Thursday, August 6, 2009


At a very nice reception after the Bar Harbor meeting, I (Ken) was approached (or one might say, eventually cornered) by two people who had attended and who wanted to talk about how evolution was consistent with religion. One, indeed, wanted to argue that evolution was consistent with literal interpretations of the Bible.

This may have been occasioned by questions at the Q&A that had to do with whether there is any new evidence for evolution, or whether humans are still evolving. Or, perhaps these two asked those questions. We mentioned this in an earlier post-meeting post. As I said in reply, every day my mailbox has at least one or two new journal issues that provide, implicitly or explicitly, evidence more consistent with the idea of evolution than with any other current theory about biological diversity. If there's another explanation, it will take something pretty dramatic to be discovered! Indeed, as I said, the flood of consistent evidence is all post-Darwinian, that is, is new evidence not available to Darwin or many decades of researchers after him. Confirmation is one of the most convincing kinds of evidence, because it does not require manipulation of the original evidence on which a theory was based.

Of course, it is well known that we in science (as in other areas of human endeavor) work within frameworks of accepted ideas (or ideology), and we do tend to try to force new evidence into our comforting belief that we understand things. But this fact does not undermine the consistency of countless kinds of evidence of every kind that evolution as a historical process of descent with modification from common ancestry is our best evidence of the nature of life. What is at issue is the details, the relative importance of selection, chance, sampling, stasis, and so on that have generated any given trait of interest.

There's plenty of room for debate about that--but it can give no solace to those who pine for simple, comforting religious explanations. Even Darwin was a kind of Deist, who accepted the possibility of a God who set things in motion and let them go on their (to him) predicted course. Even that undermines the idea of selection and drift as processes as we understand them, because if such a God knew in advance what would happen, then chance and competition are in some senses illusionary. Nonetheless, this is not the same kind of God who is said to intervene in human affairs, and who cares about out daily lives.

Nobody who is aware of the facts as we know them, both observational and experimental, should these days have illusions about life as an historical process. That so many do is a reflection either of our educational system and/or of the power of human thirst for solace. If there are some kinds of spiritual truths that involve some kind of deity, they are experiential rather than scientifically demonstrable at this point, and don't relate to evolution as we understand it.

The latter possibility, however, should tame militant atheism, because what we cannot deal with directly in science cannot be disproven accept by assumption. Militant atheism is a kind of arrogance in that sense. That doesn't gainsay the horrors that have been and are still the consequence of religious fervor, or the things people can be made by demogogues to do in the name of 'God'.

However, it is of little use to try to discuss this with believers who, even if scientists, cling to the hope that a very large shoe-horn can force what we know about the foot of evolution to fit into the shoe of received Truth. It is a profound question why on earth beings who are supposedly characterized by their rational cerebral cortex should be so immune to the facts of life. That emotions rather than reason had higher survival value is a standard response, but it's only a speculation (especially since there are so many willing martyrs!). At the same time, we in science have our own dogmas that we only reluctantly shed, so the phenomenon of belief-frameworks is a broader, and in that sense more interesting, issue in human life.

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