Nathan Bond's TART Remarks

Religion: Respect? Ridicule!

An Abstract on On Origin and Evolution

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The origin of the universe and of life awes me. What force triggers life?

Science certainly does not have an answer, but it has an inkling of the magnitude of the problem.[1] “Without fundamentally new insights in evolutionary processes, perhaps involving new modes of thinking, this ignorance is likely to persist.”[2]

Where am I most likely to find evolving insight? Shall I apply to Science? To “meta-Science”? To Religion? To Philosophy?

A religious philosopher refers me to Stanley L. Jaki’s comments on Hawking’s ex nihilo creation model[3] for an alternative insight. Let us indeed use Jaki as a reference to indicate the optimum choice in pursuing insight.

An Hungarian Benedictine priest, with doctorates in Theology and Nuclear Physics, Jaki is an orthodox Thomist theologian, engrafted in the 13th century, subscribing to the dictum that all theologians and all Catholic theologians should, to some degree or another, be Thomists.”[4] Jaki implores his audiences to “achieve a firm hold on those [Thomist] foundations in order to see what is gold and what is chaff in modern scientific cosmology.”[5]

The good Father even states, “Nothing [can be] more logical than to ask: why is the universe what it is and not something else? With that question, one would have, of course, placed oneself within the perspective which shows not a divinized universe, impotent to answer that question, but a personal God free to choose to create one among an infinitely large number of possible universes.”[6]

I am reminded of German physicist and satirist Georg Lichtenberg, “What astonished him was that cats should have two holes cut in their skins at exactly the same places where their eyes were.”

Shall I apply to theology for insight into origin? I think not. Religion is diametrically opposed to the pioneering spirit of scientific exploration. Believers are generally characterized by a zealous certitude and a readiness to adjust facts to sustain a conviction, while the scientific process, with deference to Karl Popper, dictates that progress in science is only ever made when a hypothesis is collapsed, not when it is confirmed.

Says physicist Heinz Pagels, “… The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.” [7]

The explorer spirit is conspicuously absent in the theist approach. Theists invoke a cosmic legislator/regulator, a magician, to fill any present void and to explain the mysteries about nature that may have scientists stumped at any particular time. The good doctor Hippocrates warned against this mindset, “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”

There is enormous danger in a meandering into metaphysics, in covering the challenge of evolving understanding with the theist tarpaulin of faith, for as science advances, so the magician retreats, eventually to be pushed off the edge of space and time altogether, and into redundancy.[8]

To presume a creator god for lack of sufficient understanding is an egregious manifestation of cognitive knavery – it is adiaphoristic and connotative of intellectual acedia.

What can I reasonably hope to learn from (Christian) theology? Nothing, but that I should apply elsewhere. Founded in ancient oracles, loosely organised in the 1st century, entrenched in the 4th, adjusted in the 16th, refined in the 18th and propped in the 20th, theology is dead in the 21st. All that remains is the sorry sight of the believer pulling the dead body of Christ behind her after the way of a mother baboon…

What force triggers life? Science does not have an answer.

Yet.

In deference to Darwin, it has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known… but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.[9]

I choose science. Not for answers, but for progressive explanation, in pursuit of the voussoir of evolving insight… Understanding remains elusive; meaning unattainable.

Evolution describes the mechanisms driving the development and the changing of species as revealed in a fossil record seething with the vast diversity of life. Evolution does not, however, address the origin of life.

Scientists are currently also turning to space for an evolving understanding of both origin and the mechanism of evolution.

The Cassini spacecraft, launched on October 15, 1997 deposited a small probe, Huygens, on the surface of Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan, on Christmas Day 2004. Titan is the only planetary satellite to have a substantial atmosphere, and it may in some ways be not unlike the Earth of around 4,000 million years ago. It does contain all the ingredients needed for life, and could tell us a great deal about how life may have been “kick-started” in a hostile environment.[10]

That evolution is random is a spectacular misunderstanding; a preposterous absurdity.[11] If it was random, then of course it couldn’t possibly have given rise to the fantastically complicated and elegant forms that we see. Evolution is driven by natural selection which rests on the successful survival of fecund descendants, not, as is commonly conjectured, on the survival of the fittest or strongest.[12] Natural selection is about as non-random a force as you could possibly imagine.

Probability theory differentiates between conditional and unconditional probability. The probability of successive steps in a complex system changes with each transition. To equate a small probability with impossibility is clearly erroneous.[13]

Natural selection cannot work unless there is some sort of variation upon which to work. And the source of variation is mutation. Mutation is random only in the sense that it is not directed specifically toward improvement. It is natural selection that directs evolution toward improvement.

The Darwinian paradigm is the best current scientific explanation for the existence and development of life on earth.[14] Yet, true to the spirit of scientific method, science recognises the enormous benefit of ecological long term studies and is persistently researching the course of evolution in nature. The Galapagos islands, a world heritage site since 1978 and the scene of much of Darwin’s original work, remain an important open air laboratory for such research.[15]

Nature is awash with examples of complex organs and systems (such as the vertebrate eye, brain and blood coagulation mechanisms) developing from simpler precursors over time. At the biochemical level reaction chains are constructed by utilising components from existing systems. This means that a particular reaction chain does not originate from scratch every time. Therefore trombine has a key role in the blood coagulation cascade and in cell division. The antifreeze glycoprotein found in certain polar fish originated from a pancreatic enzyme. A recently discovered gene complex was originally involved with the segmentation pattern of insects, yet currently controls the development of cerebellum in vertebrates.[16]

The Swedish scientists, Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger annihilated the preposterous yet popular creationist argument that geological time was insufficient for the evolution of the eye. Their computer model of the evolution of a graded-index lens (such as a fish eye), having a high refractive index near its centre, focussed on Mattiessen’s ratio (a particular theoretical optimum value for the ratio between the focal length of the lens and the radius) and assumed a conservative 50% heritability.

Equally conservative were their values for the coefficient of variation (the amount of variation typically in the population) and the intensity of selection (the amount of survival advantage improved eyesight confers). They even ignored simultaneous changes in different parts of the eye, which would have speeded up evolution.

Even with such conservative assumptions a fish eye was shown to evolve from flat skin in fewer than four hundred thousand generations – less than half a million years (a twinkling of the eye in geological terms) were required to evolve a good camera eye.[17]

Despite the fact that nothing in the universe is absolutely certain and that science dictates that nothing will ever be known with absolute certainty, one can attest with impunity that evolution is a proven and fundamental natural process underlining the primal relationship of all life. DNA and genetics are critical to this process and through mechanisms such as natural selection, it leads, over millions of years, mostly to the development of increasingly complex organisms. Evolution is supported by empirical results from a panoply of scientific disciplines – comparative anatomy, palaeontology, embryology, histology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, micro biology and geology. One can indeed speak of evolution as a fact, without fear of contradiction. [18]


[1] 1995, Woese, C. R. and Wächtershäuser, G., “Origin of Life”, in Briggs, Derek E. G. and Crowther, Peter R., Paleobiology – A Synthesis, Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford, 9.

[2] 1988, Dose, K., “The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers“, Interdisciplinary Science Review13, 348.

[3] 1989, God and the Cosmologists, Regnery Gateway, Washington, 90-95.

[4] Cf. Codex Iuris Canonici, c. 252 * 3, which describes St. Thomas as the “particular teacher” of all Catholic students of theology. The Code bases itself on the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Training of Priests, Optatam Totius, n. 16.

[5] God and the Cosmologists, p. x.

[6] God and the Cosmologists, p. 22.

[7] Cf. 1985, Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time, Simon and Schuster, New York.

[8] Cf. 1995, Davies, Paul C., Physics and the Mind of God, The Templeton Prize Address.

[9] Cf. 1871, Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man (2nd edition)

[10] Sir Patrick Moore, Why is it important? Because it may tell us how life was kick-started, The Independent, January 16, 2005.

[11] Richard Dawkins, interviewed by Gordy Slack, The atheist, http://www.salon.com, April 28, 2005.

[12] Jurie van den Heever, ‘n Neutrale natuurproses, Die Burger, August 31, 2004.

[13] Jurie van den Heever, Dít is kreasionisme, Die Burger, September 7, 2004.

[14] Jurie van den Heever, Evolusie is beste verklaring, Die Burger, September 20, 2004.

[15] Jurie van den Heever, Galapagos-eilande steeds egte evolusie-laboratorium, Die Burger, May 4, 2005.

[16] Jurie van den Heever, Talle evolusie-voorbeelde, Die Burger, July 23, 2004.

[17] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, A Darwinian View of Life, Phoenix, London, 1995, pp. 91-96.

[18] Jurie van den Heever, Talle bewyse van evolusie, Die Burger, August 2, 2004.

Written by Nathan Bond

February 12, 2009 at 06:01

One Response

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  1. I think this has changed:
    “DNA and genetics are critical to this process and through mechanisms such as natural selection, it leads, over millions of years, mostly to the development of increasingly complex organisms”.

    Read Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating “Life’s Grandeur” in which he proposes that we change our view of the “ladder of life” in which simple organisms evolve into more complex ones, to a “multi-twigged bush of life” in which mammals are but one tiny twiglet.
    He states life began in bacterial mode and is still – overwhelmingly – in bacterial mode today.
    Humbling.

    Things change and evolve, and some things get more complex, but others get more simple (our human-centredness has caused us to focus on, well, US), and most organisms just change, neither getting more complex nor more simple.

    And MOST of life – by far – is bacterial!

    bewilderbeast

    March 2, 2009 at 21:45


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