Monthly Archives: January 2015

Looking at Evolution, Part 1, The Bigger Context

Today’s Post

So far we’ve watched two sides slug it out over the idea of evolution: the materialistic scientific side seeing evolution as a concept freeing humans from religion as “an artifact of the childhood of humanity, a childish belief which it was now necessary to discard”, and the creationist side confronting evolution as a “’secular-humanistic’ teaching which will ultimately erode the American way of life”.  Choose sides: evolution as an enabler of the maturity of human society or a corrosive force which undermines society.

But, we’ve also seen a ‘middle ground’, typified by the more centrist expressions of the ‘liturgical’ religions which do not take issue with the basic premise of evolution itself, but insist that evolution is part of the works of a personal God.

Thus, on the subject of religion and evolution, we really have three sides: evolution as diametrically opposed to religion, religion as diametrically opposed to evolution, and religion and evolution ‘accommodating’ each other.

Today we’ll look more closely at the concept of evolution itself at how this straightforward idea can be perceived in such diverse ways, and offer some critiques of these different interpretations.

Evolution 101

There are many ways to approach Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection.  I’m choosing that of Dr. Kenneth Miller, Catholic Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Brown University.  Dr. Miller is clearly at the center of this war.  He is neither wedded to many of the metaphors, elements of sentimentalism and scriptural literalism so criticized by such militant atheists as Richard Dawkins, nor is he vague in his belief in a transcendent and immanent personal God. His books on evolution and belief, Only a Theory and Finding Darwin’s God are recommended to anyone looking for a deeper dive into this complex issue.

Dr. Miller:

“At its heart, evolution is a modest idea, a minimal concept, just two points really:  First, the roots of the present are found in the past; and second, natural processes, observable today, fully explain the biological connections between present and past.  On purely scientific terms, these two points leave very little to argue about.”  In the process of evolution, “favorable variations increase the likelihood of success in the struggle for existence, and therefore natural selection automatically chooses those characteristics best suited for survival and weeds out those that are least helpful.”

Effectively, entities beget offspring, some of which survive to continue procreation, and some do not survive.  Over time, this process of procreation in successful lines of lineage undergo small changes, which over longer periods of time result in entities quite different from their distant ancestors.

At the ‘macro’ level (the level of our lives), this is certainly a straightforward concept.  But, the question can be asked, “how does it work”?  In order for life to change and ‘adapt’ to its surroundings, what has to take place?  What are these ‘natural processes’?

Much is still being learned about the biological processes at play in the intensely complex “micro level” workings of the cell, but significant breakthroughs have occurred with the discovery of the mechanism of heredity: the gene.  With the increasing detail of analysis of the cell at the molecular level, it has been discovered that genes are ‘digital’, which means that they are composed of a small number of specific molecules which appear in various sequences.  Genes, in effect, are written in a sort of ‘language’, referred to as DNA.  The contents of this language effectively tell the cell how to make its building blocks, essentially other molecules, known as amino acids which compose the proteins which are the biochemical workhorses of the cell.

Each time the cell divides, which is the essential action in the growth of a multi-celled entity, the entire language must be copied and replicated in the new cell to insure an identical set of genes in the new cell.  Occasionally, due to small mistakes, or the intervention of an outside source of energy (such as radiation in the environment), the information does not accurately transfer, resulting in a ‘mutation’.  From Dr. Miller:

“Mutations, acting upon that digital genome, produce variation, the raw material upon which natural selection goes to work.  Since mutations can duplicate, rearrange, or change literally any gene, it follows that they can also produce any variation.”  “Natural selection favors and preserves those variations that work best, and new variation is constantly generated by mutations, gene rearrangements, and even by exchanges of generic information between organizations.”

This, of course, is one stimulus to species change.  Another, more important and significantly faster, is that of environment change.  Many studies have shown a significant change to a controlled population, such as the study performed on guppies by the biologist Davit Reznik.  Reznik moved a population of guppies from one forest pool to another which had a different predator fish.  He was able to show that over eleven years the surviving guppies had changed in significant ways to increase in their survival rate.

Thus from ‘within’ and ‘without’, living things, given enough time and stimuli, can be seen to show changes in their DNA significant enough to warrant the title of, “new species”.

“Survival of the Fittest”?

This statement, of course, is one most closely associated with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, although coined by Herbert Spencer (late eighteenth century “Social Darwinist”).  Those which survive go on to procreate and their survivors successfully procreate, and so on.  By definition, we are the survivors of successful ancestors.

The atheists make much of this: we are the sum of random mutations which have survived the ravages of our environment: we are by definition, “the fittest”.

The question that this raises, of course, is what is the definition of “fittest”?  Many scientists would say that the end goal (if such a thing can be ascribed) of natural selection is, “survival”.  In this way of thinking, the evolutionary pathway to the human, with his vulnerable physiology and relatively short life span, cannot be considered a paradigm of ‘survival’ as compared to other living things.

For instance, since humans consist of a complex amalgam of organs, we are totally dependent upon large families of billions of entities known as ‘bacteria’ that perform myriads of operations (such as the extraction of nutrients from food).  Many of these essential bacteria, while very simple, nonetheless can have lifetimes much longer than the seventy or so years of the human host.  They can precede our birth (we get them through our mothers) and survive our death.  Most bacteria are thought to have occurred in evolution much earlier than the human person.  If the objective of evolution is ‘survival’, why does it continue past the advent of bacteria?  Looked at the other way around, is it possible that humans evolved only to provide a host for the bacteria?

At the purely material level, it is thought that atoms have no natural death.  If left to themselves (e.g. if they do not end up smashed to bits in a particle accelerator), they will not die.  Many of the atoms in our bodies (at least the heavier ones, such as carbon) started their life in the explosion of some star several billion years ago.  After you die, they will even outlast the long-lived bacteria in your gut.  This is ‘survival’ on steroids.  Why does evolution continue to proceed past this point, having accomplished an entity of such monumental stability?

More than Just Biology

Conventional scientific thinking, as summarized above, understands evolution as something that happens in living things, starting with the cell and more or less slowly proceeding in the human person through minute changes in our genes.  However, this conventional point of view limits evolution to something that somehow pops up out of nowhere in the most recent three percent of the unfolding of the universe.  What about the fourteen-some billion years prior to the appearance of the cell?

So to understand evolution in the correct context, we must understand it as occurring in three stages:

Pre Life: Physical entities united by forces described by physics and chemistry.

Life: Biological entities united by forces described by Darwin’s Natural Selection.

Conscious Life:  Human persons united by Darwinistic influences?

To recap, most of science considers evolution as it occurs through Natural Selection in the era of life.  The materialists consider Natural Selection to still be in play in the era of conscious life, the creationists see it as a step on the slippery slope to cultural decay, while the centrists are willing to accommodate it as long as the action of God is understood as the ultimate force behind it.

Next time we’ll continue our look at evolution by overviewing Teilhard’s more comprehensive and inclusive vision of evolution as a process which can be seen to unify the cosmos which naturally accommodates the human person.

The Significance of Evolution, The Counterattack From the Far Right

Today’s Post

In the last post we overviewed the rise of atheism, and the atheist use of the Darwinistic concept of evolution as a weapon against the concept of God, and against organized religion as “an artifact of the childhood of humanity, a childish belief which it was now necessary to discard”.  In today’s post we will visit the counterattack from the more conservative believers which seem to come as such a surprise to scientists and biologists in particular.  As Dr. Kenneth Miller, Brown University, notes, “The depth and emotional strength of objections to evolution sometimes baffle biologists who are used to thinking of their work as objective and value-free.  The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual.”

Not surprisingly, many believers such as Dr. Kurt Wise (professor of science at Bryan College and noted creationist), confronted by such intellectual aggression and feeling besieged by this new antagonism, began a counterattack, a war upon the idea of evolution.  At the conservative extreme, the school of thought known as “Creationism” attempts to offer a semi-secular defense of religious belief against the concept of evolution.  The concept of “Intelligent Design” takes a slightly less conservative reaction to evolution but still offers defense of religious belief.

What do the Creationists Say?

In its most basic expression, creationism springs from scriptural literalism.  The bible is considered to be an authoritative basis for Christianity.  For the non-liturgical protestant religions, it is the authoritative, literal, inerrant and unequivocal basis.  In the early days of combat against the idea of Natural Selection, it was heavily used as the basis for argument, as popularized in the play, “Inherit the Wind”.  (Unfortunately, this play also popularized the secular arguments against the historical accuracy of the bible.)

William A. Dembski, a philosopher at the Discovery Institute, and a champion of Intelligent Design (ID), argues, “As Christians we know that ‘naturalism’ is false.  Nature is not self-sufficient and requires a designer/creator to make it work”.  He voices the belief of many followers of ID when he concludes that Christians may accept material explanations for phenomena such as seasonal change and the sun’s energy, but not for human origins.

Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Science and strong supporter of the ’young earth’ concept, commented on a debate which centered on scientific evidence for ‘old earth’ vs the creationist concept of a ‘young earth’.  Evidently he was unable to counter the arguments presented by his protagonist in favor of an “old earth’.  His comment: “Scientific data aren’t the ultimate authority, and science is often wrong.  (The ultimate authority is) scripture, which tells us what the right conclusion is.  And if science, momentarily, doesn’t agree with it, then we have to keep on working until we get the right answer.  But I have no doubt as to what that answer will be.”

Over time, Creationism has increased the sophistication of its arguments with the ‘spin off” known as Intelligent Design.  In ID, several new and less scripturally based types of arguments are put forward.  To list a few, as cited in the Watchtower Bible and Tract book, “Life, How Did It Get Here?”:

  • Irreducible complexity   In this argument, many systems and subsystems of life are seen as incapable of being reduced to a simpler form, hence unable to be produced by the process of evolution.  Removing even the smallest element of the human eye, for example, would render the eye unable to see.
  • Design vs Evolution   Further, the complexity of these systems and subsystems prove that they could only have come from a ‘designer’ rather than emerging from a ‘happenstance’ series of evolutionary steps.  Things are the way they are because they were specifically designed to be so, not that they came to be as a result of chance.
  • God is in the Gaps    The many gaps in the fossil record prove the intervention of God.  The record only shows that different creatures have existed in different times in the past, not that there was any process in which one would have evolved from a predecessor.
  • Statistical Improbability   The probability of highly complex organs (the brain, for example) evolving through chance is very, very low, proving the hand of God in its implementation.
  • Insufficient Age of the Earth   The earth, at only a few thousands of years old, has not been in existence long enough for the processes claimed by natural selection to evolve complex species.  This is a particular belief held by the “young earth’ creationists, such as Dr. Kurt Wise (above).

Such strong, yet anti-scientific attitudes, while upholding traditional expressions of belief, nevertheless take a toll on creationists with scientific educations.  The empirical content of science is always in tension with the intuitive content of belief.  Kenneth Miller notes the reaction of Jack Hitt, author, who set out to record the ‘curious geology’ taught by such professors as Dr. Wise.  Hitt, while not abandoning the scientific viewpoint, was clearly impressed by the emotional depth of the creationists he interviewed, finding their constructs of creationist geology “favorable compared to the random evolution, meaningless mutations, trial and error (mostly error), aimless procreation, the pointless void of space, the cold materialism of Darwin’s damn theory”.  Hitt saw that on every intellectual level evolution makes the most scientific sense.  But at the emotional level, Dr. Wise’s creationism taps into a strong emotional tide:

“I felt again the warmth of believing that for every inch of infinity there has already been an accounting.  Everything has a reason for being where it is…I had felt it before, in childhood, when everything around me radiated with specific meaning and parental clarity.  That, after all, is what creationists feel that evolution has stolen from them.”

 Again, from Miller, “To Wise and many others, the disciplines of evolution have crushed the innocence of childhood, poisoned the garden of belief, and replaced both with a calculating reality that chills and hardens the soul.”  Add this to the overtly hostile arguments of such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris against not only belief but its practice and benefits, and it’s not hard to understand the strong tide of anti-scientific belief represented by the creationists.

The Schoolbook Controversy

The state of Texas is well known for its textbooks.  Once a textbook goes through the arduous Texas process of review and selection, boards of education in many states feel confident in use of the book in their schools.  Texas is therefore a ‘hot spot’ for textbooks which attract criticisms from various schools of thought, particularly from the religious right.

This war has been waged for many years, going back to the legendary couple, Mel and Norma Gabler, who pioneered the nationwide evangelical attack on “ideas, situation ethics [sic], values [and] anti-God humanism”.

In addition to the issue of ‘global warming’ that of ‘evolution’ enjoys a place close to the center of the target of such attacks.  For many years, creationists have strongly warred against textbooks which taught evolution as a viable theory of how living things have come to be.  Often the criticism is against evolution ‘per se’ for reasons such as those listed above.  Other criticisms don’t attack evolution as such, but insist that creationism be taught with equal strength as a ‘viable alternative’ for an explanation of living things.  Believers support these criticisms, as it offers pushback against what they perceive as “secular-humanistic” teachings which will ultimately erode the American way of life.  Scientists, on the other hand, decry the ‘watering down’ of the teaching of science in an age where America’s technological prominence is seen to be fading.

What’s in the Middle?

It should be noted that reaction to Darwin’s concept of Natural Selection does not elicit the same level of negativity across the entire spectrum of Christianity.  I’ve offered a small overview of the reaction from the ‘far right’, which can be found in Christian expressions of the ‘non-liturgical religions’.  Among those more aligned toward the center, the ‘liturgical’ expressions, reaction to the idea of human evolution is somewhat less negative.

I realize that these categories are very superficial: each expression of Christianity, both liturgical and non-liturgical, contains its liberals and conservatives, its “high” and “low” modes of worship, its belief in the literalism vs the symbolism of scripture, and so on.  In general, however, in the less conservative expressions, the reaction to the general idea of human evolution is less negative.

At the most inclusive end of the spectrum, as represented by Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Brown University, the creative action of God can be clearly seen in the ongoing process of evolution.  Many of the more liberal contemporary theologians, such as the Jesuit Gregory Baum, who figured prominently in Vatican II, and the Franciscan Richard Rohr, support the scientific view of creation over the more literal interpretations of scripture and conventional metaphors, and offer reinterpretations of traditional teachings which open new vistas of belief.  In these expressions of Christianity, religion itself can be seen to be evolving.

Teilhard de Chardin, of course, offers a point of view that falls into this category.

That said, while these thinkers might agree with some of the coarser criticisms of conventional religion beliefs and practices expressed by Dawkins et al, they still insist that God powers the phenomenon of evolution.  While the manifestations of belief which came to be in the middle ages might be subject to reinterpretation, the substance of belief in a personal, transcendent, and immanent God does not lose validity when the substance of his creation is more closely examined.

This leaves the question still open: How can such belief be brought into confluence with the ever-increasing findings of science?  Simply stating that the findings of science do not, ultimately, contradict God doesn’t answer the question, “how?, or “why not?”

The Way Forward

Professor Miller asks,

“So what are to make of the clash of values between the spiritualism of the creationists and the materialism of the evolutionists?  The triumphalists of materialism now act as though this last achievement is enough to exclude the spiritual.  The reactionists of creationism respond in kind, tilting comically at evolution’s windmill with every trick at their disposal.”

Can a common ground be found between such bitterly antagonistic positions?  How can the tenets of science and religion be understood in a way which sees them as complimentary?

Even more importantly, how can the journey of our lives become better lit by such reinterpretations?  From all this cacophony how can Teilhard’s “Clearer disclosure of God in the World” be achieved?

These questions are important to this blog, but to be able to begin the process of reinterpretation it is important to better understand the subject which seems to contain such corrosive content, that of evolution itself.  The next post will offer a summary description of the theory and of the importance that it brings to the empirical mechanisms of science.