“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” – Galileo Galilei
I have a confession to make.
I’m a 27 year old man, but until a couple of years ago, I had no real understanding of what the theory of evolution is.
Ah, it feels good to get that off my chest.
I’m sure I must have been taught evolution in school, but I have almost no memory of those lessons. I suspect that I intentionally didn’t pay attention.
Because I was a Christian.
And Christians don’t believe in that kind of thing (or so I was told).
If you had asked me as a teenager, I would have told you that evolution was the idea that humans evolved from monkeys, that there was something about peppered moths from London, Charles Darwin invented it, and that it was unproven. There was a mysterious missing link that nobody could find, and the idea that fish grew legs one day to walk on land just seemed ridiculous.
My own belief seemed much more reasonable. The whole world and everything living in it was created by God in seven days, as it is now. Maybe some species adapted to their environments slightly, but apart from that, not much changed. This creation event happened around 6000 years ago, as laid out in the Genesis story right at the beginning of the Bible. I would point to the complexity of life as evidence; just look at the bumblebee, which shouldn’t even be able to fly! Or the incredible abilities of the human eye. Even Darwin said he didn’t believe in evolution on his deathbed. Sure, we’ve dug up a few strange-shaped skulls lying around, but they could easily be human skulls that got mashed up a bit, not necessarily proof of human evolution.
All of this was enough to keep me insulated against the theory of evolution; I had no idea how full of wrong assumptions and plain lies those two last paragraphs actually are. We’ll get into some of those things later in the article, but this second issue of The Allowed isn’t just about evolution.
It’s about how we think.
It’s about how we form ideas about how the Universe works.
It’s about two ways of understanding the world.
It’s about how I could live most of my life so far having no idea about some of the most important and incredible discoveries that humans have ever made.
It’s about one of the foundational issues behind everything else we’ll explore on The Allowed.
It’s about science.
Looking back, maybe my view of science growing up was slightly skewed:
Growing up in church, I was taught that science was our enemy. In fact, the main aim of science was to disprove our beliefs as Christians; to convince themselves and others that there was no God, so that they wouldn’t have to worship Him.
They would do whatever it takes to achieve their goal; interpreting evidence as it suited them, ignoring obvious holes in their logic, and making crazy assumptions about the world, in order to avoid having to acknowledge that the Bible was true.
This quote from the website of the Institute for Creation Research proves my point perfectly;
“Evolutionists claim that evolution is a scientific fact, but they almost always lose scientific debates with creationist scientists. Accordingly, most evolutionists now decline opportunities for scientific debates, preferring instead to make unilateral attacks on creationists…
The fact is that evolutionists believe in evolution because they want to. It is their desire at all costs to explain the origin of everything without a Creator… the purpose is to eliminate a personal God from any active role in the origin of the universe and all its components, including man.”
How much fear and defensiveness is in those few sentences? It’s an attitude that I grew very accustomed to as a teenager. Science is a threat, and if you pay too much attention to science it could cause you to doubt your faith and become separated from God. Scary stuff.
Of course, some science was alright. We had a kind of ‘line of acceptable science’ that allowed us to enjoy the fruits of technology, and marvel at discoveries that didn’t directly threaten our worldview. But there were THREE BIG THINGS that were especially dangerous; three big lies that science had introduced to the world:
Luckily, I had ready-made answers for all of these things.
The Big Bang? That’s insane. How could something just appear out of nothing? And how could everything we see today come from an explosion? It’s like a tornado blowing through a scrapyard and accidentally assembling a Boeing 747. Impossible.
And saying the Earth was billions of years old… ridiculous. Look at the Bible. God clearly created the Earth around 6000 years ago. Scientific dating methods just don’t work properly. Even if the Earth does look older, God could have made it to look that way from the start.
Evolution was the biggest issue, and so I had the most arguments ready to debunk it. We’ve already seen a few of those, but once again we’ll get deeper into that later.
I was so sure of what I believed. I would happily tell friends at school that ‘I know God is real. I know He created the world. I know we didn’t evolve.’ Actually, I didn’t know shit.
The problem was that I had been handed a set of beliefs, and I had never questioned them fully for myself. Why? I think it comes down to two different ways of building our view of the world; the first is based on assumptions, the second is based on the scientific method.
THE FIRST WAY : ASSUMPTIONS, DOGMA & COMMON SENSE
Human beings are massively tribal. We want to belong to a group, to have acceptance and understanding and to feel like we fit in somewhere. The magnetic pull to stay part of a group is incredibly strong.
This is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s something we’ve learnt over thousands of years as an incredibly useful way to survive. Think back 30,000 years to a time when we were living on the plains of Africa.
The lesson we learnt is that together we are stronger. Alone, we’re in trouble. The bigger the group we form, the easier we can fight off attacks from hungry lions or other tribes, survive floods or fires, and reproduce to keep our tribe alive and growing.
We evolved to act this way, and our beliefs and perspectives about the world are some of the strongest things that unite and tie us closely to other people. It’s a great way to draw lines between our tribe and other tribes; our god/s, our origin story, our holy writings, our traditions, all tell us who we are as a group and give us a stronger sense of personal identity.
This is all fine. The problem starts when we filter the evidence around us according to whether or not it agrees with our pre-defined beliefs about the world. Anything that agrees with us is friendly and true and gives us further evidence that we’re right; anything that challenges our beliefs and gives an alternative explanation becomes the enemy, is therefore false and invalid, and gets ignored and discarded.
This is known as ‘confirmation bias’ – defined as ‘a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions’.
We accept and search for information that supports what we already believe. As human beings, we are all affected by it in fascinating and often unconscious ways. This is why the tribe is so important to us; we like to belong to communities that reinforce the things we all believe, and it makes us feel more secure and confident in those things. So in the case of church, the more meetings we attend, the more we’re told that what we believe is right and we are surrounded by other people who think the exact same way, the more safe and certain we feel that we have the truth.
Before we get too church-bashy and anti-religious here (because that’s really not what I’m about), let’s get a few important things out of the way.
#1 – It’s not just religious people that are affected by confirmation bias.
It’s a major part of how all of our brains work, and we are all in danger of falling into this trap. In every area of our lives, whether it’s thinking about our career or our family life, our health or financial situations, our beliefs or ideas about the world, we all have to be aware of the role that confirmation bias plays. It can creep into our thinking at any time, and blind us to obvious truths. It’s a sneaky bastard!
#2 – Not all our assumed beliefs are necessarily wrong.
We are all right about some things, and wrong about a bunch of things. I’ll be the first to admit that. But when we hang tightly to our beliefs based on the group we are part of, we become unable to look objectively at other possibilities. This causes us to feel threatened and protective, rather than open-minded and interested in the world around us. By opening up and exploring, you may keep some of your old ideas, and you may change others. This website isn’t about trying to change anyone’s beliefs. It is about giving you the space and permission to think about those beliefs for yourself.
#3 – No two people within one particular group think the exact same way.
It’s dangerous to paint one group of people with the same brush. This is the problem with any label; whether it’s Christian, Fundamentalist, Atheist, Muslim, Evolutionist, Evangelical, Baptist, Hindu, Agnostic, Scientist, Creationist, or whatever; labels are an over-simplification of the complexity and variety of individual beliefs. I’m not saying that all Christians think science is evil and believe in a literal 6-day creation. This is just my experience, and part of my journey has been realising there are a ridiculously large amount of different ways to see the world, even within the Christian tradition.
So, having said all that, there are two kinds of assumptions that I want to talk about; dogma, and common sense.
#1 – Dogma
Dogma, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, means;
“a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”
There are lots of examples of dogmatic thinking, but my experience comes from the church. Growing up, I was taught a set of principles that explained the world I lived in. For example, that mankind was inherently fallen and sinful, that there was an evil spiritual realm ruled by Satan, that Jesus came to take on the sins of the world, that homosexuality was a sin, etc.
The authority for these principles was apparently the Bible. I heard the Bible described as an instruction manual for living, a set of ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’ (if it’s an acronym it must be true), and an infallible, unchanging love letter from God that explained clearly how we should live.
Take this quote from ‘Answers in Genesis’, a large creationist movement based in the USA :
“So, if evolution can’t explain how humans came to be (or any other living thing, for that matter), what can? The Bible. Yep, God’s Word.
The Bible provides an eyewitness account of how the universe and all life came to be. There’s no speculation or strange interpretation needed. You can just read how God created everything in six days a few thousand years ago. Simple. Factual.”
This is the attitude we had towards the Bible; it was clear, it was factual, it was simple, and all you had to do was follow it’s instructions.
The problem with this way of thinking is that any reading of the Bible is an interpretation of an ancient writing.
This was a big wake up call for me; realising that there are many ways of understanding the Bible, of which a literal interpretation is just one. I grew up believing that the interpretation I had been handed was the only correct interpretation, and that Christians for the last 2000 years had all agreed on that point. When I realised that this was only one of many ways that people had understood the Bible for centuries, and that many influential Christian thinkers had even spoken against my personal understanding of the Bible, I had to question my perspective on the whole thing.
My view of the Bible has changed over the years; from a concrete, infallible book of Truth to a more fluid, nuanced and human collection of books. This doesn’t take away from the value of the Bible for me; actually, it makes it more interesting and powerful. But we’ll tackle that more fully in a future issue.
My point is that the Bible wasn’t the real authority I based my assumptions on; the real authority was the leaders and teachers who taught me their interpretation as the only true and correct one. The Bible wasn’t the problem; the way we read it was.
If some evidence or scientific theory seemed to disprove something in the Bible, it would simply mean that science had to be wrong; I had already decided that the Bible was the ultimate source of all truth, and any exterior evidence had to bow to that.
Tim Urban wrote about this recently on his freaking awesome blog ‘WaitButWhy’ :
“…people end up with a set of values not necessarily based on their own deep thinking, a set of beliefs about the world not necessarily based on the reality of the world they live in, and a bunch of opinions they might have a hard time defending with an honest heart.
In other words, a whole lot of convictions not really based on actual data. We have a word for that. Dogma.
Dogma… isn’t customized to the believer or her environment and isn’t meant to be critiqued and adjusted as things change… Its rules may be originally based on reasoning by a certain kind of thinker in a certain set of circumstances, at a time far in the past or a place far away, or it may be based on no reasoning at all. But that doesn’t matter because you’re not supposed to dig too deep under the surface anyway—you’re just supposed to accept it, embrace it, and live by it. No evidence needed.”
Dogma is reinforced within tribes by that sneaky bastard confirmation bias. We are taught to stay within safe boundaries when it comes to what we learn, read, and interact with. So, we should fill our worlds with the things that agree with what we all believe. In my case, we should only listen to Christian music, engage with Christian teaching from our own tradition, and read Christian books. This is the way our beliefs become concrete, unchanging, and fundamental. We don’t learn anything new; we simply re-learn what we already know.
Again I want to be clear, that the beliefs themselves don’t necessarily have to be wrong or bad; the problem comes when we accept beliefs mindlessly, based on someone or something else’s apparent authority, without thinking about or questioning those assumptions for ourselves.
“…if any particular discipline… does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off.” – James Baldwin
#2 – Common Sense
The second way we make assumptions about the world around us is based on common sense. Common sense can be useful in certain situations; keeping away from dangerous animals, not driving the wrong way up the motorway, limiting how much ice-cream we eat at one time, figuring out which bus we need to catch, setting our alarm early enough to get to work on time etc.
Common sense is a useful tool for staying safe and interacting appropriately with everyday situations. However, it’s not necessarily an accurate way to make judgements about the world.
For example, imagine living thousands of years ago in this place right here:
You live with your tribe in a small village, on an island, separated from any other human contact. Life is hard, but simple. You fish, you eat, you sleep, you tell stories about island monsters, you make babies. You have no concept of space or planets or gravity or physics or psychology.
What kind of things could you assume about the world using your common sense?
Firstly, you’d probably assume the world is small. That your island is the whole world. You’ve never seen anything else, so why would you think anything else exists?
Look out at the sea. It seems to come to a sudden stop at the edge of sight. There’s a straight line there in every direction. It makes sense to assume that it’s the edge of the world.
Look up. Every morning, a bright circle of light appears, moves across the sky, and disappears again. It seems to exist just to provide you with light and warmth every day. It makes sense to assume this light is flying around your world, or being driven by some creature, or is even some kind of god. Far off, mysterious, powerful, and magical. Without it, you die. With it, you live and eat and grow. Sounds like something worth worshipping.
One day, a disaster strikes your tribe. A terrible storm hits your village, killing all of your crops, destroying some of your houses, and taking the lives of many of your friends. Why would such a thing happen? It makes sense within your worldview to imagine that you are being punished for doing something wrong; maybe you’ve displeased the yellow god in the sky in some way. How would you make it up to this god? Well, the same way you’d make it up to a friend or family member; with gifts and with words of apology and regret. Maybe a few sacrifices will do the job.
Common sense would lead you to make many assumptions about the world. This wouldn’t make you stupid; it would just mean that you took your best guess from the way things appeared to be. It makes total sense that you would think this way, but from our perspective today we can see that it often leads to flawed thinking and wrong conclusions.
But it wasn’t just ancient humans that could be misled by common sense.
It wasn’t that long ago when people believed our world was flat, and that you’d fall off the edge if you sailed too far. This sounds funny now, but really it isn’t an unrealistic idea; just put yourself in their shoes. It sure doesn’t look like we live on a gigantic sphere; our world looks flat from our perspective. And the idea that if you travel in one direction for long enough you’ll end up back where you started is pretty crazy. The fact that we live on a huge ball flying through space went against common sense.
It’s only a few hundred years ago that we realised Earth was not in the centre of the solar system. This was a huge deal for a lot of people to accept; it took away from our sense of importance. It made our position seem random and unplanned. When we later learnt that our solar system wasn’t even in the centre of our galaxy, and then that our galaxy was just in some random part of the Universe, it shook our common sense even further.
Doctors only realised a couple of centuries ago that washing your hands was an important thing to do before surgery. Mental and physical illnesses were, for a long time, believed to be caused by demons and evil spirits. This makes sense too. We are only beginning to learn how powerful our brains are; how they can trick us, see things that aren’t there, and invent details to make sense of unexpected events; all without us even being aware. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, with a more mystical view of the world, it would make sense to interpret strange or scary events as the result of dark spirits or an evil force.
(Side note: I’m convinced that our millennia-old beliefs in ghosts, goblins, the devil and demons comes from the human tendency to follow common sense, rather than to objectively look at the evidence. But that’s a subject for another article and I won’t touch that here!)
Even in the last hundred years, two massive scientific discoveries (The Theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics) went completely against how we thought the world worked. Common sense did not prepare us for those bad boys; truths like the relativity of time, or that particles could be in two places at once, or that light behaves like both a particle and a wave, completely go against what we would expect from common experience. But these two theories have proven to be extremely accurate ways of describing the Universe.
Human history has repeatedly shown that common sense is a terrible way to make conclusions about how our world works.
Let’s go back to confirmation bias for a moment. Once we collect a set of assumptions, we start searching for appropriate evidence that backs up what we’ve already decided to believe.
And here’s the disturbing truth; you can find evidence to back up anything you want. The best example is The Internet. It’s like a giant confirmation bias machine.
You can find somebody to support you on any belief you wish to hold. Does this mean that all beliefs are equally valid or true?
I don’t think so.
The belief that leprechauns give birth to rainbows must be less valid than the belief in, for example, gravity.
If we are all full of assumptions based on both dogma and common sense, and if we can find someone else to back up anything we want to believe about the world, how is it possible to know anything for sure? As much as I wish leprechauns gave birth with an explosion of magical colours that shot across the sky, there must be some kind of line to divide beliefs that are valid from those that are best left alone.
In other words, there has to be some way to measure what is likely, or possible, or helpful in understanding how our Universe really works.
THE SECOND WAY : THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
“[T]he central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe… the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe.” – Alan Lightman, ‘The Accidental Universe’
This is where science comes in to the picture. Science starts with no assumptions. There is no outside authority, no certainty, and no limit. Science is based on critical thinking. The important point is that any hypothesis about the world must be tested and proved by repeated experiment. If you want to believe in leprechaun birth-rainbows, you’d better get out in the world and observe some of those bad boys.
In the awe-inspiring 2014 TV series ‘Cosmos’, astrophysicist and science legend Neil DeGrasse Tyson lays out the scientific method:
“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules:
Test ideas by experiment and observation,
Build on those ideas that pass the test,
Reject the ones that fail,
Follow the evidence wherever it leads,
And question everything.
Accept these terms, and the cosmos is yours.”
By using this method to test every idea, we’ve learnt incredible truths about the weird and wonderful ways our Universe works.
For example, that every particle is mostly empty space, and if you somehow removed all of that empty space, you could fit the entire human race into the size of a sugar cube.
Or that time is completely relative, runs at different speeds in different places, and is not a set quantity as we might imagine.
When Galileo famously suggested his hypothesis that the Earth revolved around the Sun instead of the other way round, he wasn’t setting out to disprove the Bible or Christian belief. His idea flew in the face of ordinary common sense and certain parts of the Bible at the same time. Galileo wasn’t fighting against God; he was fighting against the easy, natural assumptions of human beings, asking questions, and suggesting an alternative, which was later tested and proved by other people.
His father, the musician Vincenzo Galilei, was also pretty good at saying cool things that fit perfectly in articles like this:
“It appears to me that those who rely simply on the weight of authority to prove any assertion, without searching out the arguments to support it, act absurdly. I wish to question freely and to answer freely without any sort of adulation. That well becomes any who are sincere in the search for truth.”
That’s what the scientific method is about; asking questions freely, seeking evidence, and answering based on what we find. It isn’t about disproving your beliefs; it’s not your enemy. It’s about discovering how our world really works, through repeated testing and observation. It’s about refusing to assume something based on unfounded authority.
How do we know anything for completely certain? Well, we don’t. As the French philosopher Voltaire said like a complete badass:
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”
I recently heard a pastor teach on the subject of how we can prove God exists. It should have been the shortest sermon ever: ‘we can’t’; but obviously that wasn’t the message.
Religion often attracts us because it sells certainty. Good science comes with a healthy dose of humility; we are all human beings, with limited and treacherous brains, trying to figure out an infinite and complex Universe that is way bigger than us. Anyone who says they know what is going on for certain is bullshitting themselves and you.
Science embraces this idea. As the brilliant Carl Sagan said:
“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
Instead of giving us certainty, the scientific method works on a spectrum. We can test ideas, and come up with an appropriate level of trust in an idea depending on the amount of evidence we have to support it. The more often we see an idea work, the more confidence we can put in that idea. The more an idea helps us make accurate predictions about the world, the stronger our faith in that idea becomes. We can get enough evidence to call something true or false with a lot of confidence, but we accept that it can never be 100%.
I started The Allowed to share some of my own wonderings and investigations, as I’ve spent the last couple of years taking apart many of the old assumptions I had about the world. I’m not offering easy answers; I’m just offering my honest questions. I came to the point where I couldn’t just accept the beliefs I’d been handed without thinking anymore. I knew I had to search for myself, and be completely honest with what I found. Everything on The Allowed is based on this idea of questioning assumptions, and following the evidence wherever it leads. That’s why this is such a foundational article for this website.
I spent a lot of time believing things based on ‘because I said so’.
The scientific method says ‘let me show you’.
So far in this article, we’ve looked at two general ways of learning about the world around us. The first is based on assumptions from an outside authority; the second is based on what we can discover, test, and prove through the scientific method.
In the rest of the article, as an illustration of how these two ways of seeing the world interact, we’ll look at the Theory of Evolution, what it tells us about the world, and why it was so threatening to my old beliefs.
HOW NOT TO DISPROVE EVOLUTION
First, I want to be clear again that I’m not writing to make fun of anyone’s personal beliefs here. But I have to be honest: personally, I used to spout off simple arguments about things that I had no clue about, and it gave me a warped view of how the world worked. I’m going to bring back ‘Old Me’ from Issue #1 to explain his arguments against evolution.
This first point is one that I used and have heard used countless times, and so it deserves it’s own mini-section.
Theories & Hypotheses
I want to focus on this point for a minute, because I think that it trips up a lot of people, especially from my own kind of background:
A scientific theory is more than ‘just’ a theory.
I used this argument a lot back in the day: that [insert scientific idea I don’t like] is just a theory. For example, the big bang is just a theory, therefore it’s not proven and I don’t have to believe it.
This is actually a language problem, and I can understand why people get confused by it.
In science, the word ‘theory’ doesn’t mean what you think it does.
In ordinary use we think of the word ‘theory’ as meaning an idea that someone has, that hasn’t been proved yet. For example, in CSI or something, there’ll be a corpse with three fingers missing and a stuffed dog nearby covered in blood, and the detective will say ‘I have a theory’.
Actually, in science, a better word for that would be ‘hypothesis’. A hypothesis is a starting point; an idea about something, that then needs to be proved through multiple examples of observable evidence.
In science, a theory is “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence”. (Definition from National Academy of Science)
When something in science is given the title of ‘theory’, it means it is extremely well proven and consistently makes accurate predictions about how the world works. So, we have the theory of gravity; heliocentric theory (the earth revolving around the sun); the theory of plate tectonics; cell theory; big bang theory; quantum theory; and the theory of evolution. On the Spectrum Of Science above, these things would all be at the ’TRUE’ end; we have enough evidence that we can class them as facts.
“In science, a “fact” typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term “fact” to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.” – National Academy of Science
Actually, all of the theories I listed above are so well backed up that in the scientific community, there is no real disagreement on them; and that is a big deal.
Because the thing about scientists is, they love to disagree with and disprove each other. That’s part of the fun. It’s a group effort.
And so, if new evidence for a hypothesis has been found by one group of scientists, you can bet that all the others will be trying to disprove what they have found as quickly as possible:
‘Unlike the rest of us, they (scientists) submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them. Once their results are published, if they’re important enough, other scientists will try to reproduce them – and, being congenitally skeptical and competitive, will be very happy to announce that they don’t hold up. Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.’ – National Geographic Magazine, ‘The War On Science’, March 2015
Let’s take gravity as an example. (Interestingly, we actually understand evolution better than we understand gravity). We don’t expect that one day, we’ll discover something that completely disproves gravity. We won’t necessarily look back and laugh; “Oh, how stupid we were to believe in gravity!” The theory of gravity is an accurate and useful way to describe what goes on in the Universe.
But we may discover a different theory in a hundred years that explains things better than gravity did, for example The Theory of Throbblywhip.
This new theory wouldn’t somehow ignore all the evidence we had for gravity. It would have to encompass that evidence, and be a development of an earlier idea that helped us get to where we are now. Without that first understanding (Gravity) we wouldn’t have arrived at this new, better understanding (Throbblywhip).
My point is, we aren’t going to find something that proves evolution to be complete rubbish. It has proven itself in too many ways. We will, however, continue to find things that sharpen and alter our understanding of how it works, even drastically. And that’s fine!
We have to keep open hands and open minds on what we find and discover. It happens over and over again, that a long-held belief is refined, altered, or overturned by a new, even more mind-blowing discovery down the road. That doesn’t mean the old way of thinking was useless, or a lie; in fact, that way of thinking was necessary to get us to an even deeper level of understanding down the road.
Funnily enough, I think this kind of fluid attitude is a healthy way to live with religion too. It’s where I’ve arrived in my faith personally. Our spiritual beliefs don’t have to be set in stone and unchanging. Just because I may understand things differently, that doesn’t mean the old understanding was evil or stupid or completely wrong. It just means it was a step. Time passes, cultures change, and even if we believe in a God that stays the same, our understanding of him must change as we grow as people. Whatever force we are trying to describe through Gravity will always stay the same, but our understanding of it may change to Throbblywhip; in the same way, whatever we are trying to describe as God may stay the same, but our understanding can change as we grow.
Religion could learn a few things from science; it’s organic. It changes. It learns. Good science is a continuous, developing, unified search for truth and knowledge. It is mind-blowing and awe-inspiring and moves beyond the preconceptions we all share about the world.
So, the theory argument doesn’t hold any water once you understand what scientists really mean when they use that word. Still, Old Me wouldn’t be fazed. I had indisputable evidence that the whole thing was a sham.
I’ll let Old Me illustrate his argument.
My point was simple; we had a beginning (monkey) and we had an end (human) but we had none of the in-between stages still alive, while monkeys themselves were still swinging around and loving life. This seemed proof positive to me that evolution was a gigantic sham.
One small problem.
Evolution tells us that humans and apes both evolved from a common ancestor. So, at some point, millions of years ago, there was another species that branched off into two separate evolutionary streams; one of which led to humans, while the other led to modern-day apes.
It might be useful here to actually explain the mechanics of evolution via natural selection.
What Is A Species?
I used to wonder this a lot. If a scientist discovers a caterpillar that is slightly browner or longer than another caterpillar, how can he figure out if it’s a new species, or just a longer browner version of an old species?
Well, it comes down to this: A species is a group of living organisms that can reproduce with each other to pass on their genes.
Genes are sections of DNA that are passed from generation to generation, the building blocks of all life. A strand of DNA is a blueprint for building a living thing. One way to think of it is that if genes are the words describing how to build something, then DNA are the individual letters making up those words.
DNA itself is that famous molecule shaped like a twisting ladder; the double helix. (For any Jurassic Park lovers, this should all be familiar). One amazing fact about DNA; there are as many atoms in a single molecule of DNA as there are stars in a typical galaxy.
Within any species, there’s a lot of variation between individuals. Just take a look at the human race as an example. Even within your family, there is a lot of obvious difference between each person. There is nobody else in the Universe with the same DNA as you.
When two creatures get together and make a baby, the DNA is copied with extreme care to the child; half of each parent’s DNA is passed on to the child. But sometimes, a mistake is made. This is what we call a random mutation. This mutation could be advantageous, neutral, or disadvantageous to the baby; it all depends on the environment the creature is living in.
Let’s take bears as an example (because bears are incredibly awesome animals.) Imagine a group of brown bears living in Siberia a long time ago. One day, a baby bear is born with a random mutation in the gene that controls fur colour. Instead of having brown fur, this bear now has white fur.
White fur is an obvious advantage in snowy Siberia; it’s easier for this lucky bear to sneak up on potential prey, and get a tasty meal. The environment favours this particular mutation, and so this white bear is able to breed with other bears and pass down its white fur gene.
Over a long enough time, there will be a larger and larger group of white bears, and eventually that population will have become so distinct from the brown bears that it will be impossible for them to mate with the bears that they originally evolved from.
Even over small time scales, we can see big changes occur in this way. Let’s take the famous peppered moth as an example (one of the few things I remember from high school lessons on evolution).
The black peppered moth used to be a rarity. In Manchester, England before the Industrial Revolution there were 10,000 light peppered moths for every 1 black peppered moth. The first live specimen wasn’t caught until 1811.
Then, everything changed. The Industrial Revolution caused soot to cover the countryside between Manchester and London, and the trees were darkened. Suddenly, any darker coloured moths were better camouflaged than their lighter relatives, and so better suited to survival in their environment. The black moths were now more likely than the white moths to live long enough to pass on their genes.
In 1895, the dark moths took up 98% of the peppered moth population; an incredible difference in a very short amount of time.
And this really is a short amount of time; evolution has been working over billions of years. If a moth population can change colour within one human lifetime, imagine what can happen in 4.5 billion years.
One important point to remember is that there is no brain or purpose behind evolution; it isn’t aiming to create the ‘best’ animal or to achieve intelligence. The process is completely natural; if an animal has a mutation that gives them an advantage in their particular environment, then they will be more likely to survive, and that genetic trait will live on in the population.
This is what is meant by the term ‘survival of the fittest’. It doesn’t mean fittest in the sense of ‘strongest’ or ‘best’ or ‘most healthy’; but fittest as in ‘who fits best’ with their environment. The creature that fits the environment better than others will be more likely to survive in that environment.
So, to take us back to humans and apes; a long, long, long time ago (as long as 13 million years in the past) a species that no longer exists experienced a mutation that split it’s evolution down two paths; one that eventually led to chimpanzees, the other that eventually led to modern human beings. This is why it’s a misunderstanding to say that humans evolved from apes.
Part of the problem I think people have had with evolution is that it can be kind of insulting to our dignity to look at monkeys and think we are in any way related to them. It’s easy to see why:
Yep, if you went back far enough in time, you could trace your relation to that guy.
We like to see ourselves as somehow superior and separate from the rest of nature; and sure, our intelligence and higher consciousness has separated us in many ways. Many religions teach us that we are separate; in Christianity we use phrases like ‘children of God’ and talk about being ‘strangers on the Earth’. But the truth is, at our core, we are animals. We are not separate from nature; we are nature. The most intelligent form of nature that we know about, but still nature. It’s written in your very DNA; you share sections with oak trees, butterflies, chimpanzees, bananas, wolves, mushrooms, sharks, bacteria, sparrows and fruit flies. We are all made of the same stuff.
I love Carl Sagan’s quote that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself”. We are connected, in a real and meaningful way, to all other life on this planet. To me that’s a pretty profound and spiritual thought.
But Old Me wouldn’t have stopped there.
This is another classic that I heard a lot in my church as I grew up. The idea was that evolutionists were missing the crucial part of the puzzle; they had a beginning and an end, but no evidence of the inbetween phase.
Again, this is a misconception. The idea of a ‘missing link’ is based on a bad understanding of evolution. In this understanding, evolution is like a ladder, with a series of big steps forward towards a goal. Actually, evolution takes place so gradually, and over such a large amount of time, that evolution is more of a complex web than a simple ladder. To find every ‘missing link’ would mean finding fossil evidence for every tiny change that happens over millions of years.
Take this picture for example :
In this simple story, we have obvious gaps. But it’s clear what the story is: the man is getting dressed and feels happier as time goes on, until finally he puts his favourite hat on and reaches ultimate joy. It’s impossible for us to see every frame of every moment that adds up to this man having his clothes on; I’d be drawing crappy pictures for weeks. But we still have enough evidence to put a story together. We see key points that tell us what is going on. Maybe we’ll find more evidence one day (like that the man took a break halfway through to grab a drink) but that will, again, be a refining and sharpening of the original story, not a complete denial of the original evidence.
The same is true with the fossil record. Fossilisation is an incredibly rare event. It takes a lot of crazy circumstances to happen, and it’s only because of the vast amount of life that has existed on our planet that we have access to so many fossil samples. The fossil record alone can help us understand the story in broad strokes, like the man getting dressed above. The more fossils we find, the clearer the story may become.
For example, you may have heard about the recent discovery of a new member of our family tree, Homo Naledi. This will be the source of all kinds of debate and research as scientists attempt to place this species within time and our family tree. It’s like we just found another frame in the story.
But the fossil record could never tell us the full story, because the full story is so hugely intricate and encompasses a vast amount of tiny changes over an insane amount of time.
Luckily, we don’t need to rely on a complete fossil record to prove the theory.
The Main Proofs of Evolution
I’ll be brief here, because there is a lot of material I could go into and this article is already long enough; but hopefully, for anyone reading this who doesn’t believe evolution has been proven, this will give you enough to look further into yourself.
1. Fossil Record
I’ve already touched on this; but to be clear, the evidence we have found from the fossil record is massive and tells us that evolution really happens. (By the way, that link will intentionally take you to a Christian-based site; just to prove that not all religious people disagree with or ignore scientific evidence).
Surprisingly, one animal that we do have a complete fossil record for is the horse. All the main stages of its evolution have been preserved in fossil form, going back 60 million years. Back then, it was a dog-sized creature living in rainforests.
I was often led to believe that the fossil record was very minimal and really didn’t prove anything. Actually, we have far more evidence than I ever realised.
One important development has been the ability to date fossils and place them in a specific time. This allows us to more fully understand how different species have developed, and to order the evidence appropriately. There was a lot of talk going around the Christian world when I grew up making it seem like dating methods were unreliable and unproven; but again, this is a case of bad information.
2. Fossil Layers
These are fossils that form in sedimentary rock; a kind of rock that is formed in layers when loose material (such as pieces of rock, sand, soil, dead organisms, plants, insects etc) settles somewhere. Over a looooooong time, layers of sediment get deposited on top of each other, and the top layers weigh down the layers underneath, compressing them into rock.
This kind of rock often contains a large amount of fossils. Looking at the fossils buried in this rock, you find that the oldest (and lowest down) fossils are the most different from organisms we find alive today. The higher up in the rock you travel, the more familiar, and often the more complex, the organisms appear to be. For example, in rock over 1 billion years old, we only find fossils of single-celled organisms. 550 million year old rock brings us simple multi-celled life, and fish arrive at 500 million years ago. Mammals don’t appear anywhere in the fossil record until we look at rock layers from 230 million years ago.
This shows us clearly that life on earth has changed over time, with some species becoming extinct as other species rise up to take their place.
3. Rapid Changes
These are fast evolutionary changes that happen in such a short amount of time that we can easily observe and document them. For example, the peppered moths we talked about earlier, or microorganisms like bacteria that quickly evolve to resist antibiotics.
Modern science has methods that Darwin had no access to when he first proposed his theory. Before the study of genetics, there was already plenty of solid evidence to back up the theory of evolution. Nowadays, we have so much more concrete evidence for this process that it can be relied on as scientific fact.
If all species had originally come from a common ancestor, as the theory of evolution predicts, then it would make sense to imagine that:
#1 – different species would share similar genetic traits,
#2 – the closer related two species were, the closer their genetic signatures would be to each other.
These two predictions have been proved countless times since we have learnt how to look inside the DNA of creatures. As mentioned before, humans and chimpanzees (our closest existing relative) share 98% of genes. This is because we share a recent common ancestor. If you compare human DNA to other animals, you see differing amounts of genetic similarity that relate to how far back our two species branched off. For example, we share 90% of genes in common with cats (sorry about that), 80% with cows, and 70% with mice.
DNA is a universal language of all life on Earth, and the more we map it out, the more connection and progression we can see between species. In fact, every single cell on Earth is capable of reading DNA from any life form. It’s a universal code, and it’s pretty epic to get your head around.
There are other forms of evidence for evolution; for example the study of the similarity of embryos between species. But all this is to briefly show you that this theory is backed up from multiple disciplines of science, provides highly accurate and testable predictions, and has been observed again and again. All respectable scientists will tell you that evolution is a scientific fact.
Whatever our religious background may be, we have to decide what to do with that.
We could go on and on about evolution; we haven’t even gotten into the arguments of irreducible complexity and micro vs macro evolution (basically this comes down to understanding just how vast an amount of time evolution takes; macro-evolution is simply micro-evolution over a far longer time span) but again, the point of this article isn’t to cover evolution in full detail so much as to show how these two ways of thinking work.
Before we get to the conclusion though, I’d like to touch on one more argument that religious people often use; not just against evolution but against many scientific theories that they perceive as threatening their personal beliefs.
It’s often described as
“God of the Gaps”
and it tends to be the last defence of religion. Its argument rests in finding a question that science has not yet answered, and using that gap in scientific knowledge as proof that God is real.
In the case of evolution, it often looks like these kinds of questions:
‘Where did life come from in the first place?’
‘How did single-celled life evolve into multi-celled life?’
‘How did inanimate matter become conscious?’
The truth is, science does not yet have a clear answer to any of these questions. They are a mystery. Evolutionists accept that, and it’s not a problem. Through the Theory of Evolution we have an excellent way of explaining how the variety of life on Earth came to be, but it doesn’t explain how life began in the first place. Nobody denies that fact.
Where did life come from? There is no certain answer yet. We know that life has existed on Earth for at least 3.5 billion years, and the Earth itself is around 4.5 billion years old. Apart from that, there are several competing ideas for how life first arose out of nothing. None have been proven yet.
As we said earlier on, science is completely okay with not knowing; but it won’t stop us from looking for answers. How many things have we learnt about over the last few centuries that nobody had a clue about before?
What we don’t know isn’t a failure; it’s an invitation. Science is an adventure, a challenge to learn and explore and understand.
“… there is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
‘God of the Gaps’ finds an area that science hasn’t explained, and jumps on it instantly. “Ha! There! All your knowledge and learning isn’t able to explain X, because it’s God, and he works in ways that humans can’t possibly understand.”
So, to the question of how life first came to be, Old Me would answer ‘God breathed life into the world’. And it’s tempting to hold onto this as a literal answer, because there’s currently no scientific theory that adequately explains it.
But what we’re really doing is reducing God to some kind of magical answer, hiding away where our knowledge has gaps. This seems to me like an incredibly small and petty way to view God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, wrote about this while being held in a Nazi prison;
“[H]ow wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
People used to explain the sunrise by ‘God does it’. People explained the weather as ‘God does it’. People explained the variety of life on Earth as ‘God did it’. People explained healing and natural disasters and the movement of the planets in the same way. ‘God does it’.
If we force God to live in the gaps, he’s quickly running out of places to hide. If our beliefs are built on a foundation of what science has yet to explain, we’re on very shaky ground. I love what Charles Alfred Coulson wrote in his 1955 book ‘Science and Christian Belief’:
“Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all.”
CONCLUSION : WHY DOES THIS EVEN MATTER???
That’s a bloody good question.
I’d like to pass it on, through the magic of the Internet, to a man who lived over a thousand years ago. Let me introduce you to St Augustine.
Seems like a pretty easy-going guy.
Anyway, St Augustine was a philosopher, theologian, writer, and super thinker. He’s responsible for some of the big doctrines that the majority of Christians still believe today. He’s kind of a big deal, and he has some things to say about what we’ve been talking about.
For a long time as a young man he was part of a sect called the Manicheans. But he began to encounter problems with some of their beliefs about the sun and moon and stars, the orbits and eclipses; they didn’t match up with the evidence he saw in the real world:
“… still I was ordered to believe, even where the ideas did not correspond with — even when they contradicted — the rational theories established by mathematics and my own eyes, but were very different.”
In other words, he was ordered to hold onto a belief that he had been taught, over what had been observed and proven (classic example of dogma). After a few years, he finds himself in Milan working with a priest, where he begins to discover his own faith:
“…the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.”
This all sounds very familiar. His interpretation of the Bible had to change to fit with what the evidence told him, and not the other way around. By trying to force the evidence to fit a ready-made assumption, it was killing his spirituality. He couldn’t keep it up.
This next quote from Augustine is a bit of a beast, but it’s worth reading slowly and fully, because it basically sums up this whole issue way better than I could myself:
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
“Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
“Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”
Woah. Thank you St Augustine. We’ll come visit you again when we do the Sex issue (oh boy that’s going to be a dangerous one).
Augustine brought up a point that I think is crucial. By refusing to change our religious understandings based on what scientific evidence tells us, we are preventing others from having access to any potentially good part of our spiritual beliefs. This goes for any belief system, not just Christianity; that’s just the particular tradition I’ve grown up in. And this came from one of the most influential Christian thinkers in history, over a millennium ago. I used to think that everybody in the past believed in a completely literal interpretation of the Bible, and that it was only our modern scientific world trying to convince us to discard those beliefs. I’ve learnt that’s obviously not the case.
Religion looks pretty bad to the world today, and it’s no surprise why. Religion has often become like an old, stubborn man; refusing to progress or be open to new ideas, because it’s already decided what it thinks about everything. And conversations with that stubborn old man can get kind of awkward and embarrassing.
Again, not every religious person thinks this way, and it would be unfair to suggest that. But it is still around, and it’s scary. Just recently I heard a person tell a large group of young people that they should walk out of their classrooms if they were taught evolution. This is just unbelievable to me! All this does is to advance that old attitude of fear and create small-minded, insulated people. This kind of religion is completely contradictory to science. The two ways of thinking just do not fit with each other. If science and spirituality can live together, they have to find a new arrangement.
There’s a lot of debate about whether science and religion can co-exist, or whether they are completely incompatible views of the world. Personally, I think (and hope) that they can both compliment each other. But I also think that it will take a different kind of religion to that stubborn old man; one that is more open-minded, honest about itself, humble and ready to evolve.
So here’s my thoughts on it: I think we should hold any spiritual idea or religious belief very lightly. We should understand that our beliefs are personal, subjective, and unprovable. We should be open to what science and research tells us about the world, and allow the evidence to impact our personal views.
I have let go of many things that I used to hold onto tightly. That’s uncomfortable at first, but completely liberating after a while. You begin to realise that it’s not as scary as you thought; actually, the world becomes a more interesting and vibrant place.
I’m not trying to tell you to believe one thing and reject another, or to convince you that I’m right. Whether it’s hell, evolution, sex, morality, space travel, the best TV show ever, or anything else. I’m not trying to be an asshole. We already have one of those each; there’s no room for extra assholes in the world.
What ‘The Allowed’ is about is giving you space and permission to think; whatever your cultural and religious background, to know that it’s totally fine to question and doubt and wonder; in fact, those are the foundations of scientific thinking.
So, remember that science is not your enemy, somehow trying to disprove all your beliefs and make you look stupid. Science is not about throwing up any old theory just to have an alternative to religion. Science is about discovery, about doubt, about questions, about collecting evidence and observing how the Universe really works.
And my discovery? This is a bigger, more exciting way to live. It’s the awesome realisation that there are an endless number of things I don’t know, that are still waiting to be found. There is always more to learn. There are incredible things that generations of humans have uncovered, waiting for you to discover and experience for yourself; and so many more secrets waiting for a curious person to find.
And if there is a God in the Universe, then I don’t think he would be afraid of that.
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.