Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Evolution: Bummed or Inspired?

I grabbed this from Jim McGrath's blog.
James adds:

I can't imagine anyone taking seriously in any other discipline a demand that a viewpoint that has produced no genuine results, made no contributions to our understanding, and in so many other ways failed to pass scholarly muster. I hope that any educators who do mention ID will show the picture below. The only way to accurately "teach the controversy" is to explain to students why, among experts in biology, paleontology, genetics, and other relevant disciplines, there isn't one.

We are moving beyond the "controversy" with our weekend coming up. Michael Dowd's book, Thank God for Evolution assumes evolutionary theory and then asks, what does it mean? What does it mean for us existentially whether we are religious or not?

In Michael's latest post, he responds to a challenge from an atheist. I recommend the challenge and Michael's response. First, the challenge:

You seem to set up evolution as a beneficial and even beautiful thing for life on Earth. Though I accept that it exists, I think it's a horrible thing. I can't get past what's involved in the mechanism of evolution. Death, pain, cruelty, domination. Those are the things that push evolution forward. What more horrible system could there be? It certainly proves that there is no sentient being that could be considered a loving god. If there were, the world and life would be completely different than they are now. I can see no benevolent master plan.
And Michael's response:
...nowhere in my book do I suggest, or even imply, that there is a force, intelligence, or consciousness outside the Universe (or within it, for that matter) that is pulling strings or making evolution go in a benevolent direction....

When I make the case for chaos and "bad news" catalyzing evolutionary creativity, I'm not suggesting that a Supreme Being or divine intelligence is intending favorable outcomes. Rather, I am simply pointing out the demonstrable fact that how we choose to interpret reality and life’s events profoundly affects the quality of our existence—and that this is just as true collectively as it is individually.

In my book, I mention that many, including myself, have found the mantra "the Universe is conspiring on my behalf" to be an exceedingly useful outlook in most situations. That is, when I act as if this were true, I love my life. I do not, however, suggest that this interpretation is “The Truth.” It is a statement of subjective meaningfulness, not objective truth. And there are plenty of studies that show that those who hold such an outlook live happier, healthier, longer lives. As the great philosopher and father of American pragmatism, William James, wrote in his book Pluralistic Universe, “From a pragmatic point of view, the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.”

Michael makes a critically important point here. Theology, myth-making, meaning-making, or what he calls "night language" must correspond to observation and theory or "day language" or else it makes no sense. But it cannot be confused with day language. The task of theology and meaning-making is to make our lives more fulfilled with the reality we face. The reality we face is shown to us through modern cosmology and evolution. We can choose to be bummed about it or to be inspired.


  1. Perhaps you'd enjoy one of these "Teach the Controversy" t-shirts!

    Personally I love the one with Satan burying fossils. :)

  2. Awesome, Alan! Thanks! I bought two shirts for my brother, an AP Physics teacher here on the buckle of the bible belt.

  3. Excellent. As a chemist, I of course own the "periodic table" one. :)

  4. I find it really interesting to see how this Atheist makes the same mistake about how evolution works as his fundamentalist counter-parts. Evolution does not work through death or extinction or any kind of domination. If no animal or plant ever died, we would still see evolution. There would just be more varieties of species still around. Everything would still evolve as each generation has genetic adaptations to better fit the environment (of course we'd have a bit of a population problem and some different results, but that is another story). For example, primates didn't stop existing just because Humans came into existence. Sometimes the environmental constraints end the survival of one species, sometimes they don't (it may end us yet!).

    Evolution is not about extinction or "survival of the fittest" (an unfortunate and misguided term). Evolution is descent with modification. Evolution is about how life survives and continues to thrive and adapt to changing circumstances. I think Michael Dowd is on to something. Evolution is a beautiful story!

    We need more evolution education. That goes for Christians and Atheists!

  5. I really appreciate Steven Jay Gould's use of the word "contingency" when talking about evolution. I first encountered it in the documentary series A Glorious Accident.

    It helped me a great deal, I think, to understand how things "work".

  6. Thanks all! I gotta get a t-shirt.

    We need more evolution education. That goes for Christians and Atheists!

    Mike, you are singing my song!