This week, Feb. 6 – 10, The University of Southern Mississippi will host a series of activities in honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday.
Many universities and institutions will be celebrating Darwin Day on Feb. 12, which is a day to promote science education and, in particular, Darwin’s contributions to biology. Southern Miss has extended its day-long celebration to a week. There will be a fossil hunt, lectures, video screenings, socials, a panel discussion and a keynote address through the University Forum by famous paleontologist Neil Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Your Inner Fish.”
Some of you may be offended that we are having a celebration of Darwin. In fact, in just the last two months, I’ve been bombarded on Facebook by accusations of undermining the religious faith of our students by teaching a “theory” based on little fact with the ultimate desire of implementing a liberal agenda and atheism in our society. That is far from the truth – I don’t try to undermine anyone’s faith, I’m fairly “moderate” politically and I’m not even an atheist! I would like to challenge our students, particularly Christians who may feel that evolution has implications for their religious faith, to consider a few key points and then join us for some of the activities this week.
First, we are celebrating Darwin because his ideas have had a substantial impact in biology and even in the other sciences. His work did not just resolve the question of whether species were individually created about 6,000 years ago. Rather, his work has impacted science at many levels: Antibiotic resistance, relatedness and migration of human populations, lactose tolerance, emerging diseases and vaccine production, pesticide resistance and even forensic science and software engineering.
Evolution has impacted public policy, too, from fishing regulations to control of invasive species and conservation biology. Evolution is a broad explanation that includes more than just biology. If you reject evolution, you are also rejecting much of geology, chemistry and anthropology. In other words, you are rejecting science.
Second, there are plenty of religious reasons why one can “believe” in evolution in addition to the overwhelming scientific evidence in its favor. Even St. Augustine, who lived from 354 – 430 A.D., argued long before Darwin that a literal reading of Genesis was inappropriate. There are plenty of nonliteral texts in the Bible, and one has to determine the intent of those passages based on context and language. Given the words used and the different versions of creation, a literal reading of Genesis 1 – 2 is not faithful to the text itself.
For example, the Hebrew word “adam” can also refer to “man” or “mankind,” and the passages talk about how God speaks to the waters to bring forth certain kinds of life and speaks to the land to bring forth other kinds of life, poetically paralleling evolution. Man even comes from the “dust of the ground.” Many major Christian denominations today (e.g., Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists) have stated that evolution and Christian religious faith are not mutually exclusive. Even the man who gave us the famous quote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Theodosius Dobzhansky, was actually a devout Russian Orthodox Christian.
Finally, many people – even the loosely religious – think that evolution is lacking (or outright wrong) because it seems improbable and reduces us humans to the outcome of chance. Many scientists have actually made this problem worse, because they use words like “blind,” “purposeless” and “undirected.”
Well, science doesn’t deal with purpose in this sense (we don’t think of stochastic events as either “blind” or “seeing,” and chance doesn’t “do” anything), and the use of those words reflects more of the materialistic worldview of the authors. However, we do know that mutations are random with respect to natural selection; two men won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that in 1969. A Christian, except for those who don’t believe in (ontological) chance at all, need not worry: There are plenty of beautiful examples of where randomness or unpredictability at one level is deterministic at another level.
When you flip a (fair) coin, you can’t be sure whether it will land on heads or tails. However, if you flip one million coins, you can be quite confident that very close to 50 percent will land on heads and 50 percent will land on tails. The opposite is true, too, where deterministic dynamics at one level lead to unpredictable behavior at another. Famous examples of this are often called “chaos,” where the tiniest of changes in a predictable framework result in unpredictable patterns. You may have heard of the butterfly effect; a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can lead to a tornado in Texas.
Evolution is a fascinating subject. Don’t be afraid of it ( “reflexive hostility,” as Kenneth Miller calls it), and be willing to challenge your (or your pastor’s or your parents’) deep reservations about it, because you want to live a life of integrity, a life of unity, where your faith – whatever it be – and your knowledge fit together seamlessly. When I teach evolution, I give students a survey at the beginning of the course. One of the questions I ask is, “What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘evolution’?” When I first began teaching evolution at USM about 10 years ago, common answers were “controversy” and “religion.” These days, the most common answer is “dinosaurs.” That’s a great sign.
For those with doubts, I have several recommendations. For a book that clearly lays out the scientific evidence for evolution but that also deals with religious (particularly Christian) issues, I highly recommend Kenneth Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution” (1999). If you’re interested in the improbability, I suggest David Bartholomew’s “God, Chance and Purpose: Can God Have It Both Ways?” (2008) and (the non- and even perhaps anti-religious) book by David Hand, “The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day” (2015). All of these books are available in the USM library.