by its ability to survive.

Origin of Consciousness

Of course, there is a middle position between saying that man is a product solely of natural selection and claiming that he was specially created by the hand of God. One could hold that our bodies were shaped by some type of Darwinian mechanism but that our souls—the part of us that makes us human and distinguishes us from the higher mammals—were specially created and breathed into us by some type of supernatural process. Renowned theologian C. S. Lewis makes just such an argument in chapter five of The Problem of Pain.3   

This idea, however, is not the dominant viewpoint amongst modern evolutionists. Indeed, the cutting edge of evolution today concerns the evolution of consciousness. Some—such as Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, John Searle, and Steven Pinker—argue that natural selection is capable of evolving human consciousness (and conscience) without supernatural intervention.4  Once our brain evolved large and complex enough, such scientists argue, consciousness arose as an “epiphenomenon.”  It just happened, and that is that.

Mind Over Matter

But is that really all there is to it? Is mind just a product of matter, or does mind have a separate existence apart from matter?

Unlike even the most developed of mammals, human beings have consciousness (they know they are alive and who they are as distinct individuals who grow and develop), conscience (they know that there is a distinction between right and wrong and that they ought to follow the right way), freedom (they need not succumb to their animal urges but can make decisions apart from their biology), and an aesthetic sense (they recognize and appreciate beauty).

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton meditates on the drawings of reindeer and other animals discovered on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France.5 Those who say our body and soul evolved solely by natural means will often point to these “primitive” drawings as proof that our consciousness “emerged” naturally. But the very evidence they use works against them.

Art is a fully human medium; that is, it gives evidence of a soul that does not existin the animal kingdom. “A monkey,” writes Chesterton, “does not do [art] at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.”6 The leap from beast to man, from animal to artist, takes place outside of time; just so, the human soul does not rise up out of matter. This all points back to a supernatural source.

Destiny

Either the human mind and soul evolved out of matter, or they represent something outside of matter. The answer to this question has implications far beyond the science classroom.

If the former is true, then man simply cannot have any final or ultimate destiny; he is as much a slave of the natural world as a tree, a snake, or an ape. But if the latter is true, then it opens up the possibility that man has a destiny quite apart from the physical world.     


  1. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Airmont, 1965), 66.
  2. Sam Dillon, “U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show,” New York Times, June 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/education/15history.html.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 72–75.
  4. See Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1992); Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind (New York: Vintage, 2012); John Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990); and Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 2009).
  5. An introduction to these Lascaux cave paintings can be found at http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/lascaux/index.php.
  6. G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (New York: Image Books, 1955), 44.
  7. Photo Credit: Aleshyn_Andrei / Shutterstock.com.
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