Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The evolution of Darwinism

"Did God, the supreme intelligence, deign to design distinctive shell patterns for the tortoises of each island?"
-"Evolution of a Scientist," Newsweek, Nov. 28, 2005, p. 54

Evolution is always an interesting subject to me. Partly because it's such a hot-button topic for many people, and partly because despite that fact, there are many people who insist it's not a hot-button topic at all.

In a recent Newsweek article about the life and legacy of Charles Darwin, there were a number of interesting comments, including the above quote, which I'll get to. One thing in particular that jumped out at me was a quote from the sidebar. "Evolution is not controversial in the field of science." (quote by "Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education") While in a sense this is not quite true (there are scientists who feel that evolutionary theory is not sufficient to explain life as we know it), in another sense it's so true as to be a sort of "duh" statement. The strange thing about "science" in what I believe to be its truest form, is that nothing is controversial from within science. The idea of "science" is to find ways to understand the way the world works. Ethics, philosophical truth, theology, popular opinion and the like, while indeed able to influence scientists, should not in theory influence science itself. Some people who oppose evolutionary theory do so with the argument that saying we humans evolved from lower life forms cheapens the value and dignity of human life. While not everyone agrees with this, from the scientific point of view it doesn't matter if a scientific theory cheapens anything at all. If a scientist found a way to make substantial amounts of gold from common household items, then the value of gold would be cheapened, but that wouldn't change the fact that the method would exist. (Of course, atomic theory would tell us such a method does not exist, but that's beside the point.)

Another excellently thought-provoking quote was, "[Intelligent Design] says, if there's some part of science that you can't understand, that must be where God is. Historically, that hasn't gone well. And if science does figure out [how the eye evolved]—and I believe it's very likely that science will ... then where is God?" (quote by "Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian") There once was a time when I believed this, and it's a popular view, actually: that God is to be found in the gaps that science cannot fill. But Collins is right; if we claim this to be the case, then does God get smaller and smaller each time science takes a step forward? I personally believe that there is nothing about the physical world that is beyond the range of science to understand, given enough time and resources. If there is no end to time, and scientists eventually get to the point where there is virtually nothing that is not understood in a scientific perspective, will God suddenly cease to exist? I have heard some atheists express the view that we're already there, particularly in the case of evolution. To many atheists, the existence and complexity of life on the planet was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome to be confident that there is no God. As Richard Dawkins has said, evolution makes it "possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." The fact is, no matter how unlikely a person may think the idea of life evolving from non-life spontaneously is, the probability is not completely zero, and it allows atheists to get a toe in the door of plausibility. I don't like the idea that somehow the more plausible the atheists' claims on truth may be, the less plausible theists' claims become to balance things out. And what may be worse, when one views science as the enemy of faith, I believe one will tend to reject anything science has to offer. This is a great shame.

The article also points out that scientists don't call it "Darwinism". I have no idea if this is true on the whole but I don't doubt it's true in general. Calling something by a word that ends in an "-ism" makes it seem more philosophical than scientific, and even if a scientist might reject evolutionary theory, they would surely prefer to dismiss it on scientific grounds rather than cheapening it with an easy label. Still, "Darwinism" is found in many dictionaries, and is indeed a well-understood word, even to those who would rather not use it. Also, my main concern about "Darwinism" is that I often wonder why it is considered more of a science than a philosophy. I don't say it to cheapen it, I actually do believe that evolution clearly happens, I only question the scale: yes, animals change and speciate, but does that mean that all life as we know it today is here as a result of speciation from some single original life form? As I said, evolution does have a toe in the door of plausibility, but does having that toe imply that the door must be flung wide? Yes, we see speciation, we have a fossil record that shows us some rather extensive history of evolution, but until all the gaps are filled in (which they may never be, even if evolutionary theory of the more extensive sort is true) how can we really know the origin of life? Claiming that science can explain a one-time event that happened billions of years ago with no record to speak of smacks of philosophy to me rather than science.

But what of creationism? What of God's role in all of this if indeed He exists and has taken a role? Couldn't God have used evolution as a tool, but not necessarily the only tool at His disposal? Could God have created life that has the appearance of having evolved when, in fact, it did not? Why not? It seems to me that every argument and piece of evidence I have heard for evolutionary theory could be reworked into evidence for creationism. For instance, all mammals have either five digits on each of four limbs, or evidence of rudimentary structures that suggest four five-fingered limbs. To a biologist that believes in evolution, this suggests a common ancestry for all mammals. To me, it suggests a common base design for all mammals that has been tweaked by the creator in various ways. The same goes for similarities in DNA, protein structures, etc. Is it common ancestry, or common design? I think evolutionary theorists are making the same mistaken logical leaps that "intelligent design" advocates are. Like the idea that God is where science cannot explain things, ID suggests that if we find biological structures that we cannot explain the evolution thereof, they must have been designed. Why does this make any more or less sense than to say that those things we can explain must have evolved (without any supernatural intervention)? I think it's flawed inference on both counts.

But Darwin famously did an extensive study of variations in finch beaks in the Galapagos Islands. So many different kinds of finches, and each one had its own little ecological niche to fit into. He speculated (not proved) that perhaps they all might have come from a common ancestor. This speculation seems reasonable enough, but why must it then follow that God had no hand in the matter? Could not God have created different species of finches? Could not God have directed varieties of finches towards the ecological niches that they would best fit? Could not God have created the original ancestor of all finches, whose descendants then had, by very simple natural forces, come to speciate into their modern equivalents? Why is God excluded? Matthew 10:29 says "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father." If God takes personal interest in the life of a sparrow, why not the beak of a finch?

Would God "deign to design distinctive shell patterns"? Why is the answer an implied "no"? For all the glory and power and honor the Bible attributes to God, I believe it also attributes the kind of character that gives us a clear answer of "yes". Does that mean God did? I don't know how one would find the answer to that.

1 comment:

marauder said...

"God in the Gaps" talk annoys me because it's failing to define the terms of the debate wisely or correctly. Science does a great job of portraying how things work, for example, the same sort of DNA triggers the growth of an elephant's trunk as triggers the rack of antlers on a caribou. (No joke.)

Someone looks at this and, being an atheist, says "Aha! Proof that God isn't involved. There's a naturalist explanation." I look at it and say, "Wow! Check out the artistic style behind that DNA."

We don't see God in the pieces we don't understand, we see him in the pieces that we do, in the delicate traceries of eletrons around nuclei and their much larger cousins, the planets that orbit suns. We see his boundless creativity in the finches, which very possibly all descended from one Finch, adapting and specializing as they went into several more narrowly defined, less adaptable species; and so on.