Evolution explains ‘how’ we think biology took the steps it did, but it is hopeless on ‘why’, writes Gavin Ashenden
It was the first time I had seen a ‘bunch’ of selfie sticks in action. Last Sunday, I was walking across Westminster Bridge on my way to St James’ Palace where I had my annual gig as a chaplain in the Royal Ecclesiastical Household, and I wandered into a crowd of Japanese tourists.
We were all in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, which glowed in the early morning sunlight. It radiated ornate gold, textured with parapets and saints, slender fingers of stone pointing to heaven and wrapped in a complex beauty. It took my breath away – again- for the thousandth time.
The tourists were taking pictures as well they might. But they all had selfie-sticks, and were turning their backs on the building to get their face in front of the stone, and impose it on the picture.
I thought that they might take one or two photos like that and then turn round and take photos full on -without the selfie stick – but they didn’t. It seems Westminster Abbey was not beautiful enough or significant enough unless it had their face in front of it.
Last week the headteacher of St Andrew’s Church of England Primary in Oswaldtwistle sent out a rather feverish tweet about evolution and the Bible (who knows what annoyed her- NEVER tweet when cross!). She was a bit clumsy in what she said, but tweeted that evolution was a theory and there was much truth in the Bible.
She was jumped on remorselessly by clever people everywhere. Lots of them even calling for her resignation as clearly unfit to teach little ones at Primary school.
She was technically right. Yes, evolution is still a theory, but it’s not just a theory. It’s the best explanation we have as to the mechanics of growth and development of living things down the millennia. There are also bits in the theory we don’t yet understand; but that’s not where the argument lies. She is also right that there is truth in the Bible. So why the outburst of rage?
The first obvious thing is that they do different things. Evolution explains ‘how’ we think biology took the steps it did, but it is hopeless on ‘why’. In fact it’s worse than hopeless. The whole idea of survival of the fittest, when turned into a moral or ethical rule was exactly what drove the worst examples of racism, and especially the Nazi death camps.
The Bible, a collection of books which include, poetry, history, prophesy, as well as moral exploration, claims that through them, God has whispered the ‘why’.
What were the ‘how’ people doing getting so furious with a teacher who thought there was something to be said for asking the question ‘why’?
I wondered it it might have something to do with the selfie-stick?
The ‘how’ people have got used to the idea that knowing about the mechanics of everything saves them from having to ask further questions about the ethics. They are understandably proud of having discovered so much about how things work. But looking at the world in general, they behave a little like the tourists in front of Westminster Abbey. They take pictures of the world with their face at the centre.
Having been clever enough to find out how things work- up to a point, they become our theories; Ideas, with our faces on them.
But biology doesn’t really tell us enough. It might take us back to the time when somehow life was seeded on the earth – astoundingly clever, but what about before that? Where else in the universe did the life come from…and why?
And is there any purpose to life apart from not being dead? Why do human beings need to find meaning, and become ill when they can’t? The ‘how’ of evolution doesn’t speak that kind of language. But the Bible does.
Buried in each of our lives are a series of questions: “what am I here for? Do I matter? Am I loved? What happens to me when I die?”
It may be that one of the reasons for the vast number of anti-depressants our society depends on, is the absence of meaning in people’s lives. In the UK last year, 53 million prescriptions were dispensed, with 4 million people relying on them. We get ill when we experience our lives as being without meaning.
Science, the study of ‘how’ is not equipped to talk this kind of language. But the Bible is all about helping us face the unease, or dis-ease of meaninglessness.
Science and the Bible need each other. Science explains how utterly wondrous the world is. and what drives it. The Bible, telling us that we were purposefully designed for love, paints a picture of the mysterious face at the centre of it all – and it isn’t ours; – which is why, perhaps, the critics got so cross.