EVERY year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.
I’m a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.
And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.
Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.
There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.
In some ways, Steve has been winning. Noma is the received wisdom in the scientific establishment, including institutions like the National Center for Science Education, which has done much heavy lifting when it comes to promoting public understanding and acceptance of evolution. According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation.
This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms (everything that we know about biology and geology proclaims that the Earth was not made in a day).
So far, so comforting for my students. But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish.
As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.
The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.
A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.
Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.
Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
I CONCLUDE The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.
Despite these three evolutionary strikes, God hasn’t necessarily struck out. At the end of the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” based on the famous Scopes “monkey trial” over a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, Spencer Tracy’s character, fashioned after the defense attorney Clarence Darrow, stands in the empty courtroom, picks up a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in the other, gives a knowing smile and claps them together before putting both under his arm. Would that it were so simple.
I respond to David’s “The Talk”, which was so similar the “The Talk” that I was given at USC:
I read your article about “the talk”. I was raised in a very devout Christian and creationist family like the ones you challenge. Interestingly, my dad warned me about “a professor with a grey beard who would talk about how we came from apes”.When I got into my first paleo class at USC, there he was. Exactly as my dad had predicted. A professor with a grey beard that looked just like you! And who gave the same exact lecture, just like you did in your “The Talk”. Amazing how my experience so many years ago parallels exactly what your MO is now. My bearded professor asked those students who believed that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth to raise their hands. I did, even though I wasn’t convinced. I had become pretty much a doubter and good actor for my family by this time. He told us he would ask again in a week. He confidently knew he would convince us all that evolution was the way things happened. After he gave The Talk, he unrolled that huge poster with that famous series of drawings showing how we went from primate to hominid to man. And he thoroughly convinced me. I was completely sold. Finally something made sense. When he took his next poll, I didn’t raise my hand, nor did any other student. We were all sold. I became an avid fan of Darwin and evolution. (I have always loved science.) I read books on the subject, watched TV documentaries, and loved my new science. I lightly argued with non-believers and creationists. Then came a reversal.My son was in med school in Chicago. While visiting him there in 2001, I went to the Field Museum because they have one of the best fossil collections in the world. I was dying to see all of the new fossil finds that would certainly prove evolution even more than I ever could imagine. I was excited. I walked into the main room where Sue, the famous T. rex was displayed. The placard said T. rex’s roamed North America for 3 million years. The thought struck me, why didn’t T. rex’s tiny forearms evolve into larger and more useful models? Wouldn’t the best grapplers be the winners? Ergo, the ones with longer arms should be selected for. But T. rex had no evolution to show. Then I went into the other fossil rooms, where I saw zero evolution. Trilobites over 300 million years with nary a change. Nautilus over 500 MY with none. Frogs for 250 MY with none. You know the list. There is no evolution. That “Talk” you give in your classrooms is pure fantasy. A fantasy that I fell for when my bearded professor gave the same Talk.You say: “Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.”Reality is that evolution is a religion just like any. It has it’s own trinity, RM, NS, and TIME, just liked Christianity. Jesus walked on water, NS, RM, and TIME turned bacteria into humans. Which miracle is more astounding? Your trinity can’t do any more than the Bible’s trinity. There is no more evidence for evolution than there is evidence for a 6 day creation. Reality is mankind has absolutely no idea how life came to be, what it is, how the first cells formed, how protein synthesis came to be, or the Krebs cycle, or sexual procreation, or human consciousness, or…. Evolution can’t even account for a “simple” tube like a blood vessel or duct. Can you concoct even an imaginary stepwise process for the evolution of blood vessels, of which there are 65,000 miles worth is a human baby? If you are really are an valid professor, and not fooled by this fable yourself, you would give that lecture as evidence if you are so certain that you are right. You cannot. No person can. Your “Talk” is composed of demeaning religious beliefs, which is your MO for “proving” evolution and its validity. Reality is that both are fables. Disproving one doesn’t prove the other. They should both be tossed out and the real “theory” taught: That humanity has absolutely no idea how living nature formed. You are what I call an evo-illusionist, just as my grey bearded professor was. You perform illusions to fool your students into believing that you “know”, when in reality you have no idea. The truth of the matter is, the more science has advanced, the further it is from figuring out this daunting Puzzle. Protein synthesis, the Krebs, glycolysis, eukaryotes (from prokaryotes), cell division… have all turned evolution into just another fable that attempts to explain the inexplicable. The more we learn the farther the solution to the puzzle of origins gets.I went on to start a blog on this subject, (www.evoillusion.org) , made some YouTube videos on the subject with challenges for evolution, and wrote a book: “Evo-Illusion” which sells on Amazon. All expose what a scientific fable evolution really is. I know you wouldn’t read my book, so this isn’t a sales pitch. But I would love a classroom of biology students to give it a read and discussion, and try to shred what I have to say. It cannot be done. Again, I know that’s a pipe dream. I wrote you because your paper on “the Talk” , and you appearance, is exactly what happened to me. Reading your “ The Talk” paper was like a form of deja vu for me. The first chapter of my book describes “The Talk” that I received, describes my grey bearded professor, and my experience leaving religion behind for evolution. Now I am in a sort of neverland. Not religious, and not gullible enough to believe small “foxes” evolved into 400,000 lb. whales, and little T. rex’s evolved into woodpeckers and hummingbirds. I wonder how you can believe that, with all of the education and intelligence you certainly have. You know cell biology too well to think it could have been constructed by NS, RM and TIME.Regards
Stephen T. Blume DDS
My friend, your ignorance of basic evolutionary biology is so vast that I don’t know where to begin! There is, for example, abundant evidence for and explanations of why certain traits evolve rapidly and others slowly. But something tells me that disputing with you won’t avail anything.
best wishes, nonetheless!
I do appreciate your response. So you aren’t going to answer even one of my questions? Because I am ignorant? I would expect more from a very educated and respected person such as yourself. That is a typical characteristic of an evo-illusionist: demean anyone who questions. I certainly hope you don’t call your students who might challenge you ignorant. You cannot dispute me scientifically since no person on Earth can. All you would have to do is deliver a stepwise evolutionary timeline for the simplest of natural entities: a blood vessel. If you can do only that I will take my book offline and off-sales, and shut down my blog and videos. I am 100% confident you cannot, so you will distract from and block out the blood vessel challenge.
You confuse the evolution of traits with the evolutionary formation of biological systems and species. I KNOW you know the difference between the two.You are far too intelligent not to. So you attempt to work your evo-illusion on me and it fails. You will continue being the grey bearded professor like the one I had at USC. You will continue indoctrinating your students with “The Talk” as I was indoctrinated; and you were as well.
I do hope sometime you will give evolution a real objective and critical look. Tally up which has more miracles: the Bible, or evo. I say evo is the winner big time.I realize you can’t though; even if you wanted to. You would be canned. I also hope you do make an attempt to answer even my simplest of questions. I WILL give it a good and objective read if you do. Someone who is so sure of his science should find tube evolution an easy challenge since tubes are so prevalent and basic.
I truly wish evolution was the answer; or there were some scientific answer that made sense. But the origin of living nature is way too far above the abilities of humanity’s thought processes right now. So we continue making fables; like “God did it in 6 days”, and “RM NS and TIME did it in millions of years”. And we argue and argue about which fable is right!
Again, thanks for the reply. It was very interesting running into you and your stuff on your site. It brought back a lot of memories.
Because I don’t deal with insults and willful ignorance.
I respond to David:
Tubes, David. T-U-B-E-S. I am ignorant about how they came to be. So are you. I admit it. You fake it.
Willful ignorance? Gad. You really are programmed with evo-lingo.
You respond with insults but you don’t DEAL with insults? Good for you.
Somehow from you picture and your CV I expected more.