You couldn't be here if stars hadn't exploded.
To the question, “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, “Why not?”
Atheist: Natural Morals, Real Meaning, Credible Truth

19 June, 2008

Thoughts on Science, Evolution and Morality

I think the problem is that science and religion don't mix well.  When science is being taught it depends on observation and measurement and evidence.  Mixing in a supernatural explanation for something goes against the grain and is inconsistent with trying to teach the overall strength of science which is the scientific method.  I agree, most professors do and should answer questions if students bring them up.   It is a subject worth debating and it has been since Darwin published his book.  And it still is.  And I fail to understand why except that the religious have prevented the full teaching of evolution in K thru 12 grades.  As a result, unless you get into college biology, you see very little evolution and don't get to understand its simplicity and logical results.  In this country anyway. 
Your comment below about random chance is a perfect example.  Evolution is not about random chance.  It is not about a swirl of molecules accidently and suddenly producing a living cell.  It is not an eyeball accidently through random chance appearing on the face of an animal.  Those would be enormous changes that, you are right, are unfeasible.  Evolution happens much slower with many times smaller steps, and only the changes that are beneficial to the species and allow improved survival of the species are propagated on into future generations of the species.  "Evolution By Natural Selection" is what the real name for this is.  The change and branching of species over the last billion years or so.  The random changes in DNA that take place in reproduction is only a small part of evolution.  It is like a bunch of recipes for bread being passed around.  Someone mindlessly makes a small change to the recipe.  2 1/3 tsp of salt instead of 2 1/2 tsp.  If the result is a little better, then that recipe may be in more demand.  If it is a little worse, that recipe may not be in as much demand and may not be copied as much.  But another small accidental change to it may make it really good and then it takes off.  That is the Natural Selection of evolution.  In biology, this is happening constantly, with every act of reproduction.  Usually very slowly over a very long time.  But sometimes very fast... A lizard was transplanted 35 years ago from one island where it thrived without competition to another island where it had to compete for its food.  The Turks and Greeks had a war and when biologist were finally able to return to the island, the descendants of the original lizards had changed, they had changed their digestive system slightly to better digest plant food instead of the insects they had thrived on on the other island.  There are some signs that some birds are changing due to global warming.  The point being that external conditions that a species finds itself in can cause faster "selection" than when conditions are constant and benign.  Sharks and alligators seem to have evolved slowly since they are on top of the food chains they inhabit.
The human mind is amazing.  But I think it will ultimately be understood.  And I think the way we think will be explained by evolution as well.  What I hear and read about the research that is going on explains a lot even today about why and how we think.  And it looks like it tracks right along with how we evolved from the primates on the plains of africa. 
To me, this all makes sense.  It isn't a leap of faith for me.  I only trust the scientific method.  I don't "believe" in it.  I don't have faith in it.  I trust it.  I see how it weeds out the bad ideas.  How it refines the good ideas into sharper and sharper detail.  How it answers questions and brings to light new questions to be answered.  How it doesn't fear new questions.  How it does NOT fear error and the possibility that a theory may be, in fact, wrong and have to be scrapped.  If there is anywhere where there is "tooth and claw survival of the fittest", it is in the scientific method.  When a scientist proposes a theory, the scrutiny, questioning, examination that theory receives is no less and probably much more than any Presidential candidate ever gets and usually without any pretense to politeness.  Of course, if the theory opposes the established norm, it is really going to have a rough time.  The intelligent design folks don't seem to understand that.  Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence in the scientific method... and the ID folks just haven't produced it.
Finally, (sorry, this got longer than I thought it would be) about the moral thing... Suvival of the fittest can mean many things.  I think what they are seeing and modeling is that a society that takes care of its own people internally is more likely to survive against its external enemies, whatever they are, other societies or nature.  It becomes an evolution of society and of our minds.  We feel good when we take care of our loved ones.  Most of us.  There are those who are outside the norm and don't but they don't tend to have as many children and so there aren't as many of them?  The point is that it feels good to be good.  I am sure you know better than I do what kind of people are in prison.  But really, they are a small portion of our species and I bet they did a lot of things out of anger and frustration more than taking pleasure out of it.  When disaster strikes a group, most feel concern and want to help them out.  So, to me, this leads naturally to the golden rule and I think it has existed in many forms in different philosophies and religions for longer than 3000 years.  But what would the moral measuring stick be without a god?  That is a silly question to me.  If an action causes needless suffering it is immoral.  If an action promotes happiness and prosperity at no cost of suffering to others, it is moral.  I am a bit simplistic about it and there are books on atheist morals... I have only read one so far.  But this makes sense to me, it fits what I see and do myself.  And it satisfies me. 

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