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Evolution And Religion: An Evolving Story

Can science and religion peacefully coexist?
November 11, 2018 | Comments

        For most of us, the fundamental principles of evolutionary biology are settled science. We know for sure that species develop through a slow process of natural selection that is based on random mutations conferring reproductive advantages. We also know that the lineage that eventually became our species, homo sapiens, separated from the lineage that became chimpanzees and bonobos more than 6 million years ago, slowly evolving in Africa and then, about 200,000 years ago, beginning our migration throughout the rest of the planet. So clear is this to scientists, that we now resist using the phrase “theory of evolution,” because for some that word “theory” is mistaken to mean that evolution is still somebody’s unproven hypothesis. We prefer the phrase “evolutionary biology.”

        Yet we also all know that a substantial number of people reject evolutionary biology because it conflicts with a story about the creation of humans that is central to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this version, humans were created in a single day 5,779 years ago by a divine entity. This notion is sometimes called “creationism” and some of its adherents rebuke evolutionary biology. According to the radical creationists, you either “believe in” evolution or creationism, and if you choose the former you are violating religious truth.

        We will of course not review here the substance of the creationist argument because it is plainly wrong. Humans were not created as the Bible tell us, but rather in the same way as every other species, over millions of years of evolution. Scientists sometimes become infuriated with the creationists, justifiably criticizing them for trying to impose a religious viewpoint onto what should be secular spaces, like our public schools. Every time creationists attempt to jettison the teaching of evolutionary biology from public school curricula, science-oriented organizations take them to court on First Amendment grounds and usually win—so far, the courts agree that teaching that God created the world in six days violates the separation of church and state doctrine. But those victories are pyrrhic, because many people still believe that evolution is an unproven theory cooked up by anti-religionists who want to stamp out God from their children’s lives. In other words, court battles do not change anyone’s minds or promote acceptance of science.

        How to teach evolutionary biology to people whose religious views are in conflict with it is one of the most important challenges facing science educators today. Without a solution to this problem, a big chunk of Americans — about one-third of us – will remain mired in serious science denial. It is clear to us that merely reciting the facts about evolutionary biology will not accomplish the task; instead, solutions that acknowledge the powerful emotional and social energy that religious affiliation exerts are needed. Unintended insensitivities, we fear, can make even the best intentions go awry.

A Good Idea Gone Wrong

        That is why an article in Undark magazine by Rachel E. Gross, the Smithsonian’s Science Web Editor,  titled “Speaking of Evolution in Non-Threatening Tones,” caught our attention. The article describes the Smithsonian Institution’s ambitious project, the “Human Origins Traveling Exhibit,” that ended last year. In the article Gross wonders “What would Darwin think if he could see the evolution wars rage today? If he knew that, year after year, national polls find a third of Americans believe that humans have always existed in their current form…That, among all Western nations, only Turkey is more likely than the United States to flat-out reject the notion of human evolution?”

        Gross profiles someone who wanted to take on the challenge of bringing evolutionary biology right into communities that ordinarily reject it, Rick Potts. Potts,  the head of the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Programs in Washington DC. Potts is a paleoanthropologist with a religious background. His mission was to bring the science of evolution to “diverse communities, including ones that were rural, religious, remote.”

        Potts’ devised and led the Smithsonian’s “Human Origins Traveling Exhibit,” bringing key parts of the museum’s permanent installation to 19 communities, 10 of which were deemed “challenging” because they are known to have many residents who object to evolution on religious grounds. Rather than trying to batter visitors to the exhibit with rants about why evolution is correct and creationism is not, Potts aimed “not at conversion, but conversation.” This is part of a larger movement, Gross explains, to “bridge the gap between evolutionary science and religion.”

        All of this strikes us as a set of excellent concepts and ambitions. Critica advocates finding common ground with people who are reluctant to accept scientific evidence rather than preaching the facts to them. Yet, despite how clearly well-thought out the plans for the “Human Origins Traveling Exhibit” were, we were equally struck by the ways in which scientists can be blind to the values and emotions of those to whom they are carrying their message. This is highlighted by Gross’ description of what happened in the “most challenging” community the human origins exhibit traveled to, Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Most of the residents of Ephrata, she explains, are “conservative Christian and Anabaptist” and “more than 70 percent voted for Donald Trump.” It was the only community that launched a substantial boycott of the Smithsonian exhibit.

        What provoked this level of anger, which seems to have been unexpected by the scientists? It was “a near life-sized likeness of a female Neanderthal and her naked child that sparked the most furor…” Gross, and perhaps the scientists involved in the project, seem to have thought that what offended the religious community of Ephrata about the statue was its graphic depiction of human evolution as embodied by a Neanderthal mother and son. Although we now know that homo sapiens did not evolve from Neanderthals, but rather coexisted with them, they nevertheless carry a powerful message that our species did not exist from the beginning of time but slowly developed over millions of years from more primitive species.

But reading the remarks of the Ephrata citizens she quotes in the article, it is clear to us that what offended them was not so much that the statue exemplifies human evolution as that it was a statue of a naked boy standing in front of a woman. Depictions of public nudity, even involving children with their own parents, are offensive to the modesty standards of many traditional religious groups. This statue, standing at the entrance to the exhibit, signaled to the community that the exhibit they were about to see would be offensive to their religious beliefs. It would have been more than sufficient to turn them off to anything else in the exhibit.

        Was it necessary to have the boy be naked? His mother is dressed (did Neanderthal people wear clothes?). A bit more sensitivity to this community’s religious standards might have gone a long way to getting some of them to enter the exhibit with less hostility. We doubt the Smithsonian did this to be deliberately provocative; everything they have said and written about the project emphasizes their sincere desire to be sensitive to the religious views of the communities to which the exhibit traveled. It probably never occurred to them that a “simple” thing like the depiction of public nudity could be so offensive to this group of people. And by missing that, they lost any opportunity to introduce them to the science of evolution.

Let’s Evolve Evolution Teaching

        What might be a better way to start an exhibit like this? We could follow the advice of Richard Plotzker, physician and Critica follower, who wrote an article on the Critica website in which he recommended that “It may be better, as these realities of science are conveyed with some public resistance, to begin at the non-controversial conclusion and work backwards to the transforming insights that created those benefits that we have already accepted”. Richard’s point in “Starting from the End,” is that there are actually many concepts and applications of evolutionary biology that are not controversial. No one we are aware of protested the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, which, according to the Nobel Committee on Chemistry chair, Claes Gustafsson, “applied the principles of [Charles Darwin] in the test tubes, and used this approach to develop new types of chemicals for the greatest benefit of humankind”. The three chemists who won this year’s prize used a method called “random mutagenesis” to develop enzymes that don’t exist in nature but have been used to develop new medications, medications that even members of conservative religious sects will take without a second thought about the fact that without our thorough understanding of natural selection and the evolution of species those medications would never have been invented.

        Religious people have many different ways of understanding evolution. Tensin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, wrote in 2005 that “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change”.  Similarly, Francis Collins, an evangelistic Christian and director of the National Institutes of Health, who led the effort to sequence the human genome, wrote “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory” (The Language of God: A Scientists Presents Evidence for Belief, Free Press, 2006, page 211).

        But for many, evolutionary biology does not seem compatible with religious tenets and they feel they must reject the former in order to remain aligned with the latter. Increasingly, scientists and science educators are recognizing that pitting evolution against religion only alienates the religious community farther. In his article in Scientific American on this topic, “Bringing Darwin Back,” science writer Adam Piore reports that “Indeed, a growing number of researchers are beginning to argue than in addition to tackling misconceptions and showing evolution at work in the world today, it may actually be equally effective to explicitly address the elephant in the science room: religion” (Scientific American 2018;319:56-63). Piore notes that right now about 60% of teachers do not feel comfortable teaching evolution, either because they are not secure with the science, fear backlash from religious parents and their clergy, or both. Fortunately, he explains, novel ways are being developed and tested to teach evolution that do not directly contradict religious beliefs, upset children from religious communities, or inflame anti-evolutionary activism by their parents and local politicians. One of the best of these, it turns out, originates from the Smithsonian Institute itself.

        Scientists themselves tend not to be a particularly religious group of people and many are openly hostile to the idea that a divine power exerts any control over the world. They correctly point out that many things society once ascribed to a higher power have subsequently been explained by science. When you stand inspired by the beautify of fall foliage in its glorious spectrum of colors, you can think that only a God-like being could possibly have accomplished such a magnificent thing. But in fact, we know precisely how changes in the amount of light and heat lead to a breakdown in the chemical necessary for photosynthesis, chlorophyll, exposing the rainbow of pigments that were always there. There is, many scientists insist, absolutely no need to invoke God to explain this or anything else in the natural world. What we think God created, they argue, is only what science has not yet gotten around to figuring out.

        That means that most scientists cannot fathom the emotional tug that religious sentiments have on millions of people. But fighting against those feelings is never going to induce people to accept the fact that evolutionary biology is settled science, that humans have not always existed, and that indeed we are descended from a common ancestor with the great apes. And displaying naked figures at the entrance to an exhibit intended to help religious people understand that evolutionary principles are part of their everyday lives is exactly the way reinforce their belief that evolution is totally antithetical to religion.

        Perhaps these exhibits should start with a life-saving medication that would never have been discovered were it not for our understanding of evolution. We could start, for example, by demonstrating that the battle against antibiotic resistant bacteria can only be won by a thorough understanding of the way random mutations make some bacteria resistant to antibiotics and thereby confer a selective reproductive advantage. There are thousands of such examples, none of which challenge anything in the Bible.

        Some may argue that such an approach is skirting the issue, allowing science deniers to pick and choose what aspects of proven science they wish to accept. That may be true, but if our ultimate goal is to help people see that they can accept evolutionary biology without sacrificing religious beliefs, it may be necessary to start on common ground. When a religious person has a loved one suffering from infection with a bacterial strain that has evolved to be resistant to an antibiotic, they will be relieved to learn that medical science used evolutionary biology to figure out what the problem is and overcome it with a new drug. And starting in a place of mutual agreement and respect may be the best road to accepting science.


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