There are, I think, two possible interpretations of evolutionary history. The first, which I call the small one, sees evolutionary history as a gradual process of progress. Life started out very simple, but slowly gained in complexity. At one point in time, the human species emerged, with the ability to create culture. This implied, a small interpretation would hold, that life jumped to a new level of reality, going from biology to culture. I believe Dawkins wrote somewhere in ‘The Selfish Gene’, that humanity is able, thanks to culture (which he describes by the notion of memes), to free itself from the shackles of the gene (to become enchained by culture, one could argue).
The second possible interpretation of evolutionary history, which I would call the broad one, sees evolutionary as a gradual process, but not of progress. Evolution is about life finding answers to the problems at hand, building on yesterday’s solutions. Different solutions may apply to the same problem, see for instance the different ways of constructing an eye. There’s no such thing as the best solution, there are only solutions that work, and those that don’t. The latter are weeded out by selection. One of the solutions life stumbled upon is a degree of intelligence that allowed self consciousness to emerge. A good example of this line of thinking is Terrence Deacon’s ‘The Symbolic Species‘.
The big difference between a small and a broad interpretation of evolutionary history is that a small one singles out Homo sapiens, setting the human species apart from nature, while a broad one stresses the continuity between humanity and other species. I think taking either a small or a broad perspective influences how we relate to the rest of nature (and I know, by writing ’the rest of nature’ I already take a stance). Theologian Philip Hefner uses the metaphor, which he has found in the work of Philip Ode, of ‘kinship’ to express a broad interpretation of evolutionary history and to evoke a particular kind of relation between the human species and the other members of the global ecological community:
“We flourish only within an intimate ecological fabric, and within the relationships of that fabric, we are kin to the other citizens of nature’s society. Our interrelatedness is best conceptualized according to the model of genetic relatedness. Nature’s processes have produced us, we are constituted by our inheritance from its past, and we live in the ambience of its creative balances today. There is a kind of nonnegotiability to the message that science delivers on this point. Our kinship with nature is not a matter of our preference, nor is it an issue that calls for our acquiescence. It simply is.” (The Human Factor, p. 66) “
He goes on to argue that we have to rediscover this kinship, because we do no longer have an intuitive, genetic knowledge of it. That is the role cultural systems, like religion, have to play. Religion, with its symbols, its narratives, its metaphors, its rituals, etc., can evoke awareness of our kinship relation to nature. And that, in turn, enables us to decide for of against acting according to this relationship.
The problem is, of course, that, precisely because we do not have an innate knowledge (which, by the way, I would assume to be unconscious knowledge) of our kinship with the whole of nature, we have to be reminded about it. The religious symbols that refer to it, that are able to evoke awareness about it, have to be decoded anew every generation. When transmission of certain reading keys are forgotten, metaphors turn stale. They lose their ability to change our perspective on the world, becoming like cave paintings: beautiful pieces of art, impressive if only because of their age, but completely mute about their original meaning.
What we need, then, is attention and care to the transmission of the necessary reading keys to decode the symbols of our religious traditions. ‘Decoding’ is not the right verb, actually. It is more about integrating symbols in our worldview, about being able to relate to these symbols. It is not about knowing the one and only ‘right’ meaning of a symbol, but about the ability to discern what a symbol could mean, rather than what we think it should mean. It is about being able to search for meaning through the symbol, to let the symbol show the world in a new perspective, and to critically engage this perspective. It is, to use perhaps somewhat loaded language, about being open for the possibility of revelation to take place. Cultural evolution does not imply a reduction of religion to a natural process. For theology, cultural evolution implies a sense of the deep history of revelation.