Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Evolutionary Biology and Religion

P.Z. Myers has an excellent post up on the points of conflict between religion and the science of evolutionary biology. Suffice it to say that while the creationists are utterly wrong, those who claim that there are no points of conflict between religion and evolutionary biology are peddling a comforting falsehood.

In fact, I'd say Myers actually pulls his punches a bit. It would be nice to believe that one could hold onto one's religious faith with just a few tweaks to accomodate Darwinism, but on this point the creationists are more insightful than many of their opponents. The reality is that certain sorts of religious systems, like deism or pantheism, are more easily reconciled with evolution than others with more interventionist deities. The more one knows about evolutionary biology, and the better one understands the history of life on this planet of ours, the more difficult one will find it to reconcile the notion of benevolent supernatural entities with the reality of a capricious, arbitrary and vicious natural world, in which suffering and brutality have been the norm rather than the exception. Why should a God who cares about us in particular have created a universe in which no life existed for 14 billion years, or a planet on which no life-forms more complex than bacteria were to be found for the first 2 of its 4.5 billion years of existence? Why was a deity so concerned with the affairs of men prepared to wait out the 550 million years from the emergence of creatures like Myllokunmingia and Pikaia and beings like ourselves? Was God on holiday throughout this period or something? And if we Homo Sapiens have souls, what about Homo Erectus or the Neandertals? What about Homo Habilis, or going yet further back, Australopithecus Afarensis? But if we are willing to grant souls to all of these creatures, I see no reason not to extend the courtesy to chimpanzees, gorillas and all of our other fellow apes.

Of course, one needn't be acquainted with evolutionary biology to realize that there are intellectual difficulties inherent in all of the traditional monotheistic religions. The old problem of evil sufficed to shake me from my religious faith early in my teenage years, and I still am yet to come across a convincing explanation of how God's omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence can be reconciled. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, contrary to the claims of those who try to fight creationism by claiming an easy conexistence between religion and science, the claims of evolutionary biology do indeed inflict mortal damage on the traditional religious conceptions with which most in the Western world are familiar. There is no place for an activist, benevolent God in Darwin's universe.