Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on Evolution

On the occasion of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, today I went through some of the old messages in my e-mail folder labeled Evolution. It consists mostly of discussions over the past decade with a circle of old friends from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois, mostly on evolution and related topics such as human nature and philosophy of science, with occasional forays into discussions of homosexuality, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies, and ancient Greek drama. I came across a lot of interesting stuff, some of which I remembered and some of which I had forgotten. I was looking for one message in particular. In 2005, when the subject of Intelligent Design was in the news, Diane Rehm devoted an hour of her radio talk show to ID. Unfortunately, the episode was hastily arranged so as to strike while the topic was hot, and she settled for second-string guests who were not really experts on evolution or ID. Both guests exhausted their knowledge of the subject before the program was half over. It was the most disappointing episode I have ever heard, and perhaps the only time I have heard Diane obviously frustrated with her guests. In my e-mail to her afterwards I wrote, "I think I could have argued both sides better than either of your guests!" I then wrote down some of my own thoughts on the creation-evolution debate that I thought might have made inspired a more interesting program. The essay that follows here is built up from that old e-mail.


I have accepted the truth of biological evolution by natural selection for as long as I can remember. I can't recall ever hearing about evolution in science class in my rural K-8 elementary school – I just picked it up on my own through my extensive reading, and it seemed to make sense. In the sixth grade I did my science fair exhibit on evolution, and as a result I suffered a brief wave of persecution – a rare opportunity for my classmates to pose as more pious than me. Obviously, I do not find evolution to be in conflict with Christianity or with divine creation of the world.

Terminology

Evolution and creation are sometimes framed as competing theories of "the origin of life," but this is a mistake. While creation is certainly about the origin of life, evolution is not. Evolution offers an explanation of how life developed and diversified into different species, but it says nothing about where the first life came from. For this reason, evolution and creation are not exactly symmetrical, competing theories – they don't cover quite the same ground. The specific aspect/theory of creation that might be seen as the counterpart of evolution is "special creation" – the notion that every species is directly created by God as a separate and distinct creation. This is what is usually meant by creationism. But obviously one can believe in God's role as the ultimate source of creation without endorsing this theory.

Like creation, the term evolution also requires some narrowing. In the broadest sense, it simply refers to the accretion of changes in forms of life over the generations. Even some self-described creationists concede the reality of microevolution – small changes within a species in response to changes in its environment – but they deny the possibility that such evolution can lead to the development of new species. Before Darwin, evolutionary theorists already believed that existing species had evolved from earlier species, but they proposed many different mechanisms by which this evolution might have occurred. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck famously proposed that parents could pass on acquired traits to their offspring. But today when we say evolution, the default meaning is the development of new species through evolution by natural selection, as proposed by Charles Darwin 150 years ago in The Origin of Species.

In the Classroom

Opponents of evolution often talk in terms of presenting "alternatives" to evolution. But there is no real alternative to evolution. This is not to say that there never can be and never will be any alternative. Nor is it to say that evolution is ready to be enshrined as a final and complete law of nature. It is only to say that there is currently no alternative on the table. Evolution has vanquished the competing theories and no new theory has yet risen to challenge it.

Some have proposed Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution. But ID is unable to explain the thing that evolution explains – the origin of species. ID does not constitute a stand-alone alternative to evolution, but, rather, a critique of evolution. By pointing to possibly anomalous data that evolution (allegedly) cannot explain, ID demands a re-thinking of the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Some advocates of evolution freak out at the very mention of Intelligent Design. But in doing so they betray themselves as proponents of science qua ideology, not science qua science. They would be more Darwinist than Darwin himself!

You see, the principle on which ID rests was introduced by none other than . . . Charles Darwin. In Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species, Darwin himself proposed a number of possible critiques of evolution. ID is, essentially, a highly developed form of one of these critiques. Darwin admitted that it is difficult to see how "organs of extreme perfection and complication," such as the eye, could have come about by natural selection, but he tried to answer this objection. Modern ID theorists have run with this critique, producing the idea of "irreducible complexity." Evolutionary biologists, in turn, have answered the critique. That is how science works.

I think this suggests one approach to the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom. While ID cannot reasonably be taught as an alternative to evolution (because it does not actually propose a concrete alternative mechanism for the origin of species), it could be introduced as one of a number of critiques that evolutionary biology must address if evolution by natural selection is to be established as a law of nature. If Darwin himself could raise such questions, I don't see why a biology teacher should be prohibited from doing so. Working through Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species might make for an interesting high school biology lecture.

I think the fact that evolution currently faces no competion makes it especially important to raise such questions. Evolution is a strong enough theory to withstand all such questions, so I see no danger of leaving students with the impression that evolution has been refuted. Rather, such questioning would serve as an example of the scientific approach to knowledge, showing budding scientists that it not unthinkable to question even the best established of scientific theories. This should help to dispel any tendency to think of scientific theories as unquestionable dogmata.

Evolution and the Incarnation

In a stereotypical creationist-vs.-atheist debate, I have no one to root for. Both sides have already lost me before the debate even begins. Once the debate is joined, it looks like they disagree on every single point, and that is how they are usually perceived. To me, however, it seems that they agree with each other on the central premise that underlies the debate: in the provocative form attributed to Richard Dawkins, "If Darwin's cosmology was right, then theology is senseless babble." And creationists like Phillip Johnson accept the premise and join the debate on those terms. This all-or-nothing proposition, for those who accept it, validates both the conflict and the energy they expend on it.

When combatants on both sides find a rare proposition they can agree on, one is tempted to let it pass without further examination. But this premise is both illogical and heretical. It assumes that God's only purpose is to serve as a causal explanation of phenomena in the physical universe, and that if a completely natural explanation can be found for every phenomenon then we can dispense with God as redundant and dismiss the supernatural entirely. This argument might be compatible with a Deistic "God of the gaps," but it cannot be reconciled with the God of orthodox Christianity. We believe that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human – that these two natures dwelt in him without contradiction. From this orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation, it follows that the supernatural is not excluded by the natural; rather, the supernatural manifests itself in and through the natural. Therefore, even if science were somehow to demonstrate the truth of an entirely materialistic explanation of the universe, it could not exclude the existence or activity of God.

Therefore, from an orthodox Christian point of view, a debate premised on the mutual exclusivity of the natural and the supernatural is flawed from the outset.

Interesting Links

Here are a few interesting bits I came across in my Evolution folder.

"Special Creation" on the Left

Science vs. Norse Mythology

God and evolution: the state of the question

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

A classification of possible routes of Darwinian evolution

For Sociobiology

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Charitable Solicitations Revisited

Back in March I gave a preliminary report on charitable solicitations I received in 2008. At that point, my solicitations were running 3% behind 2001, the last time I conducted such a study. But by the end of the year, 2008 had topped 2001. Last year I received 864 solicitations (2 more than in 2001), plus 123 newsletters or magazines, from 214 different charitable organizations. (That does not count thank-you letters and tax receipts that were sent by the charities I actually donated to.) The biggest single month was October, when I received 103 solicitations – that's an average of 3.8 every time I opened my mailbox!

One major difference between the two years is that 2008 was an election year. I received 40 solicitations that I categorized as political, of which 33 were from political parties or candidates. In 2001 I received only 13 politically oriented solicitations.

The category with the biggest drop was Roman Catholic religious orders. In 2001, 31 orders sent me 80 solicitations (with 22 coming from a single order!). In 2008, just 9 orders sent me 11 solicitations. In late 2000 I purchased a rosary from a monastery, and I think the monks must have shared my address with everyone in the Catholic Church. Most of them probably lost track of me after I moved in 2003 and 2004.

The two worst offenders were Human Rights Watch and WETA, each of which sent me 19 solicitations. I had not donated to either in 2007, so I'm not sure what they hoped to accomplish by flooding my mailbox.

At the other extreme, two local charities that I have donated to consistently over the past decade did not contact me at all last year. In the past I have even made special efforts to restore contact with them after I moved, but it seems they just aren't very good at keeping their databases up to date.