Better late than never. Early this year, I jokingly asked my colleagues at the UP College of Science what they planned to hatch for the Darwin Year celebrations. Well it seems that they came out with a something to digest for the Christmas holidays. The Science and Society program in cooperation with the School of Economics organized a symposium on "Darwin's Impact on Society" held yesterday 14 December 2009. The speakers included Professors Perry Ong of Biology, Maris Diokno of History, Raul Fabella of Econ and Mike Tan of Anthropology.
The lecture hall was packed with undergrad and grad students some of which came from other universities and colleges. Dean Jorge Bocobo observes that a majority of the audience were female. Perhaps this is another demonstration of Darwinian sexual selection at work? What do you think?
As a biogeographer, I also thank the speakers, especially Perry Ong and Raul Fabella for giving Alfred Russel Wallace the due recognition he deserves in proposing the theory with Charles Darwin. Wallace independently came to the same conclusion from observing biological variation in what is now Indonesia while Darwin came to the same one by observing domestic animals and by his voyage on the HMS Beagle. It was Wallace's letter to Darwin that prompted the latter to publish the theory.
Perry Ong gave a crash course lecture on evolutionary biology emphasizing that natural selection can be observed within one's lifetime (the "Beak of the Finch" Galapagos research by Rosemary and Peter Grant). Perry was able to pull it off. From my own experience, evolutionary biology cannot be taught within 30 minutes! Maris Diokno talked about the how school textbooks are biased for religious explanations in teaching evolution. Raul Fabella spoke on the limits of economic models that fail to include evolutionary psychology such as the evolution of altruism. Mike Tan spoke about the interplaying of Filipino views on spirituality and science which was essentially a condensed version of his speech to the science graduating class of this year.
Since for me, the veracity of Darwin and Wallace's theory is beyond doubt, I was much interested on Maris Diokno's exposition of science and history textbooks used in Philippine schools and how these are written to provide a creationist religious slant. One book describes evolutionary theory as "atheistic materialism" and another science textbook obviously promotes a "theistic" view of evolution by correlating and reconciling the Genesis story with current scientific understanding.
I find these disturbing. Science teaching cannot be coloured by religion because it will lose its empiricism and objectivity. The erroneous textbooks are right. Science is materialistic since it is empirical. The formulation of scientific theory is solely based on empirical evidence although intuition may be needed to formulate the hypothesis needed to test the theory. This intuition may come from observation or even a religious experience. But intuition and its inspiration whether religious or otherwise cannot be used to explain how the natural world works.
Filipino society's inability to separate religious viewpoints from scientific one according to Mike Tan is linked to our belief in a God that often intervenes in nature and in society. A case in point is after the Ondoy deluge. About a week later, Another typhoon, Pepeng threatened to go the way of its predecessor. Church groups organized prayer meetings and the Roman Catholic bishops ordered prayers (Oratio imperata) to spare Manila from the typhoon. Numerous blog posts and letters, op ed pieces in the mainstream media testified to the potency of the prayers as Manila was indeed spared. After all the tropical cyclone passed through northern Luzon three or four times causing havoc and as much damage or even more than Ondoy. Now the consequence of the prayers was to cause misery in Northern Luzon and the sinking of Henry Sy's SM Rosales Mall!
Now what did Pangasinan, Cagayan, Isabela residents and Henry Sy (despite we know that he earns billions daily) do to deserve to reap the potency of Metro Manila's prayers? This is the danger of purely accepting religious explanations without aid of reason. Were Manila residents more exceptional since they had paid for their sins and baptized by Ondoy's floodwaters? The problem of exceptionalism now creeps in and is the real danger. Exceptionalism, religious or otherwise has caused the misery and death of people throughout history. Darwin had it as
"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin"
Darwin and Wallace's theory completely demolishes the presupposed natural and divine exceptionalism of humans. Of course the religious may argue that humans have souls that make them exceptional from the rest of the six kingdoms in nature. But a soul is not a natural science concept but a theological one and so we leave it for a while.
The textbooks that Maris Diokno cited say that humans evolved from apes (Proconsul etc). And in doing so we are more exceptional than apes and coupled with a bias for religion, paints a superior position for Homo sapiens as the pinnacle of creation. However evolution science tells us THAT WE ARE APES. The cladistic classification of humans puts the hairy apes and the naked ape as "Hominidae". We are indeed apes. We never evolved from apes since that would never make any sense. We however evolved from a clade that gave rise to monkeys makes more sense.
Since we Filipinos tend to believe in a God that often intervenes in our daily life, developing science literacy may require that scientists recognize the religious inclination of people and how this makes their view of nature adaptive. I have always maintained that scientistic atheism (sensu Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens etc is also a form of exceptionalism) since they claim that their view is empirically based and therefore superior. A wry and ironic adjectival phrase is Dawkins and Hitchens practice an "evangelical atheism". Also Dawkins is limited in his argument for that he has often have to borrow religious and faith based metaphors to advance his views (e.g. "Devil's Chaplain" and then title of his latest tome "The Greatest Show on Earth") and in some cases exposes his logical inconsistencies. Dawkins doesn't have the evolved language metaphorical toolkit to perfectly describe scientistic atheism as John Cornwell implies in his "Darwin's Angel"ic riposte of the "Delusion". Naturally, it is perfectly sensible to hypothesize the evolution of religion and belief in God as due to natural selection. Now here I am referring to belief in God and religion, which neither presupposes the existence or non existence of God. I even have a more daring extension of the hypothesis which is the central theme of Darwin's ."Descent of Man" I believe religion is nothing but an offshoot and consequence of sexual selection. The patriarchal religions are even clearer evidence of this.
In short religion is no delusion as Dawkins pontificates but an additional evidence of the consistency of Darwin and Wallace's theory. Religion is an adaptive trait which has definitely a biological substrate and has conferred a selection advantage for survival. Darwin's hypothesized that religion is a product of cultural evolution. However Darwin maintained that religion is not "innate" in man.
"The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. It is however impossible, as we have seen, to maintain that this belief is innate or instinctive in man. On the other hand a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man's reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder. I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent Deity. The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture." -Darwin "Descent of Man"
Darwin here was referring to belief in an Omnipotent Creator God. But other societies have beliefs in "lower spiritual entities". If Darwin attributes religious complexity to "advances in man's reason" then it follows that it is a consequence of natural selection since the faculty of reason is not exclusive to man. The "lower" animals can learn behaviours and exhibit reason. We then ask the question if whether they have evolved consciousness and from that a perception of a world beyond what is perceived. Some evolutionary psychologists call this "imagination" and that humans are the only animals (yet we know) that have that faculty.
Darwinism I believe will demolish this last bastion of exceptionalism. Who knows, even cetaceans with their evolved large brains (for a fluid and very sonic environment) may believe in God. We then wonder, what do they think of God? This is a step in really completely demolishing exceptionalism. When we do contact non-earth based intelligent beings, they will also be the results of natural selection and if our theory is right, they will likely believe in God. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI has been daring enough to confront this possibility in holding a symposium in the Vatican to deal with this question in celebration of Galileo's 400th year anniversary of using the telescope and Darwin's 150th year of publication of the "Origin" . A theologian-scientist once quipped that if we do meet them "They would be so like us, that we don't have the moral right to call them aliens". If there is a statement that completely demolishes exceptionalism, then that must be it.
"Does God Exist?" is really the BIGGEST QUESTION in science. The scientific method may not have all the tools to answer this question and in doing that a theological one may also be needed.
The Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinhorne writes
"Raising the issues [of faith and people's reliance on the Divine] serves to remind us that almost all of the billions who believe in the existence of God do so not in the detached philosophical way, but from within the experience of a living faith community. In turn this also raises further questions about how the faith traditions relate to each other, with their common ground of encounter with the sacred and their strikingly different descriptions of what that encounter reveals."
And yet may I add, this too has a common origin.
This is a very Darwinian view which scientists like me need to take note and so do the religious exceptionalists that Mike Tan describes. Indeed there is grandeur in this view of life.