Saturday, February 6, 2010

Darwin Night in Didsbury

Presentation by Ian Kellogg at Knox United Church
Didsbury, AB, November 24, 2009


Welcome and purpose

Welcome to Darwin Night in Didsbury! My name is Ian Kellogg, and I am a student minister here at Knox this year. I am really pleased that you have come to tonight's presentation on Charles Darwin, and to engage in a discussion about science and religion. Let us start by taking a moment to look at the outline of the presentation . . . [next slide]

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Many people consider this book to be the most influential science book of all time. Darwin's Origin described a  mechanism by which living species of plants and animals changed over time and evolved into new species. His idea of evolution through natural selection showed that life on earth had evolved over billions of years from a single, simple source through a process of random mutations. These random changes led to today's wondrous biosphere made up of millions of different species living in all possible habitats and showing a huge range of complex and intricate behaviour.

In 1859, when Darwin published his argument, there were two main gaps in his science. First there was no consensus at that time about how old the earth is. And second there was no science to explain how a mutation in a parent could be passed on and preserved in its offspring. While some geologists and fossil-hunters had speculated for generations that the earth was immensely old, the theories of radioactivity and nuclear physics, which explain how the sun can burn for five billion years and still not run out of fuel, had not been developed by 1859. So it was possible for prominent physicists to confront Darwin with the idea that the sun and the earth could not possibly be old enough for his mechanism of natural selection of random mutations to have had enough time in which, slowly and imperceptibly, the evolution of the wild diversity of life we see around us could happen.

Darwin also did not know of the theory of genetics of Gregor Mendel, which would not become widely known in biology until after the year 1900.

But since 1940, when the sciences of astronomy, nuclear physics and geology had confirmed that the universe is more than 10 billion years old and that the earth is more than four billion years old; and when the science of genetics showed how modified characteristics are passed down and preserved from parents to children; virtually all biologists have accepted and embraced Darwin's science. And since the 1950s, the discovery of DNA has made the unity of all of life -- from the smallest bacteria to the most complex mammals -- even more clear. In fact, the history of evolution is written in the genetic code in each and every one of the trillions of cells in our bodies, and in the cells of every other living organism on the face of the earth . . . [next slide]

Here is a brief outline of Darwin's explanation of evolution by means of natural selection. First, in any given generation, many more individuals are born that can possibly survive in their given environment. This leads to a struggle for existence. Second, each individual offspring has at least some slight, random differences from its parents. Third, a few individuals will possess differences that give them a competitive advantage, and these individuals will tend to reproduce more successfully than those which lack those variations. Fourth, offspring usually preserve the modified characteristics that had made their parents successful in the reproductive struggle. Fifth, the process of preserving favourable genetic modifications in the struggle for existence, will, over time, lead to modified species. And sixth, when groups of plants or animals become physically separated, they sometimes become so modified from each other that they become different species. In this way, since the origin of life on earth four billion years ago, the vast complexity of biological life has evolved . . . [next slide]

Darwin's book was an immediate best-seller, and it has remained so ever since. But it was also accompanied by controversy. In particular, it was seen as an insult to the uniqueness of humanity as the only self-conscious and spiritual species; and it was also seen as an attempt to refute the literal truth of the Bible, especially the two accounts of the origins of the earth and life in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. The controversy about Darwin's science became a watershed, and it helped clarify the boundaries between science and religion.

Today some Christians and Muslim leaders do not accept biology as valid. They argue that sciences like biology, geology, and astronomy should not be taught in schools. Instead, our children should be taught that the solar system, the earth, the continents, life, and the various species of plants and animals did not evolve over billions of years via natural mechanisms. Rather, they were all created in one instant a few thousand years ago by a supernatural act of God and have remained unchanged ever since.

My hope tonight is that we can discuss the challenge that science in general, and Darwin's science of evolution in particular, present to our image of God and our approach to the books of the Bible. To do so, I will briefly outline Darwin's life, look at the links between religion and science before 1859, describe the initial reception of Darwin's book, and close with some thoughts on science and religion today. After that, the floor will be open for discussion, questions and comments.

But first a bit about me. Before coming to Didsbury in September as a student minister, I completed two of three years of study for a Masters of Divinity degree at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto. This past winter and spring I took two courses on Darwinism: one a Theology course called "God and Darwin" and the second a History course called "Natural Theology and Evolutionary Theory in the Nineteenth Century." Darwin has been a passion of mine since I was a child, and I am really pleased to be able to make this presentation tonight. I must hasten to add, however, that I am not a scientist; rather I am a theology student and prospective minister with an interest in biology, Darwinism, and controversies surrounding science and religion . . . [next slide]

Life of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was born into a rich and distinguished family near London England on February 12, 1809. 2009 is not only the 150 anniversary of the publication of his most important book, it is also the 200th anniversary of his birth. For these two reasons, 2009 is called by many the Year of Darwin; and it explains why you see articles on Darwin like those this past Saturday in the Calgary Herald or TV series like "Darwin's Brave New World" on CBC earlier this month.

As a young man, Darwin first thought that he might become a doctor. But when he found out that he didn't have the stomach for that, he spent a few years studying to become a priest in the Anglican church. Then at age 22, he began a five-year sea voyage around the world as the naturalist and gentleman companion for the ship's captain on the HMS Beagle. It was his contact on this voyage with the strange lifeforms in South America, New Zealand, and Australia that propelled Darwin to the studies that eventually led to the idea of evolution by means of natural selection. Upon his return to England, Darwin married one of his cousins. He became well known in scientific circles for his writings on his voyage on the Beagle. And he retired to a country estate to raise a large family and pursue his scientific experiments and thinking.

Even though Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1842 and wrote a long paper outlining it in 1844, he didn't publish his book Origins for another 15 years. He delayed because he was afraid. Evolution was a subject that had been in the air for decades. In fact, Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin wrote tracts and poems on evolution, though none of these ideas came with a solid and testable hypothesis for how biological life could have changed through time.

But it was the cultural climate of the 1840s that frightened Darwin. It was a decade that saw another in a series of conservative reactions that swept Great Britain in the 19th Century; and one of its targets was evolutionary thought. Great Britain's rulers had been badly frightened by the French Revolution starting in 1789. In particular,  Napoleon's French army in the early 1800s defeated every empire in Europe except for Britain. Also, in the 1840s Britain was dealing with the rise of its first radical trade union movement, the Chartists. The Chartists organized strikes against the inhumanity of the Industrial Revolution. The scientific, religious and government establishments all banded together to argue that the status quo could not be changed; that society and nature were both just fine as they were; that God had ordained that Britain should be the most powerful nation in the world; and that the British ruling class would always lord it over the lower classes. So this was not a good time for a scientist to put forward ideas about how natural selection might lead to radical changes in animals and plants over long stretches of history.

But eventually, Darwin felt forced to publish his book. In particular, he was shocked in 1858 when a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him a paper that detailed a theory of evolution by means of natural selection that was very close to Darwin's own ideas. Also by 1859, Europe was no longer in revolution, prosperity was back, and the trade union movement was much less radical than in 1844. So Darwin finally risked publishing his book 150 years ago today.

Origins sold well, but it did have a rough reception among some of the religious elite and among other scientists. Over time, Darwin and his followers succeeded in convincing most fellow scientists that natural selection was a reasonable mechanism to explain biological change over time. And as I said a few minutes ago, by the 100th anniversary of its publication 50 years ago, the ideas in Origins had been vindicated by developments in geology, nuclear physics and genetics. Darwin had been proven right in science, and it was the same in much of the rest of our culture, including among most Christians . . . [next slide]

Science and religion before 1859

In the years leading up to 1859, science and religion were closely allied. Science had been on the upswing for several hundred years -- this was the age of Enlightenment when European thought was freed from medieval thought. The Enlightenment began with the recovery of the science of the world of ancient Greece and Rome -- the writings of Plato and Aristotle on philosophy, Ptolemy on astronomy, Hippocrates on medicine and so on. Then came the scientific revolution of the 1600s and 1700s. This revolution argued that human reason and logic, by using careful and controlled observations, testable hypotheses, and continual debate, could come to understand more and more how the world worked. Each generation stood upon and improved the thinking of the past.

Based upon the physics of Newton, the astronomy of Galileo, and the works of untold other scientists, a new civilization of technology and industry was growing. Science helped the European powers conquer the world, and science was becoming the new measuring rod for the good life.

But where did God stand in this new world of scientific observation, hypothesis, testing, and debate?  Natural science, the study of life, became particularly important for many Christians. Surely nothing could better illustrate the power and goodness of God as Creator, it was argued, than the wonders of biological life? Who else but an omnipotent, supernatural designer could have created a world of such intricate interconnections, beauty and complexity? The more that botanists, chemists and zoologists unveiled the complexities of animals and plants, the more certain that people in the early 19th Century became that God existed and that God was good.

This was called the Argument from Design. The classic expression of the Argument from Design goes like this: if you stumble upon a pocket-watch in the middle of a forest and it successfully keeps track of time, you know immediately that the watch did not come about by accident. Such a watch can only be the result of intelligent design. Under no possible set of circumstances could a pocket watch just "come to be" or evolve through the random motions of wind and weather, or plants and animals. Since the watch exists, we can be confident that the designer of the watch must also exist, even if we can't see him. The same thing applies to the natural world. When we see a butterfly landing on a flower or an antelope running across the plain, it is also clear that behind such beautiful and complex creatures there must lie a Creator. Because we see and know nature, we can also be confident that behind it likes a divine Creator -- the God of the Bible.

Darwin turned all of this thinking on its ear . . . [next slide]

Impact of Darwin's science

Darwin's ideas show how incredibly complexity can arise naturally over time -- through natural selection between random variations in the struggle for existence of life. The complexity of life only appears to be the product of an intelligent designer. Given enough time, the successive copying of information between parents and children, with slight "typos" introduced into each generation, will produce the wonders and complexities of all life forms.

Anyone who has ever copied a large text by hand, knows that the copies almost always contain at least a few errors. The reproduction of living organisms involves continual and massive amounts of copying. And since 1950, we have known that the copying in reproduction is the replication of incredibly long strands of DNA molecules. Since reproduction involves copying, it also involves copying errors. Most copying errors have either no effect on the offspring or they have a negative effect. But in a tiny percentage of the errors, the errors give an advantage to the modified offspring.

The lucky offspring that come with favourable copying errors, reproduce more successfully than their competitors. And so life slowly evolves.

Religion had existed for thousands of years before the rise of the Age of Science. But by 1850, a new grounding for religion had been found right within science. Unfortunately for people captivated by the Argument from Design, Darwin's thinking upended this grounding. The same process occurred with other sciences, such as astronomy, geology, and chemistry; but the idea that stars, chemical elements, the earth, and the continents had evolved through natural means over billions of years did not have the same emotional upset as did Darwinian biology probably because life is more precious to us than rocks and stars.

Nevertheless, all of these sciences show that the natural world has a history; that the world and the universe have evolved from simplicity to complexity over billions of years; and that this evolution does not require divine action, but can be explained by natural and mechanical processes.

There were several possible responses to Darwin's science. One was to deny the science, which was the option adopted by fundamentalism. Another was to abandon religion and belief in God altogether and become agnostic or atheist. And a third option was to look for the roots of religion and belief in God in something other than our scientific understanding of how life or the cosmos or the planet works. I will close this presentation by looking at these three responses  . . . [next slide]

Science and religion today

Science continues to be a dominant force in our society, our economy, our thinking, and in our culture. When Darwin was developing his ideas, there was not yet a clear separation between science and religion. For example, physicists like Newton often looked to nature in order to prove that God existed.

Today, it is quite different. One of the key tenets of science is that only natural causes and forces can be investigated by science. If a scientist develops an hypothesis that involves supernatural actors or action, he or she has stepped out of the bounds of science. For instance, if there are three competing ideas as to why a disease occurs -- one that the disease results from bacterial infection, a second that it results from a disorder in the immune system and a third that says it results from the evil actions of the Devil -- the third hypothesis, while it might be the correct one (who knows?), cannot be considered by scientists. Hypotheses that involve the actions of supernatural agents like the Devil are out of the bounds of the science of medicine.

Ever since humans came to consciousness and began wondering about religious questions, we have imagined that there are at least two worlds -- the natural world that we can see and in which we live; and a supernatural world of gods and goddesses. Over time religions like Christianity have come to imagine the supernatural as containing just one supreme God. Often God is imagined as living outside of the natural universe in a supernatural realm called heaven, which is also peopled by the souls of those who have died and angels, and archangels. And all of this is quite valid in religion and theology. But for the last 150 years or so, it has no longer been valid for science to speculate about the supernatural.

Scientific work, through observation, hypotheses that can be tested, public debate, repeatable experiments, and other activities has given humanity a much better understanding of the natural world over the past 500 years. This is not to say that science has solved all the mysteries of life or the universe; or that humanity will ever understand everything we would like to understand. Life and death remain mysteries, and they will surely always remain mysteries to us and to all of our successors.

In particular, three big questions come to my mind when I think about important question that remain outside of the reach of human science: 1) the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago; 2) the origin of the first life on earth four billion years ago; and 3) the origin and the nature of human consciousness. It is not that scientists haven't tried to tackle these questions or that their work doesn't help us talk about such questions. But these questions are so fundamental and so difficult, it seems likely that no consensus will every emerge.

The importance of the third of those questions -- human consciousness -- helps explain, I believe, some of the anger felt by some religious thinkers towards evolutionary biology. Darwin's biology makes plain that humans are animals; that we are just another species, and in important respects that we are not that different from apes or snakes,  plants or bacteria. And at at one level, I think we have to agree with this assessment. Humans are animals -- albeit very complex and wonderful animals. Specifically we are apes of the genus primates.

But humans are also unique among the whole web of life. We are the only species in which very high levels of consciousness have appeared.  We are the only species that has evolved language, culture, science and religion. It might be possible to say of some other complex mammals, such as dolphins or elephants, that they have spirits and a complex consciousness. But the spiritual and conscious life of humans is of a different order than any other species. In this sense, science does not contradict the statement in Genesis that humanity is created in God's image. If God is seen as Spirit, then humans are the only animals that can be said to participate in the divine life since we are clearly conscious and spiritual beings. Another way to say this is: one can subscribe to Darwinism and still remain aware that humanity is different and more sacred in crucial ways than any other form of life on earth.

This still leaves the question of what kind of God we imagine in the face of scientific discoveries. Humans used to believe that earthquakes and hurricanes were cased by the actions of God. Sacred stories of all religions tell of God continually intervening in human affairs, leading his chosen people to victory in battle, arranging for their defeat when they disobey him, and so on.

Many of us no longer believe in a God who overrides natural laws to act in human history. We don't look to the weather to discern if God is angry or pleased with us. We don't take victory or defeat in battle as signs of God's feelings towards us. But what, then, does it mean to hold life, justice, peace and love as sacred; and to believe that God is Love and the Spirit that animates each of us and the whole of the universe, but at the same time to believe that God is not an actor who intervenes in history? If history is just evolution controlled by natural mechanisms, why worship at all?

This leads me back to the three options I mentioned a while ago: 1) you can conclude from science and technology that God does not exist and nothing in this life is sacred. Or two, you can conclude that science is wrong-headed and that the Bible contains not only powerful stories that help us shape our prayer life, our communal ethics, and what we hold sacred in the world; but that it also includes all we need to know about astronomy, geology, or biology. Or third, you can conclude that God, the Bible, the stories of Jesus as the Christ, worship, and our work as Christians can exist alongside of sciences such as Darwinian biology. (There are surely other options, which people can raise in a minute in discussion if we want).

I choose the third option. We  live in a scientific age, and like most people in a technological society, I trust and accept the results of the various natural sciences as important windows into our world. But trusting a science like biology does not mean that I feel compelled to abandon Christianity.

I certainly have a different image of what is meant by the supernatural than would a Christian living 500 or 1000 or 1500 years ago. I am not even sure that one needs to believe in the supernatural anymore in order to be a Christian. It may well be possible to worship the God as Father, Christ and Spirit, relate to the revealing stories of the books of the Bible, and ascribe sacred values to life and love without speculating about a parallel reality from the natural world.

On the other hand, it may also be true that there exists one or more supernatural universes alongside or above the natural universe that science explores and in which we humans live and worship and serve. But I believe that we are less compelled to speculate about this other supernatural realm today in a culture saturated in the findings of science and technology.

Indeed,  the questions that have most drawn me in my training in ministry so far have not been about supernaturalism. Instead, they have been to understand what love might be, since God is love; or how the Bible and our tradition itself has evolved over history; or how the story of Jesus as the Christ dying to an old way of life and rising to a new one provides the context in which our own personal and collective conversion, repentance and road to salvation can be made clear. All of this might require thinking about or believing in the supernatural. But I find that these questions can also be pursued as a sacred path within the natural world.

This question of the natural versus the supernatural could be one of many things we could talk about in our discussion, but I will close my presentation with that.

Darwin continues to excite and also anger people. His thinking continues to influence religion and culture. And people continue to wonder what his science means for Christian belief and worship. I have enjoyed studying these questions and preparing this lecture. And  I hope this brief talk about Darwin, biology, religion and science has helped bring some questions and comments to your mind. 

Discussion period

So, the floor is now open. Are there questions? Comments? We have lots of time for discussion and I am sure that we would all love to know what is one people's minds. . .

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