Monday, September 30, 2013

Why every Mormon (and everyone else) can believe in evolution.

"To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both."  
Francis Bacon (quoted in the epigraph of Darwin's Origin of Species)

So I've given a lot of thought to this, and I wasn't sure how to go about it.

Here's the thing: A lot of people base their belief in God in part or in whole on the mystery of the world and the beauty that they can't explain.  I've discussed this previously, and how I don't think it's the best foundation for faith, but I'm not sure whether it's always bad to believe in God based on somewhat shaky information.  Even more than that, I'm not sure that I'm fairly certain that it's not my responsibility or place to go around correcting people's faith, and I feel weird taking away people's arguments for God when I obviously am a pretty big fan myself.

That said, I think we as scientists and religious people establish a dichotomy between the two at our own peril.  A professor here at BYU (whose insistence in teaching evolution should be one evidence that's it's not a bunch of satanic lies) explained it like this (I'll paraphrase) : You probably don't have to believe in evolution to get into heaven, but I worry when people think they have to choose between God and science, because eventually the evidence for science gets to be too much, and people feel they have to give up on God.

As a scientist, or a historian, or a bible scholar, or a church scholar (most all of which I'm not), or really anyone who is informed on things, you have to learn how to deal with conflicting truths, and figure out how to make them work together.  The alternative is rejecting truth, and that just seems like a bad habit to get into.

So to conclude this somewhat prolix introduction, religious people should believe in evolution because religion is the pursuit of truth, and anyone who can reject such plain truth, though it comes through more empirical means than they may be used to, weakens, I believe, their ability to spot and comprehend truth.  Say what you will about scientists, but they love truth.  Just ask them about something complicated, and you'll see that they're wrestling with this desire to explain it clearly while not saying anything that's incorrect.

Just one more thing: You might wonder why in a post meant to prove evolution I'm getting so deeply into religion.  It might be because it's Sunday morning, but more than that I think the reason scientists have so much difficulty convincing religious people to accept Evolution is because they don't really understand such people, and they don't know how to come to their playing field.  Creationists have done this masterfully with Intelligent Design, in which they managed to take a religious dogma and package it as science, and argue before school boards and courts based on (pseudo) scientific principles rather than religious ones.  I think this is fundamentally dishonest, but it is effective.

 The point is, if scientists want to convince believers to accept evolution, they can't appeal to factual arguments, because that's not what appeals to most religious people, and that's obviously not the reason that religious people have problems with evolution.  Rather they could take a page from the ID camp and go to their level, showing why evolution agrees with scripture, how it adds to, rather than detracts from, the beauty of God and our purpose in life, and why it shouldn't conflict with true principles.

The thing is, the science is there.  I'm not going to spend much time explaining the science of evolution.  Wikipedia does that really well.  If you have any questions for me, ask me, for one reason or another I've dedicated a lot of time and study, both religious and scientific, to evolution, I haven't found too many questions I can't answer (I have found some, see below).

So without further ado, let's get moving.

To begin, I think that most conflicts with science and religion come from a faulty understanding of one or the other (or in this case, both).  We'll start with science and move to religion.

First, a couple definitions.
A theory is not a guess, and it's not a fact.  It's an explanation for facts that exist, and one that's been tested and supported by overwhelming evidence.  Facts are boring in science.  Anyone can pull up facts, it's the ability to explain and predict these facts that matter, and that's what a theory does.  The theory of gravity describes the way all bodies are drawn towards each other.  It explains the observations that things fall down, and that the earth is shooting through space but doesn't fall into the sun or fly off course, and it explains the way light bends.  It allows us to make predictions and shoot rockets that will land on the moon.  Theories are pretty useful, as it turns out.

The theory of evolution describes the way life forms develop and change over time.  It explains the observations of fossils, shared traits, similar traits, and a whole host of interesting observations that don't make a lot of sense otherwise (more on that later too).  It also allows us to make predictions and combat diseases and breed animals and plants, and lots of other useful things.

A species is a tricky concept to define.  For my purposes, I'll define it as any organisms that won't ever reproduce with a different group of organisms.  It's not a perfect definition, but it's nice from an evolutionary perspective, since any two groups that don't mix will almost certainly diverge eventually.  The point is that the idea of micro vs. macro evolution isn't discussed much by scientists these days, they're the same thing, it's a question of time: a species will evolve gradually.  If this species is separated into two groups, they'll gradually turn into two species, because they'll evolve in different directions.  This has been observed in so many ways, which I'm not going to discuss here.

Next, here are some things people rarely understand about evolution (which is partly the fault of Marvel Comics and mostly the fault of a depressing lack of good science teaching over the years):

First of all, evolution has nothing to do with the individual.  Individuals don't evolve.  Populations evolve, and they evolve based on the pressures placed on the variation that already exists in the world.  If we one day decided that we were going to kill off everyone who didn't have red hair, and future generations all had red hair (which they would, mostly), we would say our population evolved, even though all those red haired people and genes existed before hand (Disclaimer: I don't encourage mass murder based on hair color)

Second, evolution is not directional.  Evolution is not some driving force pushing all species towards being smart, bipedal, social, humans.  Species don't want to evolve to become better or more complicated or smarter.  Evolution pushes populations wherever they'll survive and reproduce best, drawing from the random variations that already exist.  From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is all that matters, or more accurately passing along your genes to future generations.

Third, evolution is slow.  Very slow.  While it might move a little quicker than we used to think, we're still talking about many many many generations.  We're not talking about a single fish mutating lungs and then walking out onto the land (obviously it would have to be at least two fish to get anywhere).  But whenever there is a big open resource to be explored (in this case, land), there's a lot of pressure for something to fill it (because of all the death, competition, and starvation happening everywhere else), and so anything that can survive a little better there will tend to fill it in, and then its genes get passed on and so on, until we move from awkward, mud fish, to amphibians, to reptiles, to mammals to monkeys to man (see below). Sometimes people complain that evolution can't be true because we've never seen a new species formed (see definitions later).  This is wrong on a couple levels, but it's similar to saying erosion doesn't happen because we've never seen a grand canyon formed.  While it's arguably true, the time scale involved is just too big to expect to see the grand canyon form in your lifetime.  But you can see lots of other things erode and look at mountains and canyons and recognize the speed at which they are being eroded, and gather lots of other evidence that suggest erosion is happening, even if we can't see the end or the beginning.  Plus the grand canyon is right there.  It had to form somehow, right?

Fifth, man didn't descend from monkeys ("so why are there still monkeys?").  We descended from common ancestors (stick with me here), and monkeys survived better from climbing trees and eating fruit, and we survived better by walking around and becoming very smart and making languages and culture and music and everything.  Saying we evolved from monkeys is like saying we descended from our cousins.  We didn't, we both descended from our grandparents, who were similar to both of us, but not the same as either of us, and now we're quite different from our cousins (this blog post being evidence of that).  By the way, we split off from other apes a long long long time ago.  Like unfathomably long.

Now some misconceptions about religion.  As usual, I'll be talking about what Mormons believe, because the point of this is to convince all the Mormons in the world that evolution is more in line with our beliefs than the Creationist camp.

First, and most importantly, the story of the creation in Genesis is not meant as a completely literal account, it's symbolic.  I'm not saying that Adam and Eve didn't exist, but I am saying that Eve was not created from Adam's rib and Adam was not created from clay, and the world was not created in seven days, or even seven thousand years. And that's not what our church says either.  A lot of members, because of the importance of Adam and Eve in our religion naturally assume that the whole story is just a simple explanation of where everything came from.  But that's pretty boring, isn't it?  Science can do that.  What if it actually taught us something about who we are, and our relationships to one another, and love, and faith, and obedience.  That's what the creation story does when it becomes symbolic.  Instead of a simplistic, confusing, and unsupported account of where the world came from, it's an allegory for our lives.  And that's fun.

(I don't feel like digging up every quote that supports this, but hopefully that's not that controversial of an idea.  The simple fact that the various accounts we have (and we have plenty in our church) emphasize different points and the order varies and the details change slightly should make it clear that it isn't meant to be literal.)

Second, evolution doesn't contradict our doctrine.  We don't know where Adam and Eve came from, and those saying that they do are speaking from their personal feelings and beliefs, and not from a position of authority.  Personally, I don't see why having evolved from animals is somehow more demeaning than being formed from dust (which, again, seems to be symbolic, doesn't it?). Animals are good.

Third (or 2.5th) - Closely related, just because Bruce R. McConkie said something doesn't make it true.  This has to be correct, because several church leaders have disagreed over the years about things (evolution is a fine example.) You shouldn't just pick your favorite apostle and say everything he says comes from God, (sorry B.H. Roberts...) you should probably decide for yourself.  Blindly accepting the words of others is often risky, always a little lazy, and makes us weaker (don't believe me?  Brigham Young himself said so, so it must be true!).  Once Elder Bednar came to our mission and mentioned that the term "free agency" was false.  He admitted that past apostles and prophets often used it, and concluded, "We know more now." I have read many many things by very intelligent and spiritual people against evolution.  But I hope that we know more now.

I think if you accept those three assumptions, then there's really nothing we believe that contradicts definitively with evolution.  There are a lot of questions I still don't know, like what do we do with Adam and Eve, because we do believe they exist, but the evidence for human evolution is pretty strong.   We can reject one or the other (but doing so seems foolish in either case), or we can accept that we don't quite know everything, and try to think of some way that they can coincide, and learn to juggle conflicting ideas. If you want to know my personal feelings on how these overlap, ask me, this post is lengthy enough as it is.

To conclude, given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, and the lack of a doctrinal mandate to reject it, why not believe in it?  If you want you can respond and tell me why not; please do.  But I also want to explain what evolution adds to religion, and why accepting it makes believing in God more fulfilling.

For thousands of years, christianity held the dogma of an unknowable God, one that's mysterious, and different, and incomprehensible.  In many ways, the LDS church was a move against this ideology, it came saying God existed, and was not so extremely different from us after all, and that we could understand him and communicate with him through our own efforts and study.

There's so much evidence for evolution, if you reject it the world returns to a dark and confusing place, and God becomes almost deceptive.  Why is it that all the evidence points towards evolution if it's not true.  Is God just trying to trick us?  Did he put fossils there just to mess with us? When you accept evolution, God becomes rational and discoverable, and the ability to think and reason that he's given us becomes a gift that we should use to understand him better, not a curse that we're supposed to ignore.

If you agree with the creationists, the world is profoundly inconsistent, and the observations we see today are not representative of the way the world worked in the past.  Evolution insists that the processes in the world are consistent, which, for me, makes a lot of sense for a God that's the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Accepting evolution, and science in general, allows you to feel that all truth, regardless of it's source, is one.  Additionally, if you believe God created the world, isn't it amazing to know how he created it? Religion doesn't explain that, because that's not what it's there for. What does evolution teach us about God?  The way he thinks, and operates: not through magic wands and sudden changes, but by slow, progressive changes that can be predicted and understood.  Doesn't that help us understand how we are expected to change and grow?

I understand evolution well enough to say confidently that it doesn't prove or disprove God.  Evolution doesn't need a divine architect to function, nor does the fact that it happened somehow show that there was no divine origin.  In the same way, the fact that we can explain where mountains come from without invoking magic doesn't make them less magnificent or awe inspiring.  Because I believe in God, evolution adds profound meaning to my faith in the same way that mountains, even though I can talk about the processes involved in formation, still fill me with wonder and happiness.  Religion teaches me that God exists and loves me, and science allows me to see the way he thinks.

So that's my 2 cents.  After thinking about this quite a lot (obviously), I realized I don't need to convince everyone. If you still don't accept evolution, that's really your prerogative (although I'm really not cool with trying to change biology curricula.  That's a post for another day, perhaps).  Just don't feel like you have to choose between God and Science.  They're both fantastic.

If you do still doubt evolution, you should tell me why.  I probably won't be offended (although my pride as a persuasive blog writer might be a little wounded) and I'd love to respond to any questions you have about evolution (or God).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How do you keep a turkey in suspense?

Ok, I know I promised a long post about evolution, but I just haven't had time, but it's coming.  Much like evolution, these things take time.

In the mean time, I've been thinking my blog has gotten a little heavy of late.  Religion and revelation and science and love and heartbreak.  Where has the light-hearted, hammock-loving Ammon of days of old gone to?  Well, life is as whimsical and exciting as ever, and to prove it, here's a fun list:

Ammon's 10 easy steps for being more attractive (especially for girls)

I recently realized there are a few things any girl can do to instantly become more attractive (to me, in particular), and I thought I'd share this with my female compatriots. I suppose a lot of these apply to men too.  So if you're wondering how to instantly be more attractive, put down the extra makeup and just do the following:

1.  Ride a bike
Bikes are extremely flattering.  Aside from the fact that they identify you as cool, bikes give you good posture, provide dramatic wind in which your hair can flutter, and there's something about effortlessly gliding through space that is beautiful.

2. Cook
Sorry feminists*, cooking is still very attractive. Aprons are too.  And it's not merely some antiquated notion of domesticity (I don't have any particular fetish for sewing); it's just that food is so sensual and wonderful to begin with, the ability to make it is similarly sensual and wonderful.  The good news is that I think that a love and ability for cooking is one of the highest forms of masculinity.  So you won't be alone.

3. Rock Climb
Now you might just think that I'm just naming my hobbies, but rock climbing is very flattering (especially if you're good at it). It's like dancing up a wall, with stretchy pants.

4. Smile
Everyone is beautiful when they smile, laughing counts double.

5. Really care about people
It's the new hotness.  (Bonus points for caring about me.  That's super attractive.)

6. Sing
Singing beautifully has always been irresistible. Just ask Odysseus

7. Dance
This is an interesting one, because it's not really something I enjoy personally, but it definitely makes everyone more attractive (depending on the style. Sorry, Miley)

8. Be Spontaneous
You're saying you want to go cliff jumping at midnight?  Marry me.

9. Be outside at night.
Speaking of midnight, everyone looks more beautiful in the moonlight.  This is even more true when it's snowing. In fact, I think everything is more true when it's snowing.

10. Express well-formed, critical arguments that go beyond cultural norms and hackneyed statements.
Turns out the opposite is boring, and there's nothing attractive about being boring.

So there you have it, just apply these ten easy steps, and you too will be instantly more attractive to everyone around you-- especially everyone around you who happens to be me.

Next time: Why every Mormon (and everyone else) should believe in Evolution

*I don't actually see any feminists that are opposed to cooking.  For thoughts on feminism, see #10.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In which we see why Ammon is too biased to be a pollster.

I really shouldn't be up at 2 am posting blogs, but I'm just about done with a paper I'm writing and I found out that only 22% of Mormons believe in evolution, fewer even than evangelical christians.  I'll probably talk about my feelings another day, but I'm curious:

*Someone asked what I meant by evolution. I just copied my facebook response,

What I really mean is what most scientists mean when referring to evolution: the idea that primarily through random mutation and natural selection (into which I'm grouping sexual selection and some other things) all the diversity of life seen on earth gradually came to be from common ancestry. Hopefully that doesn't change too many answers.

 For more on what I mean by evolution, check out the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(if you've already voted, you can see the results here.  But vote first!) 

Obviously my readership isn't even sort of representative of the church body, since lots of my friends who aren't Mormon's read my blog, and I suspect those people I know who are LDS are not exactly a representative sample.  I'm mostly just curious about the people I know, so lets see your 2 cents, and then I'll tell you later how I feel, as a budding mormon biologist, about evolution.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On bio-ethics, sacrifice, and facebook ettiquite.

In bioethics, we were discussing thought experiments and doing some, which is always fun.  One of them was what we would be willing to do, if asked by religious authority (ranging from second councilor to God himself).

First of all, it worries me how many people would be willing to do apparently bad things because their second councilor, or bishop, or an apostle asked them to, because that's just not doctrinally sound reasoning.

It gets a little trickier when you're asked what you would do for God.

For example, if God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?  Most Mormons (and 100% of Abrahams) say yes. At least those in my bioethics class.  Hopefully this won't ever come up. But then our professor asked what if God asked you to kill your son but then told you that if you did, you would go to Hell for it.

It's still what he wants you to do, but you'll be punished for it.

That was a more interesting question, for a lot of reasons. Most of us said no.  (As it turned out I left my iClicker at home, so I didn't have to commit).  Why do we say no?  Doesn't that suggest we're really just motivated by getting our reward rather than doing what God asks us to?  Or does it suggest there's a higher good that supersedes what God asks.  Obviously, setting up impossible hypothetical scenarios sometimes leads to issues. (I believe God is good, and so I hope that if he did ask me to do something so directly, it would be good, and so forcing it to be bad makes it sort of difficult, which is the point, of course. I've been reading through the Old Testament recently.  A lot of stuff seems pretty bad on the surface, so it's hard to say.)

This is sort of all over the place, we'll see where this goes.

This brings me to tonight.  So I'm sitting here, reading through facebook, and I see this:

Let me tell you why this is everything that hurts me.

First of all, I think reposts on Facebook are the worst, always.  As a rule, I don't post anything that asks me to repost it, even if it's something I agree with.
Second, I think this is just a superstitious chain letter masked as something faith building in order to be more popular.
Third, I think this sort of "test" is superstitious and not conducive to real faith.
Finally, I think the design is a little extremely tacky.   It's not even in comic-sans!

So I was reading this, thinking about how I didn't like it, and then I thought, "But what if it were true, maybe I should post it.  Why not?"
And I said to myself, "because it's tacky and everything I hate."
But then I thought, "What if God wanted you to post it?"
And then I said, "Well yeah, of course, but I don't think that God wants me to post something that is tacky and I hate."

And then I went back on forth on it for a while, and it became this sort of deeper issue of if I'm willing to sacrifice my pride and whether I'm capable of doing so, and how much I care what people think of me, and if I'm actually willing to do things I don't want to for God, and whether or not we should expect to have to sacrifice things, even things that are central to who we are.

Eventually rational thinking took over:
I thought to myself, if I do, and nothing happens, then I can say, "See!  It's tacky and unsound and I don't have to do stupid things on facebook as some sort of test of faith."

And if something were to happen, then my life is better!  and that's cool. (This is sort of a reductio ad absurdum of Pascal's Wager.)  Regardless, I can say, "Look, I'm a Perkes, and Perkes can do hard things."  And then I can make a blog post about it and ask people what their thoughts were.

And that's how I slipped from my impression of myself.  

So there you have it. I still don't think there's any real value in ill-conceived, barely religious posts on facebook, nor do I think I had to post that for some divine reason, but I'm not sure whether or not there is real value in doing things we don't want to, if only to teach ourselves how.  And I'm wondering in what ways sacrifice is an important element of religion, and whether it needs to be hard to be powerful.

Any thoughts, mysterious* readers?

*I have almost no idea who reads my blog, I see that lots of people do, including many from other countries. Let me know who you are, mysterious russian audience.  дайте мне знать, кто вы, загадочной русской аудитории.

So I wrote this whole post between 11am and 1am, amidst some other things I was doing, as such it is one of my less careful posts and I may have been a little out of it for a lot of the time I spent writing, but I don't want to edit it too much because I think it captures what I was thinking pretty well, maybe better than most.  Here is some good context that I think helps:

If you don't know me fairly well you probably won't understand why this was such a big deal for me. It really does go against almost every instinct I have.  The thing is, I care far too much about what people think of me, especially on the internet (you probably do too).  Which is, I think, why posting this appealed to me in a strangle, slightly masochistic, or more accurately ascetic sense.  We I care so much about what people think that the thought of doing something which disrupts the normal flow (on facebook or in public) is nearly painful.  Posting that was much harder for me than giving away money, or time, or vice; I do that sort of thing all the time, it's practically second nature.  Heights and depths and animals and pain and death have never really scared me much, but social judgement always has.

I'm not saying everyone should go post annoying things on facebook because it will make you better (most people already post annoying things on facebook, and the rest of you are what give me hope for the world), but I think it might be worth considering what it is we're afraid of, what it is that we can't give up, or can't do, and give it a try.

PS - On review of my somewhat hasty post, I realized it could be fairly offensive.  If anyone actually posted that (or something like it) with good intentions and is now incredibly offended, I'm really quite sorry; that certainly wasn't my intent.  I'm sort of particular and judgmental sometimes usually, and I tend to articulate small things so that they sound like a big deal, you probably shouldn't take it too seriously.  You just keep doing what you're doing. I'll be over here figuring out my life.