Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Confessions of a Closet Darwinist

I’m a no big fan of science. My unscientific state of mind can be traced back all the way from high school. I must say I hated all science subjects, and biology was on top of the ranking. I was a lazy student alright and I’m not exactly proud about it. If you are interested to know why I cursed biology to the bones, it is this: I just can’t fathom the fact how biology could help me land a job in the near future when all we did in class is to cut open an innocent frog and memorize its body parts to pass the exam. In all fairness, my esteemed biology teacher Mrs.B. (and may she rest in peace) cannot be faulted why I was never a diligent student in her class. I was destined to be that way. Or to put it in a scientific perspective, I guess it was all part of my own evolution as a thinking person.

I regret never to have religiously studied the rudiments of biology in high school. It could have been a lot easier to understand what I have been reading and digesting all these years. As I dabbled with philosophy, studied esoteric ideas of great men who left a significant mark in the annals of history, strangely it was in the arena of science, biology in particular, that I came to know my newest hero. His name is Charles Darwin, the influential English naturalist who wrote this gigantic book, The Origin of Species.

Beyond the notion of frog-hunting, it was in my high school biology class when I first heard the name Charles Darwin. Back then, I pictured him merely as one of those typical textbook scientists famous for some weird scientific ideas and discoveries of his day. When I first heard my biology class teacher explaining in general how evolution by natural selection works, I was surprisingly in awe of its beauty and elegance. Just imagine how simple life forms could develop over long periods of time into increasingly complex creatures that we see today and you’ll get the entire picture. Maybe Darwin was right after all, at least scientifically. Evolution by natural selection seemed to be the most plausible natural process to explain why there are vast array of plants and animals on our planet. Given sufficient time with life-permitting conditions in our environment, who knows what the natural outcome might be, right? Anything seems possible. Nothing is static. Everything is susceptible to change. When we observe things around us that appear to be purposeless, or when we bellowed at the freaks of nature featured in the Discovery Chanel, the theory of evolution seem to fit perfectly in the grand scheme of the natural world.

Initially, my unscientific mind was willing to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not until, Darwin went further and introduced the idea that you and me share a common ancestor with apes. I was appalled by his claim. I felt disgusted to know that I’m just another animal species roaming this part of the jungle. Wandering around, preying on others. I know then that as a teenager I exhibited some kind of animalistic tendencies, especially towards the opposite sex. Touché! But who would have thought that science has a different view. A view that would make this supposed impish behaviour perfectly natural and normal. True enough, my ignorance in the realm of science made me wonder if Darwin could have been insane or something when he introduced this ludicrous idea that human beings came from the same common ancestor as the apes. If at all he was sane I said to myself, Darwin was simply guessing or playing hunches on this one. After all, the theory of evolution by natural selection is just a theory. And just like any other scientific theory floating around, the theory of evolution can never be accepted as a fact unless backed up by provable and well-reasoned explanation.

Growing up as a nominal Christian

I was raised in an Evangelical household, one where you had to be in articulo mortis to skip Sunday service or family devotions. Obviously, I learned to read at a very young age because our shelves were stacked with Christian literature, mostly bible story books for kids. The “Creation Week” in the Book of Genesis had to be one of my favorite bible stories. I was certain that I understood the Bible correctly: God created all living creatures, including human beings, in their present form during the six-day period known as “Creation Week.” The Bible did not say that these creatures, like the animal species have evolved over long periods of time, from less advanced life forms to complex ones. God created dogs as dogs, cats as cats no more no less! I could not imagine, not even in my wildest dreams that human beings are not special creations from a supernatural being whom we call God. The Darwinist view that human beings could have merely descended from the same common ancestor as the apes is simply preposterous. We are special creations. Human beings are created with a purpose. Despite my rudimentary knowledge on biology, I concluded that science limps as it walks on the issue of origin. No one, not even Charles Darwin and his ilk, could ever explain how it all began in the first place.

At the back of my mind however, something bothered me tremendously with what Charles Darwin is saying. My sudden three-hundred-sixty degree turnaround could hardly be considered intellectually-based or anything. I guess even if someone could present me with rock-solid evidence to support evolution, still I would suspend my judgment at that time. I would remain adamant and will refuse to accept it as a fact. I would go even further and label it as the work of the devil. I was fearful of Darwin’s theory because of its simple yet striking implication on the meaning of life. Although not a boxing enthusiast, I can tell that Darwin had just delivered a one-knockout punch, the heaviest blow unleashed against what I perceived to be an untouchable opponent. Looking back, my dismissive attitude was perhaps a smokescreen designed to conceal whatever reservations and doubts I had concerning one of the central dogmas of my faith─ the biblical story of creation. Ultimately my puerile mentality has something to do with the kind of intellectual laziness that most Christians are endowed: I know the Bible is true because it’s the Bible!

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a theologian to grasp why the theory of natural selection would be so controversial. From the time Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 to this day, the debate continues. The once already volatile relationship between science and religion became more intense and defined with the theory of origin of species out in public. If new creatures are created by natural process, what is left for God, the creator of the universe? If evolution is true, then the biblical account in Genesis that human beings have descended from Adam and Eve is false.

So where do I stand between these two seemingly opposing views? My mind tells me to follow the trail of evidence wherever it may lead. In my years of personal study, research and discourses with people of different stripes, I come to the conclusion that evolution is fairly acceptable. Evolution is not a myth invented by some lunatic scientist who simply wants to take God out of the picture. Evolution is more than just a “theory” it is a fact, a scientific fact. When science uses the word “theory,” it means “explanation.” Creationists, perhaps overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, are of the notion that “theory” is synonymous with, “I’m not quite sure about it, that’s why I call it a theory.” Perhaps a simple illustration would suffice to repair this misconception. If evolution is false because it is just a theory then almost all great scientific discoveries would be false either. A cell would not exist because scientists allude to a “theory” called the Cell Theory to explain the subtleties of living cells. How about the Atomic Theory, a theory that teaches us the behaviour of atoms, does it mean that atoms do not exist? Likewise, the Theory of Evolution provides the blueprint for evolution and explains how its process and mechanism work.

Evolution and the Creation story

What is evolution anyway? Let me begin by saying that Charles Darwin did not invent evolution, he merely noticed it. In simplest terms, evolution is defined as the gradual accumulation of functional adaptations. In order for evolution to work successfully, three essentials are needed (1) time (2) genetic variety among offspring and (3) a mechanism for preserving only beneficial variation. Thus, from a simple life form, an organism can develop into a complex creature. Evolution basically posits that organisms change through time. Then it proceeds through the branching of common descent. Given enough time, changes within a species can accumulate into large changes that create new species or an increasing number of new species. The primary mechanism of evolution is of course Natural Selection. If natural selection is the process from which organisms are indebted for survival or extinction, what place then for a Designer? We must understand that natural selection is not a force but a description of a process. It shows us how the process works. There is no intelligent force behind the “selection” of organisms, there are no conscious choices involved in the process. In order to survive and reproduce in a given environment, one must have the right qualities (adaptations) superior than those of other species in the animal kingdom. Mammals like us are not here by chance. Neither are we here by random selection. We are what we are because we are naturally selected to live and experience life to the fullest.

It is my view that the evolutionary theory and the biblical story of creation are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true at the same time. One must stand out as fact and the other as a myth. They cannot be harmonized. Either you accept the literal truth of the “Creation Week” or distort the text of Genesis to accommodate scientific truths. Religious-minded individuals, whether they are Muslims or Christians, would bend high and low just to defend the truthfulness of the “holy book.” Because the Bible (or the Qur’an for that matter) is deemed to be the word of God, any doubts as to its veracity is unacceptable. The holy book, as they say, will forever be true to its word. Again, I could hear the fallacious dictum “I know the Bible is true because it’s the Bible” stinging my ears. The premise is quite simple: the creation story, one of the central dogmas of the Christian faith, is to be taken literally therefore, the theory evolution is a myth. What then is the staid response of the” righteous” in the face of rock-solid scientific evidence against a sacred dogma of faith? Obviously, they resort to all kinds of interpretations, patching loopholes one from the other. Rattled by an obnoxious idea that would offend their religious sensibilities, some would choose to accept every word of the Bible as literally true. The religious-literalists believe that since God created all life forms during a brief period known as the “Creation Week,” dinosaurs, gorillas and human beings walked the earth hand in hand together. As any avid student of science would know, this interpretation directly contradicts scientific evidence like the fossil records found in the geologic column. However despite overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution, fundamentalists are determined to undermine science by making it appear than no conflict exists between the two domains. But believe me, a stark conflict does exist. If evolution says that we’re all descended from a common ancestor as apes, would someone in his right mind say that it sounded like Adam and Eve? If God created us in His own image would you then conclude that God looks like an ape? Or perhaps He is an omnipotent ape? If you happen to be a religious-minded mammal, why not pick up a basic science textbook from your dusty shelves. Try flipping the pages and compare it with the wordings of the Book of Genesis. I’m sure you would be surprised with what you’re about to discover.

Dabbling with Intelligent Design

In the spirit of fairness, let us not single out one interpretation. It would be unfair to discredit the Book of Genesis by selective observation; the good book after all deserves a fair treatment in the marketplace of ideas. How about if we shun from the literal reading of the creation story, what would be the alternative? Perhaps because the evolutionary theory is widely accepted in the science community as fact, religious-minded individuals tend to be more liberal these days. In the Christian community as well as in the academic circles, a group of respected Evangelical intellectuals emerge as the vanguards of modern Christian thinking. This group is popularly known as the Intelligent Design Movement (ID for brevity). ID advocates believe that not every word of the Bible is literally true. Ergo, while the miracles of Jesus Christ in the New Testament are to be interpreted literally, the Book of Genesis should be understood in its metaphorical sense. So in a way if the literalists distort science to reconcile with Genesis, ID on the other hand distorts Genesis to make it harmonize with modern science. To some extent, ID accepts evolution to be true in so far as variations within plants and animals are concerned. Or when a strain of bacteria acquires immunity from antibiotic or rats acquire immunity to a particular type of poison, ID theorist concede that evolution is a fact. But as we know Darwin did not stop there. He goes hundred miles further by claiming that life began millions of years ago with simple cell creatures. And through mutation and natural selection, these simple cell organisms developed into complex creatures we see around today, including us. While ID advocates undeniably agree that micro-scale evolution has factual and scientific underpinnings, they disagree on one significant detail that could possibly account for life’s complexity. Quite similar to the argument raised by theologian William Paley more than centuries ago, ID intellectuals believe that some adaptations are too complex that could not have come about gradually through natural selection (e.g. the cellular evolution).

The gist of ID’s theory is that the vast majority of adaptations could have come about by Darwinian natural selection and only a small minority appears to be intelligently designed. In his book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made a daring admission,” If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, then my theory would absolutely break down.” Microbiologist Michael Behe, one of the leading progenitors of ID, took the challenge and published the critically-acclaimed book Darwin’s Black Box. In response to Darwin’s challenge, Behe offered recent biochemical discoveries that would show that Darwin was partially wrong with his theory. A case in point is the Cell. A cell, according to ID theorists, appears to be “irreducibly complex” in its structure which could not have been the result of Darwinian natural selection. I’m not a scientist but here’s how Behe’s argument works. Let us suppose that a cell has four parts and removal of any one of them will cause the cell to die. Now since all parts is indispensable to the operation of the cell no one of them could have come about in gradual stages until the other four were in place. Thus, the cell could not have evolved at all because the appearance of that cell requires that all four parts to be gradually evolving before the cell could work. From there, ID theorists felt that they have just debunked Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, after all the efforts to come up with a plausible scientific explanation on Nature’s complexity, ID intellectuals bolted out from the scientific world and preferred to take the supernatural route. Since there are no available scientific explanation to account for these “irreducible complex” adaptations, ID theorists assume that an Intelligent Designer might be the answer. Could the Intelligent Designer be the God of the Bible? Because ID presumably operates in the arena of science with a tinge of theology, ID intellectuals are careful enough not to mention the word “God” in any of their books. They insist with all their might that ID is science-based rather than pseudo-scientific.

It could have been an astounding scientific discovery had Behe offered a scientific alternative for Darwinism. Instead ID took a big leap from science all the way to theology, from natural to the supernatural. At this point, Intelligent Design has voluntarily unmasked itself, and exposed what their movement is really all about. Some religious fundamentalist labelled them as a “cult” for butchering settled religious doctrines, secular scientists mocked at them for their pseudo-scientific theories.

I think that the rise of ID movement in the academic circles has something to do with the recurring criticisms against the Church. (Here I'm referring to organized religions founded on a monotheistic belief-system.) From the time of Galileo to the publication of Darwin’s book on evolution until today, the Church has been accused of intolerance towards science. (Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Angels and Demons sheds light on the perceived "traditional" war between science and religion.) The ID movement in recent years has published scholarly materials in an attempt to merge religious dogmas and scientific truths. I myself have been a vociferous reader of Intelligent Design literature, books authored by scientists M. Behe and W. Dembski. I enjoyed their books a lot because of the intellectual satisfaction I get. Clearly, these ID intellectual giants illuminated my mind on the intersection of science and religion. ID restored my faith that not all religious-minded mammals are dumb. Still I wish Christians should spend more time reading books of the same calibre and throw away all their non-sense praise-the-lord antics in the garbage bin. But despite the smokescreen and euphemisms hidden in the façade of ID, It is my view that the fulcrum from which ID arguments stand is more akin to theology rather than pure modern science. This is problematic because as they go along with their brand of science, ID proponents end up perverting the Book of Genesis and possibly the Bible itself.

Reconciling belief in God and Darwinian Evolution

I accept evolution as much as I believe in God. I subscribe to Darwinism as much as I believe in “Creationism.” If science has proven that human beings descended from a common ancestor as apes then so be it. If science has proven that living organisms are but a product of natural selection sans intervention of the supernatural, then by all means, bring it on! But let me point out one important observation: the theory of evolution does not belie the existence of a Creator. Neither does it say that evolution can explain life’s origin. Whether evolution is true or not, it does not in any way affect my belief that there is a Creator somewhere looking at the universe.

I do not agree that if someone accepts evolution he then becomes an atheist. Evolution does not necessarily imply atheism or the belief that there is no God. At the very least, Darwinian evolution will force someone to step back, take off his mythological blinders and look at the scientific evidence more carefully. But religion has its way of discrediting Darwinian evolution. Of course, if evolution claims that life began in the primordial soup of life then human beings are nothing but the “outcome of mindless collocation of atoms.” Consequently, defenders of the faith are quick to point out that with Darwinism as a dogma, morality is jettisoned because human beings are devoid of any transcendent cause from which to ground their objective moral law. In other words, and let me be frank about this, acceptance of Darwinism if taken to its logical conclusion causes a person to be immoral. Let me put it in a logical way: Evolution implies that there is no God, (which I do not agree) therefore belief in the theory of evolution leads to atheism. Without a belief in God there can be no morality therefore human beings will be reduced into visceral animals. To the uninitiated, religious-minded individuals in particular, if acceptance of evolution leads to immorality why bother looking at the technical details of science? Why waste your time trying to understand about Cambrian explosion, the fossils records, and all the intricacies that science has to offer? It’s enough that Christian apologists have persuasively linked Darwinian evolution with the towering monsters of the 20th century namely Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Indeed, if evolution is synonymous with moral degeneration who would want to subscribe to such a view of human destruction? But this is a misunderstanding. The evolutionary theory is not a dogma, not even a worldview that seeks to explain the “why” questions. It is my humble view that Darwinian evolution as a scientific explanation has little to say on the issue of origin much less on morality and meaning. In fact, even Charles Darwin in his time was not quite sure what to say on the issue of origin all he could offer was a brave speculation, a scientific guess how life came to be in this planet. So let us not burden ourselves by putting up the historical ramifications of Social Darwinism to disprove evolution. The fears and apprehensions echoed in the pulpit of these hallowed churches have nothing to do whether evolution is true or not. Like in the courts of law, the scientific evidence for evolution must be weighed on its own merits. If you think that acceptance of a scientific view will challenge your faith in God then think again. I mean does it really bother you what process He used to create life? If He so decides to let nature take its course would you abandon your faith just because science offers a natural explanation of the process? C’mon! Think again.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, science in a way cemented my faith in God. Evolution by natural selection does not disprove or diminish God’s awesome powers. In fact the reverse is true. Darwinian evolution as a scientific view of the natural world illuminates the grandeur of God’s works as the great architect of the entire universe. Let us not shy away from science simply because of its age-old association with atheism. Believers must embrace science for what it is and what it’s capable of in the same way “legit” theologians embrace their theology warts and all. (Most pastors of Evangelical churches these days are not exactly theologians in the truest sense of the word. Most of them are self-proclaimed preachers whose only pedigree is guts!) In the best-selling book The Language of God, Dr. Francis S. Collins, a Christian scientist and head of the Human Genome Project explicated on the relationship of faith and science: Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul, and the mind must find away to embrace both realms.

We all fear what we do not understand. Most people know little about evolution. Some refuse to talk about it because of its moral implication. Others somehow do not think that evolution would likely affect their lives. Whatever their motives are, let me say that the greatest threat against faith is not science but IGNORANCE. Case closed. Closet opened. Whalah! I am a Darwinist!

References from my personal library:

Atheist Universe by David Mills
Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer
Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe
The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel