Personal Stories

Thoughts on “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry A. Coyne

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This is a fabulous book, an excellent reference that explains why evolution is a scientific concept and Creationism/Intelligent Design is not.

I found this book particularly helpful in deconstructing the concerns and fears of those who reject evolution, where those fears are coming from, and how offering scientific evidence can sometimes fail to persuade given the context of those fears. As this book discusses, while very few scientists in the world today are pressured to “prove” the existence of the atom or the theory of gravity and reconcile these things with spiritual beliefs, evolution is a different story. Coyne suggests this is because nothing is more personal for us than discussing humanity’s biological (and any other) origins.

I have many thoughts and find it worthwhile to describe how evolution fits in with my own religious beliefs while also touching on the science in this book.

I am a deeply religious person myself, a Mormon, and I’ve always found evolution to be a fascinating, beautiful, and even spiritually enlightening concept as I often feel about many secular subjects that I study. There is something so profound to me in the idea of being physically connected to every other living thing and even to non-living things (“The dust of the [Earth],” if you will). To seeing the Earth and all life thereon as deeply old. That my body looks and functions the way it does because it has a long and intricate history, one shared and echoed in the bodies and personalities of other organisms. The mechanisms by which anything may pass on its physical and behavioral traits to the next generation are so pivotal to the survival, growth, and propagation of perishable life on this planet that even the tiniest, “slimiest” little amoeba has a body and a legacy of reproductive inheritance (a thing Lucifer is never going to take part in, according to LDS theology). To me, I can’t look at the world through an evolutionary lens and not also feel a profound sense of God’s love for His Earth and His children.

It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I discovered others of my own faith struggle to reconcile the concept of evolution with our beliefs. The challenge with presenting the evidence of evolution as a mechanism by which biological life on earth propagates and populations change over time is that many who reject evolution are not actually concerned about whether the science is sound. Rather, the concern is whether their belief in God, or, perhaps more palpably, their sense of human dignity or decency, or even identity, will erode if they accept evolution as true.

Coyne, the author of this book, is, from what I understand, an Atheist, who holds a personal view that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. While I obviously hold a different point of view, this book comes from an honest place according to this author’s beliefs. He criticizes “seeing” God’s hand in natural processes, specifically to demonstrate that a particular idea called “Special Creation,” which purports specific tenets about how life on earth came to be, is incompatible with the evidence we actually see and can measure in nature.

Special Creation claims that life appeared in all its distinct forms as we presently know them under the influence of processes operating outside of natural laws, that these forms have not changed since their inception, that the earth came about in precisely six twenty-four hour days by strict interpretation of the account in Genesis, and that the complexity of living things could not have been derived from simpler forms. Much of Special Creation derives its view from ancient Greek philosophies that became incorporated into early Christian dogma–though that point isn’t discussed so much in this book.

In order for an explanation to be considered scientific, it must be measurable, experimentally reproducible or observationally evident, and hypothetically disprovable given certain other conditions are met instead. A “theory” in scientific terminology is something that has failed to be disproven on account of a large body of observational and experimental evidence. Like writing out a mathematical proof to show that the number zero exists, saying that God’s power is behind natural processes is, in my opinion, not incorrect, but it is an explanation that, by itself, is not going to demonstrate understanding or help us harness the mechanics of those processes.

I also find that Special Creation, according to the tenets mentioned above as well as other tenets associated with this term, conflicts with my beliefs as a Mormon about the nature of God, the meaning of truth, and the operations of the Creation. Mormons do not believe in Creatio Ex Nihilo (that God created the Earth out of nothing), but rather organized the Earth using material that already existed (Abraham 3: 24), and that even the spirits of living things like ourselves are organized matter (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8, Doctrine and Covenants 93:29). We also believe that God is subject to natural laws. For example, miracles “should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher” (LDS Bible Dictionary: Miracles). And, rather conspicuously, we believe truth can be found other places besides the Bible alone.

A lot of scriptural language is also symbolic, pertaining to spiritual and virtue-based concepts rather than being mechanical or quantitative descriptions. For example, we have an account of the Creation which substitutes “time” for “day” (Abraham 4:13), and consider that a “day” as written could be symbolic or poetic terminology for different spans or phases in the Creation rather than a literal 24-hour day (there isn’t hard LDS doctrine specifying what a “day” means here either way, except that man’s reckoning and God’s reckoning of time are not always in the same terms).

Elder Russel M. Nelson, an LDS General Authority, recently dedicated a new science building on BYU campus. In his remarks, he gave this wonderful statement about truth:

“This University is committed to search for truth, and teach the truth. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is compatible. All truth is part of the everlasting gospel. There is no conflict between science and religion. Conflict only arises from an incomplete knowledge of either science or religion, or both.”

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From a religious perspective, I feel comfortable in an idea that my body and my spirit have different origins. The idea that being physically descended from “lesser life forms” is somehow repulsive, and an excuse to be immoral, is counterintuitive to me because of how I see evolution. But it is something that people feel and people fear when they think of this topic. A solid understanding of the science of evolution should not feel degrading. It should be another tool, like other knowledge, like our intuition and common sense, like our  beliefs and traditions we’ve inherited, and like the technology we have available in the times in which we live. Something we can use to rise above and overcome all kinds of physical, emotional, environmental, and even moral weaknesses inherent to who and what we are.

A man named Dr. John Hawks, who’s Great Course lecture series I listened to recently (called The Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates), suggested that culture and medical technology–human choice–is potentially the biggest evolutionary force on human populations today. I think that’s a powerful statement, one that evokes a deep sense of control as well as responsibility for the environments we tame, for the resources we use and share, and toward ourselves and our fellow men. We possess amazing powers of foresight, social collaboration, cognition, and ingenuity that allow us to learn from the ways of people who have come before us and make conscientious decisions that lead the way for those who come after. The choices we make now have multi-generational consequences on our own species. Our ability to comprehend and prepare for the future is, I think, a big part of what makes us humans moral creatures. Here, the context of evolution can bolster our appreciation for the rich physical and cultural varieties we perceive in our species, while at the same time bringing the experiences of the human condition we all share in common into sharper focus. All because the “lowly” amoeba, or the moth, or the extinct Neanderthal might also share something in common with our functions. With experimentation and observation, we can discover more about ourselves and gain stronger control over our own destinies than we would have been able to if the earth were barren of all life but our own.

What I love about Why Evolution is True is that it nicely packages many areas of research that confirm biological/Neo-Darwinian evolution: population genetics, the abundant and consistent patterns of the fossil record, paleobiogeography, comparative anatomy, vestigial anatomy, molecular biology, behavioral psychology, and so on. Not only is evolution a real mechanism of nature that is acting on living populations, including our own, right now, the knowledge we gain from it has the power to deepen rather than diminish our understanding of what it means to be human. This book is an excellent resource for discussing the vast scientific evidence that evolution is a fact, and in articulating and addressing common concerns people have with the subject.

To finish up my thoughts, here is a video of Steven L. Peck, Professor of Biology at Brigham Young University and author of A Short Stay in Hell, discussing why evolution and LDS thought in particular are fully compatible:

Standing in Lines: Why I Love Disneyland

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I don’t write about non-writing related things in my life very often on my blog, and if I do, I usually try to tie it into writing in some way. I wanted to do something bold and share this thought, though.

A couple weeks ago, I took a vacation to Disneyland with my parents and younger sister. As we are all adults, our busy life schedules don’t always allow us to spend quality bonding time together. We have a tradition of driving down to Anaheim about once a year to visit Disneyland and its sister park, Disney’s California Adventure. There are a lot of really beautiful things about Disney parks, from the background music, to the details on rides and attractions, to the friendly custodians who keep the bathrooms impeccably clean. We’re constantly immersed in stories, enticed to seek refuge from the sometimes painful and unpleasant realities of life, and dared to dream about the power of our imaginations and all the incredible good we can do in this world if we put our minds to it.

Before we left on our vacation, we gathered for a quick family prayer in which my father expressed gratitude for this opportunity and recognized it as a gift from God.

As anyone who has been to a Disney park can attest, the “Happiest Place On Earth” has many visitors, children and adults, who are not happy. From about three to six o’clock in the afternoon, a chorus of emotionally exhausted youngsters under the age of five can be found crying in perpetual surround sound just about everywhere you go. They’re hot. They’re bored of standing in line. It’s past their usual nap time. Mom won’t buy them that churro they were promised today because other things came up instead. Dad said “no” five times to that plush toy and he’s not going to change his mind to reward a tantrum.

On a trip to Disneyland I accompanied with my orchestra class in high school, I observed a random man berate and belittle his weeping son, probably about nine or ten years old, for losing something, then berate and belittle him again for rubbing his nose until it bled and never once offered the kid a tissue. That was probably one of the most uncomfortable parenting moments I’ve ever witnessed.

One of my high school teachers once told my class that, on a vacation he took with his young family, he and his children watched in horror as a group of ducklings pecked and drown one of their kin to death. Even nature cannot be compelled to suspend her bizarre wrath at the Happiest Place on Earth.

I’ve done a fair share of dysfunction things while visiting Disneyland at various points in my life. I have a poignant memory of saving space with my mother along a parade route when I was a teenager. My father brought me an ice cream cone from the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor, something I had wanted very much on that trip. I ended up throwing it straight in the garbage because it dripped a constant, melting stream of chocolate. I didn’t want to dribble ice cream all over myself, or have it flow over to people nearby and seep into their bags or clothes. I can’t imagine how much that must have hurt my father’s feelings even though he chose not to take it personally. Never mind the fact that I deprived myself of something I really wanted because I thought my existence was a nuisance to others. It still makes me squirm inside to think about it. I had depression as a teenager, though I didn’t have it diagnosed until I was an adult.

There is a lot of pain in this world that can’t be cured with peppy slogans, or ice cream, or happy thoughts. Being with people won’t always banish loneliness. Getting your way won’t always fulfill the soul’s craving for progress, success, validation, and self-actualization. Hard work isn’t always proportional to our achievements. We can’t fix everything ourselves, and some things don’t mend on their own just given enough time.

I cherish going to Disneyland with people I love, not because it will make us happy, but because it gives us an opportunity to pull our heads out of the isolating pulses of work, and social media, and human drama, to evaluate ourselves, and to draw our focus to each other. Standing in long lines with nothing to do except talk to each other, tease each other, sing, laugh, cry, practice our multi-lingual skills, and ask each other questions as serious or as silly as we’d like is great family therapy.

Fulfillment will never be found in the mere bells and whistles of an amusement park. Paint will peel. Rides will break down. Fireworks burn out, and the music dies away at the end of the night. Eventually, our time at the park draws to a close, and we go home, back to our normal lives. I’m not sure Disneyland will still exist a thousand years from now. But I know my family will because…well, I’m a Mormon who believes families are eternal.

My father quietly pointed out an elderly gentleman on our most recent trip, puttering through the crowds in a red powered scooter with a young child giggling in his lap. The old man was smiling to himself. My father said, “That’s going to be me at the hundredth anniversary.” And that is what Disneyland is all about for us.

As I alternated saving space with my immediate family members this year to see the new Paint The Night Parade and fireworks show that debuted for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, it occurred to me, as I watched cars of screaming people go ’round on the Matterhorn, that I’m in a pretty good place in my life right now. I’m not in graduate school, but I have a great job. I’m not married, don’t have kids, but I can call myself an author and nobody questions it anymore. I can turn back to the me of years ago, who oft contemplated the reasons why the outgoing part of her childhood personality withdrew, wishing she could be more helpful instead of secretly annoying to people, and tell her that even though things haven’t turned out as she planned (and still plans) for her future, God still has a plan, and dreams can still come true.

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Writing in My Car

I was sitting alone in my car for some quiet writing time on Saturday when I had a little surprise encounter with nature. BYU campus is right at the base of the Wasatch mountains, and wild deer often come down to wander the grounds in search of green things to munch on. It always amazes me how graceful and ghostly quiet these creatures are. I find it a treat to spot one before it sees me and dashes away. This gal looked a bit lean but acted alert and healthy/normal otherwise. It made my solitary day a little bit brighter and less lonely.

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And yes, I do write in my car sometimes. :-)

It’s nice when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold. I know no one is likely to bother me there (unless they text me), and I can get out for a little walk in the weather when I need a break.

It’s also convenient if I want to read my manuscripts out loud and I don’t want anyone to ask me what the heck is going on with that weird scary story…Mwahaha!

Happy first week of May!

May is my favorite month. The earth is alive. The days are warm and the daylight is still growing. One thing I like best about May is that BYU campus, where I often like to go to be alone, is totally empty and totally quiet for the first couple weeks after graduation festivities. Life, sunlight, and quiet are beautiful things.

Elsa & Anna Signed My Brainstorming Notebook

I was going to post this back a lot closer to my June 4th post about my May adventures…

At the beginning of May I went to Disneyland with my folks as they celebrated their wedding Anniversary. As I’ve managed to somehow talk about it only ONCE on this blog, I’m kind of obsessed with Frozen. Just a little. Just a lot. So obsessed, that my awesome dad went with me to the park early one morning just so we could run from the rope drop when they officially opened and stand in line for an hour and a half to see Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. This is kind of crazy for me because I haven’t actively sought out Disney characters to talk to at Disneyland since I was four. I guess I’m not very good at “getting” people playing characters or how to play along with them from one grown person to another. I’m not much of an actress, I guess. Anyways…I was hoping my little sister, Annie (who’s a good six-inches taller than me), would be on this trip so we could both get our pictures taken with the famous Anna and Elsa. But alas, Snickerdoodle (a.k.a. Annie) couldn’t make the trip. I got my picture anyway…

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When I went up to see Anna and Elsa after waiting in line an hour and a half (it was roughtly a four-hour line behind us not long after we raced from the rope drop across the castle drawbridge into Fantasyland), I decided I couldn’t walk away from this meet-and-greet without getting their autographs, too. So, I explained that I was a writer and asked the two Disney princesses to sign my brainstorming notebook.

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Anna asked what I like to write about, and I had just said, “horror,” when my dad interrupted to mention that I have a little sister named Annie…

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It was one of the most awkward things I’ve ever done at Disneyland. I’m pretty sure, though, that Elsa’s magic worked…because one of the stories I was brainstorming in that notebook at the time has just been accepted into a paranormal anthology to be published in the fall! More on that next time I post. For now…”Let it go!” (It doesn’t really make sense. Just humor me.) :-)

Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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