Thursday, December 31, 2009

Evolution


In writing on other topics of late, the issues of epistemology, logic, pragmatism, truth, and fairness have all led me back to the issue of evolution. After reading that only 22% of Mormons believe in evolution, and then after watching the terrible movie Expelled, I thought I’d try and tackle the topic of evolution before the New Year (when Darwin’s anniversary year ends).

Evolution is the scientific principle that populations of living things adapt and change in response to their environments. Over time, adaptive changes and mutations lead to populations that are measurably different, both from the previous, ancestor population and from the other sibling populations that adapted differently.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve posited any number of theories about how I could square my own beliefs in a creator (and literal interpretations of the Bible) with what I knew and was studying about science. I’ve toyed with the ideas that God planted fossils in the Earth to test our faith; that fossils are remnants from other planets, put here when God organized matter from other places into Earth; or that all other creatures were evolving whilst Adam and Eve waited in a post-fall Eden until God kicked them out. These theories were useful thought experiments, and are all equally likely today as they were when I first posited them, but I have since learned enough about evolution to realize that it is a much more likely explanation for biological diversity than a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Not every evolutionary pathway and claim is equally compelling. There are still many unanswered questions, many fossils we’d like to find, and the possibility that simple life was transplanted to Earth from a meteor, rather than forming here de novo. That being said, there are two critiques of evolution that I hear often that are not, in fact, weaknesses of evolution.

First: ALL fossils are transitional fossils. Even you and I are part of a transitioning species. Even if we have not found every point on every evolutionary branch, it does not mean that a link does not exist. The argument that evolutionary theory has millions of “gaps” is simply misleading and ignorant.

Second: A weakness in one theory is not proof FOR a second theory. Ben Stein tries to point to what he sees as weak links in evolutionary theory and then tries to claim that those weaknesses lend proof to I.D. Even if I were to accept such a false dichotomy, I.D. simply does not answer any of the questions it proposes to answer any better than evolutionary theory does. If Darwin is wrong, Ben Stein can be too.

I’d love to answer any questions any of you have about what evolution means, or how we can still square it with a belief in a creator. If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of watching Ben Stein’s travesty of a film, please go to expelledexposed.com, trove Wikipedia, or write me to fact check any of the manifold lies in that film.

5 comments:

Jon Ogden said...

I also found the Ben Stein movie lacking, and was disappointed with how he fudged the interview with Dawkins.

22 percent! I thought we'd long got past having qualms with evolution, especially after Henry Eyring's defense of it.

I like Dinesh D'Dousa's argument best. He takes evolutionary theory exactly as Dawkins would but says that it seems that around 5000-4000 BC a Divine Being leaned in to help humankind.

direfloyd said...

Expelled was awesome for watching the crazies on both sides! Now you and I both have to watch "Not Evil, Just Wrong" and talk about that. I think that is a much better argument from my perspective rather than actually trying to claim religion is discriminated against in this country.

http://www.noteviljustwrong.com/

Brandon Miltgen said...

Daine, I found this through the church's official newsroom. The entire transcript can be found at this link: http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=143

But the portion of it relating to evolution is as follows:

The church has said it neither promotes nor opposes capital punishment. It says it "opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience." It does not oppose removing a medical patient from "artificial means of life support." Different denominations deal differently with questions about life's origins and development. Conservative denominations tend to have more trouble with Darwinian evolution. Does the church have an official position on this topic?

Nelson: We believe that God is our creator and that he has created other forms of life. It's interesting to me, drawing on my 40 years experience as a medical doctor, how similar those species are. We developed open-heart surgery, for example, experimenting on lower animals simply because the same creator made the human being. We owe a lot to those lower species. But to think that man evolved from one species to another is, to me, incomprehensible.

Why is that?

Nelson: Man has always been man. Dogs have always been dogs. Monkeys have always been monkeys. It's just the way genetics works.

Wickman: The Scripture describing the Lord as the creator of all of these things says very little about how it was done. I don't know of anybody in the ranks of the First Presidency and the Twelve [Apostles] who has ever spent much time worrying about this matter of evolution.

Nelson: We have this doctrine, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 101: "When the Lord shall come again, he shall reveal all things, things which have passed, hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth by which it was made and the purpose and the end thereof, things most precious, things that are above, things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, upon the earth, and in heaven." So as I close that quotation, I realize that there are just some things that we won't know until that day.

Jamison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamison said...

I've never heard anyone claim that there are "millions of gaps" in the theory of evolution (unless Stein did, and I've forgotten); only that there are gaps significant enough to temper the creationist-like faith, zeal, militancy, and schoolteacher tone of some evolutionists.

Talmage, Widtsoe, and B.H. Roberts (among others) were pre-Adamite guys, wrote some interesting stuff. Alas that Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie won out.

That said, I just don't see the scandal in the number you cited. My family is as conservative as they come, and are definitely among the benighted 22%; on the other hand, "evolution" for them is synonymous with that wonderful chart drawn by a fantasist where you see the guy slump up by degrees from chimp to Wall Street power broker. That things adapt, however dramatically, they don't argue that.

Again as regards the scandalous 22%, is it possible that scientists, like other academics, you know, sometimes view ignorance of their discipline as a moral failing when it really isn't, and see both antagonists and I-couldn't-care-lesses in a somewhat harsher than warranted light, to the greater gory of their own pure nimbus?

E.g., literary scholars, sociologists, philosophers etc., aghast and agog at the rampant ignorance and contrarian attitudes about X, Y & Z. Say that you've no interest in Shakespeare, and believe that Hamlet is a bad boring play; or that reading Plato is worthless; would you say that these attitudes are as appalling and harmful as those of the 22%, or no; and if no, why; and would you say that G.O.B. is first-rate----or no; and if no, why damn you, Sir.