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Darwin Day in Washington, D.C.

For those of you who don’t know, the Smithsonian Institution is one of the largest research and museum complexes in the world. Located mostly in Washington, D.C., the museums all have free admission.

I couldn’t therefore turn down the opportunity (which was a large coincidence) to visit the National Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day.

It was pretty busy on that cold Sunday afternoon.

I learned about the evolutionary history of animals in the sea.

But the Natural History Museum doesn’t just have countless displays of animals (and really cool animals like dinosaurs). It has one of the best Human Origins exhibits I’ve ever seen.

You see a clear progression in brain size.

The timeline below of 6 million years is so unbelievably, unthinkably long that it cannot really be imagined. Yet, I realize it is nothing compared to the timeline of the Earth and the Cosmos. We are newcomers to this Universe indeed.

This is what fascinates me most about human evolution. There may have been over a dozen “human-like” species, and we are just one of them. We are the descendants of not one Adam and Eve, but entire populations of intermingling, interbreeding species and subspecies. Our evolutionary history is not as clean as many would like to believe. Unlike our cousins, we may have simply been lucky.

This is the full scope of the kind of diversity we are talking about. By the way, of the humanoids in the picture below, which of them do you think had souls? Which of them do you think thought about the afterlife or had religion?

Compared to the set of all human-like species, modern Homo sapiens are very much the same. Though we may have evolved some distinguishing features like skin color and facial features, we all come from the same place.

Putting Life Into Perspective

It is almost Darwin Day, and before the cakes and celebrations and talks about biology start in various secular/scientific communities around the world, I think it is absolutely vital to remind ourselves of the big picture. Come reflect with us, as we, with our fallibilities, cognitive biases, and irrational tendencies, ponder about our place in the Universe, where we came from, and where we are going.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, we decorate cake

By “we” I mean Ben Zalisko from the UChicago Secular Student Alliance who created this masterpiece of delicious art:

Why Darwin Matters

I finally got around to writing this:

Creationists do annoy us very much. But the idea of evolution by natural selection is not just incompatible with the idea of creation, it also is positively and absolutely irreconcilable with the Bible. I’m not impressed at all, therefore, when Christians tell me they believe in both theories.

It often surprises me that, after nearly a century of insisting that evolution is an evil, ridiculous idea, Christians are finally starting to catch up with the reality that has been described by ordinary, secular science for over a century. Now they insist that evolution and Christian theology make a harmonious whole.

Think of all that had to be established before Darwin could even conceive of his ideas. He not only had to fight against those who insisted in design and special creation and a young earth, but he also faced resistance in areas that we take for granted: extinction, for example, was widely seen as a dangerous, irreligious idea. After all, why would a perfect God (before the arrival of sinful man) create creatures that simply died out?

It’s a very fascinating question that relates to our contemporary understanding of the history of life on Earth. We now know that over 99.8% of the species that have ever lived are no longer in existence. This may or may not be problematic for the Christian apologist; I don’t know. But I do know they are more than willing to turn pretty much any concrete thing into a metaphor.

But what I’m arguing for is much more fundamental, and it strikes at the heart of Christianity, and it’s frankly what many of Darwin’s contemporaries realized: that his ideas didn’t just naturalize creation, they refuted Biblical theology. That’s the legacy of Darwin I want to explain, and that’s why Darwin matters.

1. The Problem of the Creation of the Soul

For Christians, there must have been a point when humans became human, when souls were breathed into our material bodies. But when exactly did those descendants of our ape-ancestor have souls, and when did they not, if there was only gradual evolutionary change and no single moment when we could say we were “human”?

This is very important because the Bible says that humans are supposed to be distinct from animals; we are made in God’s image and have dominion over other life forms on Earth. Evolution, on the other hand, says this distinction is vague and unclear, lies on a spectrum that barely changes over millions of years.

2. Hominids and the Soul

We also know that at least three different human-like species lived with us in our evolutionary past. Some of these creatures buried the dead, were able to make tools and glue, and probably had language and complex thoughts. Not only are these fascinating cousins of ours non-present in the Bible, but we are forced to speculate if they had souls (if they could go to Heaven).

3. Adam and Eve, Another Metaphor

It’s a very sensitive idea that few Christian apologists are willing to answer. Were there two people on Earth at some point in time, or is this whole thing another metaphor/myth? After all, evolution doesn’t completely rule Adam and Eve out, but the probability that the homo sapien population dwindled to only two (one male, one female) is practically zero, and even if it did, it would be incompatible with the idea that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth.

4. The Evolutionary Timeline

The Bible’s history of life on Earth is a very peculiar one because it misses out on the overwhelming majority of the history of “creation”. The bulk of evolutionary history is of micro-organisms, which are so incredibly important to biology and medicine, and whose existence is not even mentioned in the Bible.

5. The Human Timeline

We know that our species has been around for over two hundred thousand years (human-like organisms have been around for much much longer). What the Bible implies is that through all of this time, through all this extinction and struggle for survival, through all the multiple human-like species that lived and died out, through all of their religions and false gods, Heaven didn’t do anything about this condition of human affairs for hundreds of thousands of year until a couple thousand years ago. Only then did it talk to prophets privately on mountain-tops and send a messenger to illiterate parts of the Middle East. And that’s the salvation of mankind. And what if you use your brain that evolution has given you to disbelieve Christian claims? You’ll be sorry after you die.

Well, believe what you will. I hope you had a happy Darwin Day yesterday.


A grand and marvelous explanation…

It is less than a week to Darwin’s Birthday (February 12), and I wanted to write about the significance of Darwin’s ideas on secular thought. Too bad I have three midterms and a paper due this week. For now, you will just have to enjoy a clip from this documentary:

You may also think about coming to my school’s Darwin Day celebration.