Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An olive branch, or a slap in the face?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolution, religion, controversy, natural selection

The opening paragraph of Chapter 1, titled "The Future Can Differ from the Past", is very hopeful:
"This is a book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together."
Doesn't that sound like the author is conciliatory, perhaps willing to admit that spiritually-minded people may know something that is not amenable to scientific study but is nonetheless valid? Sadly, after ten chapters of nice talk, we have this, in Chapter 11, titled "Welcome Home, Prodigal Son":
"First, we must abandon the notion that some special quality was breathed into us by a higher power. This does not require abandoning religious faith—many people manage to combine a vibrant religious faith with a fully rationalistic conception of the world—but it does require abandoning certain kinds of religious faith."
The author is David Sloan Wilson, whose book Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives is the latest attempt by a well-meaning scientist to bridge the cultural gap between (some) scientists and Christians who believe that the Bible is more than a story book. The arrogance of his position is extreme. I'd answer this way:

David, just who is the prodigal here? This parable is by Jesus, not by Ed Wilson! Jesus wants you to turn to faith in His Father. Religion and Darwinism enjoyed a century of amicable relations, until the sudden resurgence of "biblical inerrancy" views seventy years ago. The earlier, more reasonable Evangelical viewpoint was that the Bible tells us what God wants us to know about relationships, both horizontal and vertical, and that poetic language is not intended to convey exact knowledge of the natural world. This is still the position of the majority of Bible believing Christians. However, to "abandon" the inspiriation of a human spirit by God is simply apostasy. David, to eliminate the "certian kinds of religious faith" that you wish people to abandon would remove every genuine Christian from the planet. You are proposing spiritual genocide. How naïve! Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." Christian faith and practice make no sense without a real God and without hope in His eternal Kingdom.

I distinguish faith from religion. To me the term "religious faith" is meaningless. Religion is practice, regardless of its motive. Faith is a motivation based on a spiritual experience. Christian faith is based on a revelation of God. According to both the Bible and the experience of millions of believers, the human spirit is an organ, distinct from the soul and body, that mediates contact with God and fellowship among His people. The Bible describes this in detail. If it is to be believed—and tens of millions do so believe—faith is the result of a direct revelation from God, an experience that forever changes how a person thinks about God. A Christian is someone who has met God, personally. One cannot "abandon" an experience.

The Bible contains a distinct definition of faith, in Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Once faith is received (it isn't natural, not the Biblical kind), a person has an inner conviction of the reality of God and an expectation that the Biblical promises will be kept. Biblical writers even use special words for "know" and "knowledge" when referring to knowing the things of God.

I follow the progress of a number of scientific disciplines. I find today's cosmology quite interesting, if rather quizzical. Certain observations of star motions in galaxies have convinced astronomers that most of the gravitational force keeping the stars in their orbits is generated not by matter as we know it but some kind of "dark matter", and speculation abounds about what it might be. The only thing known is that this stuff has gravitational mass but is not affected in any way (that we yet know of!) by light or other electromagnetic radiation. Thus, something like 85% of the matter Universe is unseen, and perhaps unseeable. Interestingly, some scientists suggest that gravitons (or whatever it is that mediates gravitational force) travel at a speed different from that of light, which increases gravity's effect over galactic distances, thus no "dark matter" is needed. These folks are greatly disparaged, and they can't get funding to do the experiments necessary to determine if their idea has merit. This sounds like a religious controversy to me! The "establishment" scientists have great faith, do they not? They have little else to go on!

Guess what, it just might be religious after all. Some Christians, long before this controversy arose in recent decades, noticed Colossians 1:17, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Could the power of God account for 85% of the Universe? To bring about "The End", perhaps all He need do is simply let go. Personally, I like the gravity idea better. Furthermore, the "dark energy" that seems to be speeding up the expansion of space requires the greatest, most astonishing leap of faith I've ever heard of. I've looked long and hard at the data. It is not yet conclusive. The error bars on every chart I've seen are larger than the effect. This idea is based more on the theory that space "just has to be flat" than on anything truly scientific. Speculation gone wild...or maybe "dark energy", which amounts to three times as much gravitational potential as "dark matter" plus ordinary matter combined, is a further manifestation of divine power. Again, I don't think so. I think it just shows that science is still too limited to deal with cosmology with anything like the precision and completeness that is so arrogantly claimed. Let's give it a century or so of further study and see what else shows up.

So, back to my exhortation: David, you require people who have met God to "abandon" their belief in Him, before you will allow us the right to an opinion. You have not met Him. I have experience and you have ignorance. You claim that "factual reality" is complete, that it is all there is. I claim that it is not. I have shown that many scientists cannot even agree on how much "factual reality" is presently in existence, or even detectable. You must at least admit that I might have actually met God. You must take an agnostic, not an anti-theistic stance, at the very, very least. Otherwise, you have no right to an opinion about faith. You are in a territory such that you are unable to have a valid thought about the subject.

Religion? Go ahead, have all the opinions you want. Religions need no gods. Indeed, a good friend who is a Hindu told me, "My Guru is primary, my family is next, and then come the gods." Another friend, a Buddhist, has explained their entirely godless religion, in which Karma and Reincarnation work blindly in an eternal cycle; their cosmogony could run as a computer program. In fact, any religion could. Religions are rule-based, and I often joke that "You can hang the rules of your religion on the wall, and a robot could do them, but you cannot." Religious practices are quite amenable to scientific study. The desire to (try to) conform to an ethical Rule is nearly universal (sociopaths excepted), so it is certainly an evolved trait (as is sociopathy).

So to evolution. I like 90% of the book. Great examples, a clear teaching method, and I suspect the EvoS project is well worth the undertaking. I may do so myself.

David's thesis is simple. It is worthwhile to bring evolutionary thinking to bear on any observed phenomenon. (As a Geologist and amateur in a number of disciplines including Astronomy, I write and speak of galactic, stellar, planetary, continental, mineralogic, and chemical evolution. Particularly with regard to the concentration and emplacement of ore minerals, a kind of natural selection takes place, but of course there is no genetic/hereditary mechanism to produce new variations [elements and minerals]. Nearly all of geology is a reworking of existing Earth materials...but not quite. The planet does intercept a few tons of new matter daily.)

For example, he shows that, on every level one may imagine, collective behaviors tend to increased prosperity, or fitness, of the group. Units that prefer to exploit the group decrease its overall prosperity and fitness, so groups develop mechanisms to limit such damage, or they vanish. Thus, societies with appropriate laws and sufficiently strong enforcement mechanisms succeed better than anarchic ones (so we can expect nations that support terrorists to decrease in relative prosperity). A metazoan animal, such as a coral polyp, a bandicoot, or a human, is a collective of many cells that usually behave according to strong rules, genetically encoded, that even tell certain cells when to suicide. Cancer results when cells become rulebreakers and self-seekingly abandon behavior for the collective good.

Each cell of a polyp, a bandicoot, or a human, or of a tree, grass blade, or amoeba, is also a collective. Probably 1.5 billion years ago, after 2+ billion years of experimentation with various kinds of collective agglomeration, groups of specific kinds of bacteria became something new, the eukaryotic cell. All the "organelles" in such a cell must originate from bacterial precursors, and groups thereof managed to enclose themselves in a larger lipid membrane derived from that of an extra-large species of bacteria. (Perhaps it was related to the "giant bacillus" found in all human mouths, a brownish critter as large as some eukaryotes: about 15-20 microns long and 2-3 microns in diameter. It has 40-100 times the cell volume of smaller bacilli like E. Coli.)

What usually prevents human cells from turning into tumors or cancers? A lot of our DNA is not for making proteins but for regulating gene expression, particularly genes that affect cell growth. You could call a cell a totalitarian state. There are "police forces" and "executioners" within each cell that detect and edit DNA that mutates in deleterious ways, most of the time. There are similar cellular police in our immune system, and most cells that try to take off on their own are marked "not me any more" and destroyed.

A lot of Evolution for Everyone is devoted to applying evolutionary thinking to human groups, from households to nations. In the process, as the organisms themselves become more able to develop culture, evolution of the culture proceeds more rapidly than that of the biological organisms, yet by similar means. This reaches an extreme level in nations and nationalism. David states that "modern nations represent the current frontier of multilevel cultural evolution." Here is how most nations behave:
Imagine starting a conversation with someone who turns out to be nakedly selfish. Not only does she care only about herself, but she talks to you as if she cares only about herself. You hear all about her schemes for gettint ahead while riding roughshod over other people. Then she reveals how you figure in her plans without the slightest concern for your welfare. You would be doubly amazed at such a person. Only a social idiot would first have such shrunken values and then make no attempt to disguise them.

Yet I have just described the average political speech on international relations.
To me this is evidence that natural selection hasn't been operating very long in the political arena.

Of more immediate interest to me is the idea that the rules, or laws, make a family, church, club, neighborhood, or society livable. I once read that the police cannot enforce any law that is not voluntarily obeyed by at least 85% of the populace. This is the big reason most cars on I-95 go 70 mph or faster: because they can get away with it. The police have determined than the 15% cutoff is about 75 mph, so by going after only the fastest 15%, they establish what the "practical" speed limit is. In any group, if compliance to a crucial rule or law vanishes, pretty soon the group breaks up or falls into anarchy: disfunctional family; churches that split and split again; clubs that disband or fail due to lack of interest; neighborhoods that become hellholes; nations that fail.

But I concern myself with the effect police work has on police. In a recent case, several police fired 30+ bullets into a handicapped man who had failed to "obey instructions" (turned out they were talking too fast, and he was slow of mind), and celebrated their "kill" with high fives and a kind of dance. What happened to them? "You can't wrestle with a skunk and come out smelling like a rose." Police spend all their time with criminals, and guess who influences whom the most?

I am in favor of citizen-deputies, and very few "professional" police officers. In fact, I'd favor universal police service, on a rotating basis. Only in this way would this beleaguered group, our "peace officers", be spending more time with lawkeepers than with lawbreakers.

Much is made by this author and others of the "two island" thought experiment. In one case, populate one island with "good" folks, and the other with "bad" ones. The good will get better and the bad will get worse. Then take one "bad" person to the "good" island: he or she will soon live in luxury, at the expense of the rest. Mix the two groups in equal numbers on one island and "good" behavior will vanish away.

This model supposes that the "good" are uniformly good and never bad, and the converse. Actual people are complex. Every one of us is both good and bad. I lead a church. In a recent church meeting, at a round table discussion, we were talking of the meaning of love, and testing some boundaries. The Va Tech massacre was fresh on our minds, as was a recent suicide bombing in the MidEast. At one point, I remarked, "If you put me in a room with an unarmed terrorist, I could talk to him. But if I saw the same person in an overstuffed trench coat heading for a schoolyard, I'd shoot him in the head." In the ensuing discussion, most agreed this would show the greatest love possible to the potential victims, at the expense of sending one person to his god a bit early. It is Audie Murphy's reasoning: initially somewhat reluctant to shoot at an enemy, he reasoned that killing an enemy soldier saved a larger number.

I hope David becomes willing to allow believers to believe. I've long deplored the lunatic fringe of "inerrancy" folks, but I don't begin a discussion with any of them by demanding that they abandon their most cherished beliefs. I am a Christian evolutionist. God isn't afraid of evolution, and those who think they are defending Him are really only defending their own insecurities. The Bible leaves plenty of room for the eons of planetary and biological evolution to mold Earth and its life into the enviroments we experience today.

God works with human hearts. He seldom messes with nature. I have elsewhere written of the nature of miracles: they are events for which science will not and cannot provide an explanation, because they are produced by One who does not take note of science or technical tests. Such events are few. Don't look for a natural explanation for the sun stopping in the sky when Joshua asked God for that. Either it didn't happen at all, or it happened by a non-natural agency. About such things, science and scientists can only say, "I don't know." Only a person who meets God and receives His faith is able to know. Let us be humble, even though we know God, because that knowledge alone doesn't go very far.

I find it encouraging that this author at least tries to be conciliatory. That is a step too few scientists have been willing to take.

No comments: