Evolution as Possibility

Our friends on the worship planning team selected as our theme for the month of February, “What does it mean to be a people of possibility?”  It synchronizes perfectly with our annual celebration of “Evolution Sunday,” which falls this morning because there is no aspect of human experience more resplendent with possibility than to understand our identity as one organism within the vast genetic spectrum of life, and our wealth of untapped potential for intelligence and the wisdom both to deploy it and restrain it with grace.

I always look forward to Evolution Sunday.  The event began in 2004 as part of the Clergy Letter Project.  It encourages congregations like ours to honor scientific literacy as a worthy, indeed a necessary aspect of mature spirituality.  In particular, the Clergy Letter Project was and remains a direct response to initiatives by school boards in various parts of the country to limit or ban the teaching of Darwinian evolution theory as part of their science curriculum.  Such efforts often advocate instead for a pseudo-academic concept called “intelligent design,” which treats the biblical creation stories in Genesis as a valid competing theory to explain the origins of the universe and the dominant status of human beings among living species on Earth.

One of the nice things about working for NCC is that there’s no need to spend time debating the issue.  Our congregation having been founded by and for folks yearning for an intellectually honest exploration of faith – we’re comfortable with scientific theory, willing to learn, and well past feeling defensive about scripture when scientific knowledge contradicts biblical assertions about cosmology or biology. Yet while it would be nice to think that present day society is by-and-large similarly enlightened, and that the kind of ignorance that tries to censor teaching evolution theory is limited to a few provincial corners of the nation, we’d be kidding ourselves.  There’s still plenty of active resistance to scientific knowledge and it’s implications for public policy.  Fellow citizens being poorly educated or – worse – willfully ignorant of science is resulting even today in public health risks for the spread of measles as significant numbers of parents refuse to vaccinate their children, not in this case for religious reasons so much as for being obtuse about the risk / reward ratio for vaccinating.  It results in risks for women’s health and reproductive rights, and for the civil rights of LGBT people, when scientific advances in understanding human sexuality are rejected under the guise of piety.  It results in risks for exacerbating global climate change when scientific knowledge about the planet’s oceans and forests and atmosphere is ignored in favor of feigned uncertainty to enable the continued use of fossil fuels.  So it’s well worth dedicating some of our attention in worship to the urgent importance of scientific literacy and research to inform our public social and technological policy.  The same aberrations of human nature that sanctioned Galileo for pointing out that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vise versa are still present in the world, and we underestimate them at our peril.

Consider this excerpt from an interview with Carl Saganon the Charlie Rose show in 1996.  It was the last public interview Dr. Sagan ever gave.

SAGAN: My feeling, Charlie, is that it’s not that pseudoscience and superstition and New Age so-called “beliefs” and fundamentalist zealotry are something new. They’ve been with us for as long as we’ve been human. But we live in an age based on science and technology, with formidable technological powers.

ROSE: Science and technology are propelling us forward at accelerating rates.

SAGAN: That’s right. And if we don’t understand it, and by “we” I mean “the general public,” if it’s something that, “Oh, I’m not good at that, I don’t know anything about it,” then who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of members of Congress with any background in science at all. And the Republican Congress has just abolished its own Office of Technology Assessment—the organization that gave them bipartisan, competent advice on science and technology. They say, “We don’t want to know. Don’t tell us about science and technology.”

ROSE: Surprising. What’s the danger of all this? I mean, this is not the thing that…

SAGAN: There’s two kinds of dangers. One is what I just talked about. That we’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? And the second reason that I’m worried about this is that science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next political or religious charlatan who comes ambling along. It’s a thing that Jefferson laid great stress on. It wasn’t enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. The people had to be educated, and they had to practice their skepticism and their education. Otherwise we don’t run the government—the government runs us.

It’s worth saying for the sake of telling the truth – evolution is settled knowledge without any doubt.  There is no plausible alternative explanation for the taxonomy of living organisms.  We can watch the process unfold in time-lapse through the fossil record, and even in real time across generations of species with a short enough reproductive cycles. (See Belyayev’s Foxesfor example)  We can map the building blocks of DNA, and even manipulate the genetic sequence.  We know with certainty and ever increasing precision how living creatures come to be as they are.  Each individual inherits the foundation for its shape and behavior through the genetic material of its direct ancestors.  Over the course of generations, genes experience tiny changes in sequence called mutations.  Some of these mutations result in a difference in form or behavior that confers an advantage for the effected individual to survive and procreate. That change, that mutation, is thereby passed on in the gene pool.  Extend this process over billions of years and some similarly gargantuan number of generations and we come to the present moment with every manner of critter from amoebas to zebras, from octopus to platypus, from blue-green algae to pink flamingoes.

Evolution Weekend has a dual purpose in my view.  It is in part a reproach to willful ignorance, and in part a celebration of curiosity and possibility.  If it is a social virtue to be conversant in scientific thinking, it is also a spiritual virtue to be moved by the grandeur and beauty of the universe, and humbled by our miniscule existence within time and space. Understanding evolution gives us perspective about our comparative place in a larger reality.  Humans are only one of approximately 1.6 million species currently catalogued by biologists.  There are 1.6 million kinds of living beings that we know about.  Yet even more astonishing than the biodiversity we can see is the biodiversity haven’t identified yet.  The number and variety of species we know about is vastly outnumbered by the number and variety of species currently living that scientists calculate we haven’t even discovered yet.  Quoting a National Geographic articlefrom earlier this decade, “Even after centuries of effort, some 86 percent of Earth’s species have yet to be fully described, according to new study that predicts our planet is home to 8.7 million species.”  If that isn’t wondrous enough, consider the number of species that have existed and gone extinct on the planet since life began more than 3.5 billion years ago.  Scientific estimates place that number at approximately 5 billion, meaning that of all the species that have ever taken form, over 99% are gone.

And here we are dominating the planet as if it’s all about us.  On one hand, humans are capable of astonishingly intelligence.  We’ve inferred the structure of the universe from neutrinos and quarksto galactic super-clusters.  We’ve harnessed nuclear energy, vaccinated against diseases, travelled to the moon, and made most of the knowledge ever accumulated available with a few keystrokes on a device in your pocket.  We’ve composed glorious art, and pondered the essence of reality itself in theology and philosophy.  We’ve even begun to sculpt partial, temporary approximations of peace and justice among certain groups.  We are capable of greatness.  Yet this can only serve to remind us that humans are also prone to catastrophic hubris and foolishness.  We exploit the resources of the planet as if we exclusively were entitled to them, leaving a wake plastic and chemical sludge and changing the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere with no regard for the consequences to other species or future generations.  With all the information in the world available to us, what we often spend our time looking at and sharing are photos of our food or our pets.  It’s possible that, short of the next natural extinction level eventsuch as an asteroid strike or a super volcano, our undoing will be our paradoxical capacities for technological genius, willful ignorance, and an utter lack of imagination.

As many of you know, my favorite branch of science is the study of behavior. One of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across recently is the relationship between genetics and cognition, which is to say that our assorted mental skills from language to abstraction to story-telling to politics to empathy are all as much products of evolution as the number of fingers and toes on the end of our appendages and the color of our skin and hair.  Beyond our opposable thumbs and upright walking posture, the genetic features likely to have contributed most to our success as a species are our abilities for analytic thought and highly flexible sociality.  It’s probably not all that surprising that the abilities that helped us to invent the wheel, harness fire, figure out chemistry and physics, develop advanced medicine and split the atom have helped get us where we are. But the skill we tend not to notice is our ability to coexist and cooperate under a lot of different conditions. We can thrive in solitude and we can thrive in crowded cities.  We can thrive in democracy and under dictatorship.  We can thrive under capitalism and under socialism or communism. We can suppress our individual identities in military culture, and we can encourage individual creativity in artist colonies and universities.  It is this particular trait of human evolution that has the potential to save us from our technological adolescence – the ability to be flexible in our social skills, to modify our behavior to facilitate the well-being of more and more inclusive levels of both human and non-human neighbors on the planet.

Maybe the most advanced trait in evolution – and maybe the one that has the best possibility to help us prolong our time on the planet – is the ability to love our enemies and behave toward others as we would have others behave toward us.  We have evolved with the capacity to proactively, preemptively love our neighbors – to understand our neighbors, and by practicing those underused skills of empathy and compassion to improve our chances for our mutual survival.  Our possibilities rely not only on reason and logic and technological skills, but every bit as much on social intelligence and flexibility and love.  Whatever complex suite of genes enables us to approach the challenges of relationships with that perspective is our best hope.

When I began thinking about this reflection a few weeks ago, I had a sense that it would be pretty easy to compose, because I so enjoy learning about science and sharing ideas and concepts that I find fascinating.  It turns out that it was actually pretty difficult because there’s so much to share and only a short time to spend during a service like this.  So I’ll wrap up my thoughts, incomplete as they seem to be as I write this, with an exhortation to get on the internet and explore scientific knowledge.  Be curious, be skeptical, feel the connection to the rest of you fellow earthlings that comes from finding out how we fit into the larger structure of things.  I’ll conclude with this quote from Alan Alda as he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors’ Guild Award Ceremony last month…

“When we get a chance to act, it’s our job – at least in part – to get inside a character’s head, and to search […] for a way to see life from that person’s point of view; another person’s vision of the world, and then to let an audience experience that. It may never have been more urgent to see the world through another person’s eyes than when a culture is divided so sharply.  Actors can help at least a little just by doing what we do.  And the nice part is it’s fun to do it!  So my wish for all of us is let’s stay playful, let’s have fun, and let’s keep searching.  It can’t solve everything, but it wouldn’t hurt.”