Catholic: with Questions about Evolution

December 31, 2012

Alan R. says:

I am Catholic and am open to evolution as a possible theory. My question is three fold:
1. If evolution is the effect on living things to real environmental changes over time in which the living being passes on beneficial traits that perpetuate and alter the species, what was/is the evolutionary benefit of large % of rational beings desire to know the truth about everything but believing in a supposidly fictional god?
2. Is this differentiation between believers and non-believers the begening of seperate species?
3. Will there ever come a time when athiests reach the conclusion that if morality can possibly evolve, that they can get ahead of the evolutionary curve by eliminating the competition for resources and eliminate the competition i.e believers?

If this line of questioning is to long, feel free to simplify it.
Peace be with you,
Alan R.
P.S.
It seems like most of the questioners and commentors are very civil which is nice :)

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Why Another Discussion About Evolution?

February 19, 2012

There are far fewer discussions these days about the validity of evolution than there were just a few years ago, and for good reason. For the most part, evolution is accepted by theists and atheists alike. Albeit theists add that evolution must have been guided by the Divine hand, even if the guidance was apparently through the natural processes that we can observe.  That’s an interesting discussion too, but not the one I’m attempting to target here.

The question about evolution is still very relevant to some whose conservative interpretation of their sacred writings (the Bible, the Qur’an, the Tanakh, etc) is at odds with it.  This post isn’t my attempt to put forth any new evidence or arguments – that would take more moxy than I’m able to muster!  It’s not even an attempt to put forth an exhaustive case for evolution – still too much moxy!  The purpose of this post is to provide those who object to the theory of evolution with a ready forum in which to explore the topic, in the context of the other discussions on this blog that they might be participating in.

We can observe the mechanisms of evolution first hand. For example we can observe the causes of genetic mutation, like copy errors during reproduction, and external influences like radiation, and interaction with external chemicals. We can also see how the mutations are directly related to new traits – in many cases we can trace a specific trait to a specific set of genes.

We can see natural selection in action. Natural selection happens when organisms interact with their environment. Traits that are beneficial in a certain environment give the organism a reproductive advantage. Conversely, traits that are detrimental can hinder reproduction.  Shifts in the environment can change which traits are advantageous and which traits are detrimental.  Thus detrimental traits in one environment can become advantageous traits in another. Organisms with advantageous traits are more likely to generate more offspring, thus the trait becomes predominant.

There are hardly any believers left who object to “micro-evolution”. Virtually all believers now accept that “micro-evolution” occurs. The objection is to so-called “macro-evolution”.  The terms “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution” are differences without any real distinction – they are folk concepts rather than biological concepts.  There is however a biological concept of “speciation”. Speciation can occur when members of the same species become isolated into distinct colonies. This often happens when colonies migrate and become separated by geographical distance, or by newly formed features in the geography – like bodies of water, mountain ranges, or climate shifts.  The isolated colonies evolve independently over time, each accumulating it’s own unique set of mutations.  Over time, the drift in genetic makeup of the isolated colonies can be substantial enough so that individuals from one colony are no longer capable of producing fertile offspring with mates from the other colony.  Once this happens, the colonies are said to be different species.  Since the colonies are no longer able to share genetic traits, they can’t re-converge. From this point forward, the individual colonies, now separate species, continue to evolve independently.  As a result, their traits continue to diverge to the point where we would recognize them as different species by casual observation – they “look different”. You might think of this as “macro-evolution”.  Speciation has been observed first hand in various living plants, flies, worms, and other organisms. And of course we find countless examples of speciation in the fossil record.

We use independent means to observe that evolution has occurred over time. We can deduce a family tree (a model of ancestral relationship) based on the morphology and age of the vast number of species that are preserved in the fossil record – some quarter of a million or so species that are represented by countless individual organisms.  We can also deduce a family tree by looking at DNA of living species, to determine how close one species’ genetic sequence is to another.  For example, chimpanzee DNA is much closer to human DNA than to fruit fly DNA. Therefore chimpanzees and humans are more closely related than either humans and fruit flies, or than chimpanzees and fruit flies.  These completely independent methods of observing our evolutionary past yield virtually the same family tree.

Evolution provides an excellent explanation for the progression of single-celled organism, to cell colonies, to simple multi-celled organisms, to the more complex organisms (including us!) that we can observe today.

How can a belief in the supernatural evolve?  Is belief in the supernatural somehow a beneficial trait?  And if not, does our belief in the supernatural suggest something more to us humans than can be explained by evolution?

We humans (and some other animals to a lesser degree) have evolved the ability to think abstractly.  This enables us, among other things, to predict outcomes of hypothetical scenarios in our minds, rather than being forced to learn everything by trial an error through our physical actions.  This has clear evolutionary advantages.  This same abstract thought forms the basis for complex thinking and verbal communication – also very advantageous.

Along with abstract thought, we (and most other animals) have evolved the ability to distinguish between living organisms and inanimate objects. That is, we can tell the difference between agents, like a butterfly in our garden, and non-agents like a feather floating erratically in the breeze.  However like anything in nature, this ability is not perfect.  Sometimes we mistake agents for non-agents (we don’t recognize the panther stealing stealthily across the grassland), or we mistake non-agents for agents (a shirt hanging in a dark closet looks just like a ghost!).  From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s better to err on the side of mistaking a non-agent for an agent (don’t take any chances – that could be a predator and we might be its lunch!) than to err by mistaking an agent for a non-agent (we missed lunch because we didn’t recognize the pray).  We’ve evolved to err on the side of “seeing ghosts” than to err on the side of “getting eaten”.

Seeing “ghosts” and thinking abstractly about “what a ghost is and where ghosts come from” are a few examples of the kinds of things at the root of belief in the supernatural. We sense something that feels like it’s really there, but we can verify that it is not really there.  We then conclude that things that aren’t physical can exist (that is, we tend not to doubt the accuracy of our feelings).

Belief in the existence of abstract, unseen agents evolves through reasoning, to become beliefs in things like animal spirits. We assume that the unseen agents have a familiar origin, like agents we can see – people and animals. The belief evolves into ancestral gods when we reason that our ancestors were with us when they were alive (when we could see them), so they must still be with us now since they are still alive, but we just can’t see them. And if they are with us, they must still take care of us like they did when we could see them. If they take care of us, it means they can still make things happen – they have power to affect change in the environment. Abstract concepts of celestial gods proceed from there. This, combined with our reasoning that everything has an origin, becomes belief in creator gods.

Not every persistent trait is advantageous. Take male breasts for example.  Some traits are simply byproducts of advantageous traits, like female breasts for example.  Similarly, belief in the supernatural might be a by product of erroneous agency detection, coupled with the ability to think abstractly about “ghost” agents.  Though it could be merely a byproduct, I think belief in the supernatural actually is beneficial.  Tribes that are more organized around authority can dominate tribes that are less organized.  Belief in gods is a ready source of authority – both in terms of the belief about what the gods might require of us (we seek to appease authorities or to perhaps gain favor from them), and also in terms of the authority that self-appointed spiritual leaders claim to have – spiritual leaders claim first-hand knowledge of the gods and what the gods want: “The gods want you to put yourself in harms way to protect our village! Disobey them and the gods will kill you!”

Theists who don’t accept evolution because it conflicts with their theistic beliefs, won’t particularly like these conclusions.  That’s expected and understandable.  Shouldn’t we accept any conclusions that are most strongly supported by the evidence, even if we don’t particularly like the conclusions?  My challenge to you is this: while you examine the evidence that underpins evolutionary theory, and while you look for ways to refute the theory (Refuting a theory is a good thing by the way! Science is based in falsifying theories and cannot stand without it!), be resolved to accept whatever your reasoning suggests is the truth.


Do Atheists Judge God’s Morality?

December 6, 2011

Mike Johnson asks:

Question for discussion: If morality is exclusively human in origin and relevance, why do we judge the God of the Bible with it?

Explained:

On the premise that human moral values and obligations are a product of human evolution, they would necessarily only apply to human beings and useful in governing and judging human behavior, and would be subject to change and further “evolve” over time.

Many atheists object to what they conclude are “immoral” acts committed by God described in the Bible, i.e. murder, commanding genocide, incest, slavery, etc.

How can morality that only applies to contemporary humans be used to make moral judgments against a hypothetical Creator God, who, if He existed, would not be bound to moral laws from human conceptualization, based on descriptions of immoral acts that the Bible portrays as occurring thousands of years ago? Doesn’t this show that even the atheist who would make such objections holds that morality is universal and absolute regardless of time, place or person, thereby placing the origin of moral values and obligations somewhere outside the scope of human convention?


Divinely Guided Evolution: a Profile of God

September 25, 2011

While the vast majority of believers accept that evolution occurs, they hold that the evolution is guided by God.  They believe that God created us, but He used the process of evolution to do it.  In this post, I’ll explore what this implies about the nature of God.

Evolution in a Nutshell – a simplified account

When an individual’s genome is altered, the change in the genome on rare occasion is advantageous: it gives the individual an edge over others of its species.  This individual might be stronger than average, or more resistant to some threat in its environment for example.  If the individual passes on the genetic alteration to its progeny, and if the progeny are more likely to reproduce than the others in the population who don’t have the genetic alteration, then over a long stretch of time, this new genetic alteration becomes more and more prevalent in the population until the majority of individuals in the population have the alteration.

Any species tends to split into a number of isolated populations.  Isolation can occur due to migration of different populations in different directions to seek out new resources, or due to changes in geography to name a few examples.  As different genetic alterations take place in different isolated populations, the gene pool of any one of the populations begins to “drift” apart from the gene pool of the other population.  That is, the gene pool of any one population continues to accumulate alterations and steadily becomes less like the gene pool of the other populations. At some point, the differences in the the population’s genetics are enough that individuals in the population can no longer reproduce with individuals from the other populations.  The population becomes genetically distinct – it becomes a distinct species which will continue to evolve independent of the other populations.

While this is an gross oversimplification of the process of evolution, it is accurate enough for the purpose of this discussion.

Evolution – the “losers”

We tend to focus our attention on the “winners” in the process of evolution, the ones who evolve into new species.  However, the vast majority if individuals are “losers”.  Some are losers because changes to the their genome are detrimental to the extent that they are disadvantaged in some critical way, perhaps by some sort of deformity at birth or some other inability to thrive.  Perhaps they are more susceptible to agonizing diseases, or they slowly starve because the are unable to adequately compete for food.  They suffer and die.

The majority are losers because they weren’t fortunate enough to receive the advantageous genetic trait.  The population with the advantageous trait is able to spread because its members can out compete the “normal” non-advantaged majority for resources in the environment.  The “normal” individuals are less adept to compete for resources and they often slowly starve or are killed by their stronger rivals.  Eventually, the advantaged population grows to become the new majority – who will subsequently be losers to a new minority population which acquires some new advantageous trait.

Profile of God – guided suffering

The product of evolution is creatures that die, and few of those deaths are painless.  All of “God’s creatures” suffer. If God has a plan, suffering is an integral part of it.  The vast majority who are “losers” in God’s game of evolution tend to suffer even more than the winners.  If evolution is guided, it is guided by a cruel Hand.

To paraphrase Epicurious’ Riddle: is God willing to prevent his creatures from suffering but unable?  Then God is not omnipotent.  Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then why do his creatures suffer? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?


Jesus Couldn’t Have Died for Original Sin

August 14, 2011

Christianity tells us that we are all sinners and doomed to Hell, unless we accept Jesus as our Savior.  The reason we are doomed is that we are all sinners. The Apostle Paul says in Rom 5:12:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

The reason that we are all sinners is that we “inherit” the “Original Sin” of Adam.  As sinners we deserve death.  Only Jesus’ death could atone for Original Sin.

Right?

That puts Christians in an awkward position.

Christians have to hold that there really was an Adam and Eve and a talking Serpent in the Garden of Eden.  They have to accept the creation story of Genesis. Most Christians have abandoned this position in favor of concepts like “divinely guided evolution”.  A few Christians still argue in favor of creation a la Genesis but the arguments have been exposed over and over as baseless dogma and have rapidly lost traction among all but the most fundamentalist of Christians.

Or, Christians can accept evolution, even if they qualify it as divinely guided evolution.  Then there was no Adam in a garden with Trees of Life and Knowledge.  If there is no Adam, there is no Original Sin.  There is only our nature (is it sinful?).  And our nature is the product of evolution (is it divinely guided?).  If there is no Original Sin, then why did Jesus die?


Is Natural Selection a Conscious Process?

March 8, 2011

Curious George says:

I have a question concerning the theory of evolution – the natural selection of random mutations. My question is specifically concerning the belief that natural selection is not a conscious process and the apparent lack of intent in the conventional theory of evolution.

From everything I’ve read natural selection is not a conscious process. Certainly certain scenarios exist where the process of natural selection does a great job of explaining how that works. For example, natural selection tends to favor the survival of blond haired mice over dark haired mice on white beaches. Easy enough to understand that. It has been scientifically demonstrated that bird prey can more easily see the contrast of dark colored mice as opposed to blond colored mice against the background of white sand. So over time more and more dark colored mice fall prey to the birds seeking food until eventually there are fewer and fewer of them remaining to contribute to the gene pool and over time are virtually eliminated from the gene pool – in that environment anyway- altogether.

Evolutionists have done a great job of dunking the irreducible complexity argument with regard to the “complex” eye, showing that it evolved over time from something far less complex. But what they don’t explain is how at every turn there just happen to be just the right random mutations available to be selected from and how natural selection goes about making the selection of useful mutation or the analysis/assessment of which mutations to keep or discard. It seems to me that such analysis would need to be a conscious process. I’m not suggesting a “God” per say, just a consciousness or intelligence at some level directing the natural selection process.

Furthermore, human reproduction requires two sexes, each with their own distinct reproductive system. How does evolution explain the existence of two different but mutually dependent and complementary reproductive systems? The two different systems would have had to evolve in tandem from a particular point, separately and yet maintaining their complementary structure. How does chance mutation and natural selection explain these two very different but complementary systems? And you can’t use the “it look millions of years” explanation because with sexual reproduction if you get it wrong for even one generation – you lose. So how could natural selection work without the right-hand knowing what the left had was doing? Or how with natural selection can you explain that the right hand knew what the left hand was doing?


Evolution vs. Intelligent Design – a stalemate?

October 8, 2009

How Could it be? Says:

Evolution and intelligent design are tied.

Would you evolutionist agree that evolution and intelligent design are in a stand still if you look at it from a scholarly perspective. Yes, evolution has become the leading theory in society, but science has done as much to prove it as it has intelligent design. They both have one major flaw that prevents them from being fact. Evolution can’t explain how you get life out of no living chemicals; and intelligent design doesn’t have a designer. Untill the answer is solved they will both only be theories. No matter how much you want them to be fact its just not possiable without the proof.


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