People are, on average, becoming progressively more educated. As evolution is founded on logic and scientific evidence, in time, despite some current religious revival, evolution will eventually replace all other belief systems. The myths and dogmas that underlie the current religions will be rejected. This may take hundreds or even thousands of years, but this time is short in regard to the remaining life span of the Earth. People will look to evolution to explain how we came into existence, how our minds function, and what happens to us after death.
Evolution has had only moderated success as a belief system, and no doubt there are more people who have never heard of it or, if exposed, chosen to disbelieve it, than there are believers. One of the main reasons for disbelief is the religious, philosophical and etymological separation of humans from other animals. As human knowledge increased in volume we began to think of ourselves as not really animals, but as some sort of higher organism that had left the animal world altogether. Religious separation includes the Semitic religions that emphasise, particularly in Genesis, that animals were made by God for the benefit of mankind. There is a clear separation of animals and humans with often a ‘heaven’ for human animals and nothing for non-human animals. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, while recognising three souls, vegetative, animal and rational, limited the rational soul to humans and not to other mammals with similar brain structures. Later philosophers, such as Descartes, considered non-human animals mere automatons, just reacting to circumstances, without feelings of their own. And philosophy courses today dwell on the human mind/body problem, but rarely extend this discussion to the minds of other non-human animals. The idea that humans can behave both naturally or unnaturally whereas non-human animals can only behave naturally as they ‘know no better’, is also a separation of humans from animals. Etymological separation includes using ‘he’ and ‘she’ for humans and some favoured pets and ‘it’ for all other animals. A television documentary is likely to refer to ‘animals’ and ‘humans’ rather than ‘non-human animals’ and ‘human animals’. A road sign might say that ‘animals are not allowed on the freeway’, or a sign at the zoo ‘do not feed the animals’. Here ‘animals’ does not include humans and so the growing child unconsciously learns to separate the label of ‘animal’ from the human race.
The inheritance of humans-are-distinct-from-animals ideas, ideas formed largely before biology was understood, have not helped the acceptance and spread of the evolution belief system whose message is the exact opposite: we are apes and share a common ancestry with other ape species that are living today. In my experience many people, particularly those with little interest and knowledge of biology, find the idea that they are evolved animals distasteful and can even appear insulted when the idea is suggested. They do not want to believe that they are ‘just’ animals, rather, they prefer to believe that our inherited cultural belief systems (religions, aeroplanes, computers, etc) have somehow made us at least pseudo-animals or not animals at all and so we have broken away from our evolutionary roots. This detachment from the rest of the animal kingdom does not help in understanding the evolutionary process.
Religions have also discouraged evolutionary belief. They often insist that evolution is still a ‘theory’, yet to be proven. In contrast, for a biologist the proof is all around us, one need only open his or her eyes. Religions have dwelled on uncertainties remaining in evolution. For example, the scientific view for the beginning of life is that it began about three and a half billion years ago, most likely arising from ponds and lakes. The water in them contained various chemicals and by chance some of these chemicals had the ability to make copies of themselves. ‘Parent’ chemicals produced ‘offspring’ chemicals (autocatalysis). Some of these offspring would occasionally vary from their parents (from mutation) and those variations that were most successful at replication came to dominate their pools. But while this account of the first life is generally accepted by scientists, it has not yet been proven. Nor is it likely to be; it happened so long ago there is little, if any, evidence left. Most scientists have no problem with this type of reasoning and accept that life, if it did not happen in this way, happened in some other similar way.
In the next stage of evolution these first replicating chemicals took hundreds of millions of years to evolve into single cells. Many more hundreds of millions of years passed with these single cells evolving into multi-cellular organisms. The exact way this happened is also lost in time. The fossil records are sketchy as most of the early organisms were soft bodied and any physical trace is limited to a few imprints on rocks. These weaknesses in the early evidence for evolution are sought by those who wish to discredit it. Next, fish, our ancestors, left the sea and colonised the land. Here more evidence creeps in with fossil records improving but still not complete. When we get to pre-human species, skeletal remains are present but rare. The large time period over which evolution has taken place is also difficult to grasp for the layperson. Despite incomplete evidence, many scientists reason that if only a single instance of evolution is demonstrated from fossil evidence, then there cannot be both evolution and some other way that life began, such as creation by some god.
For many people, this incomplete account and the other problems mentioned above keeps evolution at the ‘theory’ level and so unproven. Other people have grown up in religious households where evolution is not even on the agenda so they are not exposed to evolution ideas in the first place. Evolution is still a minority belief system in the world today.
There is also an emotional argument against evolution. Many religious people are looking for something deeper in life than just evolution. They do not see evolution as providing the level of emotional comfort and security they desire. Evolution does not satisfy their spiritual needs as it does not provide an afterlife or a moral system to live by. There does not appear to be any mystique or magic in it. For them evolution is emotionless and faithless and, if they believed it, they would see themselves as reduced in happiness. They see traditional religions as having more to offer. This criticism is justified, it is not clear that a person will be happier believing in evolution as it is now presented rather than one of the traditional religions.
Believing in evolution is a far more courageous decision than adopting one of the existing religious systems. You cannot cheat death with an afterlife. You will not meet up again with your friends and relatives in some heaven. There is no God or person looking over you providing guidance and protection. There is no book of rules to follow. The current religions, to varying degrees, are comfort and hope belief systems and many people have found them more appealing than evolution.
Is there a better way of presenting evolution? Evolution also needs to offer comfort and hope. People must be able to use it to interpret the world and so find answers on how to think and act. A moral and spiritual side to evolution needs to be discovered. The following chapters attempt this by examining two types of knowledge: genetic and cultural. It then looks at the interplay of these two knowledge systems and how they affect our thoughts and behaviour.