Thursday, February 28, 2008

Theistic Evolution

The most controversial part of his speech came, however, when he began to challenge each religious perspective of evolution in an attempt to demonstrate the ability to simultaneously appreciate God and science. To begin, Collins made a surprisingly strong scientific case for the existence of evolution. Showing a chart of the chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees, he made it visually clear that the only difference was the very long human chromosome two, compared to that of the chimpanzee. Each chromosome has a very specific sequence at the tip called a telomere; Collins showed that the human chromosome two has a telomere embedded in the middle, evidence that somewhere in the evolutionary process, there had been a fusion. So how can we reconcile faith with this undeniable evolution? Atheism, Collins argued, “takes a position of knowledge we don’t really have.” If we admit that we know such a tiny amount about the world, how can we know for sure that God doesn’t exist? Creationism, on the other hand, should be thought of as St. Augustine explained it: “we shouldn’t insist on a particular interpretation because if we find out it is wrong, then we fall with it.” Believing the Bible’s creation story literally then, according to Collins, is incorrect. When questioned later about the existence of Adam and Eve, he even hesitatingly offered the view that perhaps they were more representative of something that happened across species, since our genetic gene pool suggests that we are actually descended from a group of 10,000 people in Africa.

Collins’ attack on Intelligent Design was one of the most thought provoking, calling it “interesting but ultimately flawed.” One of his main critiques was with the theory of “irreducible complexity,” which argues that cerain structures cannot have evolved piece by piece because a removal of any part of the structure causes the functioning of the entire structure to collapse. Implicit in the theory is the belief that such “irreducibly complex” systems could not have evolved sequentially but must have been created as a unit, a challenge to evolution. To counter this argument, Collins cited renowned proponent of intelligent design William Dembski’s example of the bacterial flagellum, which is made of a number of proteins; if one B2 protein is knocked out, the whole stops working. And yet, he claimed, evolution works in steps, and it is possible that each of the proteins in the flagellum is descended from a different form in other organisms. If the exact mechanism of this evolution seems a little vague, Dembski justified his own position in an interview with The Stanford Review, “[advocates of the evolution of the flagellum] imagine possible precursors to the flagellum (such as the type-III secretory system), but neither specify how many intermediate systems with different functions would have had to intervene in evolving from one to the other, nor do they quantify the number of genetic changes that would have been needed, nor do they show that such changes would have provided selective advantage, as required by Darwinian theory.”

Ultimately, Collins offered his own way to reconcile faith and science: Theistic Evolution. In this vein, God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago with its “parameters tuned to allow the development of complexity over time,” meaning that God planned to include evolution, including the evolution of human beings. After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God.

There is an obvious way to reconcile the two, Collins shows, through a rejection of extremes, and an embrace of “harmony in the middle.” Appealing as this may sound, it remains to be seen whether believers in the Bible as the Word of God can reject the idea of Adam and Eve in lieu of a mutated chimpanzee who, one day, received the extraordinary gift of human intelligence.

-The Language of God: Francis Collins Speaks at Stanford

Jeffrey Lang on evolution in Islam

1 comment:

Kaleberg said...

For an 18th century take on religion and evolution:

"The world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat. What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM! For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves.

E. Darwin, Zoonomia; The Laws of Organic Life (J. Johnson, London 1794), vol. 1, p. 509

as cited by George B. Dyson in Science 27 August 1999