I rewrote some of this later in the evening on the day I wrote this, to fix some grammar/spelling problems and also to just flow better.
I’ve been thinking more about my earlier remarks about the evolution/intelligent design controversy, mostly because my pastor actually talked about the issue in today’s sermon, and I honestly didn’t completely agree with him (which is ok. I agree with him about 98% of the time, so a few disagreements are no big deal). He said that he believed that the intelligent design issue was causing American Christians to take un-scientific points of view as a matter of faith, which in turn is causing (along with many other factors) American Christians to be more out of touch with reality, which manifests itself in many other areas.
I sorta agree with him a little bit. Evolution I do think is the most plausible scientific explanation for the origins of life. I’ve studied it to some degree (not to a great extent because I just don’t have that great a science background… I had a few decent science teachers in school but I also had a lot of lazy ones too who didn’t seem to even care if they taught us much about the subject and managed to take all of the fun and joy out of science… but that’s another subject) and it just makes sense, and certainly makes more sense than taking too literal a belief in the Genesis account of creation (which has plants being created before the sun… a little bit of a problem to say the least).
But where I disagre with my pastor is when he equates a “scientific” viewpoint with being necessarily the best viewpoint or even a true viewpoint.
To flesh this out a little more, let me ask this question — Does knowing the process of the origins of life really help us as human beings? I’m not sure. Darwinism has spawned some pretty brutal philosophical and economic theories (i.e. the social darwinism that gave moral justification to the ultra-rich during the capitalist heyday of the industrial revolution . . . also to some degree one could argue that the negative aspects of Soviet-style Marxism were a spawn of evolutionary theory, since the theory of evolution provided the intellectual basis for a materialistic view of life and the world) and I think tends at least in the eyes of many to take away the dignity of human beings, since we are no longer “made in the image of God” but rather are just the survivors of a eat-or-be-eaten world.
And then if you consider other scientific ideas besides evolution it gets more and more troubling. Look at where the study of atomic science has led us. Look at the ways that agri-science is now trying to unlock all of the secrets of DNA and then exploit those secrets (while at the same time not knowing at all what they are really doing). I guess what I’m saying is that science, if practiced in a moral vaccuum is incredibly dangerous and is something that may in the end destroy us all.
These ideas are not of course unique to me. I first encountered them in the writings of Wendell Berry, and later in the writings of others, and just in observing what is happening in this world. I guess mostly my concern is that science by itself is dangerous because it lacks humility and reverence. If a scientist recognizes the incredible intricacy and detail and interconnectedness of all creation, then a scientist will be careful with the knowledge that he or she gains, and hopefully will be careful with seeking to understand the effects of that knowledge. Too often though, this is not the case.
So I guess that is where spirituality and religion should come to play. The answer is not to try to know it all (which is my main beef with the Intelligent Design movement — many of these same folks are the ones who think they can 100% understand the Bible too… a goofy idea given the mystery that scripture attempts to convey), but rather to understand that we don’t know jack squat, and since we don’t know jack squat, we need to be careful. We should learn about the world, about nature, about everything, but we need to understand that what we know is only one tiny, tiny piece of information, and that if we recklessly act upon that information in a way that is out of proportion to what we can be responsible for (in other words, if what we do ends up being a bad deal, is the scope of our actions small enough that we can make things right again?), we have erred and could do tremendous damage. That is why religion is a possible check on the dangers of science, because religion reminds us that we don’t know it all, but that there is a higher power in the universe who has created, through means to mysterious to completely understand, a world in which our place and role is necessarily small (yet essential).
I guess now if I turn back to looking at evolution from a perspective of faith, then one can see that it is a theory that could be used for good or for evil. Positively, evolution reminds us that nothing stays the same and that we humans (while in some sense divine — that is what I think the whole “image of God” metaphor means) are also animals who have a place in nature. Certainly one could see this whole process as being completely random, but I think there’s a place to see our divine nature as being what enables us (if we are humble and reverent about it) to actually make the world better. One great example is that of the tomato. I know the tomato seems pretty mundane to most folks, but the truth is that a few thousand years ago there weren’t that many variety of tomatoes (that we know of at least), but over the last few millenia, human beings have selectively bred tomato varieties by saving seeds from those plants that had desirable traits, planting those seeds and then selecting seed to save from the next generation. Of course nature has a bit of randomness to it (by way of natural mutations), but human beings also play a role by choosing to save the seeds from those mutations that have traits that are helpful. Anyway today there are literally thousands of varieties of tomatoes – red, pink, yellow, orange, purple, black, green (and I mean a ripe Green as in “Aunt Ruby’s German Green”) with so many different flavors, some spicy, some tart, some savory, some sweet; different textures, different ways of growing, different times of ripeness, even just purely aestetic things like whether the plant has regular tomato leaves or “potato” leaves.
The key to this process is that as long as people didn’t try to control the process too much things went beautifully and as a result human beings served to actually make evolution a better process.
However, there came a point that people started to get lazy and that is where the hybrids came in to play (where companies took short cuts to plant breeding, by developing varieties whose genetics were stable for one generation but would not grow true to type in future years — well laziness is the only fault here, but also greed since hybrids kept farmers from saving their own seeds from year-to-year) and where the genetic diversity of tomatoes started to decrease. And now it is getting worse since scientists are now not just crossing tomato varieties (by methods used for thousands of years) but are actually tampering with the DNA itself of the tomato (!), and sometimes are even inserting gene sequences that are from other species! There is no telling what kind of hazards are being created, and the truth is that no one knows what might happen. (Lots of folks have written about the dangers of genetic engineering who know more than I do about it, so I won’t rehash it all here)
I don’t mean to be alarmist here, but I think it is high time (probably long past time) to put science back into its proper place and role in society. We have let this monster get too far out of control. The intelligent design folks are right – evolution is dangerous, but they’ve missed the bigger picture. The truth is that all of science is dangerous.