This is a wonderful time to be an evolutionary biologist. Thanks to advances in a variety of different fields, from paleontology to genetics, we can now understand better than ever the deep family relationships between all the living organisms on our planet. We can not only put together a detailed family tree of life, but we can also begin to understand some of the most important questions in biology.
For instance, take the question of how new features emerged in species. How did heads arise? Eyeballs? Limbs, fingers, toes, hearts we can now apply new techniques to understand how they arose. Thanks to advances in genetics, we can now use techniques like those used in DNA fingerprinting to learn how, for instance, the genes that work to develop a fin have been altered to produce a limb instead. In analyzing DNA, we can now read through the history of life.
Whats equally amazing is that the family tree of life we can construct using these techniques is very similar to the one proposed by Charles Darwin back in the 1860s. Back then, there was no field of genetics. Molecular biology didnt exist. Our current understanding of paleontology and the methods we use today to build the family tree of life didnt exist. Yet the framework Darwin proposed over a century ago, in the absence of all these developments, proved predictive.
So now we are able to answer some of the most interesting and historically important questions in our field, such as: How did we get here?
That is a question that the great religious thinkers have also tried to answer for centuries. But, despite what some believers and some scientists assert, the religious question How did we get here? and the scientific one are really two different creatures.
The how of science asks, How did something evolve? how did genes change to produce new structures over time? The how of religion is a much broader one. Its a how of meaning, of understanding our place not in the natural world, but the spiritual one. Its codes of ethics and a number of other things we do not typically associate with the experimental or comparative sciences.
The methodology of science and religion are also different. Religious understanding relies fundamentally on faith, while scientific knowledge is gained by having hypotheses that can be replicated or disproved.
The trouble comes when we try to masquerade religion as science or science as religion. Take creation science, for example. It seeks to be a scientific approach to understanding creation, but in reality, it is just a series of refutable arguments against evolution, with no testable framework. For it to be scientific, you need a hypothesis to falsify, and how do you falsify a miracle?
It is no better when people use science to defend a particular code of moral conduct, as the Social Darwinists did in the late 19th century. People who use the story of nature to develop moral codes for human conduct end up committing some amazing errors, because plants and animals do everything imaginable, and its not always nice out in the world.
But for now, at least, the greater problem comes from those who pass religion off as science. Rules in effect in some states, most notably Kansas, mean that children may not learn one of the greatest developments of our time, our growing knowledge of the physical and biological processes that led to the emergence of the incredible variety of species that inhabit our planet.
Some people, I will grant, take such measures in an effort to reconcile religion and science. I dont think they need to be reconciled. They are two different ways of understanding human experience, and the same individual can pursue them both. Observation and faith are not mutually exclusive. But religious experience is largely about faith, and thats something that just doesnt lend itself to a scientific explanation.
Neil Shubin, Ph.D. is a professor of biology.
Originally published on March 2, 2000