Darwin discussion forum
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
- Professor Steve Jones
- Professor Richard Holloway FRSE
Two centuries after the birth of Charles Darwin, and 162 years after the publication of his book On the Origin of Species, there is still debate about his theory of evolution.
Recordings from a discussion forum organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young People’s Committee, offering opportunities for young people to engage in debate and allowing them to draw their own conclusions.
Evolution is one of the few processes described by scientists which is challenged not just on the details and accuracy of the theory using experiments and observation, but also on the basis of religious views. When Darwin eventually worked out his theory of evolution through natural selection, his concern for the views of the church seriously influenced how long it took him to discuss his big ideas in public.
Religion in its many forms is just as crucial to some people now as it was in Darwin’s time. This debate and workshop aimed to separate out scientific evidence from religious beliefs, enabling students to openly discuss the issues and make up their own minds about where they fit in the spectrum of views on how evolution and religion can co-exist.
One of the speakers, Richard Holloway, brought his religious perspective to the debate, having devoted much of his life to religious thinking and having been the Bishop of Edinburgh. He is also someone who takes seriously the ethical issues faced by everyone with the big advances in technology, genetics and medicine. He has written numerous books and been involved in radio and TV.
Our second speaker was Steve Jones a professor of genetics, author and broadcaster, who is an outstanding researcher in evolutionary biology and ecological genetics and who understands the scientific process of using experiments and collecting evidence to test theories. Steve is also an excellent communicator, taking his ideas and views to more general audiences through writing, radio and TV.
On hearing of the death of his daughter, the artist Paul Gauguin painted a canvas which was a cry of anguish at the riddle of existence. On it he wrote three questions:
- Where do we come from?
- What are we?
- Where are we going?
Such questions reflect humanity’s nature as a thinking creature interested in its own identity. We know we are going to die, we are puzzled by why there is something rather than nothing and we seek meaning.
These qualities are the engine of three great human enterprises – religion, philosophy and science – each of which attempts to provide answers to the big questions. One approach to answering the big questions is by gathering and analysing information with our brains. Religious traditions tend to argue that there is another source of data, from divine revelation. This suggests that at certain points (in some cases 3,000 to 4,000 years ago) messages were sent to humanity, perhaps from the source of all things. These were recorded as scripture, and point to the meaning of things and offer guidance on how to live.
Bishop Holloway argued that attitudes to religion can be represented by four points along a continuum. These start with the strong religion (divine realism) and the claim that there is a real God, and a revelation that was recorded accurately and is infallible. This provides a package of unchanging answers to everything.
Its advantage is strength and certainty, but the believer is locked into a worldview from thousands of years in the past. New knowledge is often rejected and there are frequently ideas that women are inferior and that alternative sexualities are not to be tolerated. This results in a collision with some of the best social reforms of our time and an absolute clash with much scientific knowledge.
One example was the conflict that occurred in the late Middle Ages when astronomers discovered that the Sun rather than the Earth was at the centre of the solar system – an assertion regarded as blasphemy. Such fundamentalism can be an aggressive and sometimes violent ingredient in the debate over how to live and understand our universe. Strong religion is also at odds with our nature as restless, changeful and questioning creatures.
Weak religion (critical realism) believes in a real God and revelation but recognises human imperfection. This allows for the perfection of revelation, but the fallibility of scripture as it was written by flawed humans. The weak religious position demands modesty and an acceptance that humans only perceive God imperfectly and their own prejudices or wishful thinking can obscure their understanding. This allows for ideas to adapt to new scientific knowledge and social wisdom.
There are major challenges for the weak religious outlook, as it demands constant effort to reconcile the traditions of faith with the best of the contemporary world. This can lead to accusations from the strongly religious that fundamental truths are betrayed. Most people with a weakly religious perspective were able to adapt to and accept Darwin’s ideas, though it often took some time as they sought to reconcile them with their faith. Its strength is the recognition that for a religion to be valid for all time it must adapt.
This viewpoint (non-realism) regards faith as a human construct, a record of humanity’s attempt to wrestle with the big questions. It sees religion as a force that has generated wisdom and beauty and that should be cherished. It sees religion as doing something that science often can’t in informing us about what it is to be human.
As something made by us, like great novels, operas or symphonies, religion must contain knowledge that is of use. The great texts combine beauty and horror – talking about evil, hell and sin. The non-realist position can see religious writings as a reflection of our conflicted nature, an upsurging of the unconscious, where there is darkness as well as light. Despite our intelligence and ability to evolve and advance, the purges, wars and genocides of the 20th century show our immense capacity for cruelty. The after-religionist can look at religious works and see the characteristics of our species laid out – wonderful animals who write love poems and lyrical essays whilst at the same time construct ideologies that damn and demean fellow humans. Scripture expresses the great dark under-continent of the human spirit and the brightness of its potentiality in a way that little else can.
The after-religious perspective is humanistic and looks to scripture for truths beyond the literal and the factual, in the same way that the reader of a poem or a novel does. As such, the tale of Adam and Eve is a myth. Rather than being an account of an aboriginal couple in Mesopotamia, its ideas about the serpent and the eating of the apple from the Tree of Life is
about the essential restless discontentedness of mankind. It is a myth with enduring meaning, rather than an obsolete pre-scientific explanation of the origins of our species. These realities are at the heart of our conflicts and go to the essence of our identities as creatures who overdo things – even to the point of threatening the existence of our own planet through pollution, global warming or nuclear war.
Absence of religion
Some people, often in northern Europe, have no interest in religion or what it has to say. Life is its own meaning, simply to be lived; don’t ask deeper questions, just get on with it. This is the predominant view of our culture. In its weak form there may be wistfulness about the non-existence of God and the comfort available from belief. The strong version is deeply hostile to religion and regards it as a negative force to be rooted out.
Amongst the most eloquent followers of the strong version is Richard Dawkins, who expresses moral outrage about religion, regarding it as the root of all evil. This, argued Bishop Holloway, is untrue, as evil can attach itself to any human enterprise, including the sophisticated science that resulted in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The root of all
evil is the human being – a creature able to turn any good to evil. Yet it is true that religion has often been turned to evil purposes, from the burning of witches to the persuasion of naïve young men to fly planes into high buildings killing thousands. Religion, and politics, can turn people into implacable monsters.
Many evangelical atheists are passionate followers of Darwin. This is despite his advice that direct arguments against Christianity have little effect on public opinion. He felt that illumination was gradual and came through education, and so he confined himself to writing about science. Atheistic attacks on religion, however, can be very beneficial as they force
believers to think and adapt and evolve – purging themselves of superstition and false thinking.
Where do we stand?
Our position on the spectrum from the strongly religious to the anti-religious is heavily influenced by our circumstances. Each perspective has value and deserves respect. Such respect does not preclude debate, and cruelty and intolerance should be resisted. Yet when people are facing extreme circumstances, compassion may demand that people go along with, or even assert something they know is untrue. In a debate with Richard Dawkins last year, the Bishop said they both agreed there were circumstances where a tender fiction is the best truth that can be offered to the suffering. Indeed, the idea of truth is not a simple one and he concluded with the words: “Sometimes our certainties can be crucifying – so beware of them”.
The origins of evolution
The Biblical tale of Adam and Eve is just one of a variety of creation myths from around the world that helped provide different cultures with explanations for big questions about the origins of the world, life and the human species. They cannot all be true, but there is no way of differentiating between them. The scientific story, which explains evolution as a process of natural selection, is different because it can be tested. A large body of evidence supports the theory of evolution and it is almost universally accepted amongst scientists, but not necessarily the general public.
Darwin’s theory worried many in Victorian society because they felt it robbed humanity of a special status, distinct from the rest of creation, and made man just another animal. This in turn was taken as undermining Society’s moral fabric – if we are just shaved monkeys, why should we not behave in a bestial fashion? These concerns and belief in the literal account of the creation story from Genesis 1–3 dwindled, but have since re-emerged either openly or in the form of ‘Intelligent Design’. At the same time, scientists such as Jane Goodall, who is celebrated for her work in understanding chimpanzees, have helped blur distinctions between humans and apes. She argues that as chimps have 98% of DNA in common with people, they should share most human rights.
Professor Jones rejected this concept, saying that there are profound differences between the species.
The concept of evolution predated Darwin. What he did was provide a coherent theory and a framework for the whole science of biology. His core idea can be summed up as “descent with modifications”.
Information is passed down through the generations, but mistakes are made, so differences emerge. In today’s language, the idea can be expressed as “genetics plus time”. And there has been plenty of time for mutations to take place in the 3.5 thousand million years since life emerged.
One earlier scientific use of an evolutionary concept was in the work on linguistics by Sir William Jones in the mid-18th Century. He challenged the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which all languages were created by God in one instant to stop humans quarrelling. Jones identified that many languages in Europe and India have similar elements and have evolved from a single tongue. The speakers of the ancestral language, possibly from the Crimea, had moved around, and over the millennia the original language has changed. Some changes can take place very quickly, for example the clipped-sounding ‘Received Pronunciation’ which was common amongst university students in London in the 1950s has been displaced by regional accents.
Darwin saw that evolution was at work in biology and defined the process as one in which inherited differences affected a creature’s chances of reproduction. Some creatures would have mutations that gave them advantages, allowing them to live longer, breed more often or be more attractive to mates. The result would be that they would be more successful at reproducing and would spread. In time, new species would emerge as life adapted to the challenges of different environments and circumstances.
A factory for making impossible things
Followers of ‘Intelligent Design’ claim that life-forms such as humans are so complex and unusual that they must represent the work of a Creator. This misunderstands the way nature, and even industry, works. Professor Jones gave the example of a soap powder manufacturing plant where nozzles that were a vital part of the process were inefficient. Designers were called in but failed to make real improvements. Another approach was taken in which small random changes were made. The best were kept, the rest abandoned, and further random changes were introduced to each new generation. After 45 generations the efficiency had improved 100 times and the new nozzle was astonishingly complex.
Evolution accounts not just for the emergence of different species, but for distinctions within them. Human skin colour makes Africans and Europeans look different. This is a result of the melanin pigment, which is more present in dark skin than in light. This is an advantage in some climates as it protects against the Sun’s rays. However, it also inhibits the body’s ability to manufacture Vitamin D which provides essential protection against diseases like rickets.
As ancient humans moved to less sunny parts of the world, those with paler skin were better equipped to survive and reproduce, because higher Vitamin D levels meant they were healthier. Small, but different, mutations reduced melanin production in the groups which populated China and Japan. This shows how evolution makes use of any random change that offers an advantage, rather than working to a pattern or design.
Evolution also works in conjunction with other forces, as is shown by the emergence of blond people. Early farmers were unable to grow their cereals in much of northern Europe because the conditions were too hostile. These problems were overcome and farmers began to colonise areas like Scotland and Scandinavia 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. The climatic conditions were such that those with the palest hair and skin had an evolutionary advantage, meaning that blonds began to appear in this specific geographical area.
What makes humans different?
DNA research shows that there are far greater differences between populations of chimps living 100 miles apart in Africa than across the whole human race. It also shows that chimps have many working genes that have decayed in people. One example is that humans lack the muscle proteins that make chimps so much physically stronger. Nonetheless, the species are extraordinarily similar. The main exception is that the human brain is five times larger and has many more internal connections.
Brain composition and size is the essence of the difference between humans and other apes. Whilst other creatures have tended to evolve physically, humans did so mentally. Early humans of 100,000 years ago looked very similar to those of the 21st Century, but are actually socially, culturally and mentally a long way apart. It is this capacity for mental change that marks humans out as unique. Professor Jones identified language as the vital mechanism that allowed humans to advance in this way. Whilst we do not know why we have language (it may be linked to the FoxP2 gene), we can see that it allows ideas and information to be passed through populations and between generations. This enables us to change our behaviour and means that each individual does not have to discover everything from scratch.
And whilst other species do exhibit forms of communication, none appears to have language in the same way as humans. Language gives us the power to shape our world. In Shakespeare’s time, one in three UK infants lived to the age of 21 and now it is 99%. Language gave us the capacity to learn and change – developing good sanitation, vaccines and other means to protect ourselves and improve our chances of survival.