God and Evolution

Many years ago I had a hard-working student who started by loving the introductory biology course I was teaching. We had started off with the section on unity, which emphasized the similarities in life forms from the point of view of cell structures and basic biochemistry. He had no issues with that. The next part of the course emphasized diversity. It was an introduction to classification and went on to elucidate different respiratory and digestive systems from the Haldane point of view that as things grow bigger, physical laws and surface-to-volume ratios force them to get more complicated. He still loved the course and continued to do well. The third theme was continuity. The intro to genetics was no stumbling block. But as soon as we looked at all the fossil and biochemical evidence of evolution, he looked depressed and withdrawn every second of every class. He later bombed his test on the topic. It wasn’t a case of correlation without cause. His parents were evangelicals, and they had taught him that evolution was the idea of the devil.

I tried explaining to him that many people of faith accept the evidence of evolution and continue to believe in God. But it was to no avail. Of course, since fundamentalists are not impressed with Catholicism,  it does no good to point out that in the 1950s in the encyclical “Human Generis ,” Pope Pius XII said that Catholic teachings on creation could coexist with evolutionary theory. Or that in 1996 Pope John Paul II admitted that evolution was “more than a hypothesis.” And since Darwin and Wallace started it all by proposing a mechanism, it doesn’t appease antievolutionists to point out that the two naturalists remained religious.

This memory resurfaced because I heard a former colleague say that she refuses to believe that we are intelligent monkeys. Technically she is right. We are not monkeys; we are more closely related to apes and you have to go further back in time to find a common ancestor between humans and monkeys than between humans and apes. But she just meant that she believed humans have always been the way they are now, ever since their “creation”. Somehow, she has been convinced that evolutionary theory is a form of political correctness. In her mind refusing evolution is somehow a sign of courage and ability to think freely.

I had previously pointed out that last century’s perverse idea of social Darwinism in no way discredited the idea that natural selection plays a role in evolution. But it did nothing to appease her irrationalism. I ultimately lost my patience arguing with her. Life is too short. That doesn’t help matters and neither do the arguments of atheists.

Let me explain why. Different world religions have different cosmology stories. The fact that they all contradict one another leaves one with at least a pair of possibilities. (1) They are all wrong and made up. (2) Only the one you grew up with is true. The second possibility is unlikely. Then there’s solid evidence from radioactive isotopes and half-lives about the age of the earth which reveal that the creation-numbers in the Bible are indeed fiction. Leaders of organized religion say that it’s the symbolism that’s important. What matters, they argue, is that God did create the universe. But the nature of God itself varies greatly from one religion to the next. In fact, the transition from polytheism to monotheism in many cultures was not based on new evidence. It’s not clear as to why it happened. From all this, atheists conclude that all religions are nonsense, and that there is no God.

Religious people find such a conclusion reprehensible. Given that most atheists accept the evidence from the theory of evolution, it’s inevitable that at least a minority of religious people will be even more compelled to throw evolutionary theory under the bus. ( 1/3 of all people in the United States reject evolution. )

One can construct a model of an evolutionary bush of life from cytochrome c, an almost universal electron exchanger in cellular respiration. Better ones have been constructed more recently based on 15 different ribosomal proteins common to all organisms. It suggests that bacteria is much more important and more evolutionary diverse than we imagined. The fact that a different model arises reminds us that we would have a better idea of life’s origins if we found more direct evidence from another planet—one where life just started. Antievolutionists exploit those uncertainties to jump to the dubious conclusion that it’s all wrong. But are atheists doing the same thing?

I do feel that it’s pretentious to anthropomorphize God or to try to package all our spiritual feelings and capacity for empathy and ethics into a single concept. But it might be equally pretentious to wish God and all religions away and to be convinced that we would be better off without these notions and customs. Taleb and others have pointed out that without religion, too many people find worse substitutes. Maybe it’s led to more worship of technology, more social fragmentation and more obsession with divisive politics.

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”—Neils Bohr, 1927

4 thoughts on “God and Evolution

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  1. Some usual good insights from Gerhard Adam(copied and pasted with permission):
    “What you wrote is quite reasonable. Unfortunately it won’t make a bit of difference as a counter to a religious belief system.

    I have taken to arguing that regardless of how one wants to argue creation, evolution is necessary for biology itself
    Without getting too long-winded about it, the issue is one of responsibility for the deity. The point in creation is that it occurs all the time, whether it be bacteria reproducing or humans having babies. There is no question (regardless of beliefs) that life is being continuously created.

    As a result one has to ask whether every such birth (from bacteria to human) is on purpose or a biological event. If the latter then it is purely mechanical and evolution would occur simply because the process is what produces life and therefore one has to accept the evidence for how the process operates. The alternative is to say that all births are divine and specifically handled by a God. The problem with that is to argue that the process is part of the biological process or intentional.

    If it’s biology then it’s evolution. If intentional then every miscarriage, birth defect, or genetic disease is on purpose too. Unless a God makes a mistake then it is done purposefully with no excuses. Yet this also means that the God now has to take responsibility for what has been created (remember you can’t argue that all life evolves except for humans). So if God is responsible for human births, then he is responsible for ALL births

    In any case the point then becomes that (1) life evolves and there is nothing anti-religious about it or (2) life doesn’t evolve but is a divine creation which takes full responsibility for the result.”

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  2. Taleb might want to read, “Societies Without God”. The most secular advanced nations have relatively low crime rates, stronger social cohesion, and strive towards a more compassionate disposition towards the disadvantaged. Comparatively, the most religious advanced nation with the greatest opposition towards evolutionary theory, the USA, has, ironically, a strong social Darwinist theme in its social, economic, and welfare policies.

    If Taleb is concerned about the possible substitutes he might want to consider that the history of religion is not always a picture of sunshine and oranges. While there is plenty of the woo factor in secular belief systems, particularly in relation to health, most of the secular belief systems are harmless. Political ideologies however can be extremely dangerous and that danger is also present in theocratic regimes.

    If Pinker is to be trusted human societies have become become more peaceful over time. Robert Wright in The Evolution of God argues that even in antiquity there was a steady progress to what we regard as a more compassionate society. IIRC Karen Armstrong has made a simliar argument. In relation to the last two hundred years though, when religion has been experiencing a steady decline that very has very much accelerated post WW2, societies have become more peaceful and standards of living have gone ahead leaps and bounds.

    God, Intelligent Design, sit on top the available discrete findings. Those concepts add nothing to advance or develop a better and especially a more solution oriented approach to the challenges we face. Scientific theories arise from discrete observations and allow the creation of better theories and better practical applications arising from those theories.

    Religion attempts to maintain absolute beliefs. Scientific theories are provisional albeit all too often progressing one grave at a time. We build theories so that others may build better theories. Religion maintain doctrinal beliefs that are immutable except when it becomes obvious to the religious that to maintain those doctrines or ethics in the presence of a culture that is moving away is to risk irrelevancy and loss of believers(egs. rock music, abortion, evolution).

    Religious doctrines are end points in analysis, or so the bishops hope. Scientific theories are stepping stones towards deeper understandings. Some theories are overthrown but increasingly old theories come under the umbrella of more comprehensive theories with greater explanatory power. Science looks ahead, religion looks backwards.

    I don’t particularly care about religion and find most religious people to be decent and good citizens. I live in Australia though, where we tolerate religion so long as it isn’t shoved in our faces and\or used for political purposes.

    Gerhard is right, it is nigh impossible to change the mindset of those opposed to evolution. There is evidence that the younger generation in the USA is leaving the evangelical churches in droves. It is not by reasoned argument that happens, it is often that they find the hatred expressed towards certain minority groups upsetting because it demonises some of their friends(and for some reason USA evangelicals lay on the hatred thick and hard towards the LGTBQI community), and the hypocrisy and inconsistency of moral reasoning weighs heavily upon them. There are some interesting accounts on youtube of people losing their religion. It is typically a slow withdrawal from religion than a reasoned argument.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to offer constructive criticism of my essay. You mention that “religion has been experiencing a steady decline that has very much accelerated post WW2, societies have become more peaceful, and standards of living have gone ahead leaps and bounds.” It could be a case of correlation without causation. But in fairness, Taleb’s argument doesn’t come with much evidence either…. There’s a strong possibility that fringe religions are in some ways as bad as organized religions that have been corrupted by power. Many of the former are tainted with apocalyptic visions. It’s not shocking that some of the leading figures involved in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January consider that the Revelation is prophetic. Good grief!

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      1. Hi Enrico,

        I wasn’t addressing your essay directly and as is my inclination went off on my own tangent. Sorry about that. What I was trying to illustrate is that religion and science have very different epistemic stances so it is often impossible to bridge that divide. Stephen J. Gould promoted the overlapping the overlapping magisteria concept but with developments in psychology, neuroscience, and drawing lessons from evolution, we can develop strong and resilient moral codes without recourse to religion. So the domain of religion is shrinking though it must be remembered that consciousness remains a mystery. I even have doubts about that, some days I think there is no hard problem of consciousness and that far too much wooism abounds in scientific discussions about it.

        Science is not responsible for increasing human ethical standards. I think that is more a cultural innovation arising from democracy, rule of law, property rights, and compared to other cultures the extraordinary resources we assign to human developmental outcomes. Think of the children? Indeed because there is abundant research to demonstrate that good adults arise from optimising developmental environments.

        There have always been wacko belief systems. Even the history of Christianity is replete with so many different interpretations let alone all the other stuff out there. The saving grace is the small numbers in those belief systems. Fundamentalist evangelicals though, who strictly ascribe to the literal interpretation of the Bible, well let’s just say they have a remarkable tolerance for contradiction. 🤣

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