Revolution #167, June 7, 2009

From Readers:

Celebrating Darwin Day and digging into Ardea Skybreak's book, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Knowing What's Real And Why It Matters

Revolution received the following letter from a reader on celebrating Darwin Day and digging into Ardea Skybreak's book, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Knowing What's Real And Why It Matters:

Recently I was traveling through some different cities and had an opportunity to check out a variety of programs put on by museums, churches, universities and community groups on the occasion of Darwin Day 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. These events were highly significant; they celebrated this historic scientific achievement and upheld it in the face of the continuing creationist onslaught against the theory of evolution.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution—a disturbing statistic. Given this objective situation, these programs were urgently needed. I learned a lot from these programs and, based on questions they raised, I felt a need to dig deeper into the science of evolution as presented by Ardea Skybreak in The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Knowing What's Real And Why It Matters.

Tremendous Breadth of Programs

Just to begin, I would like to give a feel for the tremendous breadth of the presentations that I either attended or read about.

The campus celebrations of Darwin were marked by a sense of urgency and necessity to get science to the people. An exciting variety of professors spoke to their deep appreciation for Darwin, and what he means for science today. Check out this array of speakers: naturalists, geologists, historians, biochemists, oncologists, biologists, epigeneticists, linguists, anthropologists, paleontologists, pharmacologists, and geneticists. This showed me the meaning of Skybreak's statement that without the science of evolution, there would be no science.

Topics included current research that is based on and validates the theory of evolution; Darwin's legacy and continuing relevance; advances in the study of genomes; the impact of the science of evolution on studying culture and the impact of culture on human evolution; and presentations on how to teach evolution and prepare for controversy.

Some of the museum presentations focused on the historical Darwin and how his theory brought forward and energized the progressive defense of science, which had to take on backward, conservative religious and political thinking. Some speakers spoke about later battles that had to be fought against the twisting of this science into "Social Darwinism" and into the idea of eugenics. (For more on "Social Darwinism," see Skybreak, p. 171.)

One exciting development was the celebration of "Evolution Weekend" in the religious community. I noticed that several clergy wrote their sermons in advance and had them posted on the web. One church invited a local museum director to speak. Another church invited the general public to come "hear Darwin speak" on Evolution Sunday. (OK, it was an actor.)

From the various presentations, I realized that a number of questions now presented themselves for further study and thinking. I decided to dig into Skybreak's book to get clarity on these scientific and epistemological questions.

The Modern Synthesis

At one campus presentation, my interest was piqued by one speaker who had a quarrel with the "modern synthesis" among Darwinians because he thought this "synthesis" failed to understand Darwin's prescience regarding today's developments in the science of evolution. Skybreak defines the "modern synthesis" as:

The combination of Darwin's theory of natural selection with the discovery of the basic principles and mechanisms of genetic inheritance. Developed in the first half of the 20th century, the "modern synthesis" both confirmed and extended basic Darwinism, providing a more complete and comprehensive understanding of the underlying dynamics of evolutionary change. (Glossary, p. 310)

Scientists soon learned that evolution through natural selection required the understanding of genetics to know the mechanism that carried out the process of evolution, further developing Darwin's science of evolution. This is exciting, living science, which is continuing to develop; e.g., studies of DNA, the relation of genes to disease, or mapping of the genome of humans and other animals. Just think of what the understanding of DNA means to science today, to take one example of these developments!

Are Humans Still Evolving?

In several events celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday, one question that came up in various ways was "Are humans still evolving?" Also, what is likely to be the future of the human species and this planet, and what is the relation of biological evolution to cultural/social development?

As Skybreak's book explains, the term "evolution" does not mean inevitable, pre-ordained "progress;" it simply means change over time. Given that understanding, several of the scientific presentations tried to deal with the question of the future evolution of human beings and our existence on this planet. With some there was a sort of tug of war between seeing "pure" natural selection as how humans evolve vs. the importance of culture as a stronger factor that will determine the future. And some presenters seemed to be conflicted about the role of culture or societal practice as it will affect evolution.

Within the context of emphatically upholding evolution, some speakers spoke to the fact that Darwin's theory of natural selection has to be further developed to explain what will happen in the future because human beings, with our consciousness, have been able to transform both nature and society. Some examples of how we have changed nature are the development of agriculture, domestication of animals, and the eradication or treatment of diseases so life can be extended. Of course, we have also caused great damage to the natural world through creating such things as pollution and climate change.

Evidence was presented that shows that our environment definitely affects genetic changes. One scientist used slides to compare the chromosome structure of identical twins at age six, and again at age 60. The genetic structures of each twin at six years were perfectly matched, but when the twins reached maturity, their chromosomes were very different—proving how one's environment plays a large role in the changes within human genes.

A psychologist gave a speech about evolution of the brain, underscoring the argument that evolution does not inevitably lead to advance/progress. For example, the brain's memory retrieval can't measure up to a computer. He felt that evolutionary change by natural selection will not make human memory more computer-like because it would require too many radical changes. He pointed out that evolution takes place on the basis of what already exists—descent through modification. He noted that evolution will probably be more determined by culture as it has so far created written language, and now computers, to make up for the deficiencies of our brains.

So, are humans still evolving? I was somewhat tempted to say "of course, that's what Darwin's theory of natural selection is all about." But I realized that I had to dig into this more deeply, as Skybreak does.

In the chapter, "The Evolution of Human Beings," Skybreak continually emphasizes what is unique about human beings and the two key leaps in hominid evolution: 1) development of bipedalism, which led to greater mobility and the freeing up of the hands; and 2) being born in a very undeveloped state with a great increase in brain size after birth and the development with that of the capacity to learn and change things (see Skybreak, pp. 148-9). Based on these two key leaps, humans have emerged as the first species with the capacity to transform themselves and their environment primarily through cultural and social innovations, rather than relying on biological evolution (see Skybreak, p. 154).

Skybreak develops the point that since the branching off of the Homo sapiens species, there has been very little evolutionary change for over 100,000 years of human existence (see Skybreak, p. 155). In fact, humans' ability to change their environment is a much more rapid process than the much slower process of evolution. The vast majority of human development over the last 100,000 years has been cultural—the ability to learn, to teach and to change things—with very little biological modification.

And she makes the point that "...what happens to our species in the future (including when and how our own species will pass from the scene) will be, at least to a significant degree, up to us." (Skybreak, p. 146).

Skybreak points out that while it is theoretically possible for humans to spin off a new species, this is very unlikely—because the conditions of reproductive isolation in which a new species could develop are virtually impossible in today's interconnected world. But she ends on the point that, while, like all others, our species will one day go extinct, what is unique about the human species is that "...between now and then we will no doubt consciously transform ourselves and the world around us in ways which we can barely yet imagine." (Skybreak, p. 175)

Evolution...and Religion

Churches have been celebrating Evolution Weekend (it used to be just Evolution Sunday) since 2004, and the number of clergy signing on has increased every year. As of February 2009 a letter from American rabbis had 452 signatories, the Unitarian Universalist Clergy letter had 196 signatories and the American Christian Clergy letter had 11,866 signatories! These clergy letters upholding evolution were started in direct response to the onslaught against science and evolution by fundamentalist groups. This "letter" project was started by progressive clergy who stated firmly that there was no conflict between religion and belief in the theory of evolution. The letter from Unitarian Universalist Clergy is very sharp in stating:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

All the sermons from Evolution Weekend that I was able to either hear or read dealt with evolution as a proven fact, while at the same time promoting the idea that there is no conflict between religion and science. These sermons quoted scientific and philosophical arguments to make a connection between evolution and a progressive moral agenda, and they expressed the view that human beings' awe and wonder at the unknown is addressed by both science and religion. These sermons showed me the desire of many religious people to uphold science in the face of the creationist advance (although unlike the clergy letters, these particular sermons did not make a point of specifically opposing the creationist agenda of anti-scientific thinking).

These sermons also got me thinking more about how the question of science and religion is posed by progressive religious believers. In her book, Skybreak speaks to this:

Forward-looking religious people these days are often particularly interested in reconciling two things which they consider to be very important to human lives: a belief in a higher power...(a "supernatural" god) and an acknowledgement and appreciation of modern science, including biological evolution. They want both. They feel they need both (Skybreak, p. 190).

Not surprisingly, I found this to be reflected in all the sermons that I heard or read.

For example:

One pastor talked about how life forms "sought out greater complexity" and that this is how God chose to create; and the pastor extended this theory to the concept that the spirit of God has been the guiding hand behind the historical development of human systems.

Another pastor linked developments over billions of years in the natural world with the evolution of God, even claiming that religion with its monotheistic concept (the idea that there is only one god) first came up with the "unified field theory of reality."

Another sermon linked natural selection with the survival of groups whose individuals love and care for others as opposed to groups composed of selfish individuals. He defended this by quoting a "scientific" paper.

One pastor said that faith is a different way of approaching reality but deals with the same reality that science deals with.

So this poses the question that goes to the heart of the matter: What approach to reality is required to achieve a true understanding of the natural world? Only science and the scientific method, and not a belief in the supernatural (which literally means "above" or "outside" the natural world), can discover natural explanations for natural phenomena. (see Skybreak, Glossary, p. 314) Trying to make religion and science compatible is eclectics—combining two contradictory things into one. Using this method to explain this "compatibility" of religion and science undermines the ability to see the world as it really is and to thereby change it.

Teleology, the philosophical idea that things move toward a point of inevitability or perfection, was reflected in the way that many religious sermons upheld evolution. This thinking proposes that natural selection is a process of perfecting organisms, and that evolution means that development moves from a lower level toward a higher level. This idea is pretty easy to combine with a belief in God because God is supposedly a realm of perfection that humans are always trying to achieve but never will. Skybreak refutes this wrong understanding of evolution with the insight that there's no driving force in evolution that inevitably would lead to humans as the "pinnacle of evolutionary 'progress.'" (see Skybreak, p. 146)

Sometimes secular people also view the evolutionary development of simpler to more complex forms of life, or the development of history and changing morality, as a teleological progression.

But natural selection is not a conscious process that is working toward some perfection of any species or toward a more modern or moral society. But this does not mean that it all happens just "by accident." To quote Skybreak:

For instance, evolution by natural selection involves a combination and interplay of both random and non-random factors: first of all, random ("chance") factors such as mutations, recombinations and genetic drift, lead to a continual reshuffling of the deck of cards which makes up the total genetic variation in a population and which serves as the raw material of evolutionary change; but, then, on the basis of that randomly produced variation, natural selection proceeds to very much non-randomly sort out some of the resulting features of organisms in relation to the demands and challenges of a given external environment. (emphasis in original) (Skybreak, p. 91)

Focusing only on the less random process of adaptation, it can sometimes be made to seem that there is a purpose and forward progress toward perfectibility, but this is not the case. In the evolution of humans, to give just one example, the development of bipedalism was a great advantage but at the same time, it gave hominids a spine that doesn't support our bodies well, leading to lots of lower back pain. And we should not forget that there have been five mass extinctions in earth's history in which most of the species of life on earth disappeared.

So, if teleology is wrong, is there no purpose to life? Skybreak is very clear on this:

There is no particular special purpose to our existence in the grand scheme of things—except what we make of it. Whether we're even here or not doesn't really matter (at least not consciously) to anything on this planet except ourselves;... But so what? Does that mean we don't matter? Does it mean that we might as well kill each other off because there's no god out there to care what we do one way or the other? Does it mean that our lives have absolutely no purpose? Of course not! Our lives are precious and we do matter a great each other! We should decide to "do the right thing"—and act with each other with some integrity and in ways that are "moral and ethical"—not because we're afraid we'll get written up by some warden-like god if we don't, but because what we do directly affects the quality of human life. And, of course, our lives can and do have purpose,...because we humans can choose to imbue our lives with purpose! (emphasis in original) (Skybreak, pp. 155-156).

I find Skybreak's challenge to religious believers and non-believers inspiring:

Nothing in our human "tool-kit" is more important than a thoroughgoing materialist scientific method for uncovering the actual truth of things—a method consistently applied—a method which itself is the product of evolution, and revolution, in human development, including in our modes of thinking. To forward-looking religious believers and non-believers alike I say: why not make a pact to go wherever scientific methods for uncovering the truth of things may take us, even if what we uncover ends up posing some serious and uncomfortable challenges to some old assumptions and cherished traditions? (emphasis in original) (Skybreak, p. 193).

* * *

One brave man, 150 years ago, persisted in letting careful observation of the real world take him whichever way it would lead him, despite the prevailing ignorance and religious dogma that tried to tie him to the past. He discovered a truth that laid a basis for science to understand much more deeply the dynamics of change in the real world, and for humanity to banish "god" and other forms of ignorance and superstition. My own appreciation of Darwin and his scientific breakthrough certainly deepened through these Darwin Day celebrations. I also came to appreciate Skybreak's book on a much deeper level.

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