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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 | Some prominent church school teachers and San Diego pastors avow that the first persons lived at about 4000 BCE and that Adam and Eve are our literal biological distant grandparents. Information for this view is found in the Bible, the book that is foundational for Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In various translations and editions, the Bible is widely available in San Diego containing both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The 17th century leading Church of Ireland scholar, professor and prelate, Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), assumed that the Hebrew Scriptures give a complete record of genealogies and so calculated Adam’s date reckoning backward from the historic King David (1000 BCE).
Earlier and more distinguished and authoritative Christian thinkers such as Bishop Augustine of Hippo (ca. 400 AD) and (the apostle) Paul of Tarsus (35 AD) viewed Adam and Eve primarily in theological and typological or representational ways. The narratives of Adam and Eve reveal basic human nature and damaged relatedness to humans, the world and God. On this account, humans are not content with limitations and being human. Instead selfish and prideful humans seek “to be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam’s rebellion is the ineluctable expression of hubris and pride.
Like Adam and Eve, “we sin all” releasing evil into human interactions and all life thus laying the foundations for personal and social evil including Abu Ghraib and terrorism.
A different narrative — that of Darwinian evolution (E) — dates the “first” human ancestor at about 50,000 BCE. This narrative in widely taught in various San Diego biology departments. In E there are no specific Adam or Eve but rather the development of humans through physical evolution and natural selection. This story is concerned with the data of embryology, paleontology and other evidences of physical development. It has no information at this time about human moral goodness or evil. Modern biology, said a north county teacher recently, has “no place for God.”
The biological drive for reproduction and survival of the fittest shape human behavior and E.
The central tenets of Darwinism, evolution through natural selection, etc. are abstract and theoretical. It is much more difficult to conceptualize the evolution of protohumans, prehumans and various human stages over 50,000 years than to think about an Adam. For the past two centuries, E has had little to say about human moral meaning and purpose. (Charles Darwin the great E theorist and researcher was born on Feb. 12, 1809 which is also the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.)
Darwinian E is sometimes interpreted as saying that life has no meaning or purpose other than reproduction and survival of the fittest (whatever that may mean after a century of Stalin and Hitler and Idi Amin.)
It is thus small wonder that about half of Americans do not find convincing the central tenets of Darwinism, evolution through natural selection, etc. Many leaders, including former President Bush and highly honored San Diego church leaders, explicitly refuse to affirm E. In a country where 50 percent of the population regularly attends church and almost ninety percent believe in God and prayer, there is considerable pressure to reject E when E is stated as a direct repudiation of traditional and popular religious belief.
Yet it is also true that especially in modern medicine, American biological sciences lead the world and are widely praised and affirmed. It seems a conundrum that biological science in praised in the medical context and widely doubted elsewhere.
Part of the explanation lies in the perceptions of E as well as in the way in which E is presented. Last week in a San Diego university forum a leading scientist mocked popular attitudes and beliefs. “I hope I live long enough to see the total collapse of religion,” said the university star. Strident arrogance seems almost calculated to offend and make enemies.
E needs better friends, interpreters, and advocates. A beginning of wisdom is the recognition of one’s limits and foibles. The high school teacher’s “modern biology knows nothing of God” was perhaps a thoughtful and nuanced comment. But it was understood as something quite different. When such comments are made, the speaker has an obligation to deal carefully with linguistic and epistemological presuppositions and structures.
Using new techniques for brain study such as fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging), scientists may soon develop some interesting data about how humans respond to religious and other symbols. But even this will not easily lead to significant natural scientific understanding about such deep and critical symbols as God, goodness, love, etc.
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), leading American evolutionary biologist, theorist and Harvard’s fine paleontologist, proposed that natural science and religion entail different “ministeria” or worlds of knowing and action. Natural science deals with empirical facts that may be known and understood through the five senses.
Empirical knowledge helps tell us how the natural world works and helps us to manipulate that natural world through technology. But science is still in its early years and its practice requires long years of study, much hard work and vast resources. Science constantly seeks amendations and even significant changes in knowledge. Thomas Kuhn showed in his seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolution how Einsteinian physics and quantum mechanics replaced the paradigm of Newtonian physics and altered ways in which the universe is understood. Biology is increasingly turning to research in amino acids and proteins. Will the E models simply apply there?
Moreover, empirical knowledge does NOT tell us what technology or science should study or what we should do with knowledge. Shall we build or use nuclear or biological weapons. Is development and use of human cloning technology to be allowed and supported?
The United States and in particular the San Diego area are world leaders in natural science and technology. San Diegans benefit and rejoice in the excellent work of universities and of enterprises such as Qualcomm and enjoy the excellencies in life they help provide.
It may be argued (against Gould) that E should exemplify not only procedural norms (such as truth telling) but also at least implies ethics and meanings of life — the survival of the fittest for example. E may say that human purpose and reason are but instruments of natural selection. Such approaches have been debated for more than a century. Social Darwinism and eugenics are today not widely admired though they were popular among elites circa 1900.
For many Americans, the narratives and meanings of traditional religion remain convincing. San Diego’s churches provide not only religious values and goods. Synagogues, mosques and churches are important centers inter alia for culture (such as musical concerts), for family activities, for pastoral and psychological counseling, for community assistance. When attacked, popular religion defends against the attackers. For the critics seem to undercut not only the institutions but also morality and to put in doubt whether life has meaning.
But proposals for a religious or other philosophical meaning systems which do not take account of natural reality and natural knowledge are not convincing. Especially in these decades or locations where natural science is so successful people cannot long easily tolerate cognitive dissonance and wide ranging rejection of scientific insights.
Thus traditional religion and contemporary science will need to coexist in our society, culture, and in our schools, churches, communities and in our own minds. Religion will not drive E from the schools, universities or society. The advocates of E will not cause the death of God or religion despite their fond wishes and best selling broadsides.
Mutual support or at least mutual understanding of sound science and wise religion can be strengthened. Each perspective needs modesty in its claims on insight and knowledge. How will the future of the planet be shaped and unfold? Einstein is dead. Billy Graham will die soon. Both E and religion are important to our understandings of life and what happens as and after we die. The meanings of human life and death remain the most interesting and debated questions. To achieve even proximate good answers, we need the best insights of both traditional religion and evolutionary biology. San Diegans could contribute significantly to these important tasks.
B, Frederick is a university faculty member in Austria and a visiting fellow at the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. The San Diego community has the opportunity to participate in conversation on these important issues by attending the next Exploring Ethics event at the Balboa Park Fleet Science Center, Wednesday, February 4th, 2009, 5:30-7 pm. More information can be found at the Ethics Center website at: http://ethicscenter.net “target=”_blank”>http://ethicscenter.net