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Feb 21 2005

Why is evolutionary theory so upsetting to some?

One of the questions that sometimes occur to observers of the intelligent design (ID) controversy is why there is such hostility to evolutionary theory in particular. After all, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are pretty much guaranteed to find that the theories of any scientific discipline (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, in addition to biology) contradict many of the things taught in the Bible.

So what is it about evolution in particular that gets some people’s goat?

I had occasion to attend the annual program held by the ID advocates in Kansas a couple of years back, having been invited to be on a panel that was to debate the question of whether ID was a science. I took the opportunity to speak with a lot of the people who were attendees of the program about why they found evolution so offensive. The people I spoke to seemed to be almost all Biblical literalists.

It became clear very quickly that their main concern was that evolution by natural selection implied that human beings had no special status among living things. Natural selection implies that while human beings are quite impressive in the way they are put together, we did not have to be the way we are. Indeed, we did not have to be here at all.

To understand this concern better, here is a somewhat imperfect analogy to understand how natural selection works.

Think of starting out on a journey by car. At each intersection, we toss a coin and if it is heads, we turn left and if it is tails we turn right. After millions of tosses, we will have ended up somewhere, but it could have been anywhere. It might be San Francisco or it might be in the middle of a cornfield in Kansas. There is no special meaning that can be attached to the end point. We can try and reconstruct our journey starting from the end and working backwards to the beginning (which is what evolutionary biologists do) but the end point of our journey was not predetermined when we began.

The important point is that, according to natural selection we were not destined to end up as we did. The many small random genetic mutations that occurred over the years are the analog of the coin tosses, and the end point could have been something quite different.

For people who believe that humans are created in God’s image, this is pretty tough to take because it is a steep drop in one’s self-image. One day you are the apple of God’s eye, the next you are the byproduct of random genetic mutations with no underlying plan at all. One can understand why this is so upsetting to those who want to feel that they are special and that their lives have a divine purpose.

Those who adhere to a belief structure labeled ‘theistic evolution’ strike a middle ground and argue that God created the laws of natural selection but guided the process by working within those laws. This is analogous to intervening only during some or all of the coin tosses to influence the way the coin landed. So what may appear to be random to us may not have been truly so.

Depending on how far one wants to take this, one can argue that God intervened at every coin toss or intervened only sparingly, say to prevent us doing something really stupid like driving off a cliff.

Yet other religious believers say that they are comfortable with God just creating the world and its randomly acting laws and then letting the chips fall where they may, by taking a completely hands off attitude and not intervening in any of the coin tosses.

Where one falls in this spectrum of beliefs depends on what one feels comfortable with. But it is clear that the fact that evolution by natural selection is not goal-directed is what bothers many religious people the most. They dislike the fact that according to the theory of evolution, all we can say is what we have evolved from, and that we cannot say that we are evolving towards anything.

More on this topic later…

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