9 Nov 2012

Math, Religion, and Chimpanzees

Photo credit: Aaron Logan

The farmhouse was old. The sixteen foot dining table we were seated at was too. This was a typical gathering with my in-laws, deeply committed Christians. It was during one such dinner that a someone said, "chimps share over 99% of our DNA because they were created by God to test our faith."

By this time, I`d just spent several years of graduate school in the same department as the famed atheist Richard Dawkins. When I passed by his office, I used to stop to read the latest hate mail taped to his door, presumably sent by Christians who believed damning Dawkins to Hell was the best way to help him avoid it. So, while it was a shock at first, I was getting used to the fact that a few of Earth`s modern citizens believe humans walked alongside dinosaurs.

In that Canadian dining room, face-to-face with similarly twisted logic, I realized the root of the "evolution vs. religion debate" is fear. The idea that humans came into being just like all the other beasts lovingly housed on the Ark threatens some Christians` identity in a way that is so terrifying they`ll do mental gymnastics to avoid it, and a few feel pushed to more aggressive defense tactics.

I was glad of this insight when, as a student at teacher`s college, I was charged with teaching evolution to a class of grade 12s in a public high school in a large Ontario city. The experienced science teacher whose class I was borrowing, whose job it was to mentor me, confessed that he'd had a difficult time with the subject, though he'd not succumbed to the temptation of reducing the unit to a brief overview delivered in as little time as possible, as had some of his colleagues. In the photocopying room on the first day, a fellow student teacher exclaimed above the whizzing, flashing 21st century technology, "you`re allowed to teach that?"

This was going to be harder than I thought.

First, I asked the students to indicate if they believed in evolution - anonymously. About half of them indicated so. Then, I taught my heart out, while trying to calm potential fears: I mentioned the polls of scientists, half of whom report belief in a Higher Power; the same stats as the rest of the population. I suggested belief in God is not reliant on science for proof or disproof; indeed it cannot be. I told them about Christians who study evolution, and I compared the issue of evolution in our society to the long since (largely) resolved issue of the Earth being round, not flat.

Three weeks later, I repeated my survey. A little more than half were convinced. From this I concluded:

1. The fear of evolution runs deep;
2. High school is much too late to teach evolution – students have already made up their minds based on only God-knows-what; and,
3. I had failed.

Recently, I’ve decided I might have been complicating the issue. Now, on the rare occasion that anyone asks, "what is evolution?" I say, "evolution is simply math." We have genes. Genes vary, so we`re all different. Any combination of genes that is more likely to survive and reproduce is… (Drum Roll)…more likely to survive and reproduce. I figure it is pretty hard to argue with that, though I`m sure someone will.

Alas, if only our ideas evolved as efficiently as our genes do.

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