22 October 2009
Probably the most heated battle ground in the culture war between secular science and organized religion is the debate surrounding evolution. Why do science-minded people take this theory so seriously? Why are there well-funded organizations (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science) armed with lawyers, scientists, and educators bent on countering the efforts of creationists and proponents of intelligent design? The simplest answer was penned by Theodosius Dobzhansky in The American Biology Teacher, (1973): “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, the theory of evolution by natural selection is central to biology. A scientific theory proposes a grand explanation for the way things are and offers hypotheses, which are testable predictions for what we should see if the theory is correct. If the explanation is not testable, it’s not scientific. The theory of evolution is the scientific community’s best effort to explain why there are so many forms of life on earth, why all life is remarkably adapted to its environment, and why different organisms have so much in common.
Let me make a careful distinction here: the term “evolution” simply means “change over time”, whereas “evolution by natural selection” or “Darwinian evolution” is the prevailing theory explaining how evolution occurred. Long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, it seemed to many naturalists that the relationship between living things looked an awful lot like a big family tree. If you start with, say, your pet cat, it’s clearly a different species than a tiger, but similar enough that you could imagine they have a common ancestor. Stepping back a level from cats, they aren’t really all that different from other 4-legged mammals; they have similar skeletons, the same number of toes, the same internal organs, etc. Now consider all mammals to be one branch of the family tree, with other branches for the reptiles, the birds, the fish, the insects, etc. These branches would all be on a different part of the family tree than the branches for plants and fungi. At the very root of the tree we would find single-celled organisms such as bacteria and yeast, tiny little living things that use the same DNA and amino acids and proteins as all their myriad multi-cellular cousins. At first glance your cat doesn’t seem that similar to cockroach, but viewed in light of the whole of life on Earth, they appear to be cousins in a really big family. The question that scientists ask is WHY? Why does life appear this way? This is what the theory of evolution by natural selection attempts to explain, and it explains life on Earth so well that it is considered by most scientists to be not only the best, but the only explanation. Without the theory of evolution by natural selection, biology has no explanations. Without explanations, scientists get very cranky, because explaining things is what we do. This is why scientists take evolution so seriously.
I am well aware of the objections, even scientific objections, to evolution by natural selection. There are enough people on all sides battling it out elsewhere, so let’s not get into it here. What I want to explore with this post is motivation. I have just explained why scientists take evolution so seriously. You might just as well tell me to explain chemical reactions without orbital theory as ask a biologist to explain life without evolution. But why is evolution important outside of the biology lab? In my last post I explained why Christians think the creation-evolution debate is so important. But what about non-religious folk, so-called secularists? What about atheists? Several of the most prominent leaders of the so-called “New Atheists” movement, such as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Meyers, are not only pro-Darwin, they are biologists. Why has evolution by natural selection been a rallying point for the war against religion? I think the explanation is rather simple: the need for explanation.
A popular term among theologians these days is “narrative”. What is the story that you find yourself in? Where did you come from? Why do believe what you believe? In the absence of a faith tradition, the atheist adopts a different narrative. That narrative appears to be science. Science as a philosophical tool presupposes that everything we observe can be explained by natural causes obeying predictable, describable rules of the universe. Science assumes that God, miracles, and the supernatural (including unicorns, faeries, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster) do not exist, not because scientists are themselves non-religious, but because most of the time the world works in an orderly and predictable way without the apparent intervention of the supernatural, and science is a great way to discover the rules underlying the day-to-day functioning of our universe. Atheists have simply taken the next step and decided that science is the best and only way of knowing about everything that there is. The premise that everything we observe is explainable by natural, predictable, and describable causes is no longer a philosophical tool but a simple fact. And who can blame them? Science has been so successful at explaining so much that it’s hard to imagine a role for the supernatural. In a world where we do not see water turned into wine or messiahs raised from the dead, science can explain the origin of life, the behavior of societies, even the chemical basis for the emotions we feel when we have religious experiences. Science as a world-view provides a narrative for those who believe that what we see is what we get: there probably is no God, so stop worrying and get on with your life. Whether the practice of science leads to atheism or atheists have co-opted science as their preferred epistemology is immaterial; it is a fact that if you hang around scientists and science advocates, you’re going to find more folk that don’t believe in any sort of god than those who do, and, in my opinion, it’s not hard to see why.
The theologian Paul Tillich believed that atheists are an unlikely ally of the faithful because they destroy our petty idols. Any god that cannot withstand the scrutiny of the human intellect is no god worth worshipping. As a scientist, I have great respect for the power of the scientific method to explain almost everything we observe in the world. Still, I find science lacking as a narrative, and I believe that the atheist worldview misses out on the fundamental human experience of interacting with the ultimate. But more on that later.
NEXT: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
03 May 2009
WHY EVOLUTION MATTERS TO CHRISTIANS
When I was an undergrad chemistry major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a local Baptist church brought Ken Ham and a few of his colleagues to campus for a three-day creation science festival. Most of the talks focused on showing scientific and historical proofs for the Biblical accounts of creation and Noah’s flood as well as poking holes in evolutionary theory, but the single most interesting talk I saw that weekend was entitled “Why Christians find the Creation/Evolution Issue so Important”. In this talk (of which I still have an audio copy that I listen to from time to time) Ken Ham argued very convincingly that accepting an ancient earth and evolution by natural selection is incompatible with Biblical Christianity. He didn’t go so far as to say that if you cannot be a Christian if you believe in evolution – just that your theology is inconsistent and incorrect.
Let me explain why: Self-titled Bible-believing Christians believe that God created the world perfect and without evil or death over the course of six 24-hour days. Humankind was created with free will and initially lived in harmony with God and nature as an immortal being. Humankind lost immortality when Adam and Eve, the progenitors of all humanity, deliberately disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their punishment for this disobedience was to be cursed with mortality and pain. The promise given at the time of this judgment was that this curse would someday be overturned by one of their descendents. This descendent would turn out to be Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (The Anointed One, or The Messiah). Jesus was the human incarnation of God, born of a virgin impregnated by the Spirit of God. Jesus, having no physical father, was unstained by the hereditary evil that Adam passed on to all his progeny. Jesus lived a sinless life, but was killed by crucifixion despite being innocent of any crime. God accepted the death of the innocent Jesus as the payment for all the sin and evil of all humankind in all history. The Christians that believe this reading of the Bible believe that eternal life awaits all who believe that Jesus is God, is still alive, and will come again someday to judge everyone who has ever lived.
Evolution by natural selection is problematic because it requires death in order to work. Suppose you take the creation story in the book of Genesis as allegorical, that Adam and Eve represent the first hominids to possess intelligence. You could even believe that God breathed an immortal soul into them in an act of supernatural intervention into an otherwise natural process spanning the 3 billion years or so of evolution. But if God used evolution by natural selection to create mankind, then God purposely created death and used death to create. If death was created by God before mankind ever existed and before Adam and Eve ever sinned, then God, not humankind, is responsible for mortality. It is then not clear why God had to come to earth in the form of Jesus and die a sacrificial death to defeat death if death is not the penalty for sin (as is taught in other parts of Christian scripture). This version of the story also casts doubt on the character of God. Why would God use billions of years of evolutionary dead ends, extinctions, predation, and parasitism to create human kind? And why would he create us like we are, imperfect and falling apart from the day we are born? And after all that, why would God blame death on our disobedience?
Some Christians try to be creative with their reading of Genesis to try to make it fit the claims of modern science. What if each of the creation days was actually a very long period of time? That doesn’t really work – not only does the story not really line up with the history of life as told by evolution, but plants get created on day three and the sun doesn’t get created until day four. Light gets created on the first day, but how could there be light and no sun? You could say that the light emanated from God himself, but now we have a mixture of natural and supernatural causes and it’s unclear which type of cause is the best explanation for which part of natural history.
This unwieldy mixture of natural and supernatural really is the problem in the end. The Bible-based theology outlined above is based on the simple belief that the Bible is the infallible words of God. Once that is accepted, the rest of the story is the clear, logical, and internally consistent result of a literal reading of the Bible. As soon as one attempts to call any part of the Bible allegorical or not literally true, it is difficult if not impossible to objectively decide where to stop. What about Noah’s flood? God’s constant miraculous intervention on behalf of the Israelites? The miracles and resurrection of Jesus? It calls into question why one would continue to hold on to beliefs that had their genesis in Genesis if one is willing to dismiss any part of their belief system that comes into conflict with the findings of modern science.
When I first heard Ken Ham explain that it is not possible to be a consistent, Bible-believing Christian and still accept evolution by natural selection, I felt forced to immediately agree with him. But my agreeing with him did not have the effect I imagine he was going for. If I could not be both an evolutionist and a Christian, I decided, then I must not be a Christian. I’ve since changed my mind on that issue, but I’ll deal with that in part three of this series.
NEXT: WHY EVOLUTION MATTERS TO SCIENTISTS (AND WHY SCIENCE MATTERS TO ATHEISTS).
15 March 2009
These guys are not getting through to each other.
There have been a handful of cases where one blogger is criticized by another in a public forum (an open letter, a scientific article, a conference). There is public debate and rebuttal, but on their respective blogs the combatants point out the (apparently) obvious errors in their counterparts' arguments with varying levels of derision. Neither gives any ground. Neither party changes their mind. Worse, if you read the comments, the large majority are supporters of the author’s views who congratulate themselves on their superior knowledge. The occasional detractor that joins in is often excoriated, flamed, or outright banned. It all gives the readers the impression that this conflict really is intractable, that there really can be no middle ground.
I almost believe them. I’m almost ready to pick a side and start lobbing grenades.
But then I start thinking about whose ideas I’m reading. It’s actually a relatively small group of guys (yes, some ladies, but mostly guys). Anyone who takes the time to write (or comment) on a blog, especially a blog about an incendiary topic, has to have enough of an opinion that they feel like sharing it. And if they’re a well-known blogger, they’ve obviously shared a strong enough opinion enough times to gain a readership. So just because a blogger (or radio show host or TV show host) seems unwilling to change his mind doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is equally unwilling to seek charitable understanding. The same is true, I suppose, about a blog’s followers. My friend Chris is full-time and prolific blogger. He tells me that only a small percentage of a blog’s readers actually post, and that these posters are a self-selective group. They are often looking for track-backs to their own blogs or, in the case of the nastier commenters, have a proclivity for flame wars no matter the subject matter, or they just have a lot of time on their hands. In any case, the vocal followers of a blog are probably not a representative sampling of the world at large any more than the bloggers are.
I was in college when the U.S. invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. Every Friday there would be protestors on a street corner near the university. They would wave signs with slogans like “No War for Oil”. Pretty soon an opposing camp started coming to the rallies, standing on the opposite side of the street holding signs with slogans like “Support Our Troops”. At most there were 50 people involved in these little rallies, but thousands of people driving past them. A few would honk in support of one side or another, but most of us wouldn’t say or do anything. I always thought that if I were to join the Friday Rallies, I would hold a blank sign, or a sign that said “These are complex issues that deserve a lot of thought and I don’t feel strongly enough in either direction to make a definitive statement on this sign”.
My unwillingness to yell hasn’t changed much. P.Z. Meyers probably isn’t going to change his mind anytime soon. Neither is Ken Ham likely to decide that he’s been wrong about the Bible all this time. But unlike holding a sign at a protest, blogging allows a lot more room for discussion of nuanced ideas. So for the time being I’m going to continue to write as if there were anyone out there who thinks there might be a third way (or a fourth or a fifth). If no one reads or cares, at least this will have been a good exercise in essay writing. But it is my sincere hope that my thoughts here will add some meaningful content to your thoughts and discussions on science and faith.
12 February 2009
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one Charles Darwin, a would-be-cleric-turned-naturalist whose seminal work On The Origin of Species turned the study of nature into a science. Although Darwin was by no means the first to propose that all life descended from a common ancestor, and although his theory of evolution by natural selection has been challenged and augmented since its initial publication in 1859, his name remains synonymous with evolution because his was the first and most enduring theory to propose a solidly scientific explanation for the remarkable diversity of life on Earth.
Let me explain what I mean when I say that the theory of evolution made biology a science. The scientific use of the word theory is very different from the colloquial use. You might casually say that you have a theory about why your friend is late for your movie date or why your car is making a funny noise. In this usage, “theory” means “guess” or “conjecture”. Not so a scientific theory. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, “the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.” The cause of gravity, the wave and/or particle nature of light, relativity – these are scientific theories, treated as fact. A scientific theory has a very important defining characteristic: the ability to make predictions. The rigorous testing of the predictions made by a theory is science. Prior to the theory of evolution, biology was basically the practice of collecting and cataloging Earth’s life forms. Naturalists could tell us what sorts of species were out there, but not why there were species. Think about it. Why should there be species at all? Why does every species seem to be uniquely adapted to its environment? Why do some species thrive while others don’t? Why are there fossils of strange creatures that don’t exist anymore? Scientists are able to answer questions like these with the theory of evolution by natural selection.
I doubt that you could find anyone in the English-speaking world who has never heard of evolution, but I doubt that many of them could explain what Darwin’s theory actually claims. For their benefit, I present to you here the truncated version (with many thanks to my professor Eduardo Wilner for his insightful classes on evolutionary theory and philosophy of biology).
- Observed: Living things reproduce, and when they reproduce they tend to make more than one offspring. If this were not the case, their species would die out as a matter of simple arithmetic.
- Observed: Resources are limited. The planet is finite in size. Even if there were only one type of reproducing animal and only one type of food, the planet would eventually be overrun.
- Observed: Animals will die.
- Conclusion: Given limited resources, staying alive is a competition. If one animal is more suited to staying alive than another, it will outlive its competitor (this is what we call fitness).
- Observed: Offspring tend to resemble their parents.
- Conclusion: There must be some manner in which the traits of the parent are passed on to the offspring. (Keep in mind that Darwin wrote “On the Origin of Species” before Mendel’s discovery of genes had been published, and nearly a century before Watson, Crick, and Franklin elucidated the structure of DNA).
- Conclusion: More animals that are fit will live to reproduce than will less fit animals. The traits of surviving animals, including traits of fitness, will be passed on to their offspring. Eventually, these traits of fitness will become widespread in a population and less fit traits will disappear.
- Observation (and this one’s the clincher): Creatures change with time. Darwin didn’t know about DNA or genes or mutation, but he observed (as other naturalists had been observing for centuries) that creatures are remarkably capable of changing with their environment, and that entirely new traits can spring into existence. He proposed that their must be random changes in creatures and that these changes can be passed on to offspring (that they are heritable).
- Conclusion: Changes that increase fitness will be retained; changes that decrease fitness will be weeded out. Over time, this will give rise to creatures that don’t resemble each other at all, even though they descended from the same ancestor.
So there you have it: evolution by natural selection can be summed up as heritable variation in fitness.
How does evolution by natural selection hold up as a scientific theory? Let’s look at the criteria:
- Does it explain the world around us? Yes. It offers a plausible explanation for why there are many different types of life on earth, and why each type of creature is remarkably adapted to its environment.
- Does it make predictions? Yes. Since the whole theory is based on logical conclusions drawn from observations, we can draw further conclusions that should be true and check whether these conclusions hold up with what we see in the world.
- Are the predictions testable? Yes. For example: if all life on earth has a common ancestor, we would expect to see common traits present in distinct species. Do we observe this? Certainly. Mammals from mice to bats to whales to people have remarkably similar skeletons (i.e. fingers and toes). All life on earth uses the same 4 molecules to make up their DNA. There is remarkable similarity in the DNA codes for making proteins, and there is often further similarity between species in the sequence and structure of specialized proteins.
An important point here: nothing can ever be proven in science. Every time an observation matches a prediction, we say that the hypothesis (and thus the theory) has been supported. If the observation does not match the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is proved wrong. If hypotheses are disproved enough times, one should begin to doubt the theory. If, however, hypothesis after hypothesis and prediction after prediction are supported by the observations, the theory grows in strength until it is accepted as practical fact.
I am well aware that many people do not find Darwin’s story compelling; some find it downright offensive. Future posts will discuss why that is. But in honor of Darwin’s birthday, I give you the above with the hopes that you will think twice before ever saying “Evolution is just a theory”.
18 January 2009
This sense of wonder is why I do science. Or more accurately, this sense of wonder is what makes me believe that science is a worthwhile endeavor. Even if I weren’t paid to do science, I would still be fascinated by the thrill of discovering the order underlying everything. I think a good deal of the beauty we find in the world is in its mystery, and there is no greater joy to the scientific mind than to probe that mystery in an attempt to learn its secrets.
It’s not hard to see how this can get us into trouble.
There are any number of ethical arguments we could have over the ramifications of reductionist thinking, but for the moment I want to talk about how our sense of wonder and our relationship with the mysterious impacts our relationship to God. I’ll leave the in-depth discussion of who or what God is or isn’t to theologians (such as my biologist/preist friend Lucas Mix). But I think it’s safe to say that most religious people ascribe to their spirituality and their deity some manner of mystery. If God were easily explained, I don’t think so many people would feel compelled to worship God. But if God is defined only as mystery and nothing more, then God shrinks as mystery shrinks. And mystery is shrinking all the time. Blue skies and red sunsets are the result of light scattering according to wavelength. The aurora borealis is solar-generated ions trapped in earth’s magnetic field exciting gases in the atmosphere. The variety in human faces, in animals, in plants, in all life on earth is the result of genes, natural selection, and time (we can argue about the scientific merits of natural selection later, but for now you have to admit it’s a pretty good explanation).
How does this make you feel?
Some will draw the conclusion that if so much is attributable to natural causes, if everything we observe can be explained, then there is no room for or need of God in our modern world. Our primitive ancestors must have dreamed God up to explain the unexplainable. This would have provided some level of comfort as well as control by giving us some recourse to deal with things beyond our control - praying to God for rain in drought is better than doing nothing at all and waiting to die.
Not surprisingly, the religious don’t take too kindly to the suggestion that God is an illusion of the primitive mind. Those whose God lives in the gaps of human knowledge feel the need to defend their God from the onslaught of atheist materialists. They will try to fight science on its own turf (see Intelligent Design and Creationism), trying to use the scientific method to prove that God is the best explanation for the universe and life and pendulums that know about parabolas. They often become hostile toward science and scientists, or at the very worst, simply ignore science as another of Satan’s tools. And, with less-than-charitable folks like Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Meyers using science as their weapon of choice in their crusade to abolish religion, who can blame the religious for feeling embattled?
I believe that we have made some serious errors in our estimation of what science tells us about the nature of God.
It is ludicrous to propose that humanity’s scientific efforts to date have accomplished anything more than merely scratching the surface of the underlying mechanisms of all reality. Certainly no respectable scientist would claim that we’re anywhere close to having it all figured out. We scientists should be humble in our claims of what we think we understand about the world.
It is insulting to any God worth worshipping to think that God needs humans to defend against those who try to understand the order, patterns, and hidden truths in the world around us. What is true of the physical world remains true regardless of whether we choose to believe it. The same can be said of what is true of God. We religious folks should be humble in our claims of what we think we understand about God.
When I watch a sunset or the aurora or contemplate the diversity of life on earth, I don’t feel further from God for knowing about photons and electromagnetism and DNA; rather, I feel that much more enthralled with the beauty of the world that God brought into being. A Bach concerto is no less beautiful because I know how many strings there are on the cello. My sense of wonder only grows the more I uncover about the laws of nature and the mysteries of nature. It is true that some mysteries do eventually become laws, but I take great pleasure in knowing that new mysteries will never be hard to find.
06 January 2009
I am a chemist. I have been fascinated with science ever since 3-2-1 Contact told me that "if you like to take things apart and put them back together again...you're a scientist!". I fell in love with biology as a freshman in high school, with chemistry as a sophomore, with physics as a senior. I have been working in research laboratories since 2001, studying everything from birch sap to hibernation to organic synthesis to cancer to the proteomics of infectious disease. I love to think critically, I love problem solving, I love the big picture and the little details. The world is my laboratory.
I am a Christian. I have attended church regularly since I was an infant. The Christian world view has been present in every part of my upbringing and development. My parents converted to Christianity at a Pentecostal church, I attended a primary and middle school run by Calvinists, I went on mission trips with Charismatics, I became an Episcopalian in college, was friends with Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and Undeclareds, and married a Lutheran. A belief in God, the teachings of Christ, and involvement in church play a fundamental role in how I understand people and the meaning of life. The world is my church.
I am a conflicted person. Science is my vocation. Christianity is my faith. These two do not play well with each other.
Many Christians warn me that our values are under attack, that we are losing ground to the liberals and atheist secular humanists who use science to spread their agenda of a world without God. They tell me that the theory of evolution is a tactic from Satan meant to deceive the world and lead us all to hell.
Many scientists (and educated people who believe that the scientific method is our best way to know truth) warn me that our educational system and enlightened culture are under attack, that we are losing ground to conservatives and religious fundamentalists who advance their agenda in the form of the Religious Right and the Republican Party.
I know people on both sides who fear the other, loath the other, vilify the other. The ideologies they embrace seem mutually exclusive. And here I am, a chemist and a Christian. So, whose side am I on?
Who says I have to pick sides?
It is my intent with this blog to explore the motivations, world views, hopes, and fears of those engaged in the culture wars between science and religion. It is my hope to show that the culture war between science and faith is, at its core, a misunderstanding between people who share a common desire to see humanity fulfill its greatest potential.
Of course, some people are probably just jerks. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.