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Yes, Virginia, Religion Can Peacefully Co-Exist With Evolution
Green Wind
catvalente

A young reader emailed me last week with a question about Fairyland. My answer grew a bit long, and I thought the exchange was interesting and fruitful, so I asked their permission to post it here. Religion is always a strange issue in my books, in that I find it fascinating and faith is something I find deeply valuable, even though my own journey has not mixed well with organized religion. I’m no longer Catholic or Christian Scientist nor a Pagan (but that’s the closest), on the other hand, I’m not a Reddit Atheist, either. I sometimes joke that I’m a non-practicing agnostic. When asked for a religion in forms, I usually put down “Lost.”

So I can’t bring myself to pin it down and say: in this universe, God means X. I can’t say: there’s no god. I can’t say: these gods are real. I can’t even say: Pookas believe in the Great Shapeless Puddle and Nalegoblins believe in the Prime Purler, because no one race believes one thing in the real world. Mythology, faith, and folklore are three fell sisters, and their ways are rich and strange.

So here’s my Yes, Virginia letter–only in this case it’s Cameron. Thanks for writing me, Cameron!

Dear Mrs. Valente,

First off, I just finished “Girl who” last night and loved it! I had a question about the mythology of it: is there a god figure? You mentioned Pan and the Dragon-but not-fish-but not, but you also mentioned evolution. It’s hard to wrap my 8th grade mind , that even with a blossoming love of mythology and is a bit rusty, around . Could you please explain this to me? Also, could you please come to Portland, Or someday or, if they have it again: BookFest in Seattle? Thank you very much and have a wonderful day!

Your fan,
Cameron

Hi Cameron!

I deliberately left the religion of Fairyland vague. Most countries have lots of religions and that’s how I figure it goes there–spriggans have different notions of how the universe works than fairies or wyverns. Swearing by Pan is kind of like how we say “oh my god” even if we’re not religious–Pan is the god of nature in Greek myth. It’s also a little bit of a reference to The Wind in the Willows, in which Pan features.

Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive, though. There is no reason a god or gods could not have created a universe that evolved–in fact, it would be stranger if he or she or they created a universe that never changed at all. If you boil evolution down to its simplest idea it’s that things change. What’s around you changes you mentally and emotionally: if you’re loved you behave differently than if you are hated, if you’re hungry you behave differently than if you never have to worry about where your next meal will come from. And a much bigger and longer scale, what’s around you changes, very slowly, the body, too. It doesn’t mean that you personally will develop wings if you live at a high altitude, but that your children’s children’s children might be able to process oxygen more efficiently, like the Sherpas of the Himalayas. That kind of change can be as divine as a resurrection or a moon goddess if you choose to see it that way.

The fairies in Fairyland take an aggressive approach to evolution, doing it quickly and consciously as a kind of hobby, which is not how it works in our world and September says so. But like many things in Fairyland, it’s just a speeded up, “on purpose” version of something in our world. Instead of it being a long, slow, unpredictable process, it’s something fairies do on purpose because it’s fun to change. For them, it doesn’t have anything to do with religion–and it doesn’t really have anything to do with religion here in our world either, no matter what you hear on the news. It’s something we observe happening in the world. If a god or gods can make the whole world and everything else we observe in it, he/she/they can allow that world to change when it needs to.

Same goes in Fairyland.

So I can’t answer what the religion of Fairyland is because there are many, just like in the real world. No one has a “right” religion over there, even if they swear by Pan sometimes. As I do in real life, I let the people of Fairyland have their beliefs and I don’t trouble them much about it.

I was in Portland, OR last year and I hope I’ll get to come back when the sequel comes out–and maybe BookFest, too, you never know! Seattle is my hometown, after all.

Cat

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.


There is no reason a god or gods could not have created a universe that evolved–in fact, it would be stranger if he or she or they created a universe that never changed at all.


There is also a middle ground. For example: most creationist Christians believe in natural selection but not evolution, in short, changes within a kind of animal (canines to dogs and wolves), but no changes from one to another (canines to felines).

I think people would be a lot more understanding of each other if we didn't always battle over extremes. As you said, "Mythology, faith, and folklore are three fell sisters, and their ways are rich and strange."

That's not a middle ground. That's CH350 -- a well-documented species of pure undiluted nonsense.

There is no middle ground here -- either you gather evidence from the actual real world and weight it appropriately, or you ignore evidence in favor of a tendentious interpretation of prescientific writings.

Or you tell an 8th grader who, by virtue of being confused by evolution being mentioned alongside religion, probably has had an earful of how Darwin hates God, a gentle way to begin to think about a concept people are being extremely stupid about these days.

Sure -- I wasn't objecting to your post; I was objecting to scribble_myname 's comment.

I guess my central objection to scribble_myname 's post is the notion that there is anything valuable about a middle ground in this context. The point of a middle ground in a bargain or a political argument, or a negotiation is this: everyone has a different set of desires, and ultimately an agreement allows everyone to have some of their desires satisfied, which is better than the no-agreement case where nobody gets anything. This is why there will be no bargain when one side will get their way without the agreement of the other.

But here, it is unreasonable to have desires about evolution -- either God will have his way, or God doesn't enter into it, and no bargain between supporters of one side or the other will change this. We might have a middle ground about what to teach children, but that is not what is in question here.

Here, the only value is the truth. To hold out one's side as the "middle ground" implies that one doesn't even understand what it means to hold a viewpoint. It implies that finding the truth is a matter of bargaining between extreme positions. It is not. It is following the evidence where ever it leads -- even if it leads somewhere that, before evaluating the evidence, seemed like a extreme position.

If you have some evidence of a legitimate taxonomical group switching into another one, I'd be happy to see it. I believe very firmly in natural selection; I see evidences of species change all around me. I believe in it. I just am still waiting for any evidence of evolution and macro-changes, not for a lack of looking either.

Middle ground means I don't believe that creatures don't change (which is what catvalente was indicating as one extreme), but I also don't believe in evolution (indicated as the other). Natural selection IS in between the "everything is as it was created" and "everything becomes something radically different" views.

Feel free to disagree with my viewpoint on science, but please don't accuse me disregarding evidence because we disagree in our interpretation of the evidence. I didn't get my conclusions from the Bible but from the world.

Edited at 2012-02-02 11:18 pm (UTC)

A species IS a taxonomic group as is a sub-species, so I am not clear as to what your claim is.

Likewise I am confused by your claim that you see evidence of natural selection but not evolution. That makes no more sense than to say, I see evidence of automobile traffic here but no evidence of vehicle traffic.

I think I just linked you to an example (HeLa). Also, as the link points out, the entire concept of "kinds" is incoherent. See also CB902 (and the two subsections).

This is a well-studied area. If you haven't seen evidence that evolution *is* the origin of species, then you haven't been looking for evidence -- you've been looking for something that supports your particular religious beliefs.

Just to add to this evidence: we can compare DNA among various species. When we plot out the differences against the times and places in which they happened (based on the fossil record), we can see that the changes are correlated to time and separation. And this is true even between lizards and birds, and I believe further than that. There are no major discontinuities. This is strong evidence that small changes can add up to large changes.

Edited at 2012-02-02 11:28 pm (UTC)

There is plenty of fossil evidence too including in the origin of tetrapods, or in the origin of birds, or in mammals.

One "problem" is really just a matter of a linguistic trick. When we look at fossils we can see some relatives of modern birds that have a mosaic of features, some of which are bird-like other are not.

Rather than acknowledging that there is a continuum, some have attacked this issue first by stating:

"Pick a character so we can say whether it is A or B. Which one is it?"
If a character is chosen, then they can say, "see there is a gap between A and B there is nothing in between."

You might then show them a fossil that shows the character is in an intermediate stage (say between scale and feather) and they will simply respond "is it a scale or is it a feather?" If you choose one or the other then they will simply go back to saying that there is no continuum.

It would be as if I had everyone in a class divide into two groups, "short people" and "tall people" and said they had to choose a particular criterion that would allow us to put someone in one or the other. Sure we might then end up with two groups, but it would simply be arbitrary and in reality there might be a continuum,

The simplest way to observe natural selection in action is to plate tons of wild-type bacteria on an agar plate with a drug on it, such as amphicilin or tetracycline. Most of the bacteria will die, but a few will have a random mutation that confers resistance to the drug, and they will live and reproduce (asexually) and you will get individual colonies descended from those survivors.

If you want a "real-world" example, consider your yearly flu shot. Influenza mutates at such a rapid rate that the shot you got in 2011 would not protect you in 2012.

Natural selection is not between "everything is as was created" and "everything becomes something rapidly different." Natural selection is the force the environment exerts upon a given species - the members of that species who are not advantaged die off, and the ones that survive propagate their more fit genes to their progeny. Over time (yearly, in the case of influenza; millions of years when it comes to higher species), in different environments that exert different selection pressures, that may result in different species evolving from one ancestor species.

I hope this explanation is helpful.

Natural selection is a mechanism for evolution. I believe you mean microevolution as opposed to macroevolution.

Also "kind" is a very vague term in this context. One can equally claim that "canines" are a kind of carnivore, carnivores are a kind of mammal, mammals are a kind of vertebrate, etc.

At its root evolution just refers to a change in populations over time. If you believe in a natural change from one type of canid to another, than that is evolution by definition.

Perhaps, but not in common vernacular. I'm not using theoretical scientific vernacular here. Most people mean macroevolution when they say evolution, and I have a tendency to go with what most people mean when selecting my words. I also didn't mean "kind" in anything but the vague "some sort or type" definition, not in a scientific sense beyond the examples given.

It just bothers me sometimes that people can't be more open, like catvalente and realize that maybe not everything is at an extreme end where people like to take it and make war.

But I think you said it so much clearer: microevolution is a middle ground and one I (and yes, many other Christians) strongly believe in. Faith and science do NOT have to invalidate each other.

Can you provide any evidence for your claim "Most people mean macroevolution when they say evolution, "?

I have seen no evidence that most people mean macroevolution when they say evolution. The only people who I have seen who use this have been people who believe in Special Creation, and even for them it is a recent development. For a long time Special Creationists argued against natural selection and ANY change in populations even below the species level.

It was only when there was so much evidence for evolution at those levels that they dropped those arguments and moved on to macroevolution, yet rather than acknowledging that evolution occurred (and that they had been wrong) they tried to re-define evolution.

I only recently came to realize that microevolution worked and as for evidence of vernacular: nope, can't prove it, but it's what I have heard all around me from atheists, agnostics, Christians who believe in theistic evolution (or a host of other varieties), and Christians who believe in NO natural selection.

As for the definitions themselves:

Natural Selection:
the process by which forms of life having traits that better enable them to adapt to specific environmental pressures, as predators, changes in climate, or competition for food or mates, will tend to survive and reproduce in greater numbers than others of their kind, thus ensuring the perpetuation of those favorable traits in succeeding generations.
Dictionary.com

In short, genetically heritable traits by Mendelian genetics, not Lamarkian.

Evolution:
1. biology See also natural selection a gradual change in the characteristics of a population of animals or plants over successive generations: accounts for the origin of existing species from ancestors unlike them
Dictionary.com

In short, becoming something noticeably different and no longer the same. (that whole "unlike them" bit)

I believe this way because of the Galapagos finches, bacteria, etc. The finches' beaks change rapidly around a median, but they never stop being obviously and genetically finches. Bacteria "evolve" rapidly, but around a median point. They never become a different family of bacteria. Punctuated evolution is a theory that tries to account for the fact that the fossil record shows a new species arriving pretty much as it's going to be, then disappearing the same way. The changes we see within the species are fairly minor.

I tried to avoid the word species because it IS scientific and means interbreedable. I don't know how finely to apply that definition, so I don't apply it unless I know it fits, so I stuck with kinds or types (not as a taxonomical evaluation, but as opting out of one).

So there you have it, I think fairly completely, why I believe the way I do based on (lack of) evidence and my own figurings, not just because of a belief system. I don't actually interpret nature in light of Scripture; I interpret in the way that looks logical to me.

And it does appear pretty logical to me that most genetic mutations go so far and no farther, unless it kills the creature. I AM looking at the evidence, but maybe I'd have to read deep, jargon-laden scientific papers that I may or may not understand. But in lay stuff, I'm not seeing it, but I don't hardline to one side or to the other, which was my only point in the beginning.

If I may clarify a point: no one species "becomes" another, neither dogs to wolves, nor dogs to cats. Rather, individual members of that species, when presented with a change in environment, respond by thriving or dying off, depending on their traits. Those individuals who thrive then pass on the traits that allowed them to do so to their progeny, and that cycle continues over many, many generations until a separate species arises.

It may be worthwhile to point out, at this juncture, that I am both a PhD candidate in molecular biology and an observant Jew. These are not things that are in tension. I can, and do, believe in G-d and in evolution (micro and macro, as you term it elsewhere).

But to say that one can believe in natural selection and not evolution is to misunderstand what those concepts actually are.

Non practicing quasi-pagan agnostic hi five!

I like this answer. The media get in the habit of opposing things -- evolution and religion being only one example. But they don't have that much to do with one another. Evolution is something we've discovered via of observation -- as is specifically evolution by natural selection.

Religion, OTOH, is all about things we cannot know or not know (unlikely things, from the point of view of what we've generally observed, but that doesn't mean they're true, just that we don't have evidence for them). Of course, sometimes religion makes predictions about things that are observable; after all, most of the world's religions came into being before we were as good at observing as we are now. How a religion reacts to their predictions being proved wrong always tells us some interesting things about the people in that religion.

Of course, since you created the world, you -could- give the people of Fairieland definitive knowledge about things that we now consider unobservable (like, say, the presence of absence of a creator god or gods). But I think the work is stronger without it (and more universal).

I could. But I really couldn't, because I am me, and Fairyland is a delicate thing which will end up affecting how children think. I want them to see more complexity, not less, and that's part of what I think I have to give, with my children's books.

Most of the early evolutionists were also creationists. I try to explain this to my classes all the time. One of the problems is that these days, the most vocal people are those on the extremes.

There are variety of theories that deal with different evolutionary concepts, what they all have in common is "change in populations over time." There are likewise a variety of creationist beliefs; they all have in common that a supernatural entity (God/gods) created life. These two are LOGICALLY not incompatible. As you pointed out, one can believe that life was created by a god and that it then evolved.

One of the problems is that two other concepts tend to get mixed in with this discussion.

1) Abiogenesis: these are scientific theories that deal with the origin of life by natural means only.
2) Fixed species concept: this is the idea (which can be scientific) that species do not change. It has later been modified to argue that certain upper level categories (e.g., families) do not change.

It is difficult to see how abiogenesis and creationism can coexist, likewise how a strict fixed species concept and evolution can coexist.

Since some of the more vocal current advocates of evolution also believe in abiogenesis, there is a tendency to blur the distinction between them. Likewise the most vocal advocates of creationism also support a fixed species concept or at least a modified fixed taxon concept.

I have no trouble with abiogenesis and divinity--it's all in what you call divine.

Abiogenesis is not opposed to divinity, but it is harder (not impossible) to mesh with biological creationism (a supernatural entity creates life) [as opposed to a creationism that merely states a supernatural entity that creates the universe, but not necessarily life.

In any case my point wasn't that abiogenesis has to be opposed to divinity, but rather that many people arguing about "evolution" are actually arguing about abiogenesis, which is a logically different idea.

Very good post! Well-said on all points, and kudos to Cameron, too, for reaching out and asking questions.

THANK YOU. "All X believe Y" is one of my poorly-constructed-fantasy-world pet peeves.
(The other is the historical mysteries set in Ancient Greece or Egypt where the main character is an atheist or quasi-athiest. I picked up too many of them in a row and it set my mythology/Classical-religion nerd-rage off.)

Totally adorable. And thoughtful.

I tell people that I am an Ecumenical Pluralist, these days. Does it make you happy and inspire you to spread good things in the world? Balla!

I like it when people believe things that make sense to them, and bring them grace, whether it's in a God of some kind, or in the marked absence thereof.

Rabbit's faith is in people?

I like it when people believe things that make sense to them, and bring them grace, whether it's in a God of some kind, or in the marked absence thereof.

THIS! And catvalente 's post. Coincidence? I think not. Things find me or I find when I most need them in my life. Thank you both!