15 February 2009

Thoughts After Viewing "Thank God for Evolution" DVD at Church

On Sunday afternoon after our morning worship and religious education class time, our church screened a portion of the companion DVD for Rev. Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution. A description of the DVD can be found here.

You can download a free excerpt of Dowd's book using this web page.

After seeing part of the DVD today, it still seems like a very cleaver way to reframe religion so it's compatible with modern-day evolutionary biology - an example of memetic religious adaptation happening right before our eyes.

However, I was puzzled by something that Michael said in on the DVD.

Here's a quote in his book that is identical or nearly identical to an idea that he presented in his DVD:
Religious believers can hardly be expected to embrace evolution if the only version they've been exposed to portrays the processes at work as merely competitive and pointless, even cruel, and thus godless. Is it any wonder that many on the conservative side of the theological spectrum find such a view repulsive, and that many on the liberal side accept evolution begrudgingly?
[Source - Thank God for Evolution, page 7]
The troubling thing about this idea is that it justifies a rejection of a scientific theory if it appears to contradict one's religious beliefs.

First, some very basic evolutionary biology before we explore the theological issues with Dowd's suggestion.

One of Darwin's contributions to evolutionary biology was natural selection.

Natural selection operates through a simple algorithmic mechanism that follows from the following facts:
  1. Heritable variation exists within populations of organisms.
  2. Organisms produce more offspring than can survive.
  3. These offspring vary in their ability to survive and reproduce.
Given enough time and this simple process, one ends up with both great beauty and great cruelty in the natural world. The three steps are mindless but they have produced both mindfulness and awareness in our world - perhaps the ultimate demonstration of evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel's "Second Rule" that he coined in response to anti-evolutionary appeals to irreducible complexity:
"Evolution is cleverer than you are."
Natural selection was not advanced as a theory because biologists wanted to promote a "competitive, pointless, cruel, and godless" theory like natural selection.

As a theory, it was proposed because it:
  1. Fit known facts
  2. Provided opportunities for making future predictions (testing and falsifiability) along with further refinement through discovery of new facts (which has done extensively since 1859)
  3. Was an excellent example of parsimony (parsimony in science is the "preference for the least complex explanation for an observation")
I find it puzzling that one would entertain the suggestion to reject a theory that simply because it appears to be "pointless" or "godless" from a human perspective.

Although we have removed ourselves from the center of universe in 1543, many of us still need to accept or reject scientific theories not on the basis of evidence but rather on the basis of how well they serve human aesthetic or psychological needs.

Perhaps we need to face the possibility that creation may be indifferent to our aesthetic or psychological needs?

On the DVD, Dowd talks extensively about the evolutionary trend towards greater cooperation and he suggests that evolution is a directional process.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the simple evolutionary algorithmic process that requires cooperation in all instances.

Cooperation is an adaptive response in some circumstances and that is why we see examples of it in nature.

However, there are instances where competition is very successful biologically.

However, that doesn't make ruthless self-interested competition the most ethical choice for us today. Given the cultural tools that we have, we can predict the future negative outcomes that come from individual self-interest.

As humans with culture and communication, we can explore cooperative options through the cultural adaptation options available to us.

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