Does the fact of evolution threaten your beliefs?

In a previous post, I pointed out that evolution is an observable fact, similar to the observable fact (for example) that there are rocks and a dog in my garden (if you don’t trust the photo, come over and I’ll show you). I also differentiated between the fact of biological evolution and modern science’s best explanation of its mechanism – the Theory of Natural Selection.

Towards the end of the (very brief) post, I stated that the fact of evolution and the ability of the Theory of Natural Selection to explain it do not disprove the existence of a creator. I also stated that evolution does not only occur in biological systems and listed a few “other” systems in which it occurs. I misspoke in one of these assertions – it’s certainly true that evolution occurs in non-biological systems, but the examples I gave (language, culture and anthropogenic technologies) were all biological systems….my bad.

Regardless, it seems some critics of the piece didn’t read all the way to the end, because a number of responses on social media (and one here) suggest that people felt that claiming evolution as a fact threatened their beliefs. Does it?

Evolution is (again) “descent with modification”. It occurs in non-biological systems, such as (a better example!) the universe (or multiverse, megaverse, or whatever your preferred flavour of “….verse”). One of the products of this cosmological evolution is biology, but the evolution of the universe as a whole is not a biological process. In this context, what “evolution” means is that the future states of the universe are dependent upon (because descended from) past states. Every time the universe changes, it doesn’t blink out of existence and get rebuilt from scratch in a nanosecond – new states are always “built from” old states. This is the same in biological evolution of course and is one of the reasons there is so much evidence of past evolution present in the world today in the form of shared DNA. This is the evidence that allows Richard Dawkins to say “…when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.”

Some might say that calling the history of the universe its “evolution” dilutes the meaning of the word beyond recognition, but there are actually some deep similarities between cosmological and biological evolution, including the creation of order from chance variation (there are plenty of great authors to read on this topic, e.g., David Christian, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Seth Lloyd). In this way both the evolution of the universe and the evolution of biological systems are fundamentally different from the weathering of rocks in my garden, which it might be a stretch to refer to as their “evolution” from rocks into sand (although we might have an interesting discussion about that sometime – you bring the beer).

In the range of biological systems currently present in our little corner of the universe, a number of forms of evolution are in operation, including but not limited to natural selection. Evolution can proceed according to the selection of a designer or designers, as is the case for the evolution of tools and technologies such as the computer on which you’re reading this, and the evolution of artificially selected “cultivars” such as Australian Shepherd dogs (like Keneally in my garden). It can proceed without the need for a designer, as in standard natural selection. It can proceed through a combined process of designer-driven and designer-less selection, as in the evolution of a language, in which two forms of designer-less selection occur – natural selection (on us, the organisms that use the words) and memetic selection (on the words themselves) – along with the directed selection of words and conventions for their use by designers (e.g., the Académie française). Evolution can even occur in the absence of any selection pressure at all, as in genetic drift.

The principal belief system threatened by acknowledgement of the fact of evolution is Essentialism, which is essentially (hah!) the doctrine that things have an immutable essence from which they cannot change significantly and to which they always return. The most influential proponent of Essentialism in the history of Western Thought was Plato. Needless (hopefully) to say – Plato was not a Christian. Platonic Essentialism was very influential on Christian theology, but Christians are certainly not committed to it. Multiple Popes have acknowledged the fact of evolution (http://time.com/3545844/pope-francis-evolution-creationism/). In 2014, Pope Francis (though he wasn’t the first to say something of the sort) said “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” – even the faith can evolve.

Those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and believe in a creator and those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and see no need for a creator differ in that the latter apply (or apply correctly) a simple logical principle – Occam’s Razor. Those who do not acknowledge the fact of evolution are wrong (sorry!). The principle of Occam’s Razor is often misunderstood as “the simplest explanation is always the best”. This misunderstanding often leads to “arguments” of the “God did it. Boom!” variety. This is silly because an omnipotent and omniscient creator is hardly simple. Regardless, Occam’s Razor is actually the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. In modern scientific terms, this might be translated as “do not postulate additional causes when sufficient causes have already been identified”. Colloquially, this translates as “don’t make stuff up”. Occam’s Razor is a very useful principle but there is no external agent (like a God, for example) that says you must apply it. You can choose not to – you can acknowledge the fact of evolution (and the presence of rocks in my garden) and leave your belief in a creator untouched….if you really want to.

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