Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I think Darwin was right, and why it matters in some ways

Years ago, I was pretty sure the theory of evolution is wrong. Not the idea of small genetic changes from generation to generation--everybody believes that--but the idea that all living things on earth evolved from a common ancestor. It's what I was taught at home, at church, and by Christian friends. Some people seemed to have some good scientific arguments against evolution too.

But through my university years that gradually changed and by the time I was done, I was pretty sure that Darwin was actually right. Recently I was involved in a few conversations with other Christians about evolution, and there was a brief but heated discussion on the topic on my Facebook wall. Reactions to this vary; people can be hostile, respectfully disagreeing, unsure what they think, or agreeing. Quite often, if they disagree with me, I feel like they don't really understand why I would hold this opinion or why I would make a point of bringing it up, even if they are respectful. So I'd like to explain a bit of this here.

(For the sake of convenience, I'm using the word "creationism" here to mean any belief that God created the various species separately, not from a common ancestor. So I'm including old earth and young earth beliefs in this, and I'm excluding evolutionary creation beliefs, even though some people who believe that like to be called "evolutionary creationists.")

Looking back to my high school years, I was interested in scientific arguments against evolution. The arguments seemed pretty good, and the biology textbooks didn't do a good job arguing against them. They argued against ~18th century creationism, not 20th century creationism. The textbooks generally said something like, "People used to think this because the Bible said so, but more recent scientific discoveries have proven otherwise." But when Christians pointed out flaws in these scientific discoveries, it was easy to think the Bible (a literal interpretation of it) was actually right.

Later, mostly after high school, I began finding out about flaws in the anti-evolutionary arguments that I had heard. I'm no biologist, and I don't want to make this post extremely long, so I'm not going to get into specifics. But if you're interested in an example, check out the Wikipedia article on irreducible complexity. And I find it a lot easier to trust a biologist on biological science than to trust a pastor or other church leader on that. No disrespect intended to pastors and church leaders (their work can be very important); biology just isn't their area of expertise.

For someone who believes in a God who intervenes in the world, how can you tell when a naturalistic explanation is better than "God did it"? It seems to me that most of the arguments against evolution seem to be "God-of-the-gaps" arguments, i.e. God fills the gaps that currently exist in scientific theories. Considering the past track record of "God-of-the-gaps" arguments (such as claiming God pushes the planets in their unusual paths across the sky), theories that exclude God seem more credible, even if they do have some gaps. And while creationists could explain many genetic similarities between different species by similarities in function and structure, not common ancestry, there are some similarities that seem to hint that common ancestry is a better explanation. For example, most animals and plants make their own vitamin C. But some, including humans and some primates, have a defect in one of the genes involved in this. It's the same defect between humans and primates. To me, this seems like a strong hint at common ancestry.

I also failed to see evidence of the blinding bias that creationists accused evolutionary scientists of having. Creationists said those scientists just didn't want to be responsible to God, so they looked for any explanation for life that would exclude God. Some creationists said these scientists were so blinded by their biases that they didn't realize how much uncertainty there is in science. The evolutionary biologists were suppressing scientific debate.

The more I look into this, the more I think it's the creationists who have the blinding bias. I've heard of many more examples of creationists understating the evidence for evolution than of evolutionary scientists overstating it. And scientists do seem to understand the uncertainty in science, which I'll address later.

As I learned about ways that Christians have tried to reconcile evolutionary theory with scripture, I found that their ideas seemed to work. I'm no theologian, so I can't say for sure what interpretations of scripture are best, but it seems like even expert theologians disagree on how to interpret scripture. I do believe that it's appropriate to use science as a guide to interpreting scripture. Actually, I don't believe the Bible is infallible. Very good, but not infallible. (Some people believe in both evolution and the infallibility of scripture, so don't let my view on that scare you off if you do believe scripture is infallible. In general, they believe it's the message of scripture that's infallible, not the science and history.) I do greatly appreciate the biblical creation story and what it says about God and us; I just don't think it's literal history. When it comes to the origin of sin, I think the amount of evil in the world makes it's quite clear that we all have a sinful nature; I don't think it's so important whether it came from a talking snake and a forbidden fruit or not.

Over the years, I've also come to appreciate uncertainty more. Some Christians speak of the uncertainty in science like scientists aren't aware of it, and like uncertainty is a bad thing. Some also greatly exaggerate this uncertainty, as if scientists are always contradicting themselves. Based on a lot of the scientific things I read, scientists are well aware of the uncertainty in their field. Some may have an overly inflated view of their own work, but by and large, I see an appreciation for uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn't have to be paralyzing--people don't have to be completely certain to take action; we can take action based on what we're reasonably sure of. And there seems to be enough evidence to be mostly certain about evolution.

I find it much more intellectually satisfying to be able to believe the conclusions of the majority of scientists. I visited Uganda after I graduated from university in 2006. While there, our group visited Queen Elizabeth National Park. In a visitors' centre, I read about how the first humans may have evolved near there. It felt freeing to be able to read this without having to think of arguments against it. Evolution was no longer a threat to my faith in God, and I didn't have to try to come up with arguments against what I was reading. I prefer to think about the relationship between science and faith in a way that Peter Rollins suggests:
When thinking through issues to do with morality, religion, the world, and social action, people can introduce and employ the richest thoughts of the various intellectual disciplines, because the truth that Christianity affirms does not impact these discussions in terms of content but rather in terms of approach, demanding that the conclusions we come to bring liberation and healing.
(I wrote more about the book that this quote came from here.)

So if it doesn't matter to the Christian faith whether we share a common ancestor with all other living things or not, why make a big deal about this? There are many voices in Christianity, such as Answers in Genesis, saying it does matter. If someone is drawn toward Christianity but thinks the evidence for evolution is really good, this message could drive them away. Or the same kind of situation can push Christians to leave the faith (this could have been me). There are also a lot of Christians who think evolution is wrong but acknowledge that it really doesn't matter. While I'm glad they acknowledge that it doesn't matter, it seems like much of the time disbelief in evolution is the only opinion expressed in Christian groups. This can send an unintended message that a person must reject evolution to be a Christian. I want to make sure people know that finding freedom in Christ doesn't mean giving up intellectual freedom.

If you're interested in more scientific arguments for evolution and ideas on reconciling evolution with the Christian faith, check out BioLogos. The "Faith" section of "The Questions" includes some articles on the theological issues.

I don't want to appear too negative toward my family, church, and other Christian friends though. The vast majority of those people are loving, caring people, and many of them do appreciate my tendency to question things. Some of them are big questioners too.

1 comment:

Premee said...

Thanks for presenting this in a respectful, intelligent, and eloquent manner. You are an exemplary ambassador for your viewpoint. :) This post also got me thinking about the 'Why does it matter' question. My genetics professors erased this question before it began, and told us that students who didn't accept and study evolution 'didn't belong' in science, as if to say that you needed that first before you were worthy of studying anything else. And I acknowledge that full knowledge of evolution is essential for many scientific disciplines, but for them to dismiss people who questioned it must have surely driven some very promising students away. If that happened it was just as unfair and unjustified as Christians rejecting people who don't accept creationism.