Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The End of Evolution?

Albert Mohler wonders if we aren't at the "end of evolution." Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a widely quoted voice within the Christian right. In a recent post he takes off on a tangent ride over a news report about the British geneticist Steven Jones who made international headlines by wondering out loud if human evolution hasn't been stalled. You can read more about Jones and his views over at Scienceblogs here.

Mohler sandwiches this report between a commentary on evolution including these two paragraphs:
The evolutionist is locked into an intellectual box from which there is no rescue. Evolutionary theory is naturalistic by necessity -- everything must be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Only nature can explain nature, and there is no other source of meaning or truth. Thus, in the end the theory of evolution -- and the theory of evolution alone -- must explain everything about humanity.

Evolutionary theory cannot possibly explain the totality of human experience, much less the reality of human origins. Evolutionists -- if consistent -- believe that every human experience, every emotion, every physical attribute, every hope, and every fear is simply a feature developed by means of natural selection.
I think it is worth pointing out first that the science of evolution is not unique among the sciences in looking to nature, and nature alone, to explain nature. Every science does this. In fact this is the whole point - to understand and explain the workings of nature by studying nature. As opposed to looking to the heavens or scriptures or holy men or tea leaves for the answers. I suspect Mohler takes full advantage of the benefits of this practice in his daily life: he checks the weather forecast before going out or traveling, he takes his kids to the doctor if they are sick, he drives a car and flies in a plane. The benefits brought to us by scientists studying nature are many.

Most Christians are long past the point of arguing about whether they ought to be taking their kids to the doctor when they are ill - as opposed to just praying for their healing. But many are still fighting a rear-guard action when it comes to the sciences that seem to challenge the biblical teachings regarding the beginnings of life on earth and humanity's place on the earth. Evolution is one of those lightning-rod sciences. Some see the story of human evolution on the planet over several hundred thousand years as a threat to their literal reading of human beginnings according to the Bible. Others worry that evolution with its "selfish genes" leaves no room for spirituality or beauty or meaning in life.

Mohler likely takes issue with evolution on both those grounds, but he accuses it in this piece of being unable to fully explain the "totality of human experience." I have a couple of thoughts about this.

One is that Christian reflection on the human experience has been going on for roughly 2000 years. That reflection, ancient as it is, was built on the scaffolding of earlier work by Jewish and pagan writers whose work goes back several millennium before the time of Jesus. It is fair to say Christianity has had a huge head start over evolutionary science in thinking about and explaining the workings and meaning of the human experience.

It is also fair to say that some of that ancient scaffolding is looking pretty weak today. At least since 1608 when Galileo trained his telescope on the night sky and saw that the night lights were not fixed to the firmament nor heavenly spirits but stars like our sun and planets like our earth, the biblical scaffolding that explained the workings of our universe has been crumbling. And the church has been resisting or rethinking every doctrine and article of faith built on that scaffolding ever since. Virtually every new discovery in science weakens or breaks some piece of the ancient scaffolding and forces a decision. Do we resist or re-think?

Among the sciences, evolutionary theory is only in its infancy. Darwin published his writings in the mid-1800's. Most early work in evolutionary theory was based on the kind of careful observations that Darwin did with his finches, and the piecing together of the fossil record via archeological discoveries. But it is only in recent decades that advances in a whole range of fields from genetics to brain science to radio-carbon dating and earth sciences has made possible significant strides in closing the "missing links" in evolutionary theory. Our knowledge of evolution is expanding exponentially. Imagine what another 100 years of scientific research and reflection is going to bring us. Imagine what evolutionary theory is going to look like in 2000 years. Does anyone seriously believe that evolutionary theory won't be able to explain "human experience, every emotion, every physical attribute, every hope, and every fear" as a product of evolution?

I think it is naive in the extreme to think that science is going to quit doing what science does best: understand and explain the world in terms of nature. I think it is also naive to believe that "evolutionists" won't eventually succeed in giving us an incredibly rich and complete picture of the evolutionary makeup of our universe including us. There will be no "need" to look outside of nature to understand how we got here and why we do the things we do.

Evolutionary theory and its related disciplines will almost certainly be able to explain why it is that our "selfish genes" evolved in such a way that we care about beauty and spirituality and each other. But it won't - apart from some kind of genetic engineering - make us be able to care about beauty and spirituality and each other.

This is where our scriptures with their ancient reflections on meaning and morality play their part. They are of no use to us as scientific manuals. But they do have something to say about beauty and spirituality and morality. They are hardly perfect in this area. They got some things wrong here too. Or it would be better to say that you can see within them an ongoing reflection around these issues and an evolution in thinking about them. For Christians this evolution is captured succinctly in Jesus' sayings "You have heard that it was said, but I say to you..."

As Christians we should welcome the findings of evolution and earth sciences and cosmology. There can be absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to know everything about us that can be known. Learning sits at the very center of deep spirituality. We once learned it "this way" (you have heard that it was said), but now we know differently (but I say to you). This is not to say that there aren't uses and misuses of scientific knowledge that shouldn't be challenged.

I think we should also recognize the likely reality that more and more people are going to be looking for a spirituality - a Christianity - that is completely at home in the natural world. Supernatural, other-worldly understandings of God and Jesus aren't going to cut it. Christians like Mohler will be fighting a rear-guard action for a long time. Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world are still living very much within a pre-scientific frame of mind. It is going to take time.

But going forward I believe progressive Christian communities and fellow-travelers within other faith traditions need to concentrate our efforts on what it means to have and create abundant life here on this planet. It begins with alleviating suffering and taking much better care of the planet. It includes creating more just and peaceful families and communities and countries. It also involves a flourishing of the kind of life that evolution has made it possible for us to see as valuable: music, arts, dance, poetry, etc.

Meaning and beauty and the moral life can all be found here in all their fullness. This is not a threatening piece of knowledge. It is a challenging piece of knowledge for us to make happen.


Drew Tatusko said...

"Thus, in the end the theory of evolution -- and the theory of evolution alone -- must explain everything about humanity."

What an odd conclusion. It is either a) ignorant of what evolution is designed to explain or b) inventing a straw-man. Evolution doesn't need to explain anything either. What it does is explain change and mutations over time in various things. I have read a few other things from Mohler on science as well and I am convinced he just does not get it or refuses to understand what science actually does.

liberal pastor said...

Thanks, Drew, for your comment. My guess is he refuses to understand what science does just as he refuses to understand what the Bible does not do - give us a science textbook.

We have have had this conversation before - or else I am just having a deja vu moment - but I see in your bio that you live near my hometown of Martinsburg, PA, where my parents still reside.

Drew Tatusko said...

Martinsville eh? Great minds do dome from South Central PA! :-)