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On Evolution as a “Bad Word” — 5 Comments

  1. Years ago, I ran across an article by Stephen Barr entitled, “The Design of Evolution.” In it, he critiqued the op-ed Cardinal Schonborn wrote for the New York Times, speaking out against neo-Darwinism as it relates to biology. In the piece, Barr stated that the common misstep many make when it comes to evolution is misunderstanding the scientific use of the word “random” in contrast to the philosophical/theological use of the same term. Barr argues that “random” in the scientific realm means “uncorrelated” versus philosophy and theology that see random as something “unguided” and “unplanned.” What I got from it is that science and faith often have a common language we use to describe something, but when we plumb the meaning of those terms, we end up with very different understandings. Add to this, as a good friend of mine who is a molecular biologist once corrected me on, evolution is so commonly associated with the question of human origins that the distinction between a star’s evolution and the question of where the physical stuff came from that makes our bodies is lost amid a sea of emotionalism thinking the very word evolution is now analogous with atheism – no matter the context.

    How do I handle a situation like this? When I was a priest/teacher, I first would go through what evolution is and what evolution isn’t and how evolution differs depending on the context of its use. Seemed to work. Being I am not a scientist, I would love to get your take on Barr’s article to see if it is on the right track. As a priest, it made a lot of sense to me, but perhaps a scientist’s eyes may see other things I missed. Here is the link:

  2. I completely agree that the first step would be to clarify what evolution is and what evolution is not. Some people tend to think that evolution necessarily implies extiction of the old less evolved form in favor of the new one more evolved, and usually more complex form, and this is not always the case.
    Talking about societies or about ideas, it is sometimes said that a new one is more evolved than other, as an argument to convince that the less evolved society, idea or organization, is condemned to extinction. It is understood that this can be scary to some people, specially to the more conservative people. For this reason, they must know that this is not necessarily the case. Declare the existence of a more evolved and complex form does not necessarily mean the extinction of the less evolved and simpler form, or ensures its existence any longer.
    As a geologist, I have been familiar with the term “mineral evolution”, which is the process thought to be responsable for the diversification of more than 5000 mineral species, coming from no more than a dozen preplanetary species, over more than 4.5 billion years. This is, evolution can be related more to terms like diversification, enrichment and coexistence than to terms like extiction, or the “struggle for survival”, although these latter can be present sometimes. At least this has worked for me, trying to explain my kids how evolution relates to the diversified and beatiful world we are living in.

    • I’ve never heard the phrase “mineral evolution,” but certainly knew about the rock-cycle – I would hazard to guess they are related.

      I read an article in Astronomy magazine magazine that discussed how the minerals on Earth developed differently because of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Life created that oxygen – changing the atmosphere; that oxygen, in turn, changed the way some minerals formed.

      BTW: my wife is a science teacher, mineral and fossil collector.

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