Thursday, December 16, 2010
Study of evolution leads to...
In this look at how we, as humans, came to be where we are today, I have been writing about two life views, both of which want their theories taught in public schools under science. One believes that whether by a natural process or a dramatic six day event-- God (through Intelligent Design or personally forming everything) not only created this earth but continues to keep it humming along by his presence and tweaking. The proof of this is in holy texts.
The second looks at the known Universe, how creation is still happening, as well as what looks like ongoing destruction. It uses these observations to posit something referred to as the Big Bang. This group makes its case for man's evolution through bones, DNA and observations on how the earth operates today.
Where most religions teach you it's not okay to think for yourself, that reason and facts can only take you so far and can be threats if they go against the religion's primary teaching, studying the theory of evolution would teach exactly the opposite and demand that you must think for yourself and choose wisely because nobody is there to pick up your toys if you break them. If you destroy your entire food supply, you will starve as no sugar daddy is waiting to send manna from heaven.
The conflict of which way to teach in schools is a huge issue for how a whole culture will think and what they expect. On the one hand you don't have to worry about what you do because actions don't really have consequences-- not if you are a believer. Oh they might for a temporary time but it all can be fixed in the end because you're not in charge.
The other doesn't have you in charge either. You are part of a natural process of selection on an earth with its own set of operating rules-- some of which mankind is still unsure of how they work.
To teach children about evolution is to teach them about chemistry, about the human body, about how the choices people make does impact other choices but not at the whim of a god rather at a natural process that sometimes cannot be turned around. Evolution teaches to observe the world around and be alert to changes.
Some of mankind's choices have already led to the extinction of whole species of animals (man is the first animal with the potential to destroy all of life on earth by his technological advances). Yes, the same thing can (and eventually will) happen irrespective of man and through earth's natural forces. Nature gets the last vote.
Through the study of evolution, we can look at the Age of the Reptiles where their fossils tell of an earth that was totally controlled by reptilian animals who mostly disappeared. Then for over a million years came the Age of the Dinosaurs where they ruled until change came in such a catastrophic way that they appeared to disappear within almost the equivalent of another big bang.
The dinosaurs gave way to the Age of the Mammals. Sabre-tooth tigers and mammoths roamed America from around 65 to 10,000 AD. When we were up at John Day we saw many fossils from those eras of creatures we don't see today at all. (No dinosaurs fossils or bones in Oregon because at the time of the dinosaur Oregon was under the ocean.)
Sabre-tooths disappeared when the climate changed abruptly (at least that is scientists' best guess) about 10,000 years ago. Some think man, who had recently arrived on the continent we call North America, was responsible; but it's more probable that the food upon which they relied was dying off due to climate change and they were too big to survive. They could not adapt fast enough.
What studying evolution teaches students is what science can tell us about our own identity, from where we came and some of how we got here. It can't give us definitive answers, like religions would offer. They cannot tell us what enabled an early ancestor to separate from the chimpanzees, stand upright or later make the biggest lunge forward of all when he developed a language that allowed the transferring, one to another, of increasingly complex ideas. Change is the essence of this set of beliefs.
Evolution helps us understand what did happen, and how it benefited mankind in his development. Unfortunately it also shows a dark side, possibly our animal nature. The very technology that has given us better lives can destroy cultures that are weaker. It has happened time after time in prehistory and history. Is this a requirement for species success or something else, something darker in human makeup?
Evolution shows man as part of a process that is both wonderful and frightening; but one that he better be observative about and try to prepare for changes because they can come fast and without any lifting everybody up to heaven to be safe ahead of them. Our ancestors didn't understand the consequences of wiping out a whole species they depended on for food. We do-- or at least should.
I think it does something else. I think it teaches a possible view of God that is far more flattering to God and more likely to be the case. Seeing how life has evolved leaves you also free to not believe in a god at all.
Now I don't know if God has a distinct personality, whether God ever gets interested in us as individuals. I know some believe it empowers them to think that way. I believe it empowers people more to think of God as having set in place a benevolent universe (that's what my scientist husband, who I call Farm Boss but is also Chemistry Boss, has always called it) and we are lucky enough to be part of this whole experience-- a tiny part but a big one to us.
We were gifted with an opportunity to be part of an earthly experience that can be what we make of it. It's up to us what that will be. When we run into bad things, we can try to use them positively. We can continue to make those, who first walked upright and then developed a language, proud (figuratively speaking, of course) of what they accomplished by working to utilize what is here in a responsible way that keeps the power of Homo sapiens being not a bad thing for earth but a good one.
Here comes another personal note-- I am not an atheist and I believe in evolution. When I was asked if I'd call myself an agnostic, I thought actually, no, I would not. I am most likely a [deist], who believes in a god, a creative force, but not a god who zaps things on a seeming whim.
The problem with thinking God is involved in causing miracles is that it leaves you also, to be consistent, needing to see him involved in causing tragedies. Because I don't dismiss the possibility of the supernatural and things that I don't understand, I am content to leave this all in the realm of the mysterious and to me life is mystery-- beginning with that it exists at all.
We have been born into this Universe. We can learn about it in its totality and make the most of our knowledge. We don't have to be afraid of a god who destroys whatever that day has irritated him because I don't think that god, in any of the many religions that teach about him/her/it, exists. I think that was man's way of explaining the many things he saw from tragedies to miracles. Man wants life in boxes and I don't think the truth of the Universe fits into boxes.
Incidentally, my believing in a god, whose presence I have believed I have experienced since I was old enough to be aware of anything, doesn't mean I believe in some kind of spirit realm that we go to when we die. I don't know what happens after our body dies. Is this it? Do we come back in a new form? Is there a heaven and hell?
Well heaven and hell I really don't believe in as the religions describe them. No 70 virgins waiting, no angelic choirs constantly singing. I don't know it isn't that way, but my belief in god doesn't go that far. It's all about now, about what happens here on this earth and how we make the most of our wonderful opportunity to experience life if only once. If it goes on, well great (maybe) but this was a pretty special gift either way. I believe in a god who put in motion natural universes and when one collapses, another is born. We are just one teeny tiny part of that and how lucky we are to be that much.
What evolution teaches us is that while we are not in control as such, we can make the most of the ride. Our ancestors did and they didn't reap nearly the advantage for doing it that we see around us today.
Teaching that this universe is a product of Intelligent Design, as in where a god continually makes everything perfect (and man has to see it as perfect as he has to see that god as perfect) is believing in a capricious god who demands we say what we do not see around us, that we deny facts to satisfy him. That's what some want taught in the schools when they want taught Intelligent Design-- a perfectly created world that only man screws up or the devil. Some of them want this taught, as they want their prayers in schools, because they fear god's reaction if they don't.
Learning about the science of evolution which incorporates chemistry, biology, history, and even physics, and making sure it is wisely taught in our schools is one way we can teach future generations the lessons of earth. Philosophy, in terms of schools, should stay in sociology classes.
Looking at evolution, we see how early man was able to master his universe through technology and language skills. Is that any less necessary today? Ignoring the lessons of evolution is going backward.
Repeating, those lessons would be-- technology, communication skills, and one more-- listening to the wisdom of elders because when Cro-mangon man began to advance in what he could do, it was benefiting from a longer lifespan where there were several generations in a village, tribe or family and they could hear the wisdom from out of the past for the future. We have history books as well as the elders to our benefit today.
What happens when a culture ignores these lessons, ignores what science tells them, decides economics are all that really matter-- and economics are about money? Coming next a discussion on that.
Eagle Nebula at the top photo, a colorized version of the energy and chemical make up of a part of the Universe beyond us.
Oh and I have another book on evolution which I recommend but wasn't sure was still in print. It turns out Amazon has it-- 'The River that Flows Uphill-- A journey from the big bang to the big brain' by William H. Calvin. It's a story of rafting the Colorado River with a group of scientists and non-scientists as they explore the river while discussing history and natural history. It's a wonderful account of the river and the kind of thinking man is capable of doing when his mind is freed to go where it will. (I got a surprise when I looked at what I bought this book for-- $12.95 and now Amazon has it for $30,95! Counting on dollars for our security makes so much sense... not.)