Evolution in Modern Times: Straying from the Flock

“The study of science is not an end in itself, but an academic meditation, a glimpse into the rational and powerful hand of the Almighty” -Prospectus for Emmanuel College, Gateshead (Great Britain)

The ideas of one person or one era are not necessarily binding throughout other eras, especially in the many fields of biology and natural science. These ideas typically do not extend outward beyond a thesis or a pamphlet if they are not based on strong evidence and they are not proven to be true. Charles Darwin seems to be the exception to the rule when it comes to theory as foundation for scientific endeavor. Darwin could not have imagined the whirlwind of controversy and scientific achievement that could have come out of his study of the Galapagos Islands and his theory of evolution. Soon after Origins and Descent were written, Darwin made believers out of many scientists of the day and this provided a basis for an almost certain belief that evolution was THE explanation for our world. But a popular dissenter from this idea, Creationism, has come back full force in the late 20th century and has regained the following it once had. There has been a developing trend away from evolution as a fact and a very open debate over the merits of both evolution and Creationism. I feel that this argument is natural with such an important topic as the origin of life on Earth and should be continued, albeit without the focus on spiritual explanations and more focused on scientific merit.

The strongest debates over the nature of life and evolution can be seen in scholarly works and discussions in many of today’s journals. There are two camps that can be taken from an overview of the facts. The first group, led by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), would be called “evolutionary fundamentalists.” This group would be in favor of using the theory of evolution as an explanation of everything in the natural world. This would be nearly a pure view of what Darwinism entails.

The second group of theorists, led by Steven Jay Gould, has been called “evolutionary pluralists.” These observers prefer to look at evolution as one part of a very complex, diverse process of nature. They see evolution in politics, society, and as a part of modern science, but do not feel it the end all be all of theories. The pluralists prefer to think of nature through the lens of “complexity science”: modern science should be viewed as a large scale, multilayered system of many different observable (and unobservable) disciplines. This group seems to fly in the face of all things orthodox in science.

It is important that these theories be expressed fully but it is also important to note that both of these theories are arguing from the same data: an interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. An important set of arguments has been made by both scientists and theologians about the strength of Darwin’s theory in modern times. A conference in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle, was the stage for a presentation of the “intelligent design theory.” While this notion had been around since William Paley philosophized on the fruition of nature, it had not been strongly endorsed by one group of intellectuals or academics as a serious theoretical opponent to Darwin.

The Discovery Institute’s presentation basically stated the reasoning behind their support for intelligent design and reasoning for why this should be considered a viable threat to Darwin. They argued that Darwinism was not reconcilable with the great amount of complexity in nature, that intelligent design was the ideal explanation of how such complex life came to exist. Darwinism, according to Discovery, was not conducive to morality and actually subverted divine morality through its promotion of crude materialism. The solution provided by Discovery was the inclusion of intelligent design into all public school curriculums, as it was seen to be the superior theory.

I stand at issue with the findings of Discovery because I feel that they do not account for many of the more microlevel instances of morality that creates a system of morality. This does not mean that they do not present a reasonable case for intelligent design; it is important to keep the lines of debate equal on both sides. But I am more compelled toward the logic of David Hume, who discounted intelligent design because it was an inductive argument. We could not infer that there were ever was a divine design because we had never witnessed the designer at work. Hume is correct in stating such an objection to intelligent design because it is important to note that while we may feel that there has existed a grand designer, we know that things have changed from what they were originally to the point we are at in nature today.

A key objection made, similar to that of the Discovery Institute, was the opinion of Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University, who argued against the gradualist tendencies of Darwinism. In short, Behe’s opinion was that life was too complex and intricate of blind chance and gradual change to have occurred; there must have been some sort of master plan that could have produced the world we live in. The example of the human eye is something that is mentioned with this proposal. The eye is stated to be too intricate and delicate an organ to have been developed by blind chance. I feel Behe would use a similar claim in arguing for intelligent design.

The claim for the eye as a model of how life could not have been generated from the gradual and random process of evolution is dicey. First, the notion of one body part as the epitome of all life developing in nature is somewhat a reach for any person to make. The fact that the eye is delicate does not mean that it could not have developed through evolution; perhaps the eye did not need to go through as much evolutionary change as other organs had to. Also, it is difficult to justify any proposal about how the world developed with certainty that it will hold up in the court of academic scrutiny. Even with the high tech attempts of scientists like Stuart Kauffman to simulate the process of evolution, we are not capable of even knowing a small percent of what actually happened. Data is indeed measurable, but the factors involved with data that is taken from millions of years back are difficult to overcome.

The connection between this debate and the Catholic Church is unavoidable, as Creationism is the battle cry of any devout Roman Catholic. The interesting portion of the debate between evolution and Creationism lies in differing interpretations of the book of Genesis in the Bible. It is important to note distinctions between metaphorical readings and literal readings. When we speak of this particular text, it is obvious that there must be certain liberties taken in writing the Creation story; it is a) impossible for anything to create something as vast as the universe in so short an amount of time or b) an omnipotent being having to spend six days creating the heavens and earth is an awful long time. The metaphorical reading of Genesis seems to be one favored by many, though the underlying theme of Creation is considered to be a viable alternative to the cold science of evolution.

This argument has spread itself across the world and is apparent in media outlets and current events. One particular point of interest in my research was a story in The Observer about a school that has adopted a strictly Creationist curriculum. The Emmanuel College in Gateshead (Great Britain) has started to teach its students that Creationism is a valid scientific theory that displaces evolution as scientific fact. Many different manners are used to create such an environment, such as bible study and strict regimens of study throughout the course of enrollment. This development has not surprised many in Britain, as the ruling Labour Party’s policy towards education has been lax in its attempts to deal with business concerns. Also, British observers seem resigned to the fact that similar patterns of Catholic fundamentalism that have become an issue in American schooling have reached across the Atlantic and taken grip of British schools.

I find that the more interesting story lies in the way this is presented. It seems that at least in this particular instance the media is subjecting increased scrutiny to Creationist theories, showing the true colors of the media. While I am not one who abides by the edicts of Creationism, I feel that it is imperative that whatever biases exist be dampened by the sense of urgent need for clear and extensive debate. The British, as well as American, newspapers have taken care to lambaste the Catholic Church in certain situations that such criticism is favorable to evolution. I am not a Creationist but I am stubborn to the end of creating a balanced playing field for scientific and moral debate.

Going against what newspapers and magazines have deemed possible, former Pope John Paul II made a statement that moved the Catholic Church more toward at least discussing the merits of evolution. The Pope stated that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church would fall behind the idea that it is unlikely that natural forms came to exist in one stroke and that something closer to intelligent design would be acceptable. This statement basically says that evolution is not all bad and that there is the possibility of some sort of synthesis of creation and evolution, perhaps in the form of intelligent design. The Church would shock the media and the public with such a statement and create a new playing ground for debate.

One final measure of the debate over Creationism and evolution is its involvement in American schools. A poll taken in 2000 showed that 83 percent of Americans support the teaching of evolution in public schools, a measure that was not too surprising to observers. The more surprising observation that came from this poll was that 79 percent of Americans felt that Creationism deserved a place in public school curriculums, not as a theory but as a belief. It seems to be part of that overall trend away from evolution as fact and perhaps a shift toward something more certain and, perhaps, engaging. The theory of evolution is not seen as the happiest or best topics to be addressed in public discussion and religion provides a certain ready-made belief that is more interesting and embracing than scientific evidence and theory can provide.

Overall, I think the topic of evolution has become more pervasive in society with new manners of communication and new trends in society that are conducive to debate. More people are willing to accept both Creationism and evolution in schools, but a great silent majority is probably addicted to the image of a Creator who put together the world as it is today. This seems to be too fairyland and whimsical to me; nature can be explained in great detail by scientific fact and can be postulated upon by scientific theory. It just seems unlikely to me that a Creator could have made a creation with so many flows that it has changed over time. I accept Creationism as a belief and part of religious doctrine that is part of our culture but I cannot accept as a realistic explanation for the world.

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