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Evolving a higher understanding between religion and science: A look at The Evolution Dialogues
While discussing evolution and education in several meetings from 2000 to 2003, science and religious groups surprisingly were able to find common ground: They agreed that the two communities needed to work more closely together to educate people of faith on evolutionary theory. Many of them also found a common story, particularly among biology professors — the story of students struggling to reconcile scientific interests with strong religious faiths. Out of these discussions, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The Evolution Dialogues was born.
A “modular format” education resource, The Evolution Dialogues is designed so that people can pick out chapters of interest to read individually, if they lack the time or interest to read it from front to back, says Catherine Baker, a freelance writer and author of the new book, which was a collaborative effort of AAAS. The chapters cover the history of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the history of religious responses to Darwinism, and a look at contemporary stances toward evolution, as well as a look at how modern science has been influenced by and developed through evolutionary theory.
The book also incorporates a narrative storyline to introduce each chapter: that of Angela Rawlett, a fictional college freshman interested in becoming a veterinarian, but worried about how her Christian upbringing might conflict with her evolutionary biology classes. “We thought she would be a good character to follow through and see how she handles both the development of a religious faith and the development of her understanding of biology,” Baker says.
Throughout the story, Angela seeks guidance from both her academic advisor, who is a botanist, and her campus minister. What she finds are more questions, and ultimately, those questions — posed by both the professor and minister — only strengthen her interests in science and religion. At the end of the school year, she decides to spend her summer both as a counselor at her church camp and participating in a fossil dig in South Dakota, to “see how knowledge builds from small discoveries.”
The overall message is that “there is no ipso facto conflict between science and religion. There are points of conflict for which we need to explore more and ask more questions,” Baker says. The fictional Angela ultimately came to realize that she can “follow her interests in biology and geology, and she can still help figure out where that fits in with her understanding of her Christian faith.”
Jim Miller understands the merging of these interests very well. Editor of The Evolution Dialogues and a former campus minister, Miller had a strong interest in science and math from a young age and began an engineering major in college. Although he ultimately decided to go to theological seminary, he never lost his connection to the sciences, even taking a theological internship at North Carolina State’s College of Engineering. But although he has found a way to study religion and science together without conflict, doing so is “actually quite difficult.”
“Ironically,” Miller says, “what people want to assume is an easy reconciliation — or at least compatibility — between ever-increasing scientific understanding of the world and traditional religion that embeds ancient worldviews, is not easy at all.” And the challenge is deeply rooted in society, he says, especially for Christians and especially in the United States.
“Americans love both religion and science, and tend to expect that they should be in harmony with one another,” Miller says. “If either science or religion mattered less to us, there would be little controversy.”
The heart of the controversy, he says, comes from a fundamental historic disconnect. Most world religions are very old and originated in a time in which the world was understood in a very different way than it is today (see Geotimes, October 2006). As science progressed over time, particularly around the time of the Galilean controversy in the late 17th century, the way to avoid making religious views of the world more compatible with scientific ones was to “divide the world up,” Miller says. “So, we had religion talk about one set of things, and we had science talk about another set of things, and we’d just say that they’re compatible.”
And that divide has been in place pretty much ever since. These days, however, maintaining that division is becoming increasingly difficult. Miller points to neuroscience studies, for example, that are examining the physiological roots of religious experience. And he points toward work to better understand the universe.
“We’re living in a 14-billion-year-old universe, of which Earth is a perhaps very special but also a very small part, and yet the Abrahamic traditions have historically understood the world to be the center of the cosmos,” Miller says. “But, how do you look at the Hubble telescope pictures or the latest report of a new planet found circling some distant star, and find a match with the notion that Earth is the only really interesting thing going on?”
These questions can both perplex individuals, and “create discomfort or even in some cases hostility in some religious communities,” Miller says. The only way forward, he says, is to find a way for the religious and scientific communities to evolve together, and resources such as The Evolution Dialogues are a step in that direction.
“Science has to pursue its understanding of the world as it does,” Miller says, but it also “has to recognize that what it is doing is in fact going to upset, of necessity, the way people understand what the meaning of their lives is all about.” Hopefully, he says, The Evolution Dialogues will encourage more discussion and less debate about the important issues involved, and will motivate “mainline Christians to take more responsibility for ensuring the quality and integrity of public science education.”
Indeed, the book’s target audience are mainline Christian churches, Baker says, “the people who have not really been out on the bulwarks, fighting for or against evolution,” but who are being pulled in different directions by nonscientific movements such as intelligent design — a belief that asserts that the complexity of life is evidence that something intelligent must have designed it. But, she says, anyone of any religious background will likely be able to relate to Angela’s story.
And although the story focuses on Angela’s exploration of biology, students in many fields face these sorts of conflicts. “It’s certainly a situation that could occur in the earth sciences in courses like paleontology, historical geology and your basic intro geology — rocks for jocks — all of which deal directly with evolution and deep time, which can also challenge beliefs,” says David Applegate, senior science advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va.
Applegate was involved in some of the early discussions that led to the development of The Evolution Dialogues. He says that “all geoscientists can benefit from a healthier understanding of an issue that is one of the major obstacles to earth science education in this country.”
Lisa M. Pinsker
Christine M. Rodrigue
Readers may recognize Susan Elizabeth Hough as the author of Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes (Princeton University Press, 2002), Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide (Mountain Press, 2004) and the forthcoming Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man (Princeton University Press, 2006). The geosciences have in her an authoritative, articulate and often engrossing ambassador and public educator.
In her latest book, After the Earth Quakes, Hough, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, teams up with Roger G. Bilham, a geology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, whose interests in geodesy, seismic networks and urbanization in earthquake country complement her longstanding interests in seismology, the history of geoscience thought and public education. The authors’ intent is to familiarize the educated lay reader or undergraduate student with the development of scientific thought about earthquakes and with the history of social response to this often devastating natural process.
In After the Earth Quakes, Hough and Bilham survey seismological concepts, as well as data collection and processing methods. They organize their discussion around a history of great earthquakes and their impacts on scientific understanding and seismic design from ancient times to contemporary Los Angeles. This narrative device allows the reader’s understanding of earthquakes to evolve in a manner parallel to the historical development of scientific understanding of the processes involved.
In each case, they stress the resiliency of human society in responding to the wreckage and the tragedy of a large quake, a kind of social “elastic rebound.” The book both provides information on the forces behind the hazard and outlines specific actions that can be taken in a global “age of construction” to increase future social resiliency at relatively low present cost.
Among the seismological concepts that the book weaves into the reader’s awareness are the basics of plate tectonics, the geography of concentrated seismicity and the possibility for major earthquakes even well away from the plate boundaries, where they are more common and expected. The authors also review development of the intensity and magnitude scales of measurement, along with the evolution of seismometers, seismic networks and the uses of such technologies as GPS, GIS and remote sensing (notably InSAR).
The book covers methods used in historical seismology (including archival information and interpretation) and paleoseismology (for example, the dating of tsunami-deposited sands in tidal environments). It also covers developments in seismic engineering within historic, modern and contemporary architectural contexts.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the book introduces the social science of natural hazards. It pays special attention to the social processes that converge to put particular groups unevenly at risk to earthquakes. Among these processes are the tremendous growth in the global human population and the geographical shifts of populations to areas of concentrated seismicity (most notably, urban areas in tectonically active zones). The book also addresses the aseismic construction methods used by traditional cultures and poor and marginalized people who build their own homes, and the near impossibility of these people prioritizing insurance or structural mitigations to earthquakes when they face much more immediate and compelling problems of daily survival.
A distinctive claim of After the Earth Quakes is that natural disaster is an overlooked engine of cultural development, which the authors call a “new paradigm.” Actually, it isn’t. Geographical and anthropological writings of the late 19th century and early 20th century often attributed the growth and end of empires to geological factors, such as climate, hydrology and tectonic activity. They frequently tried to identify climatic or environmental settings that contributed to the formation of “superior” cultures (typically the author’s own). This framework is known as “environmental determinism” or “geographical determinism.”
The idea isn’t new. In fact, for decades the excesses of environmental determinism were an embarrassment to geography and anthropology. What is new is the willingness of geoscientists, archaeologists and historians to reconsider this kind of catastrophism in specified contexts, rather than as cosmic theories of everything. This reconsideration is moving forward today with the improved dating and geochronological techniques available now, which allow for a comparison between the timing of specific earthquakes and tsunamis, droughts and volcanic eruptions, and particular societal events recorded in historical archives or archaeological sites. Hough and Bilham provide a solid overview of these developments and methods in their book.
The book is extremely well-written and engaging (other than its annoying tendency to use “man” for “people” and “mankind” for “humankind”). It deserves wide readership and will prove an excellent reading for classes in geology, geography, history, anthropology and planning. Used in general education courses, a book like this could help recruit students to the geosciences.
Rodrigue is chair of the geography department at California State University in Long Beach. E-mail: email@example.com.