Ancient history about ancient history (the abstract)

Q: So you've made a case for the importance of differentiating between "evolution" and "naturalism" and you've hinted that the origin of evolutionary theory is really more theological than because of overwhelming empirical evidence. (Whether these arguments are really that good or not is a separate question.) Assuming that we accept these arguments, why would we believe that--naturalistic implications or not--evolutionary theory has anything to offer us?
>Alright. We're now at a curious point. If we take evolutionary theory at face value, we seem to have a theological problem.1 Does evolutionism entail that the universe is random? Does creationism, in whatever form, imply designedness? Does evolution mean the biblical account of Genesis is not true? The easy position is simply to just say no: there aren't dichotomies between the Bible and science, between faith and reason, between evolution and creation, between cosmological meaninglessness and comprehensibility unless we make them. Engagement assumes that there must be some overlap in all these areas of knowledge and belief. But it's much more difficult to define where and to what degree and in what level of permanency we have overlap. I want to make three claims in these posts (think of this as your "abstract" so you can stop reading afterwards, if you like). Because this can get really, really, long and convoluted, I'll break this down into (at least) three posts based on the three claims:
  1. The dichotomies between science and faith, the Bible and science, etc. were first posited by natural historians in the 1700-1800s who were threatened by the monopoly on the state and on the universities by the organized Protestant church. Pietistic/puritanical forms of the church reacted by deepening the divides begun by these early men of science.
  2. (a) Though ostensibly about matters of faith and reason, the divide between Church and Science was really a power struggle. Many of the arguments in favor of one reading of Scripture or one telling of the natural record were masking political issues in the U.S. and U.K. This power struggle continued through the early part of the twentieth century, when it became clear that society's thirst for short-term practical answers--closely tied to the rise of consumerism--was fracturing the traditional, liturgical stance of many mainstream Protestant denominations. (b) Though many expressions of Protestantism fell between the two, extremes of progressivism and fundimentalism grew up out of mainstream Protestantism at that time. Struggles both for doctrinal truth and for power between and within the extreme interpretations of Protestantism polarized, rightly or wrongly, around issues of science vs. Scripture, faith vs. reason, communal vs. individual, social justice vs. moral purity, etc. And issues that were matters of degree were portrayed as simple, black and white decisions for or against Christ and His Church. Science and especially the theory of evolution were lumped into this system of dichotomies.
  3. The ca. 1750 to the present system of dichotmies can be broken down and a level of concord (though perhaps not agreement) reached between Church and Science if the Church makes the first move of addressing questions of faith and reason in a loving and self-critical rather than combative spirit. (I would also argue that this is happening in limited way already--mostly within the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.)
(1) Again, by evolutionary theory, I mean here the theory of common descent with modification or "macro-evolution." I doubt anyone really has a problem with micro-evolution. People get nervous when we talk about the "mutability" of species, meaning for instance that the species we know as "dog" is descended from something that we would not have recognized as a "dog." Whether or not that applies to humans is a somewhat different issue, so for now, let's try to leave it aside. In this accounting creatio ex nihilo is not discounted. In other words, God could have designed the universe out of nothing with certain "basic types" representing the beginning of the evolutionary life scale, knowing that a dinosaur, say, would be able to mutate into dogs, cats, birds, etc. This point was believed by some late 1800s Christian evolutionists in an attempt to sync up Scripture and evolution. This model was called the "Ark" model--speculating that it might look similar in the fossil record to a population bottleneck, like a Deluge, followed by rapid speciation and repopulation.


Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, I don't remember much of Evolutionary Theory in my Anthro classes at OU and OSU, but I believe that the debate is both philosophical and empirical.

I think that in Protestantism, you saw a progressive movement in the 19th century towards education, both public and higher education as a means to understanding God. A lot of the reformers in the 19th century who came from this branch were the movers and shakers in the abolitionist movement, and public education movement.

You also had a backlash in the Protestant church against this progressive movement when this progressive movement started embracing ideas that might threaten the fundamental truths of Christianity.

However, I believe that science and reason, faith and hard facts from science can work together.


2/20/2005 7:16 PM  
Blogger e said...

Hey man! Good comment. I'm going to try to specifically talk about the 19th c. shift toward education in Protestantism and the importance of abolition in all of this....thanks for bringing these points up.

2/21/2005 12:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Soctt and E:

Thanks scott for the historical background. I did not think of the links that you mentioned. Good to see a social science perspective represented in the comment board

I wonder if the methods of teaching both evolution and design need to be brought into discussion. For example, the Voet textbook for Biochemistry used in universities has an interesting display on thier ideas of origins of life. Their picture in the first chapter has a galazy at the top. Followed by some micro-organisms, then invertebrates, vertebrates, and at the bottom, a man and a woman with fig leaves on their genitals. I am not sure if this is humor or science-of-the-gaps theory.

Or, what about mathematics? Does anyone have an idea on the probability for two species (male and female) to evolve simultaneously? My guess is that the number is astronomical. This does not mean that it could not happen, but two sexually reproducable species evolving simultaneously is a puzzle.


2/21/2005 8:13 AM  
Blogger e said...

i like that little science diagram. it just goes to show that no matter how "scientific" we want to be, we always sneak in some mythology...or even hero-worship (with us as the "heros, of course).

You're right about the astronomically huge number if you need to species to "pop out," male and female, simultaneously. But evolutionary theory does not ask that.

It asks only that a particular characteristic gets passed on (like dark-colored skin or something) and then, subsequent to that characteristic being dispersed amongst a number of different organisms in a population, the trait becomes adaptive (like the ozone layer gets depleted allowing more UV radiation to hit the Earth's surface). The characteristic that was once just "neutral" suddenly becomes "adaptive" (people without dark skin are unable to reproduce because they're dying of skin cancer--darker skined people are fine). Eventually, only one type of organism exists--the one that is most adaptive. If this happens in one particular region but not globally, then you potentially have two different species.

I'm not saying that it's the idea that everyone should buy, but it makes more sense than have two creatures coming into existence from spontaneous generation.

2/21/2005 9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think its important to remember (as E was eluding to) that there is no difference between micro and macroevolution except that genes between species usually diverge (if I understand this correctly) while genes within species usually combine. The same processes that cause within-species evolution are responsible for above-species evolution, except that the processes that cause speciation include things that cannot happen to lesser groups, such as the evolution of different sexual apparatus (because, by definition, once organisms cannot interbreed, they are different species). The idea that the origin of higher taxa, such as genera (canines versus felines, for example) requires something special is based on the misunderstanding of the way in which new lineages arise. The two species that are the origin of canines and felines probably differed very little from their common ancestral species and each other. But once they were reproductively isolated from each other, they evolved more and more differences that they shared but the other lineages didn't. This is true of all lineages back to the first nuclear cell. Even the changes in the Cambrian explosion are like this, although some (Gould) think that the gene structures of these early animals were not as tightly regulated as modern animals, and therefore had more freedom to change.

As far as trying to reconcile all of this to the Genesis account.. I obviously can't help you there. I would like to ask though; how seriously are you willing to take the other accounts offered in Genesis? Renegade angels having sex with women and creating giants? Noah's ark? Much of the bible can be easily thrown off as embellished redacted stories convoluted by man in order to personify that which he had no other understanding of. Trying to fit 6000 year old theological observations within todays science and understanding is a complete step backwards and we are becomming a laughing stock because of it.


2/23/2005 2:52 PM  

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