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?
Return to the table of contents for Evolution and Me


Lui said...

Great stuff, Kevin. I'm looking forward to your next installment.

I think that learning about evolution should be an absolutely essential part of modern education. It binds together all of biology, and gives it a real depth and coherence that it would otherwise lack. It also gives us a more sober realisation of our own place in the universe and our connection to the rest of the living world. Many see this realisation as a threat, but personally I think there is great beauty and wonder in it. That we're related to the rest of the living world, including the most simple organisms, is something to rejoice, not fear.

CyberKitten said...

lui said: That we're related to the rest of the living world, including the most simple organisms, is something to rejoice, not fear.

Agree 100%. Maybe if more people realised just how much we are related to all other life on Earth we wouldn't be so casual about it going extinct because of our actions.

Chris said...

There is no such thing as an Ex-Christian.A Chritian, to not a Christian, would be like a reversal in the metamophosis process of the butterfly returning to a lowly cattipiller. This is scientifically impossible. Therefore your headline on your blog is just a theory. Much like evolution.

Lui said...

"Much like evolution."

Hi Chris. You should understand three things here.

The first is that the word "theory" is used in a different sense in scientific understanding to what it is in common everyday parlance. To be sure, scientists do often refer to each other's guesses and conjectures as theories, but the term has a technical meaning that is understood by everyone within the scientific community when they talk about, for example, the theory of evolution. A theory is an edifice that binds together disparate facts about the word and relates them to one another. Theories are not in opposition to facts; the two are not extremes along a spectrum. Evolution is a theory; it is also a fact, because it has been so overwhelmingly corroborated by so many observations and is predictions have been vindicated on so many occasions that it can no longer be reasonably doubted. Saying that one doesn't accept evolution is rather like saying that one doesn't accept chemistry. It really is that important to biology. Without evolution, biology would just be a mass of unrelated facts about the world, with no common thread to bind everything together, as Kevin has alluded to. The really important questions in biology are now not about whether evolution occurs, but exactly how it occurs. After Darwin, many biologists came to see natural selection as the most important - perhaps the only really significant - process in evolution. Nowadays, there is great controversy over the role and importance of many factors and mechanisms involved, and the speed with which evolution happens. Open the latest scientific journal, and you will find debate on genetic drift, horizontal gene transfer, sympatric speciation, punctuated equilibrium, the role of sexual selection, the importance of selfish genetic elements, and so on. But THAT evolution occurs, and has occurred, is close to being about the most stringently scrutinised fact in the entirety of science. There's really no getting away from that.

The second point is that there are plenty of other bodies of knowledge that are "theories" in exactly the same sense as evolution is, but that are taken for granted even by those who lack much knowledge of science. Continental drift is an an example. Einstein's theory of general relativity is another. So are atomic theory and quantum mechanics. These have all been corroborated by many lines of independent evidence that have yielded facts that are what we would expect them to be if these theories provide reasonably approximations to reality.

The third point is that your claim of there being no such thing as an ex-Christian is transparently fatuous. If someone told you that there is no such thing as an ex-Muslim, you would righfully laugh it off as obvious nonsense. There is no reason why Christianity is immune to this. You will probably object that Christianity does things for an individual that cannot be undone, or that it allows one to gain entry into a hitherto unknown realm. The Muslim, incidentally, and with no less (or more) warrant, will explain things in exactly the same terms.

chris said...

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? By chance? Pure happenstance?

CyberKitten said...

chris said: I just recently had a son. The process of conception to delivery is very beautiful.

Not always!

chris said: Do you really believe in your heart that the "designs" or the "creation" that you use big words for, happened without a creator?


chris said: By chance? Pure happenstance?

No. The opposite of planned is not random but unplanned. Evolution is directionless but not the product purely of chance events. That's why its called Evolution by Natural *Selection*.

Lui said...

Exactly: selection is an inherently non-random process. The introduction of novelty through mutation is random, but the process that automatically and consequentially preserves the novelty is non-random.