Over the next six articles we are going to have an adult conversation about evolutionary science, though it will be elementary at best. But when I use the word “elementary” that is not to imply that I won’t get into some complex matters. My purpose will be to outline some of the basic ideas, and provide the non-science reader with some general understanding as to why this idea continues to prevail in the scientific world. Readers should keep in mind that these six essays within the larger ongoing series are being written descriptively, and not necessarily as a position that I personally advocate. Still, some of the ideas we will consider together do turn out to be based on significant data. The strategic value in understanding something about the data is that it can assist Adventists in the framing of a worldview that has both integrity and credibility.
I would like to begin by considering the overall framework for the evolutionary process, and as I do so you should note that it has a lot in common with the human condition. Certainly anyone who has lived for more than a decade or two recognizes that the journey through life is not easy, nor is it a level playing field. Risk and adversity abound and comes to us by birth into a world in which the natural order proceeds with indifference to life, it having the capacity to indiscriminately dislocate, maim, or kill. Sometimes this occurs at the hands of Mother Nature; sometimes at the hands of abiological entity operating with hostile and predatory intent; or sometimes simply the result of harmful chance events, accidents, parasitism, infections, and cancers.
These realities are such a built in part of existence that it is easy to forget how ubiquitous they are. If we need reminders, it should be pointed out that the prime focus of human activity, now and throughout history, has been directed at containing and eradicating these potential harms, and even though progress has been made every generation lives with the recognition of the overall futility of the task. Security remains an ongoing and compelling human need; an eternal quest for strategies that will lessen these vulnerabilities.
In all of this adversity science has been an important vehicle for improving the human lot. It has, for example, extended and vastly improved the quality of life through the management and sometimes the cure of disease. It has also developed the ability to preclude many weather related disasters through prediction, warning, and the engineering of more secure shelters.
Risk can also come specifically from human agents, and history has clearly demonstrated that much of this risk results from greed, fear, hate, tribalism and barbarism. Consequently, we have found it necessary to create strategies of both offense and defense, with such strategies being among the top tier of budget items for civilized societies. China built the Great Wall and Europe of antiquity built fortified cities, with much more sophisticated methods used in the modern world. Not to be forgotten is a body of law, accompanied by enforcers of the law, designed to regulate society from the nefarious and predatory. To some extent all these factors have contributed to freeing us from potential harms to which we might otherwise be exposed.
The human predicament is also the predicament of all living things. The struggle for survival is ongoing—a struggle that less cognitively endowed species are unable to manage with the elaborate strategies that humans have been capable of developing. Charles Darwin observed firsthand the effects of struggle for survival in his travels on HMS Beagle that included a swing by the Galapagos Islands. These groups of islands offered diverse and distinctive geographical features and hosted observable variation in several species. Darwin noted that the differences seemed to correlate with advantages to the species that were unique to specific locations. Why was this? Where were the species that would have found the particular environments more challenging? Darwin’s supposition was that they did not survive, that the challenges overcame them, while those with the advantageous features tended to thrive.
Connected to Darwin’s supposition was a well-known essay written by Thomas Malthus who proposed that food production tends to grow at a linear rate while populations tend to grow at geometric rates leading to what he foresaw as food shortages at some point in the future. The impact this essay had on Darwin is summed up in his own words:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work”
While Darwin obviously did not have the full benefit of current knowledge to explain the observations that he recorded, his general framework has withstood the test of time; nothing in science to date suggests that it is on the wrong track. We now understand the mechanisms of change much better—we know that natural selection does modify organisms over time, doing so at a brutal cost to the individual, but sometimes to the benefit of the species. Not to be missed in all of this is the role that luck plays in survivability. Occasionally, those seemingly best fit to their environment do not survive due to random events, while sometimes luck saves the less fit. So, although the overall process is fairly straightforward, it does not always proceed in a straight line.
Meanwhile, Adventists have a well-defined theology regarding a fallen world where nature is observed to be in competition, struggle and conflict. Indeed, it is ironic that while most of us can see this general framework of evolution in play, many dismiss Charles Darwin and his ideas with sweeping denunciations and pejoratives. Surely Adventist theology should have something important to say about this ongoing drama, with the prospect that it may be able to do so in a manner that would not be inconsistent with scientific observations of biology.
Quite clearly there is more to this discussion than has been covered in this article, but I have developed the general framework for the evolutionary model. I will go further into the science part of this conversation in the next article by taking a closer look at mutations and natural selection, and then in a still later article I will go much deeper into DNA genetics and issues that arise therefrom. In the meantime, some readers may want to charge ahead in the discussion below, but there will be time enough to discuss the other major issues associated with this general topic. Consequently, I hope that commenters will not bypass the issues raised specifically in this article.
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California. Previous articles in Jan M. Long's curated series "Bringing the Real World to Genesis" can be found here.
A multidisciplinary group of academics with terminal degrees in science have reviewed this six-part set of articles. They have provided invaluable feedback that has strengthened the end product. In general, this sub-series provides a broad, non-technical overview of the topic of evolution. Those readers inclined to pursue a more technical discussion below will hopefully remain mindful of those who lack a science background.
Charles Darwin, from his autobiography (1876)
 Mark Pallen, The Rough Guide to Evolution (Penguin Group, 2009)
- The Rough Guide to Evolution, Mark Pallen (Penguin Group, 2009).
- The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2006)
Art: Josh Keyes, Waking 40"x30", acrylic on panel, 2011
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5004