Monday, February 16, 2009

Darwin's legacy

The Pew foundation has examined views of evolution, in this anniversary year of Darwin's birth.
According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 63 percent of Americans believe that humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being. Only 26 percent say that life evolved solely through processes such as natural selection.

This view is not shared by the nation's scientists, most of whom contend that evolution is a well-established scientific theory that convincingly explains the origins and development of life on earth. Moreover, they say, a scientific theory is not a hunch or a guess but is instead an established explanation for a natural phenomenon, like gravity, that has repeatedly been tested through observation and experimentation. Indeed, most scientists argue that, for all practical purposes, evolution through natural selection is a fact.
There are times when I feel that all intellectual accomplishment and everything I value is under attack by religious troglodytes. These days I feel that a lot.

Let me be clear, it is perfectly possible to believe in God and Darwinian evolution. The point is that the theory of evolution is not about the "why" things happened, it's about the "how". If you feel God tilted the decisions at each stage of selection, fine. But the point is that the theory doesn't require that a God did so. It is perfectly workable without invoking anything outside. So a "theistic evolution" is distinct from, say, intelligent design which says that evolution could not have happened without a God, which is not the same thing at all. (added in update)

Meanwhile we celebrate Darwin's accomplishments, which along with Abbot Gregor Mendel's codifying of genetics, provides the foundation for our understanding of how we are who we are.

For more fascinating info on how modern genetics and the science of DNA supports Darwin's studies, read this National Geographic story on Darwin's legacy. Also, visit the UK's Darwin bicentenary site .


Kevin K said...

If I believe that life evolved and or evloves under God's guidance I am a troglodyte?

kevin k

IT said...

No, Kevin, you aren't. many scientists believe that both Darwin was right and that there is a God. There is a difference in recognizing that evolution is a consistent theory in and of itself, and claiming that it can't possibly have worked, and therefore there HAS to be a God (the intelligent design argument).

To me, it is perfectly reasonable that if in Stephen Jay GOuld's terms, you re-wound the tape of life and replayed it, it would come out differently. You may disagree, because you believe that GOd tipped it one way or another, but the theory works fine without needing to invoke God. if there were a GOd he's perfectly able to make it consistent for both of us.

Indeed, to a scientist, it's not about God at all; it's not contra-God in any way and setting up Darwin and religion in opposition is wrong. Science is simply the "how"; religion is about the "why".

Does this make sense?

Kevin K said...

Dear IT

Thanks for the explanation. The way your comment read it seemed that believing God directs or acts through evolution made me a religious Trog, which seemed totally out of character for you.

I completely agree with your last sentence. I would point out that the account of creation in Genesis does set out a progression in which different types of life are created on successive days.

Darwin can be interpreted as scientific evidence that Genesis got it right.

Kevin K

Erp said...

I notice the chart combines atheist/agnostic into unaffiliated (separately both are at 87% [the report also surveyed some very confused atheists who believe in god]).

It is dismaying that only 48% of Americans agree that evolution is the best explanation.

Kevin, I should point out that Genesis 1 has flying creatures coming the day before land creatures which isn't quite the right order. Your best bet is to accept it as poetry with metaphorical but not factual meaning. Note that the whole has a structure

day 1 - light separated from darkness
day 2 - water separated from air
day 3 - land separated from water and land gets plants

day 4 - sun created to be in the light and the moon in the darkness (filling day 1 creations)
day 5 - the waters and the air gets creatures (filling day 2 creations)
day 6 - land creatures and man created (filling the day 3 creation)

which is poetic but not scientific.

IT said...

How long was a day?

Kevin, I will clarify the post.

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

I find it much more miraculous to accept evolution as the means whereby the universe was created. I believe that God had a hand in setting it up, but I fully believe that the way S/He created heaven and earth was though evolution.

As for the length of those days, IT, they were 29.3 hours long. The days were a lot longer then when God and I were young. :)

Anonymous said...

IT, you don't have to teach biology 101 at a community college. A friend of mine does, and she has had to develop a de-creationist routine to keep order in class.

It is embarrassing to be an American at times.


Erp said...

I doubt heaven and earth were created through evolution. I would look to physics not biology for the answers to that question.

The theory of natural selection explains how, given life, different species developed. It does not explain how life started nor how the stars and planets were formed.

IT said...

You are right, NancyP. I am fortunate that I teach very bright upper division students at a research-oriented university with a strong program in evolution.

THis is broader issue, I think: the deliberate anti-intellectualism of the fundigelical wing of religion. It doesn't matter what facts say: they will ignore them and they are proud of their ignorance. Evolution? Gays? Women's rights? Climate change? WHen science conflicts with their belief, they discard it willingly. "The Bible says it, That ends it." It's horrifying, frankly.

I tell BP sometimes that it's always the intellectuals that the rabble attack first and at times I really think I"ll wind up on the barricade!

Paul M said...

I can't say I have totally worked out my own synthesis of science and religion. I suppose I affirm God as creator while affirming evolution as the means by which God did it. Or, you can try this explanation. (If you can't read it, which is likely, the equations are Maxwell's equations, which describe the propagation of light.)

It is embarrassing to be a Christian some times.

JCF said...

"The Bible says it, That ends it."

The thing is, MOST of the time that you hear this, it's NOT about what the Bible actually says (the text).

It's what the Fundagelicals have been TOLD it says (having taught "Christian Thought" at an RC-based university, it was usually the most religious students in class---more often than not, Protestant---that were the most surprised to find out what's actually in the Bible).

I'll say it, and damn the consequences: most US Fundagelicals are functionally illiterate. Anything beyond "The 4 Spiritual Laws" and John 3:16 [NB: "believe in" in Jn3:16 means "The 4 Spiritual Laws", as they've been taught] is a stretch.

IT said...

Well, Paul M, I think that you needn't be. I like to remind people that Gregor Mendel, the founder of my particular branch of science, was an Abbot. Thus proving that scientific inquiry and religion can co-exist.

I figure if there were a God, he would be very annoyed that so many people misuse their gift of intellect.

Erp said...

The problem is that many Christians seem to be looking for a gap and then saying "God did that". A few years later the gap is filled and they have to look for another one.

Many also explain much as metaphor but try to accept a physical resurrection, virgin birth, walking on water, etc as actually happening.

And then there is theodicy.

A few try a different method. I'm not sure it works but it is at least not idiotic.

Paul M said...

A professor once argued that the Genesis story didn't even describe the created world accurately. There is a phrase there describing the firmament of heaven, which separates the waters above the firmament from the waters below the firmament. Pardon my French, but WTF? (I guess holes in the firmament produce rain.) This is, to some, the ultimate test of a fundamentalist: do they believe in the firmament?

Clearly, this is metaphorical language. It is not a story about how creation happened; it is the story about the One who made it happen. That is the pattern of the entire Hebrew bible; ask me about the God of Israel, and I'll tell you a story about what He has done for His people. If you compare Genesis with the creation myths of the religions surrounding the Hebrew people, the comparison makes some pretty bold theological statements about who this God of theirs was. And that is the whole point. Make this into a story about science, and you miss all the theology entirely.

It's about time there was some serious push back against the fundamentalists on this issue. I suspect most high school biology teachers are just too scared to touch this subject, which breeds more ignorance in the next generation. Something needs to change.

IT said...

What is changing is a fearsome ignorance in our children, and thus our culture. Be ready to hand off scientific leadership to India, Europe, Singapore, and China, because American students are corrupted by fundamentalism.

Anonymous said...

My concern exactly, IT. U.S. kids expect to have everything handed to them, probably because their parents have not raised them to expect anything else - rot setting in from television, religion, good old American exceptionalism and anti-intellectualism, and financial stability.


Anonymous said...

I should have said "MOST U.S. kids...." - NancyP

Fred Preuss said...

The percentage of evolutionary biologists who believe in god is about 10%-they're there, but it's not the main theory.

IT said...

it is not clear what you mean. THe fraction of scientists who believe in god is much lower than the population at large, true. Their belief in "the main theory" that is Darwinism is not affected, as I explained in the main post.

THe fraction of "evolutionary biologists" who believe in something OTHER than Darwinism is much, much, much smaller than 10%.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Poor ordained European as I am (and to whom all this v e r y Murcan discussion is incomprehensible), I wonder what the 4 Spiritual Laws might be?

Paul (A.) said...

I guess, Gören, that JCF means this.

Fred Preuss said...

"Ordained" means "I think that there's an Invisible Man in the Sky who tells me to tell you what to do."
The Swedes were intelligent to disestablish church and state in 200, which is about 210 after we did it, but hey, we're only 'Murcans.
Fortunately, about 95-99% of them have nothing to do with their former 'national' church on Sundays, which (considering what we've seen about Goran) seems like a smart move on their part.
Now if only the rest of the world could become as indifferent as the Swedes to faith...