February 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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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.

Or one could argue that, in being determined by seemingly random genetic mutations, we are still made in the image of God. One of the things that amazes me about some members of my religion is this unfounded conviction that they know and understand what God is. Personally, I have no difficulty whatsoever accepting both the existence of God and the tenets of science, including evolution. The difficulty comes, as you've pointed out on multiple occastions, when one chooses to take the Bible in a completely literal fashion. As my father once pointed out, the stories in the Bible, particularly with respect to creation, are something that (if you choose to believe that the story originally came from God) were told by an omnipotent being to primitive humans. Who is to say that seven days to God is the same as seven days to a human being? And what's more, if you are an advanced being, are you going to be able to explain exactly how you created everything to an ancient human? Dad always liked to use the analogy of trying to explain a car to a dog. You can't start explaining internal combustion and differential systems to a creature whose level of understanding ends at "Car. Go!"

Posted by Nicole on February 26, 2005 12:55 AM

Professor Singham, I didn't know you had a blog! It's nice to speak to you again, even over the chasm of the internet.

I find the evolution vs god debate to be very interesting. As a "devout" atheist, I was always confused by creationist thought -- it seemed to me that an "omnipotent" god would have a far more subtle and revolutionary way of creating life than "6 days in a workshop."

The intelligent design people are slightly less confusing, since they seem to merely debate the "randomness" factor of evolution, but even this seems to indicate that this perfect deity had to come back and tinker with his creation.

If I were religious, it would seem to me that the most stark example of god's wisdom and knowledge would be that he (Great Watchmaker style) set in motion the universe knowing that the laws he set would result, billions of years later, in a the species of man that could worship him.

This seems far more "miraculous" and "omnipotent" than a god who has to decide at each stage: "Hm, shall man have three arms or two?"

Who is to say that seven days to God is the same as seven days to a human being?

I remember a rather amusing argument that operated under the assumption that since god was everywhere, that meant he had to travel at some specific light-related speed, which would then incur time dilation. With some liberal fudging of numbers he managed to equate the "7 days of creation" to the generally accepted scientific age of the universe.

Posted by Brian Moore on February 26, 2005 12:18 PM

Hi, Brian!

Nice to hear from you! When I started this blog, I had no idea that it would me back in touch with people from "back in the day"! That is a nice bonus. You must have gradauated a couple of years ago. What are you up to now? You must have graduated a year or so ago. Send me an email when you find the time updating me.

Anyway, the point you raise is one that I have been thinking about , and that is the need for us to each develop our own philosophy of life and what kinds of constraints we put ourselves under in order to do so. It is a topic I'll broach in a later entry.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 28, 2005 09:32 AM


Yes, you are quite right, taking the Bible literally creates all kinds of auxiliary problems that need to be addressed.

For example, there is this website that tries to address all the kinds of questions that would never occur to the rest of us who do not take the Bible literally, such as where did Cain get a wife in order that the human race could propagate? (The answer: Adam and Eve had unnamed children later).

But then the question becomes why it was ok for Cain to marry his sister since the Bible prohibits it? (The answer: The prohibition came later, so it was ok then)

Why did the prohibition come later and not right from the start? And so on.

But to their credit, the Biblical literalists do not shirk these questions. They try hard to make a consistent story even though the rest of might wonder whether it is worth the effort.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 28, 2005 09:40 AM

I found this post quite interesting, Prof. Singham, as a take-off point for a post I made to my own blog:

Please consider that post to be a comment on your own. Cheers!

Posted by Eric Stewart on March 16, 2005 12:45 PM