Saturday, November 28, 2009

Evolution: The Grand Experiment

And what a grand experiment it is.

A week or two ago I saw on one of the local channels a show entitled "Evolution: The Grand Experiment". At first I thought it was going to be a nice, dry documentary about evolution, but after only a bit of watching it became clear that it was a disguised anti-evolution video. So I decided to record it in its entirety and watch it later to see what they had to say.

It's disappointing. I don't think the creators really understand either biology or how it gives rise to evolution very well. It's like they only know half of the story. They point at that half and say, "See, it just doesn't match up." Well, if you only allow half the bridge to be used of course you can't get to the other side.

I took the entry-level biology class in college. Well, I took two entry level biology classes -- one for the non-biology people and one for the biology people. (I was entertaining thoughts of changing my major at the time.) I occasionally watch Nova on our local PBS station. But that's about it. I'm no biologist. Still, even I can see some of their misunderstandings or omissions, and that's sad.

There is a cool Nova show on epigenetics that came to mind at one point. Epigenetics. That stuff is cool. It multiplies the complexity of DNA, allowing some measure of adaptability even within an individual, and that adaptation can be inherited. While epigenetics is not involved in evolution it was interesting that they interviewed some biologist who said something like individuals can change in response to their environment and this change can be passed on to the individual's offspring, and then the narrator said something like this is obviously not true because of DNA. I think the biologist had epigenetics in mind, so it can happen, and it doesn't contradict our understanding of DNA. And of course there can be environmental influences on DNA mutation that can be passed on to the offspring, as well.

Sorry, just wanted to show off some trivia.

On a different note I remember the first day I was in that biology class for the non-biology majors. Well, it may have been the first day of talking about evolution, not the first day of class. It's been too long for the ol' brain to remember. The teacher was, if I remember correctly, a pretty popular and had a fun, dynamic way of teaching, which made the class of many hundreds of people still fun to be in. He knew that a significant enough portion of our class had or would have a problem with either believing in evolution or trying to reconcile a belief in evolution with religious belief. So he had a handout prepared with various quotations from religious leaders on evolution, to help us reconcile it with religion. I do remember the butterflies I had in the pit of my stomach.

That was one of the first times in my life that I'd really been confronted with the issue of "science vs religion" to any real extent. Oh, I'm sure it had come up before. I can't remember it ever being this potent, though. Prior to that point I had fairly successfully kept science and religion separate. Never keep them them in RAM simultaneously, just swapped one out to disk when I wanted to swap the other in to RAM. If ever they were both swapped in, well one of them was on it's way out, and religion would just trump in that case. At least until it was swapped out again.

I wish I could say that my biology class was the turning point for me in my reconciliation of science and religion. It wasn't "the" turning point. But it was an important course correction. I understand the importance of that moment when that teacher handed out this paper more now in retrospect than I did at the time, I think. I say Hallelujah for people who recognize the truths in both scientifically- and religiously-inspired ideas.

And hallelujah for people who don't see them as separate.

I expect our scientific understandings of things will evolve. Scientists don't always get things right, nor complete. Partly this is because we humans just aren't capable of understanding everything yet. (I sincerely hope that to be true.) Of course, sometimes we just get things wrong, anyway. So we must hope for evolution in our scientific understandings.

I expect our religious understandings of things will evolve. This is a part of my faith, and is a central tenet of my religion, as well. Just like science, this is partly because we humans just aren't capable of understanding everything yet. Sometimes we just get things wrong, too. So we must hope for evolution in our religious understandings.

All things denote there is a God, said someone once. Yep. Including evolution.

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