Happy birthday Darwin: lamentations on science and religion

by Raul Kamantigue Suarez

A recent Gallup Poll comparing the religiosity of people of different countries reveals that Filipinos, although not the top-notchers, are among the most religious people on earth. As I write this article, the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809), the British biologist who gave the world what is now recognized as one of the most important ideas in scientific history: a mechanism for evolution. As I ponder the significance of these, I am led to consider the relevance of science to the Philippines as well as the influence of religiosity on Filipinos.

It is useful to begin by considering the essential difference between science and religion. Most religions consist of systems of belief concerning the supernatural (meaning ‘beyond nature’) and provide guidance concerning values and ethical behavior. In contrast, science involves proposing and testing ideas to gain an understanding of natural phenomena. The scientific method cannot be used to formulate or test hypotheses concerning the existence, intentions or actions of supernatural beings. A scientific explanation for electricity, gravity or atomic fission says nothing concerning the ethics of punishment by electrocution, hanging, or the slaughter of civilians using an atomic bomb. However, whether the world is only several thousand years old, whether it took just a week for all species of living things to appear, and whether a wooden ship could accommodate and save all animal species during a global flood (as claimed by certain types of creationists) are questions that can be subjected to scientific investigation.

Scientific investigations in the fields of geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology have yielded a wealth of evidence that refutes literal interpretations of the biblical account of creation. This is not a controversial statement (except to creationists and pseudo-scientists) and is the outcome of more than a century of scientific research. Neither is such a statement controversial to modern Christian theologians (ask any member of the Ateneo de Manila’s Theology Department) among whom there is consensus that the biblical account of Genesis is not a historical document. But even today there is much public misunderstanding concerning Darwin’s theory and disbelief in the idea that species evolve at all. The recent Gallup Poll reveals that only about 39% of Americans accept evolution. The U.S. is atypical among western, industrialized countries with a citizenry 46% of whom believe that God created humans in their present form. In contrast, a recent Angus Reid poll shows that 58% of Canadians are evolutionists.

In covering Darwin’s birthday, television shows and media articles almost always refer to Darwin’s “theory of evolution”. But Darwin did not propose that organisms evolve – this was already known to biologists before his “Origin of Species” was published in 1859. Rather, Darwin proposed a mechanism, called “natural selection”, that explained how evolution works. The process of natural selection makes use of the variation in traits or features of individuals of the same species as the raw material for evolution. Some individuals may possess traits that make them more fit than others to survive and reproduce in a given environment. If, over many generations, more of their babies also survive and reproduce, their descendants will make up an increasingly larger proportion of the population than the descendants of those less fit. Among the animals that Darwin studied in the Galapagos Islands were finches that varied in the shapes and sizes of their bills. In habitats or under conditions where various kinds of seeds were plentiful, natural selection favored finches with bills suited for feeding on seeds of different sizes and hardness. But other finches had bills better suited for feeding on insects. Over many generations, about a dozen groups of finches with differing bills, ‘adapted’ to different diets, had evolved and could no longer interbreed. This illustrates how multiple species could arise from a common ancestor. One requirement for this to work is that traits must be heritable, meaning that they are handed down from one generation to the next. Darwin, of course, did not know about DNA or the role it plays in inheritance and evolution. Despite this, he proposed a mechanism that has withstood 150 years of scientific testing and is now supported even more firmly by evidence from molecular biology. As DNA sequences from more and more species accumulate, support for the concept of a Tree of Life, linking existing species to each other by descent from common ancestors, continues to grow. Natural selection, as an evolutionary mechanism, is so well supported that it has been elevated to the status of a theory in the same sense that there is a body of theory concerning gravity.

In discussing evolution, the news media almost consistently fails to distinguish between the lay person’s use of the word ‘theory’ vs. its scientific usage. Juan de la Cruz can read the morning newspaper and tell his wife he has a ‘theory’ about something he read. In contrast, gravity as a theory is supported by a large body of accumulated scientific knowledge resulting from over two centuries of mathematical and experimental physics. We do not question whether the phenomenon called ‘gravity’ is real or not because the underlying mechanisms constitute “just a theory” or because physicists continue to investigate the nature of the forces that give rise to it. This public misunderstanding of the nature of scientific theories results in the claim that because evolution is “just a theory”, creationism (or intelligent design) is an equally valid ‘theory’ that should be taught in classrooms as science. That a supernatural being performed the miracle of creation is not even a scientific statement. It is certainly not a scientific theory and cannot be tested, accepted or rejected, based on the methods of science. Evolution is different because it is falsifiable. DNA sequence data, for example, could have led to its rejection if the gene sequences of species proposed to have descended from common ancestors were found to be completely unrelated. Instead, gene sequences reveal quantitative evidence (degrees of homology) that further supports evolution as part of a large body of accumulated knowledge.

Darwin gave us a scientific paradigm by which we can understand the origins of the biodiversity that sustains our own species. Filipinos live in a country known throughout the world as a center of biodiversity – the product of millions of years of evolution. Sadly, the Philippines is also known worldwide as an ecological disaster. Overfishing, the massive destruction of mangroves and coral reefs, and the felling of most forests constitute an unfolding catastrophe that is extremely difficult to stop and perhaps impossible to reverse. Science tells us that human population growth is a major cause of this. Uncontrolled population growth is not just bad for Philippine flora and fauna – most Filipinos, including those who don’t care about nature, will suffer from floods, unproductive farmland, water-shortages, power-outages, and pestilence. They will leave their children a barren archipelago into which lumber for housing will have to be imported, where seafood will become food for the rich.

In a public lecture, Jared Diamond, a scientist and author of the book “Collapse”, listed the Philippines as one of the countries headed for collapse. To illustrate how societal collapse has occurred in the past, Diamond used Easter Island as one of several examples. Centuries ago, the Easter Islanders cut down trees as part of their effort to make stone monuments; they did this until none were left. Surely, they should have seen the end of their forests coming. But the Easter Islanders completely destroyed the rich biodiversity that sustained their way of life. With no wood for boats, they could no longer fish as they used to nor leave their island. The consumption of fish diminished, as did the consumption of wild birds as their nesting sites were destroyed. So, the cuisine shifted to chickens and rats, and may have ultimately included humans.

Could there be parallels between the Philippines and Easter Island and, perhaps, other societies that have collapsed? Consider how, for decades, the funding and implementation of government-sponsored birth control programs have been opposed by religious politicians and the Catholic Church in the Philippines. A group of pious Catholics once said to me that the birth, baptism and death of babies, followed by the birth of even more, was preferable to the use of contraceptive devices by their parents. They said this was preferable because the babies (presumably of poor families, not theirs) would go to heaven after they died of disease or starvation. In his lecture, Diamond pointed out that societal collapse is catalyzed when powerful, influential decision-makers in a society insulate themselves from the consequences of their own actions, so that the adverse consequences of their policies are experienced mainly by the obedient majority.

In choosing between survival and collapse, Filipinos can draw important lessons, not just from science, but from their own history. The strong anti-clericalism that characterized the revolution against Spain was not a rejection of religion; rather, it was a reaction to a religious hierarchy and government that, together, conspired to use religion to oppress Filipinos. Unlike the tree-cutting monument-builders of Easter Island, Filipinos can still choose a path that avoids collapse. There are still forests, reefs, mangroves, fisheries and farmland that can be saved and managed sustainably, using tools available from the natural and social sciences. Another tool is their hard-won and valued democracy; Filipinos can invoke the Philippine Constitution that states (Article II, Section 6) “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” They can insist that elected officials recognize that population control is essential to the common good, with confidence that such insistence is consistent with the law. As a religious people they can support government-funded population control programs based on the love of others preached by both Jesus and Mohammed. The Philippine government spends billions in support of science and science education. Filipinos can demonstrate that this has been money well-spent by telling their government that they have learned what is, perhaps, the most important of all science lessons: that biodiversity – the product of millions of years of evolution – is essential to the survival of their nation.

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Raul Kamantigue Suarez is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, California and an editor of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at suarez @ lifesci.ucsb.edu.

 

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