Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Evolution of Evolution

After weeks of blogging about my Dad and our family's odyssey with his cancer, I am going to try and post a couple blogs on topics "other" (although I do have some Dad-related thoughts to also post, which hopefully I'll get to this evening). First up... evolution.

My thoughts were prompted by Newsweek’s cover story back on March 19 – “The Evolution Revolution.” The story details how new discoveries about the brain and DNA are rewriting the evolutionary family tree. No longer reliant solely on bones and arrowheads, evolutionary science is now led by molecular biology and neuroscience in recreating just exactly where we’ve come from.

I suppose this is an innocuous enough article for most, but that “most” doesn’t include America’s conservative Christian subculture, in which evolution is still one of the great modern evils. Not just a scientific theory, evolution is symbolic of the conspiracy on behalf of liberal, godless scientists (and those godless folks who support them) to push any vestige of God from the public square, or in this case, our public school classrooms. While conservatives seem to have conceded that getting evolution out of our public schools altogether is a lost cause, brave foot soldiers – in Scopes trial-like fashion – have now adopted the tact of gussying up biblical creationism in scientific garb as “intelligent design” and taking it to the courts in hopes of at least winning equal billing with evolution in public school science classrooms.

It may seem ridiculous at best that some folks still – in 2007 – so vehemently protest the theory of evolution as a scientific explanation of origins, instead preferring a strict literal reading of a religious account written thousands of years ago. But as far-fetched as it seems to some, it is a world I know well since it is the subculture in which I grew up. In fact, as a ninth grader, I chose to fulfill my assignment for a persuasive speech by convincingly arguing in favor of a literal, 6-day biblical creation story instead of evolution.

But times change. Four years as an anthropology major (notably at an evangelical Christian college) brought me around to see not only the good science behind the theory of evolution, but its compatibility with my Christian faith. And one thing about evolutionary theory that surprised me when I first learned it in any detail is how theoretical, speculative, and malleable it can be. Far from the airtight and changeless doctrine perpetrated on an unassuming public by godless scientists that I understood it to be in my youth, the evolutionary theory I saw as a collegian was an idea under constant scrutiny and revision in the face of new science and “better” (or at least different) ideas. Part science and part art, I saw it as it was – not the product of smoke-filled rooms of Christian-hating scientists, but as a living, dynamic idea, the best cumulative attempt of thousands of scientists over a century and a half to piece together – using the best science available – an infinitely complex story that has been running for millions of years. And while my conservative upbringing taught me to see any “change” in evolutionary theory as weakness, an up close look under the hood revealed that – as good science should be – evolutionary theory, at least on the anthropological end, was ever-changing.

So stumbling upon Newsweek’s piece, I wanted to again shout from the rooftops to all my Christian brothers and sisters that scientists who study this stuff are not out to get us or pull the wool over our eyes. They are piecing it together, one discovery at a time. There is no smoke-filled room or person behind the curtain.

Most of the time, when evolution is invoked by conservative Christians, it is done so in a straw man fashion to incite fear, pat each other on the back, or raise some cash. While it may take a backseat to frontline issues like abortion and gay marriage, evolution can still be counted upon to drum up some fear and outrage among conservatives in a political or financial pinch. In an ideal world, I’d love for Christians to get out from behind their anti-intellectual straw men and actually take some time to grapple with the real science of evolution instead of trying to pseudo-science-ify their own ideas. I did, and once I got past my own biases and was sensitively guided into the science (by explicitly Christian scientists at an explicitly Christian institution), I no longer had to be afraid of this supposed leviathan. And even if one comes out the other end as an “unbeliever,” we need to get past the rhetoric that “evolutionists” are some unified front bent upon marginalizing Christianity. I am far too tired of Christians being dubbed (often rightfully so) anti-scientific because we buy into the fear-mongering and one-sided rhetoric of the loudest among us.


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