At lunch on the second day of my Wilderness First Responder training I sat across the table from a class mate, a young man (I will call him Matt) who was sharing some of the challenges his brother faces in the Texas school system. In particular, he finds it very frustrating, as a history teacher, to teach both the Christian creation story and evolution / cosmology as competing theories for how the Earth, solar system, and universe were formed.
He is always walking a fine line in the respect that he wants to teach his students to be critical thinkers in the shadow of an administrative and parenting body which fear straying from a Christian foundation. He is a history teacher, not a theologian, as Matt made clear.
Matt took another bite of his lunch time carrot, shook his head, and asked how this kind of rationale could possibly continue in this modern world.
The woman to my right (I will call her Shelly) immediately offered, “The kids need to know both theories!”
I knew better, but could not help jumping in, “Are you also suggesting they teach the Navajo, Sioux, and Mayan creation stories? What about the creation stories of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians? I am all for that, as a broad cultural education is always a good foundation. But it seems our schools do not allow for this much focus on the mythos of the human species.”
She responded, “No. I am talking about the Biblical story and evolution. If you are going to teach evolution, you need to also teach what the Bible teaches us.”
“Science and creation stories are not competing–they are not even in the same category.”
“Sure they are. Both are based on history.”
Matt was chewing the last of his carrot, “Sure. History is stories and facts about people and places and events. Some of them are supported by records outside of the Bible.”
Nodding, I quickly added, “The Bible offers an account of people who likely did walk the Earth. But to say the Bible, or any creation story gives an accurate account of how the Earth was formed, or how life has evolved, is misleading, taking away from–.”
Shelly cut me off, “They are just theories!”
I hesitated, and decide a prop would be more effective than words. I picked up a book and then let it drop to the floor without saying anything. I looked at Shelly, then reached down, grabbed the book, and lifted it to the height of the table. I dropped it again. Reached down, grabbed the book, lifted and dropped it again. I did this four or five times more.
“Nine point eight meters per second per second. Every single time. Unless the hand of God interposes a miracle, or the total mass-density of the Earth spontaneously changes, this book will always fall to the floor at the exact same rate over the exact same period of time.” I paused. “And yet, gravity is just a theory.”
“What’s your point?” Shelly asked?
“All of science is based on theories. But in our English language, ‘theory’ has a negative connotation when in fact theory is an integral part of the scientific method and foundation to all we know about the universe around us. If a scientist is able to disprove what we know about gravity, and show with repeated accuracy that his or her revised theory is more accurate, then it will be adopted in place of the former. That’s science. Far more wrongs than rights. Even when a model is supported by repeat experiments across the scientific community, it can always be overturned by newer, more accurate models.”
“Do you believe in evolution?”
“No. Absolutely not. I don’t believe in any scientific theory. There is nothing to believe in, which was my original point. Science is not religion.”
Shelly responded, “But you have faith in the theories?”
“Not blind faith, no. I respect the process by which theories are reviewed and analyzed by the community of biologists, chemists, and physicists. But what is most important, I know that I can reach out to the community, either via the publications or directly to the individuals who have conducted the research, and ask for exacting explanation—”
“But the Bible provides explanation!”
I continued, “—explanation which can be reproduced by anyone who has access to the tools or a working knowledge of the math which provides foundation for the models.”
At this point I grew uncomfortable for the energy in around this table was escalating quickly. I looked at Shelly, back at my book, and said, “I’m sorry. I should not have jumped in. I really need to study. We simply cannot take this conversation to any meaningful place with the limited time remaining in our break.”
“Why?! Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about this?”
Matt looked at his hands, shaking his head.
I took another breath. “We need a common vocabulary, a shared understanding before we can even begin to have this conversation. That assumes we have a similar education. I don’t mean to be rude nor arrogant, but that is the truth.”
Shelly was visibly unsettled, as is often the case when personal beliefs are challenged. She pushed, “So, what, you think we came from monkeys?!”
Ugh. I hate it when people say that. It is not only completely wrong, but instantly demonstrates a total lack of education on the subject of evolution.
Shaking my head “No. Certainly not. We did not come from monkeys.” She was momentarily satisfied. I continued, “We are the product of divergent evolution from a common ancestor which is now extinct. Chimpanzees and Bonobos are both our cousins, each equally related to us and to our shared, deceased relatives.
“So where are they? What proof do we have?”
“Dead. Like dinosaurs, they died out as all species eventually do. Like we will some day in the not so distant future, on the cosmological scale. As for evidence, the body of knowledge and data is growing every year. More fossils, more tools, improved understanding of the climate at various times. In fact, we now believe our shared ancestors were more human than ape-like.”
“But there are so many gaps! So many missing pieces!”
“That is old data. In fact, since the human genome was sequenced along with tens of thousands of plant and animal species, we now see far fewer gaps in the evolutionary tree. Contrary to the data we had as little as twenty years ago, it appears evolution moves at a relatively slow pace, with momentary quantum leaps in which a great deal of progress is made.”
Shelly was cooling down a bit. So was I. We were entering a nearly normal conversation and I was sharing things she had clearly not heard before. She asked, “So, … so what does it mean, that we evolved from something?”
I grabbed a piece of paper and pen and drew a few figures to support my next statements. “Have you heard the statement that we share a certain percentage of our genetic code with other animals, like chimps or … even a grapefruit?”
She smiled, “A grapefruit?”
“Yes. Something like twenty five percent of our code is shared with a grapefruit.”
She nodded, “I heard that before.”
“It’s like a software library with various routines. They can be assembled in various orders to produce completely different applications. But underneath, a lot of it is the same.”
“What’s crazy is that something like ninety eight percent of our code is disabled, literally turned off. It’s the stuff that we no longer need and so it simply doesn’t get activated any longer.”
“What do you mean? How do we know?”
“By capturing the messenger RNA, which only copies active genetic code for specific protein production, we can differentiate the total DNA code base from that used for a specific, functional expression. No need for the cells to copy all the code, right? –only the parts needed to make a liver or muscle or bone.”
[I have since read-up on the topic of "junk DNA" and learned that while 98% of the human genome is noncoding, there appears to be some biochemical function to much of it, perhaps as a regulatory agent, even if not to directly build functional cells. More at wikipedia.org/ and nature.com]
At this point, another of our classmates had sat down to the table. She was listening intently, absorbed in what was obviously an intense conversation.
I leaned forward and smiled, “Did you know that some humans are born with a tail?” She looked at me, Matt, and then Shelly, nodding.
Shelly responded, “What?!”
The new girl smiled and raised her hand slightly, “Um, I was one of those. I was born with a tail. They had to cut it off.”
I could not believe my luck, for it is quite rare depending on if it is just soft tissue or includes vertebrae. Since this conversation, I learned that all mammals have a tail in the early stage of embryonic development, measuring roughly one sixth the total embryo length. It is absorbed in normal development, in humans. The record, however, is for a human tail with five extra vertebrae at birth.
Shelly look perplexed, but intrigued, “I had never heard of that. So what does that mean?”
“That we have code which is old stuff, capable of generating tissue, digits, organs we no longer use or need. We carry with us our heritage, in our cells. It’s all there. And that is how we have more recently, more accurately compared ourselves to other animals, to learn what we share and what differs.”
I paused, took a bite of my bagel and sliced apple which I had nearly forgotten to eat.
“Look. There is so much more to this, so much we know about the world around us, and it is all out there, if you take the time to read and search. Or you can choose to believe that the dinosaur bones were placed in the earth by the devil, to confuse us, to trick us into believing in something other than the biblical creation story. If this were true, then every embryo tail is a trick too.”
Shelly wanted more. She dove back in, “But, but that doesn’t explain the origin of life, or how—how the universe formed.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“So how do you explain that? Where did the universe come from?”
“That is an entirely different topic.”
“No it’s not! That is evolution!”
I was a bit caught off-guard, surprised by her lack of understanding on the matter, “No. I promise you. It is not.”
“The planets, the stars, –the big bang is all about evolution!”
I took a deep breath, “Shelly. With all due respect. You are wrong. The theory of evolution is entirely about random mutations, survivability in a given environment, and subsequent reproduction of those living things most suited to the given conditions.”
Matt confirmed my statement.
Shelly was clearly upset, having her understanding undermined.
“But, but what do you call it then? I mean, that is what we were taught, that evolution was the history of everything.”
“I am sorry if that is what your school taught you. But the formation of the universe is studied through astronomy and cosmology, even geology applied to extraterrestrial bodies. Completely different sciences than molecular biology.”
She started to argue again. I cut her off, frustrated, “Just look it up. I promise. Look it up when you get home.”
The class activities resumed shortly thereafter. I was exhausted, emotionally drained. It is so challenging to have these kinds of conversations because they are heavily charged by belief systems, fear of having religious faith challenged, undermined.
The Definition of Science Lost
The point of this story is not to disprove god, or God, or Goddess at any level. Each person must make the choice as to their faith in something that cannot be proven.
The point is that our school system is failing to provide a proper foundation in the sciences, to even provide a proper understanding of what science is. We hear far, far more about how science and religion do battle in church, in the schools, even in the halls of Congress (which is terribly ironic given the reason this country was supposedly founded in the first place).
Science is not a religion. It is not something to believe in. It is a method, “a method for systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” (Oxford Dictionary).
We are a species which has for countless thousands of generations looked to the world around us and the skies over head and asked, “Why does this happen? How does that work?”
When multiple people come together to study a particular phenomenon, they must agree to a basic set of rules for how to investigate and report their findings, else they cannot share a common vocabulary and therefore, will not be able to test, validate, disprove, or share their findings.
The simple measurement of how fast a book falls to the ground can be modeled in simple algebra by any sixth grader who has a good stop watch, a measuring tape, and a few objects that don’t break when repeatedly dropped multiple times (as you will want to prove that a tight ball of foil, a rock, and a book all drop at the same increasing velocity, independent of the apparent weight on Earth).
An extension of the same principals, with far more complex observation and math allows us to determine if in fact there are planets orbiting distant stars, and through the diffraction of light, an accurate measurement of the gases in their atmospheres.
That is science. No one will worship the results nor should anyone who has faith in a greater power argue with the results unless he or she is willing to directly observer or reproduce the tests of their own volition. It is not the intent of science to take away God, even if many scientists have chosen this path of their own accord. It is the intent of science to understand how things work.
Without science we would not have cures for disease, synthetic fabrics, combustion engines, cell phones, computers or TVs. To disclaim science, to not teach science in the schools is to send us back to a time when we believed epileptic seizures were invoked by demons. Sadly, this continues today. I know a woman whose brother died because her parents believed they could pray for his cure. When I contracted malaria in Kenya in 2009, as I sat shivering, unable to even open my fingers to dial a phone, I was told I had failed to pray hard enough, that it was my fault. The woman who told me this was holding a cell phone in her hand. If only she could understand the painful irony in what she shared.
Separation of Church and Proper Education
If you believe in a greater power, then I offer that God did not give us brains only to ask us to turn them off. What’s more, the inner workings of the biological and cosmological universe is far too miraculous to be ignored, to not be explored by a species as intelligent as humans.
If you believe, then rejoice in its complex beauty. If you do not, then rejoice in its complex beauty just the same. But for God’s sake, do not hinder a proper education. It is suffering enough as it is in the U.S. A foundation for critical thinking is the most valuable thing we can give the next generation, over and over again.
For those of you who have read this and find yourselves uncomfortable, perhaps in the camp of a literal translation or on the fence, concerned you may be eternally doomed for dismissing the Bible as an historical account, I encourage you to read one of the most respected theologians of our time, David Lose.
Why, then, should anyone be dismayed that all the archeological, historical and, most importantly, genomic evidence ever collected points to the implausibility that two persons named Adam and Eve once lived in a paradisiacal garden and gave birth to all humanity? Because the recent hubbub about Adam and Eve—and the increasing number of Evangelical Christian scholars who don’t read their story literally—isn’t actually about our supposed ancestral grandparents. Rather, it’s about authority, insecurity and the fear of chaos.
More on “Adam, Eve & the Bible” at the Huffington post.
This topic is continued in Part 4.