Evolution: The Theory That Pits Science Against Religion
I would agree with science philosopher Daniel Dennett that Darwin's theory of evolution is probably one of the most daring and revolutionary scientific theories that was ever postulated in the history of mankind. The original field observations and studies made by Charles Darwin and the naturalists of his time-150 years ago-- regarding the gradual changes that organisms undergo through the millennia have today found overwhelming scientific support. Present-day scientific studies, particularly in the areas of genetic, molecular and cellular biology, and the chemical sciences support the scientific notion that the thousands of species on earth have been evolving and will continue to evolve. Some, of course, will become extinct in the process, for failure to adapt to their environment.
It is also interesting to note that the theory of evolution itself appears to be "evolving" in the sense that Darwin's seminal ideas on evolution have undergone gradual changes for a fuller understanding of the theory of evolution. Scientists are now studying evolution with much more scientific detail. They have advanced from simple field observations and studies showing the gradual changes in physical characteristics of the various species to the present-day studies involving gene mutations giving us the reasons for the whys and how of the evolution of organisms. For example, scientists today are studying, among other things, the reasons why species that used to walk with four legs later evolved to a species with two legs and two arms, and begin to be able to stand up erect.
The Darwinian definition of evolution states that evolution is the progression of organisms to naturally select those traits that would benefit the survival of that organism. Darwin's theory is that organisms adapt or "alter" themselves to their environment in a certain way so as to reach "perfection" with its environment. Change is somehow dependent on the organism's surrounding environment, i.e. the climate, the food available, the nature of the habitat, geographical location on the planet, sunlight, and so forth. Darwin explains how organisms are always struggling to adjust themselves to their surroundings so that they could survive. Darwin calls this concept "descent with modification." It is the term from which the subsequent expression "survival of the fittest" was later coined by others.
Modern science has indeed provided much more evidence and support for Darwin's original theory of evolution. The combination of Darwin's theory with the discovery of genetics by Gregor Mendel has become the foundation for the scientific study of evolution. By studying the genetic materials (biological and chemical) of various organisms, we could now begin to see how past organisms appear to have changed over time. With modern scientific technology, for example, scientists can isolate the DNA of one animal (or fossil) and compare it with the DNA of another animal (or fossil).
From this comparative study of organisms from different ages, we have begun to see the homologous sequences between two organisms of different times showing that there must have been a point in time where a particular portion of the earlier organism's DNA mutated to produce a new genetic sequence that developed a new variation of that earlier organism. In many cases, the new organism with the altered DNA sequence would show essentially similar phenotype or function as the earlier organisms whose DNA has since mutated. In comparing the two (or more) organisms at their genetic level with their phenotype and function, we could see that the organism has since changed or "evolved."
One difference between modern biological study of evolution and the Darwinian theory of evolution is that the modern study of evolution includes the evolution of all living organisms, including the human specie. Darwin, in contrast, never discussed or even mentioned in his writings on evolution the idea that humans themselves may have evolved from their pre-historic ancestors. The reason for this is probably the fact that Darwin came from a deeply religious background. Indeed, he had been expected by his father to become a minister. His trip on the HMS Beagle to South America and the Galapagos Islands and his role as the ship's naturalist led him to study of the different varieties of plants and animals (i.e. the non-human species) may have led him to also consider the possibility that man himself may himself have evolved from earlier, more primitive ancestors. He apparently decided not to delve further into this possibility because of his religious belief that man as a species was created by God. As a scientist, however, he may also have envisioned the huge clash such "atheistic" theory would have with established religious belief of the time.
Darwin's theory of evolution, even without the inclusion of the human specie, still put him on a collision course with Christian religious belief. Centuries earlier, as we may recall, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church when he proposed the idea that the earth is not the center of the universe. Darwin's theory-carried one step further-would basically say that man evolved from more primitive species; and this would be clearly heretical during Darwin's time. If such theory had been made during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, it would have warranted being put to death by the Church itself because such theory is "pure heresy" to the Christian faith. Indeed, to this day, millions of people still believe that man, as he is and has been, was created by God, and that he never evolved.
Revolutionary then was Darwin's theory of evolution to Western civilization. His theory essentially shook the very foundation of Christian belief. But rather than rocking the boat, Darwin never mentioned the possibility that man himself may have also evolved. As a Christian though, Darwin must have experienced a deep inner conflict between his religious belief and his scientific quest for an explanation as to how all organisms came about. Unwilling to create a major controversy during his time, he apparently decided to keep his religious belief and his scientific theory separate.
Because the Church today no longer exercises the authority it used to have, present day scientists are no longer held back by religious considerations and many are now actively focusing on the study of the evolution of the human specie. Over the past several decades, they have found genetic and other scientific evidence suggesting that man indeed evolved from his ancestral primates.
A particular topic of interest to present day scientists has been the question as to whether organisms are still evolving and how that is happening. Related to this question is the matter of whether the human specie is still evolving. It has been suggested by some that the human specie may soon no longer evolve. Because humans appear to have already reached their peak in terms of intelligence, some have surmised that maybe the evolution of the human species will soon end.
A British geneticist has suggested one other reason why he thinks that human evolution may soon end, namely, the decreasing rate of mutations in the human specie. Due to changes in reproductive practice in recent times, he believes that the rate of human mutation has decreased. He argues that because there has been a decrease in the number of fathers over the age of thirty-five, there is less chance of mutation occurring in an infant's DNA since the rates of mutation are higher when a newborn is fathered by an older, but a stronger and resilient man. His theory is that stronger men who father more offspring into their later age increase the chances for mutation to occur more and, therefore, for evolution to continue. A number of countries are now placing restrictions on how many child one could have, so there has been a corresponding decrease in birth rates and, therefore, the chances for mutation to occur are now less. I personally have strong doubt about the validity of this particular hypothesis.
Although we still do not know (and we might never know), it is very likely that all organisms would continue evolving so long as there is life on earth. I have suggested in a previous paper that humans are still evolving and, indeed, are now evolving at a faster pace. Although the rate of human mutation appear to be decreasing as suggested by the British geneticist because of the decrease in the number of childbirths, the opposite may just be the case, i.e. that the rate of mutation is actually increasing. Today's society puts a very strong emphasis on striving for success. As a result, people wait until later in life to have children. Therefore, parents are now much older when they have children. This should, therefore, increase rather than decrease the chances of mutation occurring.
Darwin's theory also refutes the suggestion that organisms would soon stop evolving, because such suggestion is completely contrary to the basis of evolution. Once a species stops evolving, life would then cease for that species. Evolution, as defined by Darwin, is an organism's adaptation to his environment. It is a physical adaptation. But for man the adaptation appears to have evolved from not just physical, but to both physical and mental. Evolution, therefore, appears to have taken a new turn, and is now poised to continue into another direction, so long as there are living organisms on earth. Only when our environment stops changing would evolution cease. Until then, changes to the species will continue, and hopefully for the better.
Because it appears that evolution would continue to occur, one may question whether organisms are evolving in a forward direction or a backward direction. A forward direction suggests evolution in an advantageous manner, whereas a backward direction suggests evolution in a disadvantageous manner.
Darwin would argue that organisms evolve forward rather than backward, because the whole idea of evolution is for the specie to adapt and become "perfect" with its environment. Organisms change through natural selection. Under this process, only traits that will benefit the organism will be selected. According to Darwin, organisms change in a way so as to reach perfection with its environment. The studies he made provide much evidence to show that an organism evolve so as to benefit itself. For example, he goes into great detail about the variations in different birds such as pigeons and finches.
Darwin devotes many pages describing the various beaks and wings of finches that he observed in different parts of the Galapagos Islands. He describes how these variations are due in part from the need for the species to adapt itself to its environment. The finches developed into different species due to their reproductive isolation in a new environment. For example, if one finch with a small beak that lives in an environment with berry bushes and only eats berries flew to an isolated location where there were no berries and only nuts to eat, that finch would evolve in a way to have a larger and stronger beak so that it would be able to crack and eat the nuts. Its beak would, therefore, evolve in a manner so as to be able to survive in the new environment. In this manner the finch has evolved forward, i.e. the change has benefited the finch. A new species of finches arrives because the older species had to adapt to the new environment in order to survive.
There are many other examples of different organisms evolving so as to beneficially adapt themselves to their environment. They include the polar bear evolving to have a white fur so that it could "hide" in the snow and sneak up on it's prey without being noticed; a giraffe evolving to have a long neck so that it could reach for food that are located high up in the trees; a chameleon evolving to be able to change its skin color so that it may camouflage itself from its predators; various insects that look like the leaves or twigs of their environments for protection against predators; a penguin evolving to have more flipper-like wings so that it may be able to swim faster and more efficiently in the water to catch fish. These are just a few more examples showing how organisms have evolved so that they could adapt themselves to and become "perfect" with their environment.
Humans also have similarly shown a pattern of "forward evolution." We could see this pattern based on the fact that man today is quite different from our known early, primitive ancestors, who used to be hunter-gatherers. We see human evolution as a forward movement because we have evolved from our ancestors not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also culturally, socially and mentally as well. We also know that the changes in the physical characteristics of man have shaped the modern evolution of man individually and as a social being.
One particular aspect of the evolution of man that has greatly impacted man as a species to his benefit has been the development of the human brain. We know this to be a fact, through studies of human fossils. Homo sapiens have a much larger brain than his immediate primate ancestors. This particular characteristic apparently developed at the point when man as hunter-gatherer discovered fire, very likely by accident, and began to cook his food. He learned that meat apparently becomes tastier and more edible when cooked over fire. It is not clear though whether the greater consumption of meat somehow allowed for the further development of the human brain and hence the development of the human intellect. At which point man became a "conscious being" though would probably remain one of the greatest mysteries that man may never be to figure out scientifically. But then again, it may be one of those things towards which man may be evolving to. But no one knows. Man's state of knowledge and consciousness has yet to reach that point to figure out this mystery.
For now, the increase in the size of man's brain has led to so many scientific discoveries that have impacted on ma culturally, economically and socially. For example, man evolved from being a hunter-gather to a farmer-herder; from being a nomad to being a stationary being. Farming and animal domestication allowed man to finally stay in one place as a social group. From this, organized societies and, later on, nations developed. Life became easier because people did not have to deal with the stress of moving to an unknown place to live every year or so. When man's intellect started developing, new technology was discovered and people began finding innovative and helpful ways to live. The invention of tools for farming allowed farmers to be more efficient in terms of food production. This freed up others to pursue a different occupation, such as tool-making, building construction, road builders, and so forth. These new occupations helped improve the lives of people enormously and helped them adapt to their new environment. From all of these, man's lifestyle began to evolve and change.
The inventions of modern technology has allocated more time for man to spend on leisure activities, as opposed to work. With more time at his disposal, man has been able to devote more time to being creative. The 20th Century could be seen as also the beginning of the technological creativity of man, with the invention of the airplane, the computer, the telephone, electricity and so forth. This rise in human creativity may be seen as the next form of evolution of man. After all, evolution is the ability of man to adapt himself to his environment to his greatest benefit. Evolution need not be all physical, it may be mental, and that part of man's evolution has just started to take off.
Although debatable, human creativity is another great benefit generated from evolution. Art, theatre, dance, poetry, writing, sports, and music are all products of human creativity. It is these aspects of life that allow for humans to use their minds in a way everyday work cannot. It allows for humans to explore their culture, to come up with new ideas, and to express themselves individually. All these are beneficial to humans and encourage humans to grow and evolve further.
One example that we learned from class, where we see the evolution of the human mind in terms of creativity is Walt Whitman. His book, Leaves of Grass, is considered one of the most remarkable pieces of poetry of the modern era. He is known as the father of free verse and was the first to begin writing poetry in prose. His writing revolutionized the way people write and think about poetry. Many say that he was a writer way ahead of his time and was a key driver in the development and evolution of literature. His body of work evokes a product of an intellect that has evolved over time. His unique way of thinking exemplifies how his mind had evolved from the style pf writing that past writers had. Because his work stands out from the works of other great writers, because his work is innovative and uplifts the mind, it could be said that Whitman, the person himself, is an excellent example of human intellectual evolution that is moving forward.
There are a number of other outstanding individuals during the past several centuries that exemplify the evolution of man from an intellectual perspective. From a literary perspective they include Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, and Edgar Allan Poe. From an artistic perspective, we note Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Andy Warhol. From a musical perspective, we find Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, and The Beatles. From a scientific perspective we note Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and, of course, Charles Darwin himself.
While there are many examples of living organisms that have evolved beneficially, the evolution of man is the most remarkable because it is an evolution that is truly unique-the evolution into the realm of consciousness that only man possesses.
There are some who suggest that for some organism, their evolution has stopped and they are now no longer evolving, but are devolving in the sense that they are going backwards. They contend that these organisms have reached their peak in terms of development and are no longer evolving. I would disagree with this hypothesis or line of thinking because evolution by definition is the ability of an organism to adapt itself to its environment for the benefit of the organism. If the organism does not do this or stops doing this, then it would die and become extinct. If that is what is meant by those who espouse the hypothesis of devolution, then of course that is true for so many of the species that have failed to adapt to their environment; they ultimately die out and become extinct.
The other argument in support of devolution is the change that some of us have made in our eating habit, from being carnivorous to being vegetarians. This argument has to do more with healthy eating habit than the notion that man will soon stop evolving. Indeed, by having a longer life span through healthy eating habits, man would be able to further evolve forward.
A third argument in support of the devolution hypothesis is that man is no longer as fit as he was a hundred years ago. If that is truly the case, then man's lifespan would be shorter now than a hundred years ago. But that is not the case. Indeed, man's life span today is many years longer than what it was a century ago. True, fast food is not the way to have a longer life span; that is why people have embarked on the idea of eating healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables.
One could make a fourth argument in support of the notion that evolution is moving backwards instead of forward from Dennett's strong and unbending view that evolution is a given and that religion has been a huge hoax played on people over the centuries.. His book places great emphasis on the notion that evolution has been going on for millions of years and is the only basis for the origin of man on earth. God and religion are man-made inventions and have no scientific basis. He constantly preaches his belief that only evolution makes sense and that there is no basis for the existence of God.
The irony with Dennett's unbending belief in evolution is that he himself has become a sort of "high-priest" of evolution, his religion. To Dennett, evolution is the "be-all and end-all" of human existence. He places evolution on the highest pedestal even though he knows that evolution still remains a scientific theory that has not yet conclusively determined that indeed, God does not exist. To me his preaching on evolution has a certain degree of arrogance. And this is the main difference between Dennett and Charles Darwin. Darwin does not show any arrogance when he proposed the theory of evolution 150 years ago. What he exhibited then and before he died was a deep humility in recognizing the very strong hypothesis that man evolved from the lowest of creatures to a point where he has become a conscious being.
Not once did Darwin ever question the existence of a Creator. If he did, he kept it to himself; unlike Dennett Although I agree that evolution is most likely what has been happening on this earth, I do not necessarily believe that evolution and God are mutually exclusive. As man continues to evolve, as I think would be the case, we will be finding out more and more whether the two are indeed mutually exclusive or not.
One last example of devolution is Siri Hudsvedt's novel, The Sorrows of an American. Here the characters appear stagnant and unhappy. They do not appear to be evolving in the sense that they are adapting to their environment to their benefit. They show no improvement or development throughout the story. Their problems never end. The character Eric comes to the realization, at the end, that life is okay although nothing significant ever happened to him. The adaptation Eric resigned himself to with his environment was not for the better, and in that sense was a devolution.
I would argue that evolution would continue until there is no life on earth. The various organisms, including man, would continue trying to adapt themselves to their ever changing environment. I do not believe in backwards evolution because the term by itself is contradictory. I agree with Darwin every organism is evolving to benefit itself. For organisms that do not evolve so as to adapt themselves to their environment, the answer is extinction. Evolution, we should again note, is the apparent random and spontaneous development of an organism as it tries to adapt to its surroundings in order to survive. Belief in God, in contrast goes into the realm of the spiritual world, not the physical world that our sense is aware of. The two should always be kept separate.
1. Darwin, Charles. "On the Origin of Species." Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, 2003.
2. Dennett, Daniel C. "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life."
Smith and Schuster Paperbacks. New York, 1995.
3. Hustvedt, Siri. "The Sorrows of an American." Henry Holt and Company. 1st Picador Edition. New York, 2008.
4. Whitman, Walt. "Leaves of Grass." Original 1885 Edition. Dover Publications Inc.
New York, 2007.