Summer 2013

Science and Environment

Blinded by the Dark

Dan Cloer

The world is full of niches, or ecological cubby holes, in which each type of organism makes its home. Millions of species exist because there are millions of ways to live. Each set of circumstances leads to its own set of adaptations. Adaptability is a fundamental property of living things.

Because we have the capacity to modify the world to fit our needs and have a great range of choice and creativity to do so, it’s easy to overlook the fact that for most other organisms there is a tight match between habit and habitat—niche and adaptation. When we observe birds in a tree, for example, we see just that: a tree and some birds.

But the deeper reality for the birds is much more sophisticated. To reduce competition between their populations, different bird species that occupy the same tree subdivide it in such a way that each has its own space and access to its particular food source or nesting site.

This behavior, known as resource partitioning, is found everywhere, even within our own bodies. Inside our intestines lives a wondrous ecosystem brimming with a wide variety of bacteria. Though these are in constant interaction, they segregate into different areas of our digestive tract from entrance to exit.

For some animals, their adaptations are so radical that they seem to be different creatures altogether. The Mexican tetra (a small freshwater fish), for instance, exists in very different versions depending on the environment it inhabits; those living in sunlit waters have eyes, but those living in dark caves do not; they have empty eye sockets. Even with this difference, both are considered the same species, Astyanax mexicanus. The novel blind version is often available in pet shops and aquarium stores.

Neither Darwinism nor any other theory in science or philosophy can give more than a secondary explanation of phenomena. Some deeper power or cause always has to be postulated.”

Alfred R. Wallace, “The World of Life: As Visualized and Interrpreted by Darwinism” (1909)

Every organism has its unique story to tell, but the principle is clear and universal: each species has its own individualized requirements and fits exactly into the world where those needs are met.

Comfort Zone

We, too, become tuned to our environment. An important difference is that we not only exist within a given niche, we create the niche itself.

For humans the process of competition and adaptation reaches beyond the physiological match of biology and environment. Not only do we create our own shelter, clothing and food supplies to meet the physical requirements of our bodies for both calories and a livable temperature range, we also build our cultural environment. Our comfort zone includes our national, tribal, familial and individual stories. From these we invent the traditions that support, sustain and unify our identities. Traditions may include the holidays we keep, family customs, as well as the design of the most fundamental acculturating tool: education. Together, these and other factors in our personal experiential history create and validate our sense of individual purpose and place in the world.

It is through our cultural sense of self that we meet our psychological need for consistency of worldview. This consistency brings us a sense of security and a shared understanding of who we are in space and time. But unlike the vital signs that denote the safe biologic range of our species, our cultural norms are open to debate and battle—a kind of survival of the fittest social norms. We see this continuing friction between opposing worldviews across the spectrum of human activity. From how to define marriage to the geopolitics of human rights, words and bullets fly as various subgroups vie for acceptance, just treatment or equality.

Thus for our species there is another source of competition: the struggle for dominance among differing ideas and perspectives.

How we come to believe the things we do, and how this battle of ideas plays out, sets certain limits on what we will accept and believe and what we will reject and ignore—what we will call “right” and what we will call “wrong.” Our cultural and other mental norms are our species’ special kind of adaptation. But not unlike the eyeless tetra, seeing and accepting one perspective often means we become blind to the other.

Even if we reach a so-called final theory, we’ll be left with the question: Why is that true? And part of the human tragedy is that we’ll never have a satisfying understanding of why the world is the way it is.”

Steven Weinberg, Interview, in Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science by Steve Paulson (2010)

Jumping to Exclusion

Just as physical niches in the world of biology are not interchangeable, so ideas can be mutually exclusive. In ecology this is called competitive exclusion: only one species can occupy a particular niche at a particular time. Our mental and social conflicts arise when we bump up against opposing views; we are not built to deal well with two opinions. Being double-minded leads to confusion of identity (James 1:8, English Standard Version). Thus, as we learn and mature, most of us come down on one side or the other of an issue. We simply cannot have everything both ways.

A key area where this one-or-the-other debate continues is the question of the basic nature of the world: Are we the product of a purely materialist evolutionary process? Or are we God’s creation, made in His image? For the last century the issue of identity has come down to the material-spiritual divide.

In the Age of Enlightenment and up until the post-Darwin era, the door to the world that science opened was not yet unhinged from the idea of a created universe. Science was still natural philosophy, an enterprise aimed at revealing the Creator’s work. Growing numbers today would call that a superstitious and self-limited perspective. Yet good, foundational science was being accomplished. Isaac Newton’s work in calculus and physics is not considered tainted because he believed his mission was to discover God’s laws. In his concluding remarks in the Principia, he wrote what he considered the obvious: “This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

Today we are embedded in a different type of thinking: the view that science has shown the way away from a spiritual foundation to the universe. “For Newton,” however, writes historian Stephen D. Snobelen, “there was no impermeable barrier between religion and what we now call science.” 

That barrier certainly does exist today, and as data increasingly trumps belief, it forms an opaque cataract that blinds one side to the other. Having experienced the glow of material understanding, a great many have jumped to the conclusion that material is all there is. Because science answers questions about the physical world, it is both popular and intellectually satisfying to conclude that the time for the ultimate exclusion of God is at hand. After all, what good is belief in a Creator if we can figure it all out for ourselves?

I am an atheist humanist; but this does not oblige me to deny what is staring me in the face—namely, that we are different from other animals and that we are not just pieces of matter.”

Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

This is a question not unlike that asked of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’? . . . For God knows that in the day you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened. . . .”

The question of why the universe seems open to our investigation and comprehension (as Einstein remarked) remains a curiosity, however, and is still open for discussion in some arenas. Sociologist Steve Fuller argues that it is the very idea of humans being made in the image of God that allows us access to the creation: “While I cannot honestly say that I believe in a divine personal creator, no plausible alternative has yet been offered to justify the pursuit of science as a search for the ultimate systematic understanding of reality.”

But access without insight is leading us down a dark path.

Into the Dark

The way forward now held out by a scientific understanding of the world is called the double dark theory—a cosmological theory based on the existence of both dark matter and dark energy. We need to “push our imagination,” said cultural philosopher Nancy Abrams in a 2009 Terry Lecture at Yale University, and “consciously step outside our individual viewpoints” with the aim of “bringing our mental world into harmony with a double dark universe” and “retraining our intuitions.”

Here in the double dark theory, she argues, is where modern man will find his true origin story: “The new cosmology is the only possible foundation for a globally unifying story of ourselves.” She and her colleague, physicist Joel Primack, insist that it is the self-correcting, public and universal nature of science that brings it credibility. On the other hand, they believe that if we retain our religious stories and traditions we will never evolve unity, as those stories come from private and parochial sources.

This is a false hope, however. Embracing the materialism of science and universalizing it as the source of ultimate answers is a common mistake. As Einstein also noted, there is a synergy that exists when both material and spiritual resources are combined: “Science without religion is lame,” he wrote, while “religion without science is blind.”

It is not only the religiously minded who worry that we may have given science too much authority. “The distinctive features of human beings,” writes medical doctor and atheist Raymond Tallis, “—self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do—are being discarded as illusions by many, even by philosophers, who should think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than succumbing to it.”

Human nature is prone to lack trust in authority. We do seem to exhibit an innate skepticism. According to Genesis, this led to humanity’s separation from its Creator and, by definition, the ultimate authority who could guide us forward (Genesis 3:1–8). We continue to reject that authority; even with our eyes open, we are blind. As soon as we took our own rationality to be sufficient, we recognized our literal and figurative nakedness. “Who told you that you were naked?” was the question. The answer: We saw for ourselves, recognized our insecurity, and have sought to establish security for ourselves ever since.

Science is a way of knowing, but not of knowing everything we need. We need our spiritual eyes restored. We may live in a spiritually dark world, but God is light (1 John 1:5). That light remains accessible, but we have to venture out of the cave of materialism to discover it. Unfortunately, we have built a pretty well furnished and comfortable cave.

Making Sense

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Ukrainian-born geneticist, suggested 40 years ago that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

The idea of adaptation and a deep interrelatedness between all life on earth does bring sensibility to biology. However, this relatedness does not somehow in itself deny the active presence of a Creator. In some ways it supports the opposite: a single mind at the core of life. If life did indeed somehow spring up spontaneously and without outside help, as a wholly materialist view of evolution insists, it seems a more logical conclusion that a much wider range of biologic systems would now exist. One would expect many different Darwinian trees of ancestry, each with its own unique biochemistry, cellular pathways and anatomical configurations. But there is only one—one that is very adaptable, yes, but still only one.

Biology does make sense through an understanding of gradual change and adaptation. But human experience—creativity, history, social frameworks, science—only makes sense in the light of humans being created in the image of God.

We have an innate draw toward things beyond ourselves; our minds are built to seek or create purpose. And we were created with a purpose: to grow in the image of God, to become like God by learning His way of life, His way of love and giving. It’s a way characterized by light, not darkness (1 John 1:5; 2:11).

The blind I will lead on a road they don’t know, on roads they don’t know I will lead them; I will turn darkness to light before them, and straighten their twisted paths. These are things I will do without fail.”

Isaiah 42:16, Complete Jewish Bible

This is not mere religious thinking or tradition; it is the type of scriptural inspiration that early practitioners of the scientific method trusted to light a right path forward. Jesus Christ revealed Himself as that light: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46). Without allowing this light, this source of spiritual truth, to lead us forward and provide our security, we are the blind leading the blind. When we ignore the Bible as authoritative in revealing the purpose and ultimate reward for the human experience (Hebrews 11:1, 6), we remain in the dark—naked and searching but never finding.

In a way, we are a bit like the Mexican tetra. Further genetic and embryological study has revealed that even the blind version grows eyes during its development. It appears that there is a cycle of embryonic eye generation followed by degeneration. All of the genes and physiological mechanisms of sight still exist, but they are not completed; at some point in that dark environment, the growth process is shut down and eyelessness results.

Just as the capacity to form eyes remains for the tetra, so we have the capacity and even the destiny to see spiritual truth. A different stimulus could produce a different outcome. For us, spiritual vision can be established and our spiritual niche enlarged and enlightened. We may have become adapted to the cave, but it is not necessary that we stay there forever. There is a hand to lead us out.