SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University
FRANK RHODES: Tonight's topic, his lecture theme, is the divine handiwork-- evolution and the wonder of life. Dr. Gingerich is someone for whose scientific work I have the greatest admiration, for whose scholarship I have the greatest respect, for whose leadership I greatly value. And he's also someone whom I count as a personal friend. You will hear tonight also that he's a man of faith and commitment. And that also I applaud and appreciate. I'm delighted to introduce to you the inaugural Beggs lecturer, Dr. Owen Gingerich.
OWEN GINGERICH: I've taken my title, the divine handiwork, from the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who, at the end of his wonderful cosmological chapter, exclaimed, "So vast, without any question, is the Divine Handiwork of the Almighty Creator!"
When Copernicus proposed that the sun rather than the Earth was the center of the universe, he realized that the annual motion of the Earth around the sun would cause a periodic shift in the positions of the stars unless they were much farther away than commonly supposed. But Copernicus scarcely had a clue about the true vastness of the heavens, something that has become understood only in the 20th century. And this change, from the closed world of antiquity and the Middle Ages to the near infinite universe of today, has forced a change, still resisted by many, in the way we look at our sacred scriptures, and in particular the book of Genesis, with its vivid story of Adam and Eve.
Let me begin with a brief history of the geological column. The geological column is the arrangement of the stratified sedimentary rocks into a tall stack, with the oldest rocks at the bottom and ever-more-recent rocks as you go up the column. It would be neat if we could find somewhere all the layers of the rocks stacked up in a sequence where we could look at them.
But we would hardly expect that. Besides the processes the deposit the materials that will eventually be pressed into rocks, there are also processes of erosion that wear them away. Furthermore, environments change, and where once there was a shore, where tides deposited repeated layers of silt, it can later become dry land. Even in the Grand Canyon, where you can see straight a mile deep, you won't find a complete and uninterrupted record.
So constructing the geological column was a daunting task, something like a three dimensional crossword puzzle. It would take much more than an hour to review the history of this ongoing scientific effort, but let me give you a few vignettes.
In the 1830s, the geology professor at the University of Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick, worked with a gentleman geologist Roderick Impey Murchison to examine the rock strata in Wales. It became clear that the strata were tilted, so that the farther west one went the older the exposed layers where. That is, the layers in the British Midlands overlaid those in Wales.
Sedgwick called his series of strata Cambrian after the Latin name for Wales, Cambria. Murchison, working from the Midlands to the west, called his system Silurian after the Silures, an ancient British tribe. What Sedgwick called Upper Cambrian, Murchison called Lower Silurian, and there was a fierce falling out between the two geologists.
Fossils were hard to find in the Welsh Cambrian strata, but eventually they were found, and it was clear that Murchison wanted the credit for naming the strata with the earliest evidence of life. For better or for worse, he lost. Only in the 1870s was a so-called unconformity found in a humble rock exposure along the river Olney in Yorkshire, signaling an episode of erosion that broke the continuity of the two systems. So another geological period was inserted, the Ordovician, named after another early Celtic tribe.
Here in New York State, the strata are tilted in the opposite direction. So, beginning at the eastern side, one can find Ordovician rocks. And in the Helderberg Escarpment, to the state park west of Albany, one can see the unconformity between the Ordovician and the Silurian strata.
In 1841 the British geologist Charles Lyell came to America and identified the Silurian, and further west to New York State the overlying Devonian strata, matching fossils with those found by Sedgwick and Murchison in England before their eventual feud. When they were still cooperating, they had in fact defined the Devonian system. In Pennsylvania Lyell was particularly interested in the still-more-recent Carboniferous strata, the coal seams deposited when plants had finally greened the continents, and the thick, carbon-rich jungles could be buried and turned to coal.
I'm tempted to talk about the next most recent geological period that followed the Carboniferous, the Permian, and the enormous extinction that closed it, when 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species perished. Or, about the age of dinosaurs that followed, the so-called Mesozoic, or middle period of life, and the mass extinction that ended that era.
But I must get to the bottom line. The geological column is very real. And the oil exploration industry continually relies on its efficacy. Let me emphasize that the most significant aspect of the geological column is that the oldest layers show only quite primitive life, and the higher we go in the column, the larger and more complex the life forms become.
But now let's reflect on the impact of all this on our understanding of the days of creation outlined in the first chapter of Genesis. You'll recall that not until the fifth day comes the creation of the watery creatures, specifically the great whales, and also the birds of the air. And on the sixth day come the cattle, the lizards, and snakes, and finally humankind. Note that the plants, including grass and fruit trees, have already appeared in the third day.
In comparing these sparse details with the fossil record in the geological column, we can see that the separation of the fifth and sixth day is pretty arbitrary, more poetic than scientific. Birds come rather late in the fossil record, while the skeletons of early whales that have legs, showing that they have moved in from the land, indicate that the distinction between land, and sea, and air is very problematic. And in the fossil record, plants come well after the first sea creatures.
But long before this geological knowledge was achieved, scholars pointed out that Genesis 1 was a rhetorical construction, not a literal historical reading. Johannes Kepler, in the introduction to his Astronomia nova of 1609, which included the pioneering discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets, gives a fascinating analysis of Psalm 104, wherein he points out the parallels with the days of Genesis and show how they can be considered two triplet pairs.
Day one opens with light, day and night, while in the pairing day four, God says, let there be lights in the firmament. Day two brings about the separation of land and water, while day four speaks of the watery and airy creatures. Day three has the land bringing forth plants, while on day six the land animals appear. In Psalm 104, the grass for the cattle comes before, quote, "He appointed the moon for the seasons-- the sun knoweth his going down", and so on.
I assume the Kepler chose Psalm 104 for his homily because it contains a verse that opponents of the heliocentric cosmology used as a proof text-- "The Lord God laid the foundations of the Earth, that it not be moved forever." Surely, this verse ruled out the Copernican system with its whirling Earth speeding annually around the sun.
But Kepler wisely chose a more meaningful interpretation, and I shall quote him. "The Psalmist does not wish to teach what men do not now, but to bring to mind what they are neglecting, to wit, the greatness and power of God in the creation of such a large mass, so strong and stable. If an astronomer teaches that the Earth is placed among the planets, it does not overthrow what the Psalmist is saying here, nor does he contradict common experience. The Earth, the work of God the architect, does not collapse, as our buildings are want to do, when wasted with age and decay. The mountains and shores stand firm, unmoved against the onslaught of waves and wind. I as well implore my reader not to forget the divine goodness conferred on mankind, which the Psalmist urges him to consider. Let him extol the bounty of God in the preservation of living creatures of all kinds by the strength and stability of the Earth. But let him also acknowledge the wisdom of the creator in its motion, so abstruse, so admirable." Unquote.
Well now, let me turn to another aspect of the geological column. One of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century was the use of radioactivity to determine specific ages for the geological periods. Radioactive elements with known half lives provide atomic clocks that can be used to date specific rock layers. If the Earth were infinitely old, the unstable radioactive elements would have long since decayed, and we would not find them. Because we do find them, we know that the world is not infinitely old, and from their abundances, compared with the now-inert decay product, we can deduce their ages.
In general, sedimentary rocks are difficult to date this way. But there are enough intrusions from contemporary lava flows, and these igneous layers have the right stuff-- radioactive nuclei in their decay products. And by careful determination of the abundances of various isotopes, it's possible, for example, to place an age of 550 million years to the beginning of the Cambrian period, and so on.
The range of dates goes from 4.6 billion years for the oldest meteorites, which correspond to the formation of the solar system, right on down to 200,000 years for the stratum in which an anatomically modern Homo sapiens skull was found. Of course for such a wide range of dates, various isotopes are chosen, and usually different sequences are used to check the procedures-- more than one sequence for each dating, typically.
This vast panorama of dates on the scientific tapestry stands in stunning contrast to the brief six days of creation in the biblical picture. A natural possibility, among those attempting to save an almost literal reading of the scriptures, is to suggest that the days of Genesis are actually immense periods of time. After all, Psalm 90 states that 1,000 years is but as yesterday to the Lord.
But such a scheme produces at best a very strange compatibilism. It just isn't convincing, when you look in detail at what the days of Genesis entail. As part of its poetic structure, a paean to god's stupendous creativity, representative aspects have been singled out and placed in their pigeon holes of a few days, whereas the creatures with their nourishment develop together over the ages.
If we take the scientific evidence seriously, the claims that the days of Genesis are literal 24-hour days, is revealed as an exercise in futility. To suggest that God created the fossils and the radioactive isotopes in place to mislead us, suggests a trickster god, something that I could not agree to accept. And besides, it is subject to the riposte that, well, perhaps everything was created last Monday, and with all your memories and the Bible in place. What can you say about that?
But why, earnest Christians have from time to time asked me, does the universe have to be so big and so old? We seem to be such small specks in the vastness of space, and we dwell in such a small temporal interval compared to the sweep of time.
Well, I can't really answer that. Since I believe in a powerful creating god, I suppose that there are probably many ways the universe could have been made. Perhaps part of the purpose and challenge of the universe is for us to find out which way God did it. And what we've learned about this particular universe is that if it were not enormously old, we wouldn't be here.
In the beginning-- and that's biblical language, of course-- in the beginning, in that almost incomprehensible moment of creation, the Big Bang, the heavier elements were not formed, the heavier elements required for life. Out of the Big Bang came hydrogen, and helium, and a very tiny percentage of lithium, but not carbon, and oxygen, and iron, to name a few particularly critical atoms. It took billions of years in the fiery cauldrons of giant stars to cook up the oxygen and carbon needed for the organic chemistry of life. And so the story of life becomes in the scientific picture a much richer and complex retelling than the simple mythic presentation in the opening verses of the Bible.
As Galileo said, repeating a clever quotation from one of the Catholic cardinals, quote "The Bible teaches how to go to heaven, and not how the heavens go". We should not look to the Bible as a scientific textbook, but as an inspired documents created within a pre-scientific culture. We should not say that the Bible is unreliable because it says that the sun and moon were created after the plants in the field, but we should ask what genre of literature it is at this particular point, remembering that the Bible is not so much a unified book as a whole library. And we should ask what the scripture's fundamental meaning is.
But as a matter of fact, the Bible doesn't say that God created the sun and the moon. I suspect that some of you must be thinking, but I'm sure it says in Genesis 1 that god created the sun and moon. Wrong. What it says is that God created a greater light and a lesser light.
Why the circumlocution? Because in neighboring Babylon, the words for sun and moon were deities, and the author or editor of Genesis wanted to separate the Hebrews from the surrounding cultures, to focus on the specific powerful action of a monotheistic god, and to distance themselves from an accidental universe arising from the chaotic battling forces of good and evil. So we might better read the opening verses of Genesis as a political statement rather than as a scientific treatise.
But let me turn from the world of the large to the world of the small. Let us delve into a few of the astonishing aspects of the rich story of life on Earth, much of which has become known only in the past few decades. When I was in graduate school 50 years ago, there was still controversy about precisely how many chromosomes there were in human cells. Today, even middle school students can learn that there are 23 pairs of chromosomes in human cells, that these chromosomes are tiny coils of DNA, and that the DNA contains coding for the chemical machinery then operates the cells.
This chemical machinery consists primarily of proteins, which are strings of amino acids that can fold up into a wide variety of shapes. And the detailed uniqueness of the shapes and the distribution of electric charges that accompanies the different shapes is essential to their operation. There are 20 amino acids normally used in the proteins, and stringing them together in different combinations gives an incomprehensible number of possibilities. Think of each amino acid as the letter of an alphabet, and consider how many 50-letter words you could make. The Nobel biochemist Christian de Duve has calculated that if you want to make just one each of every possible 5o-unit protein, the total mass would far exceed the mass of our entire Milky Way galaxy.
The DNA that codes for the amino acid sequences is essentially a spiral staircase, with pairs of four nucleic acids forming the four different possible rungs. Taken in pairs, there would be 4 times 4, or 16 possibilities, not quite enough for 20 amino acids. But in triplets, you get 4 times 4 times 4, or 64 possibilities, which is enough to allow some redundancy, as well as start and stop commands. So vast sections of the approximately 3 billion base rungs in the DNA staircases of the human genome are arranged in viable triplet patterns.
At the same time, even larger sections-- over 98% of the DNA-- does not code for proteins. This puzzling, so-called junk DNA, sometimes appears between the genes, often interrupting the gene sequences. They are more formally called introns, and I'll return to them presently.
Now, keeping the three billion nucleic acids in order in each of the tens of trillions of cells in our bodies is a hopeless task, and mutations are continually taking place. The cells have a pretty good defense against this, because most chromosomes come in pairs, one of each pair from your mother and one from your father. And if one is defective, the other one can dominate.
So mostly the mutations won't matter, both because of the backup and because generally they aren't going anywhere. Only in the germ cells can a mutation be transmitted to an offspring. But because mutations have happened over the ages and are continually happening, no two persons-- except identical twins-- have exactly the same DNA, something that has become exceedingly valuable in police forensics work.
Interestingly, not all of the genetic blueprint is located in the chromosomes, however. A small amount of additional DNA, only 37 genes, is found in the mitochondrion in each cell. And this genetic material comes only through the maternal line.
Throughout the world, the mitochondrial DNA is essentially the same, meaning that we all share a common female ancestor who has been termed the mitochondrial Eve. From the mutational variations, it's possible to make an estimate of how far back she was, something between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. This does not mean that there was a lone woman, or the her contemporaries are not ancestors of those among us. The other women simply did not give rise to an uninterrupted maternal line.
Likewise, the male sex chromosome is transmitted only through the paternal line, so that it's possible to try to date the Y chromosomal Adam. But apparently he's not as long gone as the mitochondrial Eve. The most recent common male ancestor seems to have lived perhaps 60,000 years ago. In other words, the science does not point to an original couple. Thus, the mitochondrial Eve does not substantiate the existence of a biblical Eve.
In fact, these dates, plus the dates for the fossil skeletons, or even the age of the wonderful cave art in Lascaux or Chauvet-- this latter is 32,000 years old tell us that Homo sapiens has been around far longer than the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2. So once again, the science of the last century forces us to reconsider how we interpret the biblical account.
By now, many of you may have noticed that although the title of my talk includes the controversial E word, evolution, I haven't yet mentioned it. Precisely because the word is much debated in our national scene today, I wanted in the first place to show you the great extent to which modern science, completely independently of evolution, seems to impinge on a literal understanding of the Bible. I hope that I've demonstrated that much of the early part of the Bible is framed by a pre-scientific cosmology, and that to accept modern science in its full tapestry-- which includes not only x-rays, influenza vaccines, lasers, CD readers, and cellphones-- also means accepting a vast and ancient cosmos and a gradual development of life on Earth. Making peace with science and the Bible requires an open-minded consideration of biblical interpretation that goes beyond scriptural literalism. Thus, let me now turn to the theory of evolution so that we can explore where the areas of tension might lie.
Most of the science that I've described tonight was pretty much unknown to the 22-year-old Charles Darwin when he embarked on the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1831. By the time he published his Origin of Species 20 years later, he had a good understanding of the geological column, the fact that it represented a great span of time, and that the organisms preserved in the fossil record gradually became more complex-- that is, that somehow the flora and fauna evolved.
But how could this happen? Darwin had barely a clue about genetics, though as a pigeon fancier he understood the variations that could be introduced through selective breeding. He was, however, essentially baffled about how could arise. But given that they did appear, his genius this was to suggest that given enough time natural selection, plus common descent with modification, could accomplish the task.
Natural selection seems obvious enough, although his contemporaries were reluctant to accept it. They were shocked at the idea of an over-fecundity in nature, more offspring than the world could accommodate and the death of the least fit. The notion of nature red in tooth and claw was thoroughly abhorrent to the Victorian mind. Not until the 1930S was that idea widely accepted.
Ultimately his second proposed axiom, common descent with modifications, became the more radical idea. It meant that every creature had a parent. There was never a situation when an eel just slithered up out of the mud with no progenitor. No fly just emerged from garbage without a mother, reasonable as that might have seemed to 19th century observers.
But Darwin's proposal had the radical implication that sometimes the offspring varied enough from the parents to become a new species. And here was Darwin's dilemma. As a Washington Post article put it, what do you do with half an ear, or how to create an eye? Since variations seemed to be small, how could a minor fraction of a proto eye be sufficiently more fit to be selected for?
My friend late colleague Stephen Jay Gould made a career in his essays by arguing that the intermediate stages were useful for something else, and therefore selected for. It was admirably ingenious, and ultimately unconvincing to the skeptics. How can you get the big jumps that can produce enough change to make a new species? We can see the tremendous variety of dogs that breeding has achieved, but where are the viable offspring that are not dogs?
The dilemma is related to a query raised by Pierre Lecomte du Nouy over half a century ago in his book Human Destiny. Lecomte argued that to assemble a 2,000 atom protein by random shakings had the probability of one chance in 10 to the 321. Clearly, random shaking things are not the way to build complex molecules. Lecomte went on to say that to achieve such a result we had to call up Eddington expressed as anti-chance, or-- as Lecomte implied-- a miraculous intervention.
But there are other possible ways. For example, the formation of a long protein becomes much easier if it is build-up from subunits. And that seems to be precisely how some of the assemblies take place in human cells.
When the Human Genome Project announced its preliminary results seven years ago, one of its most unexpected aspects was the shockingly small number of genes-- that is, there is coding for only some 22,000 proteins. The millimeter long worm C elegans, the only nematode to have its DNA completely sequenced, has about 19,000 genes. How can humans be so much more complicated than a tiny worm, when we have only 3,000 more genes? But today biogeneticists are discovering that our cells can make far more than 22,000 proteins by splicing together pieces from existing genes to make numerous additional protein molecules. But where are the instructions for this?
A clue comes from sequencing that was announced just a few months ago of the starlet sea anemone. This metazoan is from the phylum cnidaria, which includes corals and jellyfish, and which is an out-group from the families of bilateria, which encompasses 99% of all living animals. The separation of cnidaria from the bilateria took place roughly 500 million years ago.
To me, the most remarkable detail cited in the recent Science magazine report was that sections of the starlet anemone's so-called junk DNA matches pieces of the junk DNA in the human genome. To be stable against mutations over such a long period surely indicates that there is some significant, but still undetermined, use for this intervening DNA. It has long been suspected that these introns have important control functions, and only now are the biogeneticists beginning to find out how the cut and splice instructions are embedded in this junk DNA.
Let me digress for a moment and say that my current project is writing a book on evolution, particularly for open-minded audience of Christians who may be confused about the potential conflict between that theory and their religious beliefs. When I remarked to some of my friends that I proposed to begin with the six-finger dwarfism among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, they asked, but what does that have to do with evolution? My answer was, nothing and everything. Let me put this extraordinary pathology into context.
Its victims, in addition to having six fingers on each hand, have spinal column deformities, occasionally cleft lips, and-- more rarely-- six toes. These debilities are sufficiently serious that half of the nearly 80 known cases we're stillborn. And with one exception, the children have not lived to maturity.
The Amish are very much an inbred society, and they have excellent genealogical records. And in every known case of the six-finger dwarfism, both the mother and the father were descended from an Amish couple who immigrated to America around 1750. A few years ago, the mutation of a single nucleic acid has been found to correlate with this rare pathology. One of that 18th century Amish couple carried a recessive mutant gene, and there was a 50% chance that it was transmitted to each of their children. Eventually, with inbreeding there were couples who themselves had no such symptoms, but who each carried the mutant recessive gene. Then there was one chance out of four that their offspring would receive a defective chromosome from each parent.
Does it not seem striking that so much damage can be accomplished by a single mutation? Clearly, the developmental sequence depends on a complex orchestration of many genes working together through some sort of interconnected control structure. And if something goes wrong early in the control pathways, an entire cascade of effects can be thrown out of kilter.
And only in the past two decades have the effects of the so-called Hox genes begun to be explored and understood. These genes control the body plans. And once these patterns are set, many of the subsequent steps take place more or less automatically. For example, once a sixth finger has been specified, it's not necessary to code specifically for the nerves or blood vessels, which will find their ways into the developing finger just as tree roots can branch out and penetrate their environments.
One of the most exciting aspects of evolution today is seeing how changes at a species level might take place in a major jump with a relatively small change in a control specification. Let us hark back to Darwin's dilemma, how to make an eye in seemingly small chips-- sorry, small steps.
The late Ernst Mayr, dean of American evolutionists, remarked that the eye had been independently invented a few dozen times presumably by small steps. What he did not know was that there seems to be an underlying gene at the control level that is in common for all the very different forms of eyes. Evolution seems to have had a head start when it came to making eyes.
In its details, evolution is far from being a finished theory. There are Nobel prizes to be won by sorting out the control mechanisms in the junk DNA. And that will have considerable ramifications for the way species emergence works.
But as an explanatory system, evolution already has much to offer. Look at your hands and feet, with their five digits, and then visit a comparative zoology museum and notice how the five sets of bones goes from the fins of the coelacanth ride up the vertebrate tree. For proponents of intelligent design, these observations are a set of unrelated facts, facts in themselves in the vocabulary of Aristotelian logic. But for the evolutionist, they are reasoned facts, observations with connectivity.
I can't help but go back to Copernicus once again. In observing the motions of the planets against the starry background, each one normally moves eastward among the stars. But once every year or two, they stop and moved westward, the so-called retrograde motion. In Ptolemy's system, each planet was assigned an epicycle, an auxiliary circle that could generate this backward motion. But these epicycles were unconnected with each other, simply facts in themselves.
But in Copernicus' unified heliocentric system, the retrograde motions were all seen to be the consequence of the earth's own orbital motion. And suddenly, this phenomenon became a reasoned fact. Although Copernicus had no proof of the earth's motion, this unification was seen as a compelling argument in favor of his heliocentric blueprint. In the same way, the pattern of five digits among the vertebrates becomes compelling evidence for the idea of evolution, turning facts in themselves into reasoned facts.
And there's another category of observations where evolution offers persuasive explanations-- the observations of imperfect design. Darwin gathered a number of examples, not all correct, but nevertheless with enough to make the point. My favorite example is the red-footed booby on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos. In my book, God's Universe, I describe these as web-footed ducks that nest in trees, and was promptly informed that boobies aren't ducks. But never mind-- it's just as ridiculous having web-footed boobies trying to hang on in trees. This unusual adaptation arose because the blue-footed boobies and the magnificent frigates had already taken over the ground-based ecological niches.
Now, a moment ago I alluded in passing to intelligent design, a scheme that is controversially now advocated in some quarters as an alternative to evolution, even to the extent that it should be taught as a viable option in biology classrooms. To me, this is a serious category error. Let me try to make this clear by considering a simple question posed by Sir John Polkinghorne-- why is the water in the tea kettle boiling?
Well, we can answer that the water is boiling because the heat from the fire raises the temperature of the water until the molecules move faster and faster so that some escape from the surface and become a gas. But we can also answer that the water in the tea kettle is boiling because we want some tea. The first answer illustrates what Aristotle called an efficient cause, an explanation of how the phenomenon takes place, while the second answer, because we want some tea, is a final cause, the reason why the phenomenon takes place.
One aspect of the scientific revolution in the 17th century was that it turned away from the final causes so central in the Aristotelian worldview and concentrated on efficient causes, the how of the phenomenon. To me, belief in a final cause, a creator god, gives a coherent understanding of why the universe seems so congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life. Only small changes in numerous physical constants would render the universe uninhabitable. Somehow, in the words of Freeman Dyson, this is a universe that knew we were coming. I do not claim this is proof for the existence of a creator, only that to me the universe makes more sense with this understanding.
On the other hand, as a scientist, I'm interested in the how as well as the why of the universe. I want a coherent picture of how Homo sapiens came to be, how come our DNA is so wondrously related to all forms of life, how atoms emerged. And this understanding of how the universe works, the efficient causes, comes from the great tapestry of science, which includes the theory of biological evolution. The weft of this tapestry are the observations of nature, while the warp is the framework of theoretical constructions that holds the explanations together.
As Einstein said, the sense experiences are the given subject matter, but the theory that shall interpret them is man-made. It is the result of an extremely laborious process of adaptation, hypothetical, never completely final, always subject to question and doubt. This great tapestry is of a piece, and it's difficult to tear out one segment without unraveling huge sections of this grand picture. Yet, this is precisely what some fundamentalists are trying to do in their attacks on biological evolution.
This evening I've tried to depict parts of the great tapestry that stand quite independently of evolutionary theory, such as the geological column, the ages of the rocks, or the way DNA codes for the machinery of life. And yet, these are essential threads for understanding how evolution fits into the scientific explanatory structure. I can understand that these topics might feel threatening to someone who reads Genesis 1 as verbatim history. I can vividly recall one of my first public lectures on these issues a quarter of a century ago at the University of Pennsylvania, where a Muslim student rose to ask, if God didn't create the world in six days, why does he tell us so?
But I think that evolution is a very scary topic even for persons who take a more metaphorical view of the early parts of Genesis. And why is this the case? Where are the tension points between religious beliefs and the idea of evolution? I've been putting this question to theologians and ethicists without getting a very clear answer, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with the place of humankind in the animal kingdom. We're intimately related to the animal kingdom, as our shared DNA makes so richly obvious. And this sticking point goes back to the very earliest days immediately after the publication On the Origin of Species.
The story of the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Oxford in 1860 addresses this tension in a largely mythological way. "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, went on at great length condemning Darwin's treatise, making a lame joke as to whether Thomas Huxley had an ape ancestor on his grandmother's or his grandfather's side of the family. God has delivered him into my hands, the pugnacious Thomas Huxley, the Richard Dawkins of his day, reportedly whispered, and then loudly announced that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man of means an influence who used his faculties to introduce ridicule into a grave scientific discussion--
--at which point Lady Brewster fainted dead away.
This event did not electrify the audience, it seems. The initial reports reaching Darwin did not mention it. And we only know of this episode from a letter Huxley wrote to Darwin some days after the meeting. So it was not a big deal.
Nevertheless, it spotlights a crucial point-- are we simply a glorious accident, the result of random mutations? If that is the bottom line of evolution, that we are curiously intelligent beasts in a purposeless universe, then there are strong religious grounds for resisting evolution. That can well be a philosophical point, and it is the chosen viewpoint of some practitioners. But it's not intrinsic in evolution.
In a series of now-widely-published infomercials, which were mentioned in the introductions, I am on record as saying that I'm psychologically incapable of believing in a purposeless universe. So I ask the question, what does it mean to be human? And I look at the most important verse of Genesis 1-- "God created man in his own image, male and female created he them". In other words, there is within each of us a divine creative spark, a touch of the infinite, conscience and self-consciousness. These are truly human attributes, and we may well inquire when in our long evolutionary history they arrived.
It is hard to imagine these attributes in a well-developed way without language, something that apparently emerged in the past 200,000 years. Did language arrive with the mitochondrial Eve? There's no particular reason to think so, though the dates are in the same general ballpark. Did the crossover point come 200 millennia ago with the modern Homo sapiens? We shouldn't confuse humanness with skeletons-- conscious is something that doesn't fossilize.
I must confess that the moment of becoming human is not a query that I propose to answer tonight. I only want to underscore it as a very interesting question worth thinking about. And it is undoubtedly entangled with the origin of the soul, a deeply theological construct on which the Bible says remarkably little.
But before I close, I want to return to the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of good and evil. Surely, this is a powerful metaphor about the origin of conscience and becoming human. With the God-given attribute of conscience, the understanding of right and wrong, comes responsibility, decision-making, and the ability to make wrong choices.
For me, the story of Adam and Eve and the fall is the story of becoming human. It's not important to me whether Adam and Eve were a historical couple. What is important is to see the Bible taking as its starting point the emergence of our humanness, the origin of humanity.
If we keep this as a central issue in our understanding of why we are so special in the cosmos, then I think we should have no trouble in accepting evolution as a major explanatory scheme in comprehending the natural world. As Darwin wrote at the end On the Origin of Species, quote, "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one-- and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful in most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
But I choose not to end with Darwin. Instead, I elect Copernicus for this role. "So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the Almighty creator." Thank you.
STEVE HILGARTNER: I'm Steve Hilgartner and I'm the chair of the Department of Science and Technology Studies. And I'll be facilitating the discussion of Professor Gingerich's very interesting and provocative lecture. So people who have a question can raise your hand. We're having some microphones brought out. Because the event is being videotaped, if you could use the microphone, that would be wonderful. So questions, please.
AUDIENCE: How do you think that these questions of evolution and theology can be discussed with those who have very little scientific expertise or background?
OWEN GINGERICH: Well, I guess I have to say that that's precisely the reason I am proposing to write a book on evolution, because I think people need to be a little bit better informed as to exactly what it's about. You can see I'm not trained as a biologist or an evolutionist, but I have a lot of friends who are who have promised to read my manuscript to make sure it's accurate. And it requires, I guess, that kind of education. And of course it needs to be part of the education which is coming through biology classes in schools.
But otherwise it's obviously a big problem. Because the Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans believe that humankind arrived on the Earth within the past 10,000 years basically in precisely modern form. And so there's a lot of education to be done.
STEVE HILGARTNER: Further questions?
OWEN GINGERICH: Here's one.
AUDIENCE: Is this on? I'm getting the impression from your lecture-- and I appreciated it very much-- that your view of God is a monotheistic view of God. And I would like you to elaborate on that, if that's so. And how would you respond to that?
OWEN GINGERICH: Well, I am a theist. I believe in the importance of the Bible, and in particular the message of sacrificial love as seen in the life of Jesus Christ. So that is essential to my system of beliefs. I have not talked about that part of it. I have to a slight extent in the epilogue of my book entitled God's Universe. But I know that hasn't satisfied a lot of people, so I'm going to have to think about how I handle this when I get around to writing those last chapters in a book on evolution.
AUDIENCE: If I could ask one more question? Do you have conversations with, I believe would have been a colleague at Harvard, Gordon Kaufman? I'm intrigued his definition of God as serendipitous creativity.
OWEN GINGERICH: Yes, Gordon Kaufman argues--
AUDIENCE: --broader view, I believe of god.
OWEN GINGERICH: I regularly have arguments and discussions with Gordon Kaufman, who is, perhaps surprising to you, a member of our congregation. So he argues that God is so overwhelmingly large and powerful, but that all of the adjectives that we typically use in describing this are so anthropomorphic or anthropocentric that we don't even have the right kind of vocabulary to describe god. And he describes god in terms of creativity, or serendipitous creativity, which has been at work in the world.
This, it seems to me, maps to some degree into an evolutionary picture, but fails in understanding how the physical constants come out from the Big Bang, which are so well tuned to make this intelligent life possible. But I don't see them, those constants themselves, evolving as an evolving creativity might require. Anyway, it seems to me that if one has a god in that abstract form, so powerful that that creativity can bring about thinking persons, that that same creativity should be able to put on a kind of human mask to relate to us as one small aspect of it. And that's what I haven't been able to persuade him of.
STEVE HILGARTNER: Yes, way in the back.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned about how to-- I forget how you phrased it exactly-- to an intelligent design, you've heard that all these different instances of five fingers would be isolated facts. And it seems to me that what you were just talking about, the fine tuning argument for the universe, all these separate physical constants that are just right, don't you think it's almost inevitable that there will come about a physical theory that explains them all, and that in fact they're not isolated constants, they're the logical consequence of some underlying theory and that the fine tune will in fact be proven to be fallacious?
OWEN GINGERICH: That is always a possibility, and one of the things that physicists are looking for in this theory of everything, which would then tell you how these constants came about. It is, as Einstein said, what he really longed to know was whether God had any choice in the way the constants were put together.
And we seem very far from reaching that point, so that the current trendy answer is to say that there were lots of possibilities. The roulette could, if one makes multiple universes, come out quite differently in the other universes. And if there are a myriad of them, clearly the one in which the constants turned out to be just right for life would necessarily be the one in which we find ourselves. This multiverse theory is gaining a certain amount of popularity. It is another way of solving the same issue that you're addressing, but with a totally different kind of potential explanation. We just don't know.
STEVE HILGARTNER: More questions? Yes?
AUDIENCE: The Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions portray god as characterized by love and compassion. Evolution, however, appears to depend strongly on the creation of innumerable failures, which are then ruthlessly destroyed. And in fact that is a mechanism for the advancement of the whole. Do you think that this plays a role in the problem that some religious people have with the theory of evolution?
OWEN GINGERICH: This came up as a problem long before the theory of evolution was proposed. It was something that was discovered early in the 19th century, particularly when the fossils, the large number of fossils, of creatures long since extinct were being found in the Paris basin, in that geological arena. So since God says in Genesis after each day of creation, and it was good, how could that be if these animals were no longer alive, the forms not alive at all? It was a serious problem, something of a theological shock. But evolution doesn't introduce that for the first time as a problem.
With the invention of sex came death. That is to say, if you have a creature like the stromatolites, which simply exist by cloning and dividing, you can say that some of these stromatolites, which are alive today, are a few billion years old. When you have an individual, the individual which comes about through the sexual recombination of the elements, each individual is unique, whether it's a whole species or just individuals. All of us are facing death-- animals are facing death, species are facing death. It is part of the problem of being individuals.
It's part of, I suppose, a whole issue of theodicy, the problem of evil. If you consider this consequence of how we're made basically evil, then it is a problem with the extinction of the animals as well. But it is, I would say, a reality of the world we're living in. And evolution doesn't make it better or worse. It is just coming to terms with what is being observed.
STEVE HILGARTNER: Yes?
AUDIENCE: It strikes me that the debate about the landscape theory of Polchinski and Linde, and Susskind is sort of a reprise of the problems in evolution, in that people are trying to use science to either prove or disprove god. And I think, frankly, the parallel with the landscape theory is obvious. I wonder-- it sounds as if you have a different view of the tuning of the constants implying god, whereas I would think that science should be for science and religion should be for religion. It seems that you're using the same arguments on the landscape as a intelligent design person would use on evolution.
OWEN GINGERICH: I would say that there's not particularly a problem about intelligent design when it's understood to be a final cause argument and not the efficient cause that it is the appropriate thing to do in a science classroom. So all I'm saying is that from a final cause point of view, I find a remarkable congeniality in the universe for the existence of intelligent life. I am not using that as evidence for the existence of a creator.
Having made the existential leap that the universe is meaningful rather than that it's purposeless, I then looked around for correlating evidence. And having made that leap, then these seeming design elements become evidence for that belief. But it is not what you can use a priori to establish the belief in the first place.
STEVE HILGARTNER: Yes?
AUDIENCE: Hi. I'm sorry to say I missed a portion of your lecture. But I'm mystified by the notion of a physical system having a sense of purpose. Would you say that you believe a physical system has some sort of inherent sense of purpose?
OWEN GINGERICH: No, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that aspects of it, which in this particular case allow for intelligent life to exist, has some interesting philosophical implications. And I would not want to eliminate philosophy from the world.
AUDIENCE: OK, thank you.
OWEN GINGERICH: Yes.
STEVE HILGARTNER: Yes?
AUDIENCE: Hi. I have two questions. My first question is can you envision, either in the next 50 years or 100 years, a marriage between science and religion? And my second question is, do you really have 500 documents about Kepler? And that is the oldest document that you have?
OWEN GINGERICH: I'm not sure-- wait a minute, don't go away.
What's this question? Oh no, you're referring to Frank Rhodes' comments in the introduction about how many copies of Copernicus' book survive.
OWEN GINGERICH: And the answer is, yes, I've seen nearly 600 copies of Copernicus' book in the first and second edition. I have been in a lot of libraries.
Now, the first part of the question, section one?
AUDIENCE: Can you ever see a marriage between science and religion taking place, either 100 years from now or 200 years from now?
OWEN GINGERICH: I'm not sure a marriage is quite the word for it. But I would hope that there is a sense of mutual respect between these potential partners. Science tells us very little about ethical issues, about issues of conscience. And I think that religion has a great deal to say about that. And that becomes increasingly important in a suicidal world, where we have the ability to destroy living creatures on the Earth. And we have to consider very strongly what the whole idea of sacrificial love might mean in terms of survival of the human race.
STEVE HILGARTNER: I think we have time for one more question.
AUDIENCE: The last thing you said just brought up this question to me. And that is, you mentioned earlier you asked your colleagues in theology some of the sticking points, you thought, between the traditions. And I wondered if you think one of those sticking points would be that religion, particularly Judeo-Christian, maybe a particular line of the Christian tradition, has put man as a transcendent being better or beyond-- above-- nature, not interconnected with it. And if you could comment on that. And then second point, since she opened up the two part system here, would be are you familiar with the new cosmology and the works of people like Brian Swimme?
OWEN GINGERICH: No, I don't know what you're referring to on that. You're talking about string theory or something?
AUDIENCE: New cosmology, I forget his mentor, but Brian Swimme and the other guy--
Thomas Berry. Thomas Berry. Anyway, the concept is to the tell the story of evolution as a mythological story, much like the story of Jesus, taking the original cell-- for instance-- that breathed oxygen on the planet, calling it [INAUDIBLE] and giving it a story, and creating a mythology which gives a cosmology a sense of purpose and humanity. So those two comments.
OWEN GINGERICH: I'm afraid I'm out of it on that.
AUDIENCE: OK, not that one, but the first one would be great, though.
OWEN GINGERICH: But now your first point-- you know, my mind is like a sieve now. Try it again, the first--
AUDIENCE: So the first one is if you think one of those sticky points between religion and science is that through religion we put man as a transcendent being, above, beyond, and better than nature and not in the story of nature, that connected.
OWEN GINGERICH: I think it's important within a religious context to appreciate the fact that we are part of nature. And I think that that gives us a certain basic love for nature that is important, and which you see, let us say, manifest in the works of E O Wilson, who's very keen about preserving the species on the Earth.
I had occasion to be in a discussion with him a few months ago. And I said, Ed, extinction is the name of the game in evolution. We see this happening all the time. I said, and you're trying to preserve the species. Don't you think that your viewpoint is being bankrolled by the Judeo-Christian tradition out of which you came? And he sat there for a bit, very reflective, and he said, yes, I think you're right.
So this is part of our story. I think that we are part of the animal kingdom. But at the same time, we so far transcend the other creatures that we've obviously got something going for us. We can't just sit back and say we're mere animals and let it go at that.
AUDIENCE: Can I continue with that? And just that that's a wonderful perception. And I think that's only one particular line of the Christian tradition. There seems to be another one which I think is fueling this whole discussion with the religious right, the fundamentalists, that are positing this idea that indeed, why not just speed up the death and destruction of the planet because we're all going to go to heaven anyway.
OWEN GINGERICH: Ouch.
AUDIENCE: Well, I mean no. I don't know if anybody else knows this story, but I have friends-- a friend of mine's told me a friend in Vermont, who's a fundamentalist, who said, why should we recycle? Don't recycle. Keep throwing your plastics and everything away. Because the idea is that Jesus is going to come and we're all going to go to heaven, so we speed up the process. Am I the only one that knows about that kind of fundamental?
STEVE HILGARTNER: OK, I think we'll draw this to a close at this point. I'd like to thank--
--I'd like to thank Professor Gingerich for a really very intelligent, learned--
--and reflective discussion.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Harvard University astronomer Owen Gingerich delivered the inaugural Robert and Mabel Beggs Lecture on Science, Spirituality and Society, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in Statler Auditorium.
Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, is renowned in his field as a leading authority on the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler and the 16th-century cosmologist Nicholas Copernicus. Gingerich's work includes the book "God's Universe" and such essays as "Is the Cosmos All There Is?"
The Beggs Lecture is sponsored by Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), the Department of Science and Technology Studies, the Religious Studies Program and Chesterton House, a Christian studies center affiliated with CURW.