Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The birth of a snowflake

In the comments section of a recent blog post of mine, Chris wrote:

I just recently had a son. The process of conception to delivery is very beautiful. Do you really believe in your heart that the "designs" or the "creation" that you use big words for, happened without a creator?

Thanks for your thoughts, Chris, and welcome! I can imagine how incredible it must have been for you to experience the birth of your boy. My brother and his wife had a daughter last year, and everyone in the extended family felt the same feelings of wonder and amazement at her birth.

You asked a fascinating question: do I believe that birth happens without the intervention of a supernatural agent? The answer is yes. And I will explain my reasoning by introducing the story of the humble snowflake. When snowflakes are placed under a microscope, one can observe patterns that are intricate, complex, and beautiful. It is often said that each snowflake exhibits a unique pattern; of all the trillions of snowflakes falling around the world, there are no two which are exactly alike.

When I see these patterns, it is tempting to think that such complexity was put into place by something more complex, by an intelligent designer, perhaps. But we know how snowflakes form, and we know that these patterns come about naturally from something far simpler: a few water molecules exposed to specific weather conditions. In other words, this is a case where natural simplicity begets complexity.

I believe the same bottom-up approach to complexity applies to living organisms, including human beings. A human baby is a complex organism that has developed from something far simpler (a microscopic sperm and egg). Sure, a baby is far more complex than a snowflake, but
like the snowflakewe know fairly well how a baby develops in the womb. We know most of the steps involved, the complex interplay between specific genes, cells, hormones and chemicals. There is no point in the development of a baby where we observe any clear or direct intervention from a supernatural agent. This doesn't mean that there isn't any intervention – it's just that we don't need to posit a supernatural agent when discussing how a foetus develops.

I'm not trying to persuade you that God is not involved in the birth of a child; I'm just answering your question regarding what I personally believe. And what I believe doesn't make the event of birth any less wondrous to me. The birth of a child is incredible as it shows how nature – over millions of years – has produced something as complex as a human being from something relatively simple as a few carbon atoms. It also signifies the birth of a sentient being, a conscious individual who will have the ability to one day look upon the universe ask: "Why am I here?"

For me, this is why birth is so beautiful.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 4)

Part 4: Science = absolute truth?

Before I move on to the evidence that convinced me of evolution, I want to ponder the following question: if an idea has scientific support, which I will argue evolution does, can it then be considered as being absolutely true? Is there a direct link between scientific 'proof' and absolute certainty? I think that some might think that if an idea is scientifically 'proven', then that idea is beyond any doubt. But there is another view: that absolute certainty, or absolute truth, is unattainable – even by science – simply because, as human beings, we are not omniscient.

As Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World (page 29, 30):

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have . . . Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvements in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

In other words, our ideas of the universe change as we gain more knowledge and as a result scientific theories or ideas that were once thought to be fairly airtight also change. So in science there is no such thing as absolute or ultimate proof because every idea is open to re-evaluation.

Scientific facts, then, do not refer to ideas for which we have absolute proof, but to those ideas for which we have a great deal of confirmation. As Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, a scientific fact is an idea that has been "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent". This isn't a weakness of science, but its greatest strength: that it is open to change.

In light of this idea that scientific 'truth', or scientific 'fact', is not the same as absolute truth, my goal is not to convince you that biological evolution is True, in a sense of being absolutely true for all persons, paradigms, or ways of thinkingor even true for yourself. Rather, I will be arguing, in posts to follow, that evolution is scientifically valid, and that it is a scientific fact as per Gould's definition.

So if you are a scientist working in a scientific field and you adhere to the rules of science in your daily work, or even if you don't work in science but hold onto the view that science is an important tool, then I will argue that you should at least concede – when it comes to scientific fields such as Biology, Anthropology, Palaeontology, and Medicine – that we should teach, study and apply the idea of biological evolution as if it is true.

Creationists often argue that evolution is not scientific. This post on the Josh McDowell blog is one example. This is the claim that I will attempt to argue against in the following posts.

But in order to determine if evolution is scientific, we have to first explore the question: what is science, and how does it differ from other ways of gaining knowledge?

Next post: Two initial observations
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 3)

Part 3: The golden thread

Evolution runs like a golden thread throughout the life sciences. It is the one fact that holds all of Biology together. As Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, nothing in Biology make sense except in the light of evolution. During my years at university, as I studied my way through Botany and Zoology, the concept of evolution became more common place in my work; not a lecture would go by without the word being mentioned at least once. It became a familiar topic, so much so that I lost my apprehension and fear towards it. I realised that it wasn't the big, ugly, faith-eating monster that I had thought it was. It was instead quite harmless, a normal scientific theory written in books, not unlike all other ideas and subjects written throughout history.

Although I spent much time hearing the word and the basic conclusions of Darwin’s theory, I never fully appreciated the subject until my third year. It was only then, while attending a Botany course specifically on evolution, that I finally realised how important evolutionary theory was to Biology.

But what was more important about that specific course was that the lecturer was a born again Christian. For me, this was incredible, and for the first time in my life I suddenly began considering the possibility that I could be a Christian, but at the same time believe in evolution. So as I studied through university, evolution slowly lost its teeth, and as a result became less of a threat. The Bible says that love drives out fear; but for me, understanding was the thing that freed me from the fear of evolution.

But although I knew what the theory involved, I never fully made a committed decision in accept of reject it. I let it hang on the fence, in a sort of mental limbo. At the time I was moving away from the life sciences (my interests were more directed towards Geography), and I was starting to become more concerned about my future - like getting a job, for example.

So I didn’t think much about evolution when I left university, but if I were forced to describe my beliefs, I think they were at the time roughly consistent with theistic evolution. I believed that there was a good case for the evolution of plants and animals, and that God was responsible for this. However, I was still reluctant to accept that human beings were part of the same process.

But three years later, in 2002, while working at my first job in Eastern Cape, my interest in evolution was reignited. At the time I was between projects, so I had plenty of free time to browse the internet at work. It was probably by chance that I came across the topic of evolution, and it sparked many years of reading and thinking. I finally came to the conclusion that evolution is an observable fact that we see in nature, and that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the best theory that we have at this time to explain this observation. And I slowly realised that humans were not exempt from this process.

What finally convinced me? Read on . . .

Next post: Science = absolute truth?
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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama: the end of pure culture?

I never thought I would live to see an African American becoming president of the United States. The fact that Barack Obama was voted in as the next president of a country with a turbulent racial history, and where African Americans are in the minority, is an event of such historical magnitude that I think it will take some time before anyone grasps its full significance.

What do the results of these US elections signify? I think that, for the United States, this was a result of an entire nation thirsting for new, inspiring leadership. But I think, on a broader scale, that election result signifies a major cultural change that has been occurring for some time.

I think that Obama represents the world as it is today. When you walk through any of the large cities, let it be London, New York, or Johannesburg, you quickly notice how cosmopolitan they are: the many different cultures, languages and religions; millions of individuals with differing life stories, interacting together in the incredibly large melting pot that is the modern world. Obama represents the Spanish born woman whose parents immigrated from Algeria; the English born man whose mother is Irish and his father Turkish; the Rwandan child of both Hutu and Tutsi decent; and the marriage of an atheist husband and Christian wife.

I wonder if Obama represents the fact that, in this day and age, there is no longer such a thing as pure culture or belief, or an absolute, one sided way of thinking and doing things. If the modern world has done anything in recent times, it has blurred the lines of demarcation between different languages, worldviews, religious beliefs, and ways of thinking. The old colonial view of separation, which frequently used violence to protect a certain view of ‘superior’ culture and to force this culture on others, has been slowly replaced by a world where many people are starting to cross historical boundaries to interact with others. Could it be that this paradigm shift has been growing for some time, but only now – through the election of Obama – it is finally represented at the highest level of leadership?

Obama might fail in his presidency; he might only serve one term and be replaced by someone much more mundane. But the fact that he was voted in to begin with is a sign that major cultural changes are afoot. And these changes will continue in all spheres of society long after Obama leaves office.

I am excited that Obama is the next president of the United States. But more than that, I am excited to be living in this time of cultural change.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 2)

Part 2: The first sparks of realisation

It was my very first university lecture. I remember it so clearly. It was a bright morning in February 1996, the time was around 8:00AM, and the subject was Zoology.

Like all other first year students, I was a bright eyed and naive, ready to tackle the ivory tower of tertiary education on my first day. As we settled down in the lecture theatre, the lecturer walked in. The students grabbed their newly sharpened pencils and waited for the lecture to begin. There was a moment of silence as the lecturer wiped the blackboard clean, and when he turned around he said, quite loudly (and I kid you not, these were his first words): "Ladies and gentlemen, there is one thing I want to make clear before I start: evolution is a fact." We were caught by surprise, and I remember sensing a few of the students squirming uncomfortably in their seats. He then began his lecture, the first of my university career.

That is how university approached the subject of evolution: uncompromisingly and without apologies. Evolution was taught as a strongly supported theory. As a first year student who was never fully exposed to evolution at school, I battled with it. All my life I had believed that evolution was not true, and that the creation story in the Bible was valid. If I look back now, my beliefs at the time had 'evolved' in high school from young-earth creationism to something that resembled ideas advocated by old-earth creationists like Hugh Ross: that the earth is indeed millions of years old; that humans were created by God separate from other species; that Adam and Eve did indeed exist; and that evolution was false.

But university seemed to put the spanner in the works where these beliefs were concerned. My beliefs regarding origins were starting to shake. As I wrote in my last post, many people who I grew up with considered evolution as an attack on Christianity and their personal faith. As a child I was taught that we as Christians had to constantly be on guard against evolution because it had the power to erode and weaken our faith. So my feelings regarding evolution during my first year at university were feelings of uncertainty and fear.

But the struggle was soon to end. . .

Next post: The golden thread
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 1)

Part 1: The infusion of creationism

I was never taught evolution in school. Not once in my school career did I read the word 'evolution' in a textbook; not once did I hear it formally mentioned in any Biology lesson. Although it was taught in a few South African schools during the 1980s and 1990s, evolution did not feature in the official syllabus. After all, within apartheid's Christian National Education system, religiously controversial topics were often ignored.

But the creation account in Genesis, although not taught in Biology, was covered in Bible Study classes that were compulsory for all students at the time. It was also widely accepted by many of the teachers who taught me; I grew up in a relatively conservative town, and most of my teachers held conservative views. I still remember our Grade 7 Geography teacher telling us that the theory of continental drift could not be true because it contradicted Genesis. So as a child I believed in the seven day creation account, simply because that's the only account that I was ever exposed to.

The only time I remember evolution being discussed in school was during a Grade 12 Biology lesson in which the teacher declared her belief that microevolution occurred, but that macroevolution was impossible. She also went on to say that Darwin, on his deathbed, had whispered, with his last breath, that his theory was wrong and had been a mistake (this myth is known as the Lady Hope Story).

And we believed her. After all, she was an excellent teacher, and despite her stand regarding evolution, she encouraged me, and many other students, to excel in Biology as a subject. I'm grateful to her because she sparked my initial interest in the life sciences. As I think back now to that day in class, I find it a pity, for if she believed differently she would have done a sterling job at teaching the fundamentals of natural selection.

So I knew very little about evolution. All that I believed was some truth and plenty of myth: that Charles Darwin was the one who proposed the idea, that he said that we had descended from apes (another common myth), and as a result God could not exist. Evolution as a subject was seldom discussed, and as a result opinions were based largely on hearsay. As a result, evolution was grossly misunderstood.

And as with any subject that is not well understood and seldom talked about, evolution often induced fear in many people. Evolution, within the context of the particular environment I grew up in, was seen as a threat, an attempt to discredit the church and God.

And I was soon to become a victim of this fear . . .

Next post: The first sparks of realisation
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Evolution and Me

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (index)

Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the theory of evolution has been, and still is, a subject of intense debate. From the Scopes 'monkey' trial of Tennessee in 1925, to recent debates on Intelligent Design, the subject of evolution has probably been the most hotly discussed scientific theory in modern history. I used to be a creationist, in a sense, but over the years my beliefs have shifted towards evolution. Over the next month or so I will focus on my own personal journey of how I came to accept evolution, and outline what convinced me in the end.

I cover my personal story in the following posts:

I briefly tackle the question of what is science in:

These are followed by the following posts outlining the evidence that finally convinced me:

Finally, I end off with:

  • Part 17: The convergence of evidence

However, before I begin, I want to stress three points:

First, I believe the theory of evolution by natural selection does not disprove that a god (or gods) exists. In fact, there are many Christians who accept the theory of evolution; it doesn’t pose a threat to their faith at all.

Secondly, I did not reach my current belief in evolution because I had problems with Christianity. Nor was it the cause of me losing my faith.

Third, contrary to what some might believe, I did not adopt evolution as an excuse for adopting an 'immoral atheistic' lifestyle. Rather, I accepted the theory of evolution because the evidence for it seems so overwhelming.

But what did I believe before I accepted evolution? I will cover this in my next post.

Next post: The infusion of creationism.