He is a man of with an incredibly open mind. He was called upon to lead a discussion of evolution in his church and he wanted some input. He goes to great lengths to ease my discomfort at being the spokesperson for evolution. I am encouraged by his willingness to listen to my answers with an open mind (and not in that creepy way that some religious people do where you know they are devising arguments in their minds to discount everything you say).
Earlier this summer, John sent me some information he was going to use to lead his discussion at the church. There were several pointed questions.
1. What view does the fossil record support? I assume that the views they were considering were evolution vs. Biblical interpretation or church doctrine. A quote that followed was from Darwin, indicating that if numerous species came into existence at the same time, evolution would be disproven.
2. Have sufficient fossils been found to draw a sound conclusion? This is followed by a quote from a Smithsonian scientists indicating that the fossil record gives us "an excellent picture of the life of past ages".
3. What does the fossil record actually show? This question is followed by a series of quotes that give a somewhat biased view of a decade's old view of evolutionary thought. The first quote indicated (correctly) that the fossil record has been used to justify acceptance of Darwinian evolution, but that the geologic record is incomplete and does not offer a picture of the fine gradation of species over time. A second article mentions the "Cambrian explosion" and then periods of little to no change or no fossil record. A third quotes a zoologist stating that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution and the "facts" are best supported by the special creation (I assume of ALL organisms) by God, and finally they quote Carl Sagan saying that the fossil record could be consistent with the idea of a Great Designer.
Now I honestly believe my friend (he has been an exceedingly trustworthy person and I have a great deal of respect for him despite our differences of opinion on God) when he tells me that this is just meant to be a learning experience for his church group, and at least to me this discussion appears to me to be a desire for an honest review of the topic. I am somewhat disappointed by the "debate" feel to it and I would be much happier if instead of jumping to the topic of "which is right, religion or science" (which itself is a false dichotomy) that they spent a season of studying evolution by itself. How can one make an informed decision about anything if you don't understand what you are arguing for or against?
Anyhoo, he asked for my thoughts on the matter.
I explained to him that there is nearly universal acceptance of evolution by natural selection among scientists with an -ology to weigh in on it. I explained that there are holes in the fossil record and that we can't expect seamless understanding of the history of life. I explained how and why evolutionary biologists integrate this understanding into evolutionary theory. I explained how the Modern Synthesis (modified and) strengthened our understanding and acceptance of Darwin's theory. I tried to point out the Creationist talking points that were intended to lead people off the path of fact and purposely introduce false doubt where really none existed. Finally, I explained to him the limits of science in "proving" theories. John was of the opinion that theories grow up to become laws if they are "proven".
After all this, John wrote me with some very interesting information. He wrote me back about his beliefs. I must say, I know nothing about Jehovah's Witnesses and even though I know one or two, religion interests me so little that I had never bothered to look into it.
He said that he didn't believe the Bible to be either a science or history textbook. The Bible was the inspired word of God.
Then he asked a very interesting question.
One thing that you said was that there is no question of whether evolution occurs but whether it occurs by natural selection or not. I am curious as to how you define evolution here – does the laboratory document a change form one species to another? Or does it demonstrate variety within species?
For a minister of any Christian church, I'll give him a great deal of credit for bothering to ask at all. I wrote him back about cellular evolution up to the point of speciation. Of course, this is the easy part. Any evolutionary biologist can do that. Still, organizing that into a (hopefully) coherent email that someone with little science background could understand was challenge enough for one evening.
And you know that he wrote me back with more questions.
I thank you for clearing up my thinking on evolution. I see what you are saying about the small changes within species. That is without doubt evolution. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But can we really apply that thinking to the appearance of all living things with their various characteristics?
....Do evolutionists consider the jump from non-living to living organisms? There are so many things to consider Liz, I really like to hear your opinion. You are more in touch with current scientific thinking than I will ever be – It is like having a living encyclopedia at my disposal…
Awww geez. Don't you hate when someone says something like that? I mean I can cobble something together and (let's admit it) probably make this guy believe whatever I wanted. But I don't want to do it wrong. I want him to really understand. Ok, I can handle the abiogenesis discussion, but what in the world do I do in an email to someone asking for understanding of everything from character evolution to Evolution with a capital "E"?
I admit I am a bit overwhelmed. I am not a paleontologist. I can't point to a single lineage and trace the evolution from one organism to another. Not even humans. I'm feeling entirely inadequate. I know what to tell this man, I just don't know how to do it well.
And so, I'm asking for help. If you have any ideas at all about communicating the Big E Evolution, please, let me know. Really.