Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A call to a more balanced viewpoint...

This is a very brief blog prompted by something that was said in the 21st Century Lecture today, and has actually been repeated throughout the course on several occasions.

I guess I want to debunk the idea that somehow when Darwin's Origin of Species was published the Church rose up in arms and could not accept it. The excerpt from the article below highlights how the theory of evolution has been used to meet many peoples own personal gains or to prop up different world views. When the Origin of Species was published it was accepted widely amonst the Church. The conflict arose particularly when one man William Bryan campagined heavily against the theory. This creationist movement lost traction in the 1920s but was reinvigorated in the USA in the 1960s.

I feel that often what has been said in lectures regarding this in particular is a consequence of shifting baselines, oversimplification and mis-information. Just because the debate now appears that Christianity and science seem to be at logger-heads does not mean that this has always been this way (as highlighted below in the article). Also, the actual debate itself between christianity and science is much more complex and intertwined than has been presented. I know many professing christians myself who can reconcile their faith with science as a whole and evolution in particular. These arguments are not based on similarily bizarre theories such as 'intelligent design' but on well-founded and well argued viewpoints. If we are to be good conservation practioners who desire to interact with religions (as we have been prompted throughout this course) I propose that we should have a greater understanding of the history and processes that have lead to todays debate, and instead of instantly switching off when we hear the word 'religion' in lectures (due to our own preconceptions or previous experiences), we should approach this subject with an open mind. The importance of looking at the long-term trends in conservation have been highlighted to us during this course, and I suggest we should take a similar stance when considering the origins of the science that we champion and it's interaction with culture, religion and society.

This link (http://www.bethinking.org/science-christianity/) provides many articles on the subject of how science interacts with christianity, and I would recommend you take a look if you want a more balanced view of the debate between science and religion and the history behind it than is given in lectures.

I apologise if this blog is a little fragmented, I've been trying to write it whilst listening to Shonil's lecture!! (sorry Shonil, but I felt I needed to say this!)




If the twentieth century was the century of physics then it seems likely that the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. One of the main reasons for thinking this is the increasing power of molecular genetics to analyse living organisms at the molecular level. The Human Genome Project has obtained a complete sequence of human DNA and the genome sequences of other organisms are now becoming available at an increasing pace. It is already possible to compare the DNA sequence of every human gene with the equivalent gene found in many other species.

Whereas physics has been going through a rather non-mechanistic phase, particularly following the advent of quantum theory, biology is in the midst of the reverse process, in which the focus is on the interactions between molecules, and the way in which these define the properties of the whole organism (‘how genotype determines phenotype in a given environment’). Through the insights of biochemistry and molecular biology, living matter is now amenable to investigation and manipulation in ways which would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. Advances in biology are certainly likely to raise some hot issues for the twenty-first century.

Creation and Evolution[i]

One topic that has more of a nineteenth than a twenty-first century ring to it is that of creation and evolution. Given that nineteenth century Christian thinkers felt that they had given this topic a good airing, and that they had reached some quite satisfactory conclusions which did justice to both science and the Bible, it is rather surprising to note how the debate was revived during the course of the twentieth century and still remains active today. There are some particular historical reasons for this which are of interest.

One reason appears to be Christian reaction in the USA to the horrors of the First World War. The Kaiser’s philosophy of ‘might is right’ in Germany drew heavily on the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a concept which had been introduced into Darwinian theory by Herbert Spencer. Much to Darwin’s disgust, Spencer had popularised evolution during the late nineteenth century as if it represented a grand philosophy for the whole of life, history and human progress, rather than in its straightforward Darwinian form of a biological theory to explain the origins of biological diversity. The fact that Darwinian theory had been utilised to support Germany’s military ambitions was publicised in the USA by several books which had a great influence on William Bryan, a three-time defeated Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, a Presbyterian layman and one of America’s greatest populist reformers of that era[ii]. Bryan tapped into a public concern that militaristic ideas would spread from Europe to America, and that evolution would ‘sap the morality of the nation’s youth’. Armed with such an understanding of the scope of evolution, Bryan proceeded to campaign vigorously against evolution in the name of creationism.

The creationist movement that Bryan supported during the 1920s eventually fizzled out, but was revived again in the USA with great vigour during the 1960s, and once again was linked to a concern that evolution was in some sense immoral. Numerous court cases were fought in an attempt to prevent the teaching of evolution in American schools. Henry Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research, suggested that the acceptance of the theory of evolution was responsible, amongst other things, for promiscuity, pornography and perversion[iii]. In this brand of creationism it was maintained that the Earth was made some 10,000 years ago over a period of six days of 24 hours each, and that each species was created by God separately, so denying the claim fundamental to evolutionary theory that there is a unity between all living organisms.

In contrast to the creationists, other Christians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Frank Tipler have tried to use evolution to support grand religious schemes pointing to the evolution of life toward an eventual perfected ‘omega point’: we have already discussed the shortcomings of such schemes in chapter 2. On the other side of the religious fence, atheists such as Richard Dawkins have tried to use the theory of evolution to prop up their view that our existence on planet earth has no ultimate meaning. Because atheistic writers such as Dawkins try to use evolution to support a materialistic philosophy, in response Christian apologists such as Philip Johnson[iv] have proposed that Christians should attack evolution because they believe it is intrinsically atheistic.

Besides being used in both religious and anti-religious arguments, at various times evolution has also been used to support capitalism, communism and racism, not to speak of numerous other ‘isms’!

From such observations it will immediately be apparent that a key confusion that frequently occurs when ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’ are being discussed is that the people in conversation often have quite different definitions in mind as to what these words actually mean. The participants can then spend a lot of time talking at cross-purposes and generating heat rather than light. There is an important difference between the biological theory of evolution and the various philosophies that people have tried to derive from it ever since the time of Darwin. The fact that many of these philosophies are mutually exclusive should alert us to the possibility that none of them is logically based on the biological theory of evolution, but rather are parasitic upon it. Study of the history of science illustrates many examples of the ways in which scientific theories, particularly the ‘grand theories’ of science, have been used for ideological purposes. The common strategy is to insinuate, using dubious arguments, or repeated repetition, that a particular ideology is closely associated with a particular scientific theory. All kinds of ideas can then hitch a ride along with the grand theories of science, until they become weighed down by the accretion of associated ideologies. The theory of evolution has often suffered such a fate. To have a sensible discussion about creation and evolution, we must therefore first spend some time unwrapping the meanings of these terms."

Excerpt taken from online article at http://www.bethinking.org/science-christianity/creation-and-evolution.htm