Apr 23, 2009

Latest Toastmasters Speech

As a health care professional, my world is filled with scientists - lab directors and geneticists, doctors and researchers. It comes as a great shock to me when I am confronted by someone who doesn't subscribe to evolutionary theory. For example, I was talking to a ultrasound technician in my office one day, and he asked,
Ultrasound Tech: You believe in evolution?
Me: Of course.
UT: So you believe we came from monkeys?
Me: Actually, I think that we have a common ancestor with -
UT: If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys in the world? Wouldn't they have become something else by now?
Me: But they did become something else. They became monkeys.

And at that point we just stared at each other in confusion. In my mind, this is the main problem in the evolution vs creationism debate. The two sides just aren't speaking the same language. Moreover, they aren't even asking the same questions.

Creationism is based on a belief in the Abrahamic religions that God created the world, and all the creatures in it, according to His grand design. Of all His creations, man is the most god-like: according to the Bible, God made man in His own image and gave him dominion over the animals. This is an example of "revealed knowledge," an idea considered to be apparent and undeniable, in this case because it is "the word of God." And in a way, creationism is a very ennobling concept. Animals act on instinct; incapable of higher reasoning, they have only two options - fight or flight. By the light of creationism, we humans are better than animals, because we are essentially different. The first Western scientists studying the natural world did so by trying to make their observations fit with this worldview. When they observed changes in populations of animals over time, they posited that this change was goal-directed - God had certain patterns laid out for each animal, and as time went on each animal became more like the ideal God set for it. This concept of structure and purpose of the universe is very comforting: there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, offers no such comfort. Evolution works by a process of natural selection, which involves random variation and "survival of the fittest." There is no structure or purpose to the differentiation of species, because this theory was conceived strictly out of Darwin's observations. He did not start from the basis of God's grand design, and thus was liberated from forcing his observations to fit a pre-existing concept. This is the heart of the scientific method. Scientific theories arise not from "revealed knowledge," but by observation, hypothesis, and experimentation. Nothing is considered apparent and undeniable, because that leaves no room for revision and, therefore, no room for progress. Still, though he knew his method was sound, Darwin also knew that his conclusions would be extremely controversial. It took him twenty years to prepare his theory for publication. But publish he did, and the world was never the same again.

These two disparate ways of thinking, revealed knowledge versus the scientific method, are the reason why the two sides of this debate will never see eye-to-eye. Creationists view evolutionary theory as a threat to the revealed knowledge of the Bible. Thus, they want creationism taught in the science classroom along with evolution. Evolution proponents are offended by this, because creationism does not constitute a scientific theory. This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species ... and we're still fighting about it! What both sides often fail to appreciate is that, beyond speaking in two different languages, they are actually asking two very different questions.

Religion is all about giving meaning to existence, answering a multitude of "why's." Why am I here, in this place, at this time? The answers do not pertain to our physical bodies, but our conscious minds, the feeling of spiritual "self." These types of questions are best answered by “revealed knowledge,” a higher ideal that has value in and of itself - something for us to strive towards. Science, on the other hand, tells us not "why," but "how." How did I come to be made - this body, with this particular genetic code? These answers concern the physical world, things we can see and touch. As we begin to answer these types of questions, more questions arise. For this you need knowledge that can grow and change over time - that is, the scientific method. Each way of thinking has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. From this point of view science and religion are not at odds, nor are they mutually exclusive. To argue that one should supplant or challenge the other is ludicrous. Once we understand this fundamental difference, maybe we can finally lay the creationism vs evolution debate to rest.


bobxxxx said...

From this point of view science and religion are not at odds, nor are they mutually exclusive. To argue that one should supplant or challenge the other is ludicrous.That's nice but it's not true. Try telling the millions of Americans who deny evolution because of their childish religious beliefs that science and religion are not at odds. Try telling biology teachers who get yelled at by Christian thugs for doing their jobs that science and religion are not at odds.

Monkey Sri said...

I'm definitely not saying that either side shares this opinion. Perhaps more accurate phrasing would have been "From *my* point of view..." Thanks for your comment!