Saturday, December 30, 2006

I'm Just A Squirrel, Tryin' To Get A - Splat

(The post title isn't going to make any sense unless you first read this post from Shane, about his homicidal tendencies.)

No discussion of evolution can begin unless all parties agree at the outset to reject the idea of “young-earth creationism” - the idea that the book of Genesis is not only the story of creation, but that it is also an exact timeline of when things on earth were created. Were the young-earth version true, then the earth could be no more than a few thousand years old, and dinosaurs and man would have walked the earth at the same time. Both notions are preposterous, and are only upheld by the most out-of-touch conservative religious types. The young-earth theory ignores proven scientific fact, which means that those who believe in it can only be trusted to accept scientific facts that are convenient to them, and no reasonable discussion of evolution can take place in such a context.

Having cleared that hurdle, we must also agree on two things about science. The first is that science is a viable means for finding out things about the natural world. By forming hypotheses, testing them under vigorous controls, and developing conclusions based on the empirical data, scientists have been able to tell us much about the various animals, minerals, and vegetables surrounding us - and floating out there in space among us, too (actually the ones floating out there in space, so far, are pretty much all minerals and gas - as though, perhaps, the universe has been subsisting on a diet of Taco Bell since the Big Bang). I cannot conceive of anyone refuting the notion that science is real and that it provides true information - any discussion of evolution would have to stop if someone did not agree on that point about science.

The second thing that must be agreed upon concerning science is that it is not, necessarily, a threat to religion - there is no good reason why science and religion cannot coexist. Religion is based on faith - the belief in a higher power. Science is based on fact - the belief in the power of the human mind. Too many religious people believe that science attempts to usurp religion, to answer the questions that the religious people deem unanswerable. Well, unfortunately for them, some questions can be answered. Religious people who think this way apply their faith incorrectly; the correct application of their faith would be to say that man, by way of the brain that their god gave them, is capable of puzzling out many of the things that their god created. The most reasoned of all religious people would then use the transitive property to conclude - wait for it - that science actually brings them closer to their god.

With those preliminaries out of the way, we can move on to a discussion of evolution in the proper context - and that proper context is that evolution is a means of understanding how species have changed over time to adapt to new surroundings and to survive on earth. Evolution does not say - and was never meant to say - anything about when, where, or how life began; it presupposes the existence of life and proceeds from that point to explain the ways in which life has changed throughout time, by means of natural selection. The evidence exists largely in the fossil record, and is so overwhelming and persuasive that evolution, though considered a theory, is actually accepted as fact by the scientific community - it is one of the most peer-reviewed theories in the entire discipline.

Skeptics point to gaps in the theory as evidence that it does not work - ironically, they point to things that do not exist and ask the rest of us to not believe in something based on evidence that is not there. And that, friends and neighbors, is an astonishing contradiction - considering that some of those skeptics do want us to believe in their god based on a story of a carpenter with delusions of grandeur.

But before we go any further with religious contradictions, let’s take apart this example of bad reasoning. First, the gaps in the theory exist because the fossil record is incomplete; and it is simply not conceivable to believe that every species that ever walked the earth left behind a perfectly preserved fossil for scientific examination. That so many fossils have been found and examined and used to bolster the theory of evolution is proof that science works, and that science is doing as thorough as job as possible in proving the reality of evolution.

Second, to invalidate the theory based on the gaps would be to use faulty logic - more evidence of evolution exists than do gaps that some say would disprove it; also, gaps alone would not disprove the theory, because their existence cannot undo what has been proven with the evidence that does exist. The gaps can only show that the theory is incomplete, which is not in dispute. If this were a lesser theory, one could perhaps argue that incompleteness is cause to discount the theory - but that argument does not hold for evolution, based on the vast amount of peer-review that has been done on it.

To return to religious contradictions - and this applies to the hard line religious people, not the moderates who are okay with both religion and evolution - perhaps the most cataclysmic of all religious contradictions is the Christian notion of young-earth creationism, which holds that Genesis is a literal account of historical events. This would be at least plausible in Judaism, which does not use the New Testament. Christianity, however, is dependent upon the New Testament; and the New Testament is the new covenant between God and Israel, created because the first one (that would be the Old Testament) did not work.

The King James version of Hebrews 8:13 reads: “In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

The NIV version of Hebrews 8:13 reads: “By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”

If taken literally, this could be interpreted as God’s ultimate mea culpa - Sorry, I fucked up...let’s try it again, huh? If those young-earth people are going to take Genesis as literally as they do, it should stand to reason that they would take the rest of the Bible as literally, too - and that means that the New Testament effectively trumps the Old Testament. But if the New Testament is not to be taken that literally and yet the Old Testament is...

Then that proves - again - that the young-earth people only believe what they want to believe with respect to religion. Two laws in the Old Testament have to do with not working on the Sabbath (Lev. 23:3) and not touching the skin of an unclean animal (Lev. 5:2 and Lev. 20:25) - and how many young-earth people out there like to watch NFL football on Sundays? Gotcha.

Bottom line - evolution by means of natural selection works. The only reason it is remotely taboo is because the religious people are afraid of it and want to convince everyone else that it says something about creation. It does not. It leaves every single, minute detail regarding where we came from, how we got here, and why we are here, untouched - it says nothing about a creator. There just might be one. I don’t believe that, but I can’t say for sure that it is not true.

Much of my thinking on this topic is informed by two very excellent books dealing with evolution. One is Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, by Edward Larson; and the other is called Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth R. Miller. Both are enjoyable reads, and well worth the time.

1 comment:

Shane M. White said...

WOW. Maybe I should have read this today, before I spent three hours writing my own theory out...