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Essay

Reading from Two Books:
Nature, Scripture, and Evolution

 

In the Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians described nature as a book, a coherent work in which we could glimpse the mind of God. Like scripture, the book of nature bore the divine imprint—the Imago Dei—and the two books were seen as complementary. In the centuries after the Enlightenment, there developed a sense that scientific and spiritual ways of knowing were somehow at odds, that the apparent contradictions between the two books could not be resolved, and that intellectual integrity required a person to choose. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859, brought the matter to a head, and remains a battleground issue for some. Estrangement between science and faith has impoverished both the church and the sciences. Today, while signs of reconciliation are plentiful, animosity often flares back to life, sparked by polemical voices on both sides. Perhaps artists have a special role in bridging the imagined divide. Like scientists, artists are at home in the realm of metaphor and image; and like scientists, they also tend to love and feel curious about the nitty-gritty, concrete stuff of the physical world. We invited a group of writers from a variety of fields, including poetry, nonfiction, dance, music, and health and environmental science, to address the connections among art, faith, and evolution—particularly the question of how artists can help shape humanity’s sense of its place in God’s changing universe. Their responses are collected here.

 

Camellia Freeman
Notes toward Knowing

 

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I thought as a child. Life began with a blue spirit hovering over the waters. God spoke the day and the night, and it was so. Then came single, pulsing cells, a need for oxygen and the beauty of sex. Fish grew legs; dinosaurs ruled the earth. Mutations were exponential. Primates diverged into apes, apes began walking on two legs, and Adam and Eve knew they were naked in the garden. Which led to you and me, today, as the culmination of all living things. The finale of creation.

These were things I knew.

§

Aristotle knew that what was living sometimes came from what was not alive, such as the “putrefying earth,” “vegetable matter,” or the “inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.” He meant shellfish spontaneously generating from sand, aphids from dew, maggots from rotting flesh. It seemed that life could erupt from nothing. Thinkers who came before him and scientists who came after believed this for thousands of years—the random, unexplainable phenomenon of spontaneous generation—until the mid-nineteenth century when Louis Pasteur confirmed that it was in fact microorganisms, only visible through a microscope, that brought to life what had appeared incapable of life.

Most scientific discoveries follow this pattern: before proof, there is belief. In the early nineteenth century, a few decades before Darwin’s discoveries, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier de Lamarck published his belief that filial generations inherited the acquired characteristics of their parents. The famous example is the giraffe stretching her neck to reach the tender leaves in tall trees. With each stretch, her offspring’s necks elongated, too—a theory easily discredited shortly thereafter.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, after reading On the Origin of Species, Ernst Haeckel came to believe that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which meant that you could map the evolutionary path (phylogeny) of a species through observation of its fetal development (ontogeny). In other words, each stage of development marked the hypothetical ancestor that led to the species under observation. For example, a human embryo, particularly during weeks five and six, certainly looks like one of its ancestors—a fish with gills and a pronounced tail—but now we know this resemblance is merely coincidental. Now we know better.

In 1917, part of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity included a model of a static universe—one that did not shrink nor grow—only able to resist the collapse of gravity with what he called the cosmological constant. He believed in this static universe—his “greatest blunder,” he would later call it—until 1931 when he gave in to his contemporaries and came to know a new one, a universe that was expanding. The reason the universe had not collapsed on itself was because it had never stopped expanding since its moment of creation, its big bang, when it had been nothing but a single, isolated point.

There appears to be no difference between what we know and what we believe. Both can be revised, some might say evolved or perhaps corrected. And both can be taken to the grave before revision takes place.

§

I remember my general chemistry professor reviewing the development of atomic structure. In a brief history lesson, he marched through the early nineteenth century theories: How each model for the structure of the atom built upon the last. How the previous scientist was only correct in part. He referenced Boyle and Dalton, then went from Thomson to Rutherford to Bohr to our current quantum mechanics with the diagrams of lively electrons orbiting a compact nucleus. And then there are quarks, he explained. But, he insisted, we hardly know a thing about them.

In other words, what we know, we only ever know in fragments and pieces. Knowledge is not static. Like the universe, it, too, is ever expanding, stretching wildly beyond us, and nothing is for certain.

§

Recall Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: “The more precisely the position [of a subatomic particle, such as an electron] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa,” he wrote. This principle, a quality inherent in quantum mechanics, feels counterintuitive in that you can only know one thing (the position) at the expense of the other (the momentum). Yes, it agrees, we only know in part, but more significantly, it maps limits, suggests that not all things are equally knowable at once. Here, the unknown is insurmountable.

Yet it draws us.

Charles Darwin pursued the unknown and emerged with a theory of evolution that remains one of the most widely accepted scientific theories today. Like a prophet, he traveled to distant lands, giving his whole life to a single, complex idea. A single message. He spent nearly five years on the Beagle, circumnavigating the world, filling up pages with his observations. The incongruities. After returning to England, he spent well over twenty years studying, experimenting, and writing his book. He didn’t set out to write On the Origin of Species when he left England at twenty-three. He’d simply wanted to know the natural world that he had only ever imagined.

§

While Darwin’s theories succeeded beyond expectation, he made it a point to address their limits. At the close of his introduction to On the Origin of Species, he wrote: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive means of modification.” In his final edition of the text, he protests that people have ignored this acknowledgement. They too often assumed that he believed natural selection, his theory, was the only explanation, and Darwin needed them to know that he did not. He knew enough not to deny the unknown.

§

“The great temptation for the believer,” Richard Rodriguez writes, “is the arrogance of claiming to know God’s will.” I read this as a kind of warning. Beware my own estimation of myself, of what I think I know, and especially that which I think I know too well.

§

There is a kind of knowledge—in religion or science or what we take to be assurances about the self—that creates miniature gods out of each of us. You there, in all your complexity, are the apex of our present evolutionary trajectory. You rule the animals and the gardens, and you hold court beautifully in intellectual conversations at parties. You own things. You possess. Your knowledge, the importance of your self, is ever expanding, as wide as the universe.

But there is another knowledge that shrinks us. That reminds us we are one among billions. We are inheritors of a series of slow, genetic mutations, of animals living and dying, the dead making room for the living, the dead making room for you, you dying and making room for others, the earth yielding itself and churning up new ground. Evolution reminds us that the continuation of a species is not about the individual but about the population as a whole. We are, in fact, more connected to the history of the world and to each other than we can imagine.

§

“Cease striving and know that I am God,” wrote the psalmist. Not a warning, but a comfort. And an invitation.

§

We have recorded micro evolution, extinctions, population change, climate change, fossils, carbon dating, and lots of bones. We have charts and graphs and some of the most brilliant thinkers in the world working on cancer and bombs and solar energy and prosthetic limbs and robots and giant electronic brains.

And yet—with science, like God, the unknown exceeds the known.

As a believer, I often settle into my faith as though I can see all four corners of the room, as though I suspect I pretty well understand the basics, and isn’t that enough? I forget: We only know in part. We prophesy in part.

Yet we are told that we are fully known.

I look to the past and try to take inventory of my knowledge and belief. But the power of such theorizing only leads me up to the present, never into the future. For the future is being created. The future, it seems to me, still comes from nothing. Another day? We didn’t build the Day. Yet we say “tomorrow,” and there it is.

 

Camellia Freeman’s work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in 2014 and will be next year’s Milton Fellow at Image.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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