Evolution issues

A little previously, I’d made an offhand comment in a post about the religious issues with evolution, and since this is something that’s been apparent in the background of countless forum discussions for years, I thought I’d examine it a little closer.

It comes as no surprise, I suspect, to say that evolution is the single biggest contention to religious folk, at the very least in the US, but predominantly muslim countries suffer from it too. The question is, why evolution? It’s extremely easy to come across numerous religious sources that consistently, oft times vehemently, deny that the evidence for evolution is compelling, usually going so far as to maintain that it’s a vast educational conspiracy or a bastion of scientific dogma. Parents routinely try to pressure schools into reducing or eliminating their reliance on such a concept, or at the very least teaching the “alternate theories.” The tendency to refer to the collected body of knowledge of evolution as a scientific theory has produced the triumphant (yet resolutely ignorant) cries of “Just a theeeory!” from all quarters, and the profuse amount of gross misrepresentation, most of it completely intentional, boggles the mind.

First off, a little tip, offered with some impish anticipation because I know it will mostly be ignored: If you’re the type who uses the arguments, “It’s just a theory,” and “If man descended from monkeys, how come we still have monkeys?” and “How come we never see a half cat, half dog?” – just stop. You’re only announcing your total inability to sit at the grownup table, and being played for a total rube, seriously, by your religious leaders. Google will enlighten you.

Getting back to our topic, we can attempt to explain this rabid animosity towards evolution by observing that it specifically disproves the abrahamic scriptures, mostly in genesis where the creation of the animals, and man, are related. But while this no doubt bears some of the blame, the very same can be said of astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, and to some small extent even geometry, since all of them present evidence that the creation accounts (yes, there’s more than one in genesis) are flat out wrong. But finding someone who rants about geology is next to impossible, while you can’t throw a stone without hitting an evolution denier.

More compelling, perhaps, is the idea that human beings do not hold a special place in the universe, or indeed even on earth, and are just one among many species. This runs against both the basic idea of our being “in god’s image,” since our present state is a relatively recent one, and the idea that we’re somehow removed from the rest of the animal kingdom. While I suppose this is reassuring if you think of animals as “beastly,” and immoral and beholden to primal instincts and all that, this is more a matter of gross misunderstanding about animal behavior (including our own.) It’s fairly inane, when you think about it – knowing about evolution does not in any way suddenly alter what we are or how we act, and whether or not anyone wishes to accept adaptation by natural selection, it’s rather obvious that we possess distinctive traits regarding cognitive functions, the ability to manipulate our environment, abstract visualization, and so on. In other words, our place apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is not going to magically disappear if and when someone accepts natural selection as valid.

The close relation to the great apes may stick in some people’s craws, perhaps. Chimpanzees are silly and funny at the zoo, but often very disgusting and perverted, at least by our standards of behavior, so thinking of them as close relatives may be unsavory. “Close,” however, is relative to the distance we have from all other species – millions of years still separate us, long before we had a spoken language, made tools, or even used clothing. The similarities, noticed long before Darwin came along and expanded with the ability to sequence DNA, are quite compelling, but the differences undeniable as well.

Almost certainly, what it is most about is church influence. Evolution denial has gone through an upsurge in the past three decades or so, and it is very clear that this is being fostered by organized fundamentalism. As we gained a better understanding of nature, through meticulous scientific study, the things attributable to gods became fewer and fewer, which isn’t good for anyone that derives their power from being a mouthpiece for gods. Churches have a vested interest in maintaining the belief in divinity, and perhaps the easiest aspect to exploit is people’s egos. Not to mention that, without souls and even without original sin, the threat of eternal reward or damnation loses effect. As we got to witness with the opportunistic abuse of the “terrorist” card from our administrations in the past decade, the wolf at the door is a commonly-used influence for whatever behavior most benefits someone in power. Without being able to wield fear, leaders would have to make sense instead.

What is particularly damning is the way that such denial is approached. Censorship is a favorite tool, but it has a few problems: one, that is becomes obvious that you’re afraid of the information you’re trying to suppress; and two, that many people already classify censorship as a bad thing. So it’s important to demonize, sometimes literally, the things that will take away your power. Evolution becomes both atheistic, a common label anymore, and immoral, denying the “good standards” that parents want to instill in their children. It takes only a moment of thought to recognize that it represents neither, and has no more to do with them than geology or botany does – but this would require a moment of thought, something that a disturbing amount of people seem unable to spare. Instead, they go with the kneejerk emotional response to the exhortations of their religious leaders, believing that “good” is equitable with “obedience,” something that we still haven’t learned from a few thousand years of history.

There are two things I want to point out that pertain directly to the whole affair. The first is that science is only a methodical process of learning – it is a method of investigating what happens naturally, and seeing what connections and useful processes can be derived. It does not make assertions about how things must be, but demonstrates what is. Evolution was not the pronouncement of the high priest Darwin (who virtually no one had heard of before anyway,) but an orderly set of observations and inferences, much of which was previously in place, at least in part – we had been breeding horses, dogs, roses, and food plants for hundreds of years previously. Making the connections among the pieces into the whole theory was one of those “why didn’t we see that?” moments for countless scientists, and the theory was even duplicated simultaneously by Alfred Russell Wallace – Darwin received the lion’s share of credit simply by beating Wallace to publication. Yet the scientific method categorically requires skepticism of any such pronouncement, and theories remain only because they withstand the scrutiny of others. For 150 years, this has been hundreds of thousands of “others.” Overall, of course, what Darwin observed is easily, and abundantly, found in nature.

This would lead any rational person to ask why it could be found so easily in nature if, indeed, the entire thing was false – the only way to support the idea of fixed, unchanging creation is that the creator intentionally planted deceptive models of adaptive species, throughout even the fossil record. But this is a supposition, an explanation that allows the idea of accurate scripture to be retained, while not even proposed or supported by that scripture, much less by any evidence whatsoever. It speaks of an elaborately deceitful deity, and commensurately to the concept that we should not believe anything about the world (including that it is round and does not possess four corners,) or indeed our own senses. Obviously, there are distinct benefits to paying attention to our surroundings, but much worse for this explanation comes the realization that we interpret scripture through those same senses…

The second point is that worrying about evolution belies a true faith in scriptural accuracy. What do the religious have to fear? If the theory is false, it’s false, and most especially, the value of religion should easily be able to overcome the myths of mankind, right? Yet… what we see is desperation, the anxiety of those who think that evolution makes more sense, is easier to accept, and applies far more accurately and usefully to the world that we inhabit than scripture does. It has been demonized precisely because arguments against its true nature hold little water, and the misinformation that abounds regarding the theory cannot charitably be called an honest mistake. In fact, one of the more ironic aspects of the whole affair now is that learning about evolution will reveal the abundance of outright lies the churches have been spreading. To declare that the churches have never heard responses to such claims before is hopelessly na├»ve – they’ve been around for decades.

What is also quite likely at work is the reluctance to abandon the parent figure, the overseeing, everything-will-be-all-right god that wouldn’t leave its creation fend for itself in competition among other species (see this episode of “But How?”). This is the same childish mindset that fosters global warming denial and the dismissal that we, as a species, could actually overuse our planetary resources and get into a world of hurt. Yet, we have abundant evidence that the intersession of a deity isn’t really a concern, from disasters every year to the constant genocide that we engage in as a species (any “good christians” who think that their religion breeds understanding and tolerance need only talk to their African-American neighbors, or just try to find their Native American neighbors…) There is no shortage of reminders from the religious, mostly in the face of the failure of prayer, that “god helps those who help themselves” and “every prayer is answered, but sometimes the answer is no” – this would seem to say we’re on our own, would it not? The fact that science routinely, and undeniably, saves lives every minute almost certainly indicates that it’s an accepted part of the grand plan, whatever that might be – it also represents far more evidence than what we have ever found for evolution being a hoax from god. I need also mention that if, as I am often told, we “cannot fathom gods plan,” then there is no action or even belief that is not up for grabs (oh, wait – I wasn’t supposed to accept that argument in that way? Damn, my bad.)

There are many ways that we can determine what is “true,” and I put that in quotes because the word is interpreted in such widely disparate ways, two of which I’m about to demonstrate. One way is to examine what is presented to us (scientific studies, scripture, political claims, advertising) and see what applies most effectively to our lives, what works best and dependably, what isn’t contradicted by other information. The other is to seek what makes us feel the best about ourselves or our preconceptions, paying attention only to things that validate our emotions and egos, ignoring contradictory info. The former provides the best chance of giving us accurate information; the latter, while perhaps more satisfying, can easily lead to self-deception and believing in false premises.

The former is science – we only find out information by constantly testing it, questioning it, by specifically not trusting it but having it proved to us instead. The latter is, very often, religion, where select parts are chosen to fit with what we most desire to see. But if we fool ourselves simply for the sake of indulgence, what does this really say about ourselves, or what we consider “truth?” Moreover, how often can it, does it, provide information that actively harms us? And is it really going to serve in our best interests to actively deny and misrepresent any aspect of qualified, proven science because we’re trying to protect religion from its haphazard and contradictory roots?

Finally, if we are so wrapped up in our distinctive differences from “the animals,” then perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid of exercising that one undeniable trait that demonstrates that difference above all others: our brains. Rational thought, and the ability to deal with complex issues, is either an evolved trait or a gift from god – but whichever we accept doesn’t stop us from using our brains in any way. Indulging in base emotions and kneejerk responses? I thought that was what defined those other species?

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