Evolution Sunday

“For the Love of Science,” Bob Ryder

What are you curious about? Is there a question you have about the world, something you’ve always wondered? What causes you to say, “How did they do that?” “How does that work?” “Where does this or that come from?” “How did they figure that out?” And if you find out the answer to your question, how might it change you? How might it leave you the same – for better or worse?

One of the benefits available to humanity living in the age of Google is that you can type the words, “How do gravitational wave detectors work?” and within a few seconds find this…


Part of the reason I’m a pastor rather than a physician or veterinarian is due my relatively average talent for chemistry and biology. I did alright in those classes in high school and college, though not nearly well enough to pursue a career requiring their advanced study. I had stronger aptitude for social sciences and humanities, which I happened to find a lot more interesting and satisfying. I wish I’d been encouraged to appreciate those fields of study at a younger age, because for a long time I couldn’t let myself fully enjoy them. Psychology and philosophy probably came easier to me because I found them intensely interesting, but many of the influential adults in my life dismissed social sciences and humanities as sort of the junior varsity academics people fall back on if they can’t do the “hard stuff.”

In high school Mr. Scalzo taught physics during my senior year. I really liked physics – I did a little better in physics than in biology or chemistry, thus did I give undue credence to an offhand comment he made one day within my earshot. Standing nearby our lockers as some of my friends and I debated which classes we found most useful, Mr. Scalzo overheard as one of my friends expressed his opinion that biology was the most useful of the natural sciences, to which he replied, “Biology is just a glorified humanity.” He meant it tongue in cheek, I guess, but the comment reinforced an idea I was exposed to a lot as a kid, the gist of which was that the only knowledge worth pursuing as a career was in math and natural sciences.

That way of thinking made it more difficult for me to find my path, and more difficult to enjoy it once I did. It would be years before I learned to appreciate the wonder and truth to be gleaned from studying a play by Shakespeare or a poem by Frost. It would be years before I appreciated that the process for understanding why people behave differently as part of a group than they do as individuals is every bit as scientific as the process for understanding the strength of gravity or the structure of DNA. With 7.4 billion people in the world, the behavior of crowds is certainly as important as anything we might learn from the Hubble space telescope. Disciplines like mathematics and electronic engineering tell us how to build an information network. Disciplines like economics and psychology tell us how to develop the network on budget and on schedule. Disciplines like philosophy and spirituality help us consider how to cultivate the network for peaceful and charitable purposes rather than for disrupting social institutions. We would not want to try surviving in this world without science or the humanities.

Today is Evolution Sunday, an event founded about decade ago by Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project. The purpose of the occasion is to foster mutual appreciation and cooperation between practitioners of science and religion. It came about largely in response to frequent efforts by local school boards in some parts of the country promoting creationism in public schools as a valid alternate theory for the origin of humans and the universe. Evolution Sunday is an invitation for congregations to reflect on the importance of science and appreciate that spirituality can and should be enhanced by scientific discovery rather than being threatened by it, just as scientific discovery should be guided by spirituality.

In a very narrow way of practicing religion, one assumes faithfulness means professing to believe unlikely propositions, even to the point where they fly in the face of reality. In the most absurd, tortured, abusive, ignorant interpretation of Hebrew and Christian scriptures conceivable, it’s possible to “calculate” that the Earth and Universe are only a few thousand years old. To put that conclusion in perspective with scientific thinking, decades of accumulated geological research estimates the earth to be between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years old, with the margin of error at 50 million years. The universe is estimated to be about 13.8 billion years old, with a margin of error near 200 million years. Humans came to be through the process of living organisms adapting to pressures and opportunities of the physical environment over billions of years. That fact is not vulnerable to dispute. No rational person would argue otherwise.   Despite absolute evidence from the fossil record, despite scientists having mapped physically the genomes of humans and many other animals, despite our being able to measure and manipulate genetic material, there are some even at the highest levels of power such as vice president Mike Pence who maintain that religion is primarily an exercise of rebellious belief in archaic ideas about cosmic origin and would shape public education and social and environmental policy based on the idea that the world is a static creation only several thousand years old designed by a jealous deity. Without belaboring the point, it’s easy to see how religion devolves to an exercise in willful ignorance and becomes equally pathetic and ridiculous.

Spirituality thoughtfully pursued invites us – enables us – to consider issues such as the meaning of our existence. Humanities prod us to ask certain kinds of questions. Are we nothing more than random collections of biochemical formed against incalculable odds to experience pointless consciousness? Are our aspirations for hope and community and informed democracy merely delusions? Are evils such as oppression and injustice and tyranny morally neutral, with no actual standards of right and wrong to be evaluated against beyond our imaginings? Is the idea that “might makes right” just as valid as the proposition that “In so much as you’ve done it for the least of my people, you’ve done it for me?” Is there no intrinsic value to the concept of truth or the discipline of honesty? For me, the answer to all of those questions remains “no – of course not.” Selfless love does exist. Truth and justice are of eternal significance. Mutual respect toward one another and compassionate generosity toward strangers and the poor are worthy virtues manifesting a sacred reality that transcend physics, chemistry or biology. None of that is threatened for knowing the age of the earth or universe. None of that is undermined by acknowledging that living organisms evolve by genetic mutation and that humans are primates located in and dependent on the web of life stretching back over the eons.

Genesis 1: 1-5 In the beginning when God create the heavens and the earth,  the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The creation story from Genesis serves us best when we approach it as a work of literature, not as a ludicrous scientific theory. It’s a reflection on humanity’s quest to understand its place in the world. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by interpreting it as an accurate representation of how the wordl came to be in defiance of observable reality. That isn’t spirituality or religion, it’s foolishness and ignorance. To hold such a view isn’t a display of moral superiority. It’s pathetic and an embarrassment.

I recently listened to a Ted Talk on the art of time management presented by Laura Vanderkam. The gist of the presentation is that in our spare time we can make a LOT of progress toward our goals and dreams if we treat them with the same urgency as we would a flooded basement. No matter what’s on the calendar, people usually find the necessary number of hours to resolve such a crisis, pushing away distractions and martialing resources until things are as they need to be. Ms. Vanderkam went on to break down the hours one usually has available to them in a week even after essentials such as work, sleep, family duties, which lead to this observation

There are 168 hours in a week. Twenty-four times seven is 168 hours. That is a lot of time. If you are working a full-time job, so 40 hours a week, sleeping eight hours a night, so 56 hours a week — that leaves 72 hours for other things. That is a lot of time. You say you’re working 50 hours a week, maybe a main job and a side hustle. Well, that leaves 62 hours for other things. You say you’re working 60 hours. Well, that leaves 52 hours for other things. You say you’re working more than 60 hours. Well, are you sure? There was once a study comparing people’s estimated work weeks with time diaries. They found that people claiming 75-plus-hour work weeks were off by about 25 hours. You can guess in which direction, right?

For exercise I swim over at LA Fitness in the shopping center at Veteran’s and College Ave. It’s a nice gym, and part of what I like about it is that the pool is 25 meters instead of yards – about 10% longer, so you can keep going a little longer between turns. I track my weekly distance in kilometers, sometimes as I swim I think about how my workouts correspond to the speed of light (part of the definition of a meter) – it all feels very 21st century. A few days ago I noticed a couple of friends with a tape measure verifying the length of the pool. I told them what I knew – that the pool was 25 meters as I’d been told by the staff when I joined the gym. And they said they thought so too, but they keep hearing from some that the pool is actually 25 yards, so they wanted to check for themselves. I resumed my laps and applauded their scientific spirit, glad to have my knowledge confirmed by hard evidence. And it turns out the pool is actually 25 yards. Everything I thought I knew about my pace and my distance and my relationship to the speed of light was off by about 10%. It is very slightly disappointing to learn that I am not swimming as far or fast as I thought. But I’m still me. I still love my family. I still know how to do my work. I saw nothing to be gained by casting doubt on the manufacturer of the tape measure. I saw nothing to be gained by maintaining my faith in the authorities at the front desk. The pool is 25 yards, not 25 meters. Truth is still truth and lies are still lies. The world is still better when we put side our egos and cooperate for the common good, and it still suffers when we allow tyrants and con artists to take over.

The essence of science not to discredit spirituality but rather it is exploring the nature of reality, measuring nature and finding its patterns. It’s a cocktail of curiosity and measurement, ingenuity and persistence, wonder and skepticism. The essence of humanities is not to dispute facts in favor of a preferred version of reality. It is to search for and cultivate possibilities for beauty and nobility, courage and humility.

I’ll conclude with those questions I posed as we began. What are you curious about? Is there a question you have about the world, something you’ve always wondered? What causes you to say, “How did they do that?” “How does that work?” “Where does this or that come from?” “How did they figure that out?” And if you find out the answer to your question, how might it change you? How might it leave you the same – for better or worse?

“Fire and Ice” – Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great,
And would suffice.

Temple of Nature (Erasmus Darwin – 1802)
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom, new powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, and breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Erasmus Darwin was a respected physician, a well-known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, he was one of the leading intellectuals of eighteenth century England, a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits.

“Pioneer” – Kathleen Kirk
You’re so far away now, light
years, I can barely hear you.
The sun is one more bright
body you left behind. Is it true
your atomic heart will keep
burning long past any hope
of return? Space is black and deep.
So is time, flung wide, held open.