Evolution and Religion

One of the biggest political and social (rather than scientific) questions surrounding evolution is what effect it has on religious belief, and what effect it should have. I’ll state my position on the matter outright: if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, evolution certainly conflicts with your worldview. However, if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, it shouldn’t matter. You’re already so much at odds with the facts that evolution is the least of your problems where science is concerned.

More reasonable Christians have a tougher time of it. On paper, a Christian for whom the Bible is not a history textbook written by an omnipotent being should have no reason to reject evolution on religious grounds; after all, the Bible doesn’t mention the vast majority of what we know about the Universe. (And let’s face it, the idea of the Big Bang is appropriately awe-inspiring to be the work of a god.) Yet I can understand why evolution might not gel with someone whose beliefs dictate that humanity is special, created by God in his own image. If nothing else, evolution certainly contradicts that idea.

However, I don’t think that should be a barrier to accepting the theory either. Evolution is not alone in stating that humans are ‘mere’ apes, markedly different from the others mainly because of our great intelligence. Basic biology points to the exact same conclusion; whether you believe that we are similar to the rest of our taxonomical family because of common ancestry or because God made us that way, it’s undeniable that we are similar. We share many of the same genetic material and even a rough anatomical comparison makes it cleat that nobody is closer to us than the (other) great apes. 

Humans have been placed in the same category as orangutangs, gorillas and chimpanzees since before evolution became a dominant theory in biology, and what’s more, that classification was accepted by scientists at a time when Creationism was the norm. Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, had this to say to one of his criticisers:

 

It does not please (you) that I’ve placed Man among the Anthropomorpha, but man learns to know himself. Let’s not quibble over words. It will be the same to me whatever name we apply. But I seek from you and from the whole world a generic difference between man and simian that [follows] from the principles of Natural History. I absolutely know of none. If only someone might tell me a single one! If I would have called man a simian or vice versa, I would have brought together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to have by virtue of the law of the discipline.

 

Keep in mind that Linnaeus died in 1778, decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Although evolution in some form had been proposed before and during his lifetime, nobody could accuse him of pandering to evolutionary theory, since it barely existed at the time. Needless to say, genetic comparison and all of the tools of modern science merely confirm what Linnaeus first realised. (His beliefs about the ‘races of humanity’, however, haven’t aged quite so well.)

The phrase from the above quote that intrigues me the most is ‘man learns to know himself’. Such sentiment is at the very heart of both science and religion, and while I have far more respect for the former when it comes to actual ability to produce results, the two do not need to conflict. I believe that it makes more sense for religion to yield to science rather than the other way around (and I can’t see that the two can co-exist without one yielding to the other), but that does not mean that science and evolutionary theory cannot inform or even enhance religious belief. If there is a God, and if that God has revealed itself to us, its message will surely be in its own creation rather than in books of Scripture. 

We are animals. Anything even approaching mainstream biology confirms this, yet far from diminishing us somehow, science shows us that being called an ‘animal’ should not be an insult. The statement is neither pejorative or belittling to humanity. It is simply scientific fact. 

Humanity learns to know itself, and a religious movement which enshrines that principle and accepts science as the most powerful tool we have to push back the boundaries of our knowledge would be a wonderful thing, for humanity and for the world.

5 Responses to Evolution and Religion

  1. Jeff says:

    I’ve posted at length on this topic at my blog. I’ll try to be much more brief here.

    Bottom line: Genesis is an amazing description not only of how we are related to the animals but also how we are different than them.
    I think it would be hard to find a major fact about how we are different than the animals that is missing from genesis. The discovery of language, fear of death and desire to live forever, nudity taboos/clothing, malicious murder, the invention of farming, the development of building technology, painful childbirth are all adressed in the book of Genesis.

    If the stories were merely literally true, they would lose so much explanatary value. It’s hard for me to imagine how it couldn’t be of supernatural origin, it’s so prescient in these areas.

  2. Bunc says:

    I think this is an execllent article and i will reference it in my blog.

    I also think that sometimes we suggest that creationsim and ID is clueless only because it fails to address the known facts of evolutionary theory. We should more often point out that it also stumbles against the observed facts in geology, physics, cosmology and so on. As you say creationsist are already so much at odds with the facts that their issues with evolutionary theory are the least of their problems. Great point about Linnaeus and taxonomy.

  3. forknowledge says:

    Bunc:

    Thanks for the comment, although I’m currently at an iairport internet kiosk which displays text in such a tiny font that I can barely make out what you’ve written (helpfully, the letters ‘i’ and ‘l’wherever they appear are almost invisible). I’ll have another look when I get onto a proper computer.

    The ‘web’ of evidence supporting evolution and natural selection is indeed massive, and draws on so many branches of science that the removal of any one probably wouldn’t cause the theory to collapse: as Richard Dawkins memorably put it, evolution would survive without the fossil record or with the fossil record as the only source of evidence to recommend it. (Even if he was exaggerating, as he does sometimes, it’s still a good way of describing just how conclusive the evidence is.)

    Jeff:

    I haven’t read the entirety of Genesis (it’s very tediuos if you’re not religious, and I can’t imagine it’s much more interesting if you are), but if you could point me towards your thoughts on how it relates to evolutio n I’d love to read them.

  4. Bunc says:

    Your comment font is tiny tiny tiny for me reading it on my PC – maybe you need to alter the font that wordpress is using for commnets. You should be able to do this fairly easily. At my age my arms are not long enough to hold the PC far enough away so that I can read it.

    Hmm. Maybe thats another argument against intelligent design. If an intelligent designer had designed us he woudl a) know that we enjoy reading more as we get older. b) not have designed us so that our eyesight deteriorates as we get into our middle years or c) have desiogned us so that our arms grew longer in later life to compensate for our deteriorating eyeshight. Seems like a clincher argument to me.

  5. forknowledge says:

    Oh, I’m sure ‘sin’ explains it all😉

    Incidentally, things look normal for me now (on a regular computer), so I think I have everything set up all right on my end. Let me know if it’s still hard to read.

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