Monday, 13 September 2010

Creation vs Evolution In New Zealand

Bear with me here as I paint a little picture. Consider gravity for a second, your teachers told you all about it, you may have even read about it on occasion, but you never really give it much extra thought. It’s painfully obvious whenever you drop a hammer onto your toe and scientists have mountains of research proving it and will tell you it exists using the tentative certainty that science prides itself on. For all you’ve been told, gravity is pure physics that explains a phenomenon pretty darn well.
One day all that changes. A well-meaning but clearly mistaken friend tells you that the theory of gravity is incorrect. What nonsense, surely your friend has been smoking something strong. But no, he is sober and deadly serious, gravity, he says, is wrong and he even has evidence in the book he holds up.

Good, you think, a book. At least he’s not making this up. You read the title of the tome (The Very Holy Book of God) and immediately get a feeling where this conversation is headed. You have little scientific knowledge and now regret not staying awake in high-school Physics. However, his evidence is convincing and you eventually succumb. Perhaps gravity is wrong, you ponder, and suddenly your worldview is inverted.

This story is of course fiction but replace “gravity” for the theory of Evolution and the story describes an event actually happening around New Zealand. The American debate between Creationism vs Evolution has trickled down-under. Basically this debate focuses around two ways of explaining life on earth, including us humans: either God did it (Creationism), or life evolves through natural selection (according to most biologists). According to a 2005 poll by the Pew Research Centre, 42% of American adults still hold strict Creationist views that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. Similar research has not yet been done in New Zealand but it would be unsurprising to find a significant group of us agreeing with the American 42%. Creationism has invaded New Zealand religious circles mostly and is gathering speed.

Darwin thought long and hard about publishing his theory in 1859 called On the Origin of Species. His observations about the natural and fossil world that structured his theory of Evolution questioned everything he had been taught. As far as he knew, the Judeo-Christian deity had made all species ex nihilo (out of nothing). Darwin commented to his brother that proving Evolution and rejecting special creation was like “confessing a murder” for him.

Many people, myself included, are told that God created us thousands not millions of yeas ago and that Evolution is an incorrect, atheist producing, morality destroying, genocide provoking fraud. I now reject that way of thinking but only after maturely learning about of both sides of the debate. Darwin’s original theory, now extremely highly developed, is the clearer and more logical explanation of natural processes.

This debate, once seen to be a solely American phenomenon, has spilled over cultural boundaries into New Zealand and many other nations. Literally millions of Americans believe in Creationism and there are good reasons for this; ranging from lack of scientific education to the religious zealotry that has characterised America for decades. But why, in little old secular New Zealand, has this debate found traction? Well, New Zealand is not much different from other western countries and has witnessed a gradual deceleration of religious influence on society in the 20th century. English political philosopher John Gray commented in 2008 that this religious declination has resulted in a “sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism” in recent years that could never have surfaced even twenty years ago. Although correlation doesn’t explain causation the sudden rise to public prominence of the Creation vs Evolution debate starting about a decade ago seems to have coincided with this bestselling atheistic literature as both ranks try to counter new arguments. Secularism was on the rise but now, many people around the world are discussing religion and origins once again.

Pastor Tim Look of City Impact Church in Auckland City thinks he knows why. He teaches post-high school teenagers and new Christians in the basics of their belief. He describes Evolution theory as outdated, unproven, and “just a theory”, agreeing only with some observable actions like microevolution (change at the cellular level) and selective breeding (wolf to poodle over time) but throws out the idea of common descent (all life from one ancestor) and much else. Pastor Look explains that agreeing with Evolution immediately rejects God and sees no common ground between Creation and Evolution. Despite his lack of scientific training, the pastor convinces many in his church to discard one of the most well evidenced theories in scientific history.

Cell biologist Graeme Finlay, PhD at Auckland University who has contributed to over 50 scientific papers finds Pastor Look’s refusal to accept Evolution unfortunately common amongst New Zealand Christians. Dr. Finlay attributes the mindset to the reinvigorated world religiosity in this new century but mainly he says the error boils down to a few widespread misconceptions. Creationists claim there is no evidence of Evolution and according to Dr. Finlay’s own scientific research, this is false. He says that at the cellular level there is overwhelming evidence for ongoing Evolution and this microevolution (the one Pastor Look has no trouble accepting) over time accumulates to become macroevolution leading to new species. In twenty years researching with the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, Dr. Finlay has observed macroevolution many times as viruses evolve to combat drugs. Even transitional fossils (fossils that show intermediary stages between speciation) come no where near to cellular evidence in proving Evolution happened and continues to happen.

Surprisingly, Dr. Finlay is a bible-believing Christian and cringes every time fellow believers claim to “disprove” Evolution. He has found a comfortable equilibrium that can accept both. He believes the Genesis story can be read allegorically, not literally like the Creationists. Also he explains that science is not a program with an atheistic agenda, rather it stands alone as a tool. The common misconception that bothers Dr. Finaly the most is that one must be an atheist to agree with Evolution. Creationists wrongly point to Communism and Nazi-style eugenics as likely outcomes if one agrees with Evolution. “This is nonsense,” says Finlay, “science has been hijacked many times in the past by worldviews. It does not follow that agreeing with Evolution leads to such terror. Humans have worldviews, science tries not to”.
But Christian churches especially have really grasped on to this debate even preaching Creationism from the pulpit that can reach thousands of people. A scientist like Dr. Graeme Finlay cannot see a common ground between Creationism and Evolution because the two have grown so far apart. Pastor Look says unhesitatingly that Creationism will win the debate, and soon.

Steve Fuller in his book Dissent over Descent describes the debate as “one of the defining controversies in contemporary society”, which is fine if he is describing America, but what about New Zealand? Is this issue as important a debate here? Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why Darwin Matters, believes that the debate is important regardless of country. His book outlines the main arguments of both sides of the debate but stresses the overwhelming importance of scientific education that has fallen dramatically around the Western world in the last few generations. Many people lack basic scientific understanding and Shermer shows through surveys that this makes them vulnerable to Creationism pseudoscience that can sound incredibly convincing. Shermer thinks the propaganda issued by Creationists equating Evolution with immorality and atheism, precludes many God-fearing religious people from further scientific understanding almost on principle keeping them in an intellectual rut.

Creationism is big business, and the religious people who believe it can’t seem to get enough of it. The premise has remained largely the same since, well, the beginning of human thought: that God made the world and everything in it at one time long ago. And it seems at first glance that this is possible. Those who believe this aren’t going to go down quietly. Proponents of Evolution theory won’t back down either, and so the debate rages on. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there will not be a clear winner and Dr. Graeme Finlay is hesitant to predict even scientific evidence prevailing for Evolution. He believes contemporary society is witnessing the decline of science as a bastion of truth and points to Creationism as a good example of how quickly pseudoscience catches on and embeds itself. Although, Pastor Tim Look doesn’t see it that way, he believes that what Creationists propose is actually science while also believes it is religious dogma. Orwell, however, called this doublethink, the ability to believe two mutually exclusive theories at once.

So far in the debate Creationism has not provided much evidence other than The Bible. It is too late to introduce Intelligent Design in this story, (Creationism’s attempt to provide scientific evidence), however, understand that it too has been rejected by scientists through professional review and even in the American court system. Creationism and Evolution seem destined to battle out their positions probably indefinitely. While there is a good chance that science herself will suffer from this debate, and has already, Creationism will not replace Evolution theory. This debate is evolving itself and has become a political movement with an incredible amount of misinformation surrounding it. The simple fact is however, that people generally don’t feel compelled to ponder their origins. But you can rest assured that science and Evolution best explain our past and remain the best tools we have for explaining it

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