Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Justin Thacker - God and Evolution Can Coexist

Please note that as a Buddhist, I do not believe in God. And while I am pretty comfortable with my spiritual practice, I am also slightly agnostic regarding the existence of something many people identify as God.

That said, I regularly post articles here that defend the belief in God, not because I share the belief, obviously, but because I am not convinced that a post-conventional belief in God, Spirit, the divine, or whatever you want to call it, is in any way a bad thing.

God and evolution can coexist

By linking Darwin so stridently with atheism, Richard Dawkins does public understanding of evolutionary theory a disservice

The Genius of Charles Darwin, broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday, should have been great. With the Darwin anniversaries next year it was timely, it had a bestselling author and public intellectual to present it, the topic was controversial, it provided a welcome opportunity for a bit of post-Lambeth God-bashing and there remains an appetite for this kind of public science.

Yet instead, in this programme, we got a tired professor whose intellectual courage went as far as challenging a bunch of 15-year-olds, and even then he still didn't manage to persuade them. What makes this a shame is that there clearly is a need for an accurate and evidence-based portrayal of evolutionary theory. I'm an evangelical Christian, but I have no difficulties in believing that evolution is the best scientific account we have for the diversity of life on our planet. I would welcome a clear and accurate demonstration of why we should all accept it, not least because it might help me to persuade some of my fellow believers why they should consider it.

The problem with Dawkins, though, is that he fails in his task because he seems unable to prevent himself from argumentative overreach. So, for instance, he tells the young people that evolution "is the explanation for our existence … everything we know about life is explained by it." Really!? Music, art, literature, love, beauty and ethics are all explained by evolution. It certainly explains a lot, even a huge amount, but if you're trying to persuade a 15-year-old boy that the reason his girlfriend just dumped him is evolution, then I think you're asking a bit too much.

Even when he sticks to science, Dawkins claims too much. He may think that evolutionary mechanisms explain the origin of the universe, but not that many cosmologists currently agree with him. And the origin of life itself remains, to date, a mystery, so much so that Professor Robert Shapiro has called Dawkins' account "fundamentally flawed". Now, I'm not going to try to fill these gaps with God. Maybe, in due course, we'll find out what scientific explanation does lie behind them, but what Dawkins fails to realise is that he significantly weakens the case for evolution by claiming that it alone provides the explanation when the evidence is just not there.

When he does stick to that which is the proper domain of evolutionary biology – the diversity of life – he somehow misses his target. Not even the most ardent flat-earthers have a problem accepting small-scale evolutionary changes. Hence, it does nothing for his cause to show that a particular bird has developed a thicker beak than some other, or that some African women have developed an immunity to HIV. What people struggle with is the idea that all that is required to explain the whole of life's diversity is these kind of small-scale changes being replicated enough times. There is evidence that such macro-evolutionary changes have occurred, that the tree of life is in fact one, but Dawkins chose not to highlight it. He addressed, for instance, the similarities between the mouse and rat genomes. But believing that two rodents are related isn't difficult – it's believing that humans and mice are that is more problematic.

It may be that in the subsequent programmes this is precisely what he will do. But if so, he should at least have acknowledged that this is the question that needs addressing, not whether finches have thicker or thinner beaks, but how we can know that we and the oldest bacteria have a common ancestor. That is what he spectacularly failed to do, and that is why his 15-year-old opponents look slightly bemused when on the basis of scant evidence he tries to get them to accept his conclusions.

If his defence of such large-scale evolution was bad, his polemic for atheism was even worse. In recent years, Dawkins seems to have evolved into a very simple kind of thinker. His argument for atheism goes like this: either God is the explanation for the wide diversity of biological life, or evolution is. We know that evolution is true. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

Even if we set aside the possibility of a deistic God – which I think should be set aside – what Dawkins fails to address here is the flimsy nature of his first premise. His mantra of "evolution or God", "Darwin or the Bible" is not credible for the simple reason that there are too many scientists, including evolutionary biologists, who fully accept both Darwinian evolution and a creator God. It was particularly telling that when Dawkins addressed the relevance of DNA to evolution he interviewed Craig Venter rather than Francis Collins. Why? Because Francis Collins, the director of the human genome project, who together with Venter sequenced the human genome, is also an orthodox Christian. He believes entirely in Darwinian evolution, but he also believes in a creator God who brought the diversity of life into being by means of evolution.

For Dawkins' argument to stack up, such people must not exist. But they do exist. I am one of them. In fact, I suspect most Christians in the UK fall into this camp. But Dawkins cannot acknowledge our existence for to do so cuts from under him the first rung of his argument: either God or evolution. It is also for this reason that Dawkins is extremely reluctant to debate in public with such people. Their very presence disproves his thesis that an evolutionary account of life necessarily leads to atheism.

What would make this programme interesting is if he did manage to find the courage to take on people other than 15-year-olds, but I suspect if he does, it will merely be young-earth creationists. Such tactics make good TV, but are not becoming of someone who is meant to be taking the higher intellectual ground, and helping the public in their understanding of science. If Dawkins wants to be taken seriously by the Christian community, he should at least debate with his real opponents, rather than the straw men that one can always find.

So, Dawkins fails in his atheist polemic. But from a public service point of view, he has done just as badly in defending Darwin. By tying evolution so rigidly to atheism, he has let both science and the public down.

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