Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Evolution of My Faith



by MAB (bio)

Tadpoles are awesome. This young one here is just barely growing its front legs. I used to catch them as a child in rural central Utah and watch them as they grew legs, lost their tail and turned into frogs. I like the fact that they disprove the notion that swimming creatures can't evolve and walk (or hop) out of the water.

I was a fairly typical latter-day saint boy in small town Utah. I went to church every Sunday and tried to pay attention. I was well versed in Book of Mormon stories that my teachers told to me. When I got into high school, though, and took the standard physics and biology classes, everything changed. Learning about genetics, and evolution especially, was a significant and powerful experience that affected me much like a religious awakening. I began to wonder about the discrepancies between scientific and religious thought. Many things were insignificant, and easily reconciled. But questions remained, and when I asked people about them I either got conflicting information or was told I would have to wait to get an answer.

For instance, I had many questions about the story of Noah’s Ark. The literal rendering of that account is baffling to think about. How did Noah build an ark big and intricate enough to fit millions of species and their food? How did he gather rare species from remote islands or from caves in the middle of a continent and put them back? How did he know the differences between male and female, as it is hard to tell in many species? Years later I realized how silly these questions were. There was never an ark constructed big enough to carry two of every mammal, never mind reptiles and insects. Most populations need to be larger than two to succeed anyway. And many would have been eaten by their carnivorous neighbors. I’ve heard most of the apologetics. Perhaps it was a local flood (but then the whole earth would not have been properly baptized, killing the rest of humanity). In which case I guess we wouldn’t all be descendants of Noah and his ark-mates. Or it is an allegory not to be taken literally. Or God can do anything, so we don’t need to worry about the details. But there is no evidence that a flood covered the entire earth. I doubt there is enough water in the atmosphere for such an event.

The explanation of the creation of the earth and humans in Genesis and Abraham was also confusing to me. It’s lacking significantly in detail when compared to books available on the subjects of geology, paleontology and anthropology. And it doesn’t align to them either in terms of sequence or time span. I continued to study biology in college and eventually gained a firm belief in evolution as it is understood by the majority of scientists. You could say I gained a testimony that humans evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees millions of years ago. I also find the current understanding of the details of evolution more satisfying and interesting than the few chapters devoted to it in Genesis.

So I was left wondering how much I could trust the scriptures and the sunday school lessons that covered topics like the creation. It may be the case that there is symbolism and meaning in the creation story, but it doesn’t seem factual to me in any respect. It’s interesting that when I talk to other members about this they often agree with me. However, in many lessons and talks the creation story is treated as fact with the caveat that the time spans are unknown and probably took longer than a day.

The ability for people to hold two conflicting ideas as truthful is known as cognitive dissonance. I was in a state of cognitive dissonance through my early teenage years, but as I entered early adulthood I slowly cast off religious belief in favor of ideas supported by scientific evidence.

Fortunately, most people now believe in evolution. It’s hard not to in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s also difficult to dispute Darwin’s main hypothesis that species evolve through natural selection because it makes so much sense. However many people, Mormons especially, do not believe that life started in any other way than through God’s intervention and that human’s did not evolve from a common ancestor with Chimpanzees millions of years ago. There are many ways life could have started on earth, especially with the time scale involved. But what I would like to briefly cover next is why I believe humans evolved within the order of primates.

First, our DNA is very similar to that of the chimpanzee, less so to other primates. If you compare us to other mammals like mice, our DNA diverges even further. If you believe in evolution and the various theories that explain it, then it makes sense that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor. It’s akin to rewinding a clock. Second, there is a growing list of species found by archaeologists that function as ‘missing links’ that connect us to other primates as you move further back in time. Third, the idea that Adam and Eve were the first humans would have been odd if they existed alongside their parents and siblings that were somehow less human. Fourth, humans continue to evolve so what does it mean to say we were created in God’s (static) image? In various parts of the world there are people who on average stand apart because they are either shorter, taller, harrier, less hairy, stouter, darker, lighter, etc. than people from other corners of the world. There is no single image of a human. I know this is just variation within a species and not speciation itself, but I think it still highlights evolution at work. Fifth, there are areas of our DNA that do not have any coding functionality but are pretty much the same in other organisms such as mice. So, basically this filler DNA is preserved and handed down through species. Sixth, all our cells have DNA that is outside the nucleus and distinct from our normally inherited DNA. This mitochondrial DNA (inherited solely through maternal lines) appears to have entered eukaryotic celled organisms such as ourselves way, way back in time through a symbiotic relationship. This implies a very early step in our evolution when there were perhaps just unicellular organisms in existence. Finally, the mechanisms in biochemistry and genetics are very complex and in many cases inefficient. And for the most part the mechanisms are shared across all species. They appear to me to be the product of random mutations across billions of years. One example is DNA replication and the use of Okazaki fragments. I could go on, but my wife has pleaded with me to stop “geeking out.”

As you may have guessed by now, my faith is not a traditional one. I attend church but consider myself agnostic. Over the years I’ve discussed my conundrum of religion vs. science with friends, family and religious leaders. Our discussions are good, but I enjoy them most when I am not condescended to and everyone keeps an open mind. And that last bit is for me just as much as anyone.

Some points that are frequently brought up when I discuss my unorthodox faith : (i) I should just believe in the gospel because it doesn't hurt anything and if it turns out to be true, voila, I still get to go to heaven; (ii) everybody has doubts and issues they are working through so I should just persevere; (iii) I should not trust in man's understanding (paraphrasing) for God's ways are not my ways, they are highways; (iv) along those lines, there is no way I will comprehend everything during my lifetime so I should just shelf my doubts and figure it out when I die; (v) science can only answer scientific questions not religious ones (often referred to as a problem of domains or spheres), etc.

The problem is (i) I feel like a hypocrite and a liar when I pretend to believe; (ii) I tried to persevere as best I could but my well-being deteriorated, and when I got things out in the open I felt better on many levels; (iii) I tried to understand God's ways and they stopped making sense to me and I don't feel like that's my fault; (iv) I don't want and probably can't stop thinking for myself and seeking the truth as best I know how; (v) science seems to be doing a good job answering the questions that I care about.

I know science and man are imperfect. But I’ve searched and continue to search for the truth the best way I know how. There are still many mysteries to uncover but I have stopped putting them on the shelf. Instead I reach for a good book and pass on reading the scriptures one more time.

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