Saturday, July 11, 2009

Good God Talk on Evolution


Christianity Today has a magnificent interview with Francis Collins that exemplifies the Baha'i teaching of the harmony between religion and science. It's a long interview but definitely worth reading. As a social scientist in training I found this a refreshing and thoughtful discussion.
It begins with some background on Collins and then the interviewer asking a question and him responding:

The former director of the Human Genome Project, one of the most ambitious ventures in the history of science, Francis Collins recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which "promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives." Collins gave a personal account of the harmony between faith and science in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published in 2006. Karl Giberson spoke with Collins during a conference at Azusa Pacific University.

You take both the Bible and evolution seriously. Did the harmony you find between evolution and your faith just come naturally?

You know, it really did. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in a little town outside Chapel Hill. I'm sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis literally and rejecting evolution.

But I couldn't take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that, once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then, just by definition, there could not be a conflict.

You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this, as I certainly did in college. Fundamentalists like me grow up with a lot of confidence in biblical literalism and then they encounter evolution, so they are bringing their prior biblical commitments to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue. You had enough confidence in evolution that when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity—we don't think of a moving earth as a problem so we don't even notice the biblical references.

Right. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity. Evolution comments on our biological nature, and that's a lot closer to the "image of God" concept than whether the Earth floats around the Sun or the other way around.

Heliocentricity is so well-established that educated people simply can't oppose it any longer, of course. What about common ancestry and evolution in general? How compelling is the evidence at this point?

The evidence is overwhelming. And it is becoming more so almost by the day, especially because we can now use DNA as a digital record of the way Darwin's theory has played out over the course of time.

Darwin could hardly have imagined that there would turn out to be such strong proof of his theory—he didn't know about DNA. Evolution is now profoundly well-documented from multiple different perspectives, all of which give you a consistent view with enormous explanatory power that makes it the central core of biology. Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics. (Read the whole thing)

The Baha'i Writings say this about the harmony of religion and science:

"Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)


10 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:20 PM

    Unfortunately, Mr. Collins still thinks that our moral senses come directly from the gods rather than through evolution. That's one of the reasons he gives for becoming religious. He's simply wrong. Morality has evolved in humans and aspects of our moral systems have appeared through the process of evolution in many other social animals, from ants (where such behaviors as altruism and cooperation appeared independently) to mice, whales, elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees and other such animals. Our society is merely the first to be able to give voice and argue about our moral intuitions and consciously modify their effects. As in all traits of living organisms, moral sensibilities arose through evolution alone, not through the actions of outside agents. Therefore, morality is not an argument for or against religion and using it as an argument for religion is simply spurious.

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  2. phillipe3:57 PM

    What evidence do you have that morality arose through evolution alone as you have suggested?

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  3. Anonymous3:47 PM

    You should try reading a little on the topic before you ask such a question. I gave some hints in my comments, such as how traits like altruism are shared between us and other mammals, but if you want a more full bodied answer begin with:
    http://evolutionofmorality.net
    There are literally hundreds of books on this topic and the fact that Collins apparently refuses to read anything on this topic demonstrates just how closeminded he really is. He makes a very poor and antiscientific choice for heading NIH. The basics of human behavior are all part of our genetic heritage and the better we understand our genomes and brain functions, the more clearly this will be delineated.

    What evidence do you have for the contrary?

    Cheers

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  4. Phillipe4:40 PM

    Anonymous, thanks for the encouragement to read more about this topic. I did look at the website you mentioned. It was very interesting, though not entirely new information for me. I think that you misunderstood my question though. The question is how the research you are referring to proves that evolution is the "only" source of morality. It is the "only" that I'm asking for evidence of. How does animals engaging in behavior that could be interpreted in moral terms prove that the "only" source of morality is evolution?

    To quote you: "As in all traits of living organisms, moral sensibilities arose through evolution alone, not through the actions of outside agents."

    This may be a perfectly rational view of the origins of morality but why is it the "only" correct view?

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  5. Anonymous5:17 PM

    The Baha'i are certainly correct: All religions are equal. The only real question then being: Equal to what? I would argue, equal to a belief in Santa Claus, a belief that has a great deal more evidence behind it than any belief in gods. After all, for a number of years, the non-entity we believe to be Santa Claus delivers presents to us each year. What possible comparison is there between the clear demonstration of proof that lies behind this child's belief and the belief of adults in other-named non-entities who never deliver anything testable and who seem to not merely accept evil but apparently do nothing to counteract it? Even global warming is not noticeably affected by any force beyond that of human consumption and short-sightedness. Just about 4 billion years of earth's existence and life's evolution ruined in 200 years. By those chosen by the gods or God? I don't think so. By overpopulation and uncontrolled greed. We can't blame the gods and we can't look to the gods for help. Believing in gods simply allows us to pass the blame on to some other cause, the fact that such a cause does not exist is of no consequence to humankind, it merely gives them empty solace and allow them to not accept the blame we all deserve.

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  6. Anonymous5:44 PM

    In response to Phillipe's comment, pasted below, the problem with positing other sources than evolution for the origin of our basic moral sensibilities is that 1) there is no need to invent other origins, as their spontaneous origin in the evolution of social organisms has already been demonstrated and 2) that there is no evidence at all for the imposition of such behaviors from outside entities, as much as some might wish for such causes to be real. Where do altruism and other emotive behaviors come from in whales, elephants, rats, chimpanzees and other social groups with at least moderate intelligence? Are they taught to them by chimpanzee, elephant, rat or whale gods or have they arisen through the selective advantage such behaviors give to social species? Answer THIS question in an honest manner and you'll have the correct answer to YOUR question.

    If you are going to make hypotheses that have no grounding in the world we know, you have to also come up with some way of testing such hypotheses before they can be even considered. I can invent the untestable hypothesis that the whole universe was invented two minutes ago with all of our behaviors and memories and all the planets and stars existing exactly as they now exist and it would be impossible to disprove this. That is the same type of hypothesis that posits the presence of supernatural beings in the universe. I believe in neither my hypothesis or the existence of gods hypothesis but they both have exactly the same probability of being true.

    Happy thinking

    BTW, I realize this is a useless dialog since, as the old saying goes, it's been proven countless times that "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into." ~Author Unknown
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    Phillipe said...

    Anonymous, thanks for the encouragement to read more about this topic. I did look at the website you mentioned. It was very interesting, though not entirely new information for me. I think that you misunderstood my question though. The question is how the research you are referring to proves that evolution is the "only" source of morality. It is the "only" that I'm asking for evidence of. How does animals engaging in behavior that could be interpreted in moral terms prove that the "only" source of morality is evolution?

    To quote you: "As in all traits of living organisms, moral sensibilities arose through evolution alone, not through the actions of outside agents."

    This may be a perfectly rational view of the origins of morality but why is it the "only" correct view?

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  7. Thank you Phillipe for your entry. I find "anonymous's" entries interesting, although I do feel their tone is somewhat uncalled for: this is a blog site called 'baha'i thought' which presumably encourages friendly dialogue on such issues as science and religion.

    That aside: I think that altruism and morality are somewhat different traits. There is widespread evidence for multiple independent evolution of altruistic traits -- the example of ants is a good one. However, that altruism almost always derives from genetic closeness: ants are very aggressive, even to other 'non-related' ants of the same species. However, 'super-colonies' can arise, with related ants, and these ants (even on different continents) will tolerate each other, due to chemical signals that they detect on each other.

    This makes good teleological sense, there is no need to invoke supernatural beings: gods/God or otherwise.

    I'm not sure it has anything to do with morality however?

    There is some (not particularly good admittedly) evidence that 'innnate morality' does not exist in human beings. For example, over the last couple of hundred years, there have been numerous examples of 'feral children' discovered, who somehow miraculously survived into late childhood/early adulthood completely outside of human society. These children could be taught basic language and communication, but it was extremely difficult to teach them 'a moral code'. They were not born with it, and presumably had gone past the stage of being able to pick it up easily. For human beings, morality seems to be something we learn from society. This, in itself, doesn't prove that moral guidance has a divine origin, rather that it is not an innate evolutionary trait in human beings.

    Going back to the ants, if we take two ants from unrelated colonies: they will attack each other. No amount of talking/ coercion will prevent them from doing so: they are programmed that way. If we can mimic their chemical signal (I'm not certain if this is feasible), however, they would halt their attack, recognising the other as 'friend'. Compare this with human society where previously warring peoples can be reconciled, or former friends become enemies. Clearly, human behaviour is somewhat more subtle than ant behaviour.

    Higher animals are rather more complicated. I'm no biological anthroplogist: but chimpanzee societies (to my knowledge) are rather complex. Some chimps are lazy, and cheat and steal. Others are 'upstanding citizens'. Clearly, these complexities have evolved. The question is: can the truly complex human behaviours we observe have evolved in exactly the same way? And why does human society seem to change much more rapidly than can be accounted for by biological evolution (e.g. slavery was seen as completely acceptable not long ago at all, but it's almost universally abhorred now).

    For me, as a Baha'i and a scientist: I see no dichotomy between believing in God and being a reasoning and reasoned individual. I do agree, however, that for the person who absolutely states that there is no absolute, it's difficult to reason with them!

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  8. Well said Babak as I would expect from you. My point is that scientific or rational explanations for phenomena do not in and of themselves disprove alternative explanations (i.e. supernatural agencies) which is what anonymous seems to believe. Like you I believe that a belief in God is not incompatible with science or reason and the comments made by Collins in the interview suggest that he has a similar view. This is what I found refreshing about his remarks. The issue of the source(s) of morality is interesting but there seems to be more to Collins than this particular issue which anonymous has chosen to focus on.

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