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 But as soon as we looked at all the fossil and biochemical evidence of evolution, he looked depressed and withdrawn every second of every class.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