Thursday, October 06, 2005

Let's All Evolve!

All right, I've had enough. I've just read one too many news stories where the Christian myth of Creation is being compared against the scientific theory of evolution as if they are two competing products vying for market share. In reality (I do believe in that) they are as different as a ghost and a machine, spirit and flesh. One requires faith and a belief system to create a subjective experience of something immaterial, while the other examines physical evidence and attempts to propose logical and demonstrable explanations for what we see around us.

The bullet points being hammered home by the "intelligent design" proponents are (1) "evolution is not a fact," (2) "life is too complex to be explained by evolution," and (3) "evolution has unexplained gaps it cannot account for."

I beg to differ. First of all, evolution is a well-documented phenomenon which can be observed in the species alive today, and inferred from studying the remains of those now long extinct. I think what they really mean, though, is not evolution the observed phenomenon but the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the current state of understanding how evolution happens.

Basically, as Darwin proposed, populations of every species are composed of individuals with genetic variety and differing traits. When the population is subjected to stresses, such as the introduction of a new predator or parasite, loss of food supply, or a change in climate, some members of the population do better than others due to the set of traits they have. These members are the ones who survive and produce more offspring, so that their traits become prevalent in succeeding generations. The changes may be so minute they are unnoticable, or they may be sudden and dramatic. Genetic variations may be as mild as the color of eyes or as drastic as mutations that make it impossible for the individual to survive. So over hundreds of millions of years since it arose, life has taken infinitely varying forms. The forms that didn't work or couldn't adapt died out, while others survived ... and here we are, the living continuation of this endless chain of flux.

While we can agree that a theory is not a fact (theories exist to explain the observable facts), many theories demonstrate their usefulness every day as we make use of the technologies that have been based on them. We can start our cars, turn on our lights, watch TV, and detonate nuclear weapons without anyone disputing the fact that they work. This is even true when the theories have "unexplained gaps." We were already sending telegrams and using electricity long before we knew what electrons were, or how atoms were composed. Theories take us as far as they can, then allow us to proceed from there on the basis of new knowledge.

Complexity is certainly abundant in life, but there is no reason why simple fundamental processes cannot give rise to complexity. This can be demonstrated very simply through mathematical exercises like fractals and cellular automata, which can create "lifelike" forms from extremely basic rules. In fact it is the complexity of a population--its genetic diversity--that allows natural selection to operate effectively. It could be argued that the more complex life is, the better natural selection works.

I assume the "gaps" they talk about in the theory of evolution (let's make an acryonym: the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, or TENS) are (1) it doesn't explain how life began in the first place, and (2) it doesn't explain why there is a universe for us to live in, or in other words answer the question of Why Are We Here?

So in response to those issues:

(1) "TENS" is not about the origin of life. There are other hypotheses (not theories yet) about how inanimate matter may have formed the first cellular organisms, but if Natural Selection played a part in it that would really be a separate issue. However, if and when there is a working theory that demonstrates how this transition can happen, then it, too, like the theory of natural selection, should obviously be included in the science curriculum of our schools.

(2) Science is not about Why, it's about What and How. There are other forms of human inquiry that address the Why question. They are known as philosophy and religion. Far from being antagonistic to one another, all of these disciplines serve us best when they complement each other, when what we know of the world informs our speculation about what we do not know.

Personally, I believe that the universe around us is the body of the supreme, self-existent being we call God, and that our minds are tiny inklings of the vast intelligence of which we are small parts. But I don't believe that God sits on a cloud or in an office somewhere and micromanages all of creation. The divine power I imagine, glimpsed through the insights of physicists and cosmic theorists, is one that sparked a whole cosmos into being from a single point, that established from the instant of its beginning all the laws that would govern the behavior of everything from atoms to stars and galaxies, that built these laws into unimaginably small bits of energy (currently called "strings") which make up everything we see and everything we don't see. This is the power that made life in such a universe an inevitable, "natural" development. All we can do is study the details of how it has happened, and to marvel at its wonder.

For me, science supports my religion, so I'm all the more amazed when others feel their beliefs are threatened by it. Relax, I want to tell them; we're all in this together. By all means, read your Bible stories to your children, teach them how to behave in moral ways, how to live with one another in peace. But for God's sake don't deny them their right to know as much as possible about the world around them, even if--especially if--that knowledge forces them to wonder about what they know and how they know it.

Please, let's evolve beyond this petty debate.

No comments:

Post a Comment