Kansas Board of Education vs. the Truth, Part 3 (1/23/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
When I was in Chicago this past summer I visited the Shedd Aquarium. It is a world renowned aquarium, and seeing the way underwater life evolved is an eye-opening experience. I observed three things that day that really stuck with me. First was a vicious shark whose snout was about three feet long. Its snout was shaped like a saw, and it fed itself by approaching its prey, swinging its head back and forth, effectively cutting even large fish to small pieces, which it then ate at its leisure.
Then I saw a pair of turtles. One was pretty large, and seemed old; and the other was small, young and playful. I watched for 20 minutes as the smaller turtle chased the bigger turtle all over the aquarium. The big turtle was clearly not having a good time. It looked very tired. But every time it would find a couple of seconds of peace and quiet in some corner of the aquarium, and shut its eyes, the little turtle would attack. I felt so sorry for that bigger turtle, and my compassion grew even deeper when I passed the exhibit again several hours later… and the same game was still going on. I realized that this turtle’s life involved being tormented literally non-stop.
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And then I had my most shaking experience. There is a stunning display of coral at the Shedd Aquarium, and I had spent two or three minutes admiring an especially beautiful wall of coral. It had every color in the rainbow, zigging and zagging in these strange swirls and patterns. And then I saw something that almost made me jump. It was an eye. And after re-focusing and trying very hard to see it, I realized there was a fish up against the side of that wall of coral. The fish was about 18 inches long, with a very large body, and was no more than five feet in front of my eyes. I had been staring at that fish for several minutes and had not seen it, because it had the same colors, swirls and patters as the coral.
After seeing these things I understood the certainty with which Charles Darwin felt he had unlocked the mystery of the development of life. In the first instance—the sawtooth shark—I saw the way a creature had evolved over millions of years that enabled it to ruthlessly slay its prey. Natural selection had played its part. The mutations that worked—in this case the development of a long saw-like nose—allowed this creature to survive and thrive. Every time a mutation occurred that made a shark’s snout longer and more saw-like, the offspring of that shark had a biological advantage, and themselves lived to reproduce.
In the second instance—the two turtles—I saw the cruelty of nature. There was no way to view the plight of that older turtle as anything other than a sort of existential hell. There was no joy in that turtle’s world; only survival, moment to moment, in the presence of a tormentor.
And in the third instance—the coral fish—it was as if Darwin had slapped me in the face. This amazing fish could survive because, through countless generations of fortuitous mutations, it had inherited a genetic structure that allowed it to flawlessly blend into its environment. It couldn’t be eaten if it couldn’t be seen.
I did not find this experience to be in any way religious. In fact, it was a little frightening. It certainly appeared that this world or ours had unfolded with no real sense of direction, with fluke genetic mutations determining the winners and losers in a meaningless protoplasmic fight for survival.
In the first week of this series we examined the size and age of the universe, and considered how science arrived at its current conclusions. In week two we looked at the agenda of those who are trying to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum of our public schools, and revealed how ridiculous it would be to teach either of the Bible’s two creation myths as scientific or historic fact.
And today, as we conclude the series, we need to think long and hard about this idea called intelligent design. I have a bias here. I am a person of faith. I believe God is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of the universe. So that phrase in and of itself—intelligent design—doesn’t bother me at all. But what does bother me is the way it is being used. Many sincere people of faith insist that we get on one side or the other: Darwin, or intelligent design. In their eyes, one must choose between God and Darwin.
These are the modern incarnations of those narrow-minded men who imprisoned Galileo for looking through his telescope. Galileo couldn’t help what he saw. It was there! And when I spent a day at the Shedd Aquarium, I must tell you I saw some things I would rather not have seen. I saw a Darwinian world. I found myself in the middle of a world where life forms evolved according to the theories of Charles Darwin.
But I am still a person of faith. And I’ve learned something from the mistakes of my predecessors in the faith—those who insisted on turning away from the truth and protecting God from the evidence before their eyes. I understand that my belief in God should not be pitted against Darwin’s view of evolution. By all appearances, evolution is real. It happened. It is happening. And God does not need to be protected from that truth. In fact, as I always say, God is waiting for us right in the middle of any truth we find.
This does not mean we should take all of our thinking about God and tie it irrevocably to evolution. You’ll remember, that’s the mistake the early church fathers made when they tied all their theology to Aristotle’s view of the universe, with the earth at the center of all things. That theory was shot down, revised, and over the centuries new truths emerged. The same will happen with evolution. I can’t imagine that it will ever be proven wrong, but we have much to learn. There are countless truths hidden in the process of evolution, and if the scientific minds of our day lose their humility and decide they have figured it all out… well, that’s just not good science.
So what do we say about intelligent design in our science classes? If we are going to allow a discussion this concept in science class, there are a few things we must accept right up front. If we cannot find agreement on these issues, then we should battle against the idea of intelligent design being taught in science class.
First, we must accept that the universe is very old. In 1654, John Lightfoot, Vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said he had determined the exact moment of creation by studying the scriptures. Adam himself was created at 9:00 a.m., Mesopotamian time, on Sunday, October 24th, 4004 B.C. If we are to discuss the idea of intelligent design, we must accept that the Bible does not accurately reflect the age of the universe. The best science we have puts the age of the universe at around 13 billion years. Let’s not haggle—we must at least admit the universe is a whole lot older than the 6000 years claimed by the biblical literalists. If a person will not accept that fact, they have no interest in the scientific search for truth. They may teach whatever they want in their homes and in their churches—but stay away from our science classes.
Second, we must accept that the Big Bang Theory is the best theory we have for the beginning of the universe as we know it. And really, I don’t understand why Christians haven’t enthusiastically embraced the Big Bang. Many religions, and a lot of the best philosophy, make the claim that the universe is not created—it has always existed. Greek philosophy called it the theory of eternal matter. But here, with the Big Bang Theory, we have the best science available telling us there was indeed a moment of creation. And it was around 13 billion years ago. I’m sure we have only begun to uncover the mystery of the age of the universe and the Big Bang, but God does not require protection from the discovery and the study of these scientific theories.
Third, we must accept that evolution is the best theory we have for the way life developed on our planet. A trip to the Shedd Aquarium should make the point. Don’t fight it. Don’t pit God against evolution.
Fourth, if we are to consider the idea of intelligent design in our schools, we should do so from the most scientific perspective possible. The fact is, the greatest scientists of the past hundred years have pushed the limits of science—the limits of scientific truth—to the furthest extremes, and they have fallen silent before the mystery of the universe. This is where our search for God should begin—at least, our search for God in the science classroom.
There are two scientific ways of looking at the universe. One view sees it as a meaningless accident. It is because it is. There is no reason, no purpose, no design. It is raw matter to be studied. Period.
Another scientific view sees meaning and mystery in everything. There is no truth from which we must hide, no puzzle we should not seek to solve. And underlying all of reality is this mystery—the mystery of being itself. Why is there anything? Why wasn’t there simply nothing forever? Why do molecules act like they do? Why does this pulpit, which appears to be solid wood, in actuality consist of 99.9% space? What holds this universe together?
The first person says there is nothing holding the universe together. The second person says there is an intelligence built into the universe that makes it work. There is an intelligence underlying all of reality, and that is why wood is wood and glass is glass and waves of light bounce off those things and enter into these eyes, go through an optic nerve, and are grasped and shaped by our human consciousness into forms we can see, and study, and try to understand.
The universe is intelligent. And I do not think it would do any damage to our science classes if we taught our students the way the world looks to some of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Make no mistake, this is not the curriculum the Kansas Board of Education wants in our schools. But if they want God in the science class, let’s approach the mystery of God through the minds of the great scientists.
To the Kansas Board of Education I say this. Agree that the universe is billions of years old, that the Big Bang Theory is the best existing explanation for the beginning of the known universe, and that the theory of evolution provides our best existing explanation for how various life forms developed on our planet; then, then we can turn to the mystery of God, and intelligent design.
And this is an interesting field. For one thing, life appears to be smarter than Darwin had thought. More specifically, DNA seems to have a certain intelligence that scientists had at first dismissed. Developmental biology is now examining causality. We at first thought that mutations at the cellular level occurred by chance, and over time the more favorable mutations won out. It was all this big, chance accident. Evolution was strictly a bottom-up process. Chance occurrences at the bottom—the cellular level—resulted in positive changes for the whole living being—the bear, or fish, or human being.
But now it is widely held there is a top-down pressure on DNA mutations. For the scientific explanation, I’ll quote George Ellis, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town. He is highly regarded for his work on general relativity and cosmology, and has written many books, including a book on the structure of space-time with Stephen Hawking. I’ll quote George Ellis: The central process in developmental biology, whereby positional information determines which genes get switched on and which do not in each cell, so determining their developmental fate, is a top-down process from the developing organism to the cell… without this feature, organism development in a structured way would not be possible.
He goes on to point out that every cell in the body starts out exactly the same. How does one cell know to become a brain cell and another a toenail cell? It is because the whole is acting on the part—top down. It is a process that is…and I know this will make the pure Darwinists cringe—intelligent. The development of a life has a sense of direction. This isn’t some God in the clouds pulling the strings and causing every little thing to happen. It is an intelligence that is built into the universe.
There is a scientific principle behind this idea. It’s called the anthropic principle. I believe this principle has a place in the science classroom. Simply put, the anthropic principle says that your cosmology—your explanation for how the universe got like it is today—has to take into consideration that intelligent beings evolved. And if you insist that there is no room for discussion on this subject—that the evolution of intelligent life was a meaningless accident, and any discussion to the contrary is off limits—then you are just as close minded as the religious nuts who want to teach biblical creationism.
Finally, when we get past the intricacies of the scientific debate regarding the intelligence that seems to make all the pieces of this mess called reality work together like they do, we can spend a little time with the great physicists who took the time to write down their thoughts about God. Ken Wilber’s wonderful book called Quantum Questions is a collection of the spiritual writings of the great 20th Century physicists. Remember, these are the scientists who discovered that the four-dimensional universe we see before our eyes is only a tiny part of the whole picture. These people used all the tools of modern science to try to understand the relationship between mind and matter—between the observer and the observed—and found themselves driven to humbled silence in the presence of the spiritual. We could all learn from their humility.
First some words from Erwin Schroedinger, the discoverer of wave mechanics, which is the mathematical heart of quantum physics: The observing mind is not a physical system… Science is too reticent when it is a question of the great Unity of which we are all a small part, to which we all belong. The most popular name for it is God… I do not find God anywhere in space and time… God is spirit.
A few words from Albert Einstein: There is a cosmic religious feeling… the individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and the world of thought… Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Sir Arthur Eddington was a theoretical physicist who conducted the first experiment that proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. These are Eddington’s words: I assert that the nature of all reality is spiritual, not material, and not a dualism of matter and spirit.
And finally, these words come from physicist, mathematician and astronomer Sir James Jeans, who made major contributions in astronomy and electromagnetism: The universe can be best pictured…as consisting of pure thought, the thought of what, for want of a wider word, we must describe as a mathematical thinker… We exist in the mind of some eternal spirit.
Well, let’s come up for some air. This has been a fun series for me. The relationship between science and religion is one of my favorite subjects. I’ve loved doing the research. I hope that if the Kansas Board of Education continues to push for the theory of Intelligent Design in our science classrooms, we don’t just reject that notion out of hand. Because this may be a chance for us to reach some people that seem almost unreachable—both those inadequate scientists who scoff at the idea of spirit and reduce all of reality to some material, four dimensional accident; and the fundamentalists who just may be giving us a chance to reach their children—to break through their narrow ideas of a God who cannot survive the scrutiny of science, and reach them with something of the Living, Loving Spirit that created this universe and holds it in being, moment to moment.
And when we strip away the fear, and the superstition, that’s the only God we’ve got. And all I can say to that is… Thank God.