Monday, November 23, 2009

Darwin and 150 years on

from w
Last evening I went to the Geelong Botanical Gardens to hear a lecture by Professor David Cantrill, Professor of Botany and Director of Herbarium Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's 'The Origin of the Species'. He spoke mainly about Darwin’s five weeks in Australia – in summer, and only based on NSW, Tasmania and West Australia. David Cantrill’s expertise is in southern hemisphere plants, even Antarctica - well, a long time ago.

Today is exactly 150 years since the book went on sale to the public. It took Darwin 20 years to get it to this point, speeded up at the last minute because another guy, a kind of adventurer was coming to the same conclusions.

Though I couldn’t understand a lot of the Professor’s language, one thing I was interested in was that the classification has changed – at least 20% of the old classification is wrong as proved by DNA testing. For example earlier they looked at the appearance of a plant, now they examine the DNA and find that quite different looking flowers such as the water lily and the protea, are in fact from the same family of plants.

So what do I think of the theory of evolution, since I am a Christian? Okay, like many people I do not find there’s a problem – we are kin to animals and all creatures and deep ecology appeals to me. I guess we are even related to the mongoose and the iguana!But there’s something in humans that is different – the spiritual or religious sensibility. I don’t read Genesis literally – in fact I read it as a brilliant myth so Darwin’s views don’t disturb me. Here’s an article I raked up in google.

Darwin's disciples
BARNEY ZWARTZ March 2, 2009 On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago. Barney Zwartz examines the social legacy of Charles Darwin's seminal work and asks, must faith and science always collide?

PHIL Batterham has built his life on two books. Some consider them mutually exclusive, but the Melbourne University geneticist finds them both compatible and inspiring. The first is the Bible, the second Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. "I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe in the virgin birth. I believe that the influence of God is pervasive in this world and in my life," he says.

"I am also an evolutionary biologist. Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection is the foundation upon which my research is built. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

It is widely believed that after Darwin, religion could never be the same. Did he not disconnect man from the image of God and reinvent him in the image of apes? It is certainly true that, after Darwin, science could never be the same. But the relationship between faith and science, then and now, resists simple certainties. And, from Darwin's day until now, his teaching - like Christianity's - has been distorted and used to justify all sorts of evils (of which more below).

(some bits deleted here) "Before that there was no science of biology," Byrne says. "There were little bits of science, people studying animals and behaviour, but Darwin brought it all together and said `here's a way you can understand the world'.
"It worked, and it still works, and it worked when it didn't have a mechanism. It took Mendel working in his monastery and Watson and Crick with DNA to provide a mechanism."

(bits deleted here) So can faith and Darwinian science coexist? Impossible, say extremists and ideologues in both camps. Six-day creationists reject evolution, insist on a literal reading of the biblical creation account, and reject some claims of science - and they are powerful enough in the United States to affect funding for scientific research, though they have little purchase elsewhere in the West.
Atheist crusader Richard Dawkins, the creationists' fundamentalist mirror image in the science camp, insists that Darwin disproved God. It is an article of faith (for the evidence is against him) that science and religion are such polar opposites that a Christian cannot be an adequate scientist, which would undoubtedly be an unpleasant surprise to such giants as Isaac Newton or Francis Collins, decoder of the human genome.

For the vast majority of Christians, evolution provides no challenge to their faith. They distinguish between the theological doctrine of creation, emphasising God's goodness and purpose, and the scientific doctrine of origins. The Vatican accepted the theory decades ago, while last year the Church of England, somewhat bizarrely, officially apologised to Darwin for having misunderstood him. Dead for 126 years, doubtless he was deeply gratified.

According to Bishop Tom Frame, author of a new book on Darwin, Evolution in the Antipo-des, evolution and theism are easily harmonised. "God works with and within natural processes because, after all, they are God's processes, so people should not be afraid of what empirical observation and the application of reason might show."
Science, of course, deals with the material world, with the marks that matter makes upon matter, whereas religion is more concerned with the spiritual realm. As it is often, somewhat simplistically, put: science deals with what and how; religion deals with why.

(part deleted here) Creationists and militant atheists have both distorted Darwin's own religious position, attributing to him beliefs he never held, Frame says. Darwin abandoned Christianity but never renounced it and refused to be called an atheist. "He remained agnostic all his life, and his reasons for not believing were not because of science but theology and philosophy."

(section deleted here) Both science and faith are experimental. Just as scientists test ideas with experiments and reflect on them, so Christians put their religious ideas to the test in their daily lives, he says. And both science and faith should admit the limits to their knowledge.

With a little goodwill they can coexist quite happily, especially as the boundaries are once again blurring with the rise of quantum physics. Science and faith, it is evident, are both still evolving. Batterham is not sure that the evolution of the genome can keep pace with the evolution of culture. "One of the things that gives rise to stress and symptoms is simply that our biology is not keeping up. Our lifestyle has changed so much in two centuries, which is a very short time frame for DNA. So there's a disconnect between the pressures put on us and the time our bodies take to respond."

But, if the future of humanity is uncertain, Jonathan Marks is certain that while we endure, so will both science and faith. He says: "The blending of spiritual and material is as unlikely to change as bipedality."
And I wonder if dogs can think, or have empathy for other animals in trouble. I drew this after I was watching the documentary 'The Weeping Camel'.

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Blogger annie said...

Enjoyed your comments and the article. And I do believe that animals can think more than many folks understood in Darwin's time, or even back in the 1950's. In the 50's when I was a student, there were some psychologists who insisted that animals could not think because "they can not anticipate." They never met Rosie The Cow, who not only could anticipate, but who could plan and plot mischief.

3:24 PM  

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