Thursday, September 6, 2007

372 Evolution

Message no. 372[Branch from no. 361] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Thursday, February 15, 2007 8:32am Subject: Evolution

Hi Michelle -- Just want to clarify what we mean by "evolution" in environmental psychology so that the word doesn't trigger the wrong set of images or ideas when "unpacked". "Evolution" is defined by environmental psychologists as "a change in gene frequency or meme frequency over time." It is nothing more or nothing less.

By this definition, evolution is not something we believe in or don't believe in, it is a description of a process. What you are referring to is the "theory of evolution by natural selection as the cause of the variety we see in nature". Since none of us have a time machine and we can't go back to ancient environments to see whether changes in gene frequency led to speciation (the varieties of species of animals, plants, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans), none of us can really say how this planet ended up with its millions of different life forms. All we can do is speculate and interpret from the clues that our current environment communicates to us.

We do observe that genes and memes change in frequency in populations over time, and we know, from our experiments in genetic engineering and animal and plant breeding, that we can substantially modify the genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of life forms; that is to say, we can change the way they look and behave. We also know that changes in environments can radically affect the genetic and behavioral characteristics of populations. By manipulating environments we can affect the types of organisms that can survive and prosper.

You should all know that I am a scientist who believes in God, and who understands what I believe to be God's process of evolution. I have designed a tee shirt I want to produce that says "God created evolution -- deal with it!" It is sure to anger both theists and atheists who want to create a conflict between evolution and special creation. I don't see any conflict at all. I think it is unfortunate that there are voices out there who want to make it seem as though science and religion are at odds. I have always seen them as supporting each other. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Copernicus, Galileo -- all beleived very strongly in God. What they were fighting was an interpretation of religious scripture BY MEN that contradicted the evidence they saw in God's world. They believed that God's Word and God's World were ONE. This is why Galileo, after being released from jail by the Inquisition muttered, "Nonetheless, the planets still move!!".

What we observe in our environments is that organisms change. Understanding this is very important now that we are the one's changing our environments. We need to understand HOW a given change in the environment of an organism affects its evolution. For example, we know very well that when you put thalidomide in the environment of pregnanat women, the children tend to be born with flipper-like arms and legs. If we don't remove thalidomide from the environment, the frequency of human children with flippers instead of hands and feet will increase, and the frequency of those with hands and feet will decrease. Over time in a thalidomide contaminated environment we end up with an evolution of a population in which the majority (the highest frequency) of people have flippers. This is a phenotypic effect. Similarly, radiation in our environment from nuclear weapons testing and nuclear powerplants changes our genes through mutation. In areas near Chernobyl, babies are born deformed. They pass those deformations on to their children because the deformations occur at a genetic level. Thus the more radioactive contamination we have in our environment, the more genetic damage we will cause our children and a population will evolve with horribly maladaptive characteristics.

This is the kind of evolution we can observe.

I share your belief that all animals (and I would also say all plants and bacteria and fungi and protozoans) were created for our benefit. I would go further and say that all objects in our environment were created for our benefit -- comets and stars and water and rocks too. Our course of study is to figure out how we can keep the delicate balance of nature that I believe God created functioning so that it continues to benefit us. One way to do this, in my view, is to understand how the evolutionary process that God created operates so that we can assist in keeping it pointed in a healthy and positive direction. To ignore how the frequency of genes and memes changes over time and with various selection pressures, whether "natural" or "artificial" is to turn a blind eye to our responsibility to keep the fragile clockwork that God set in motion ticking.

I hope that clarifies how I see what I think should never have been a debate or conflict between science and religion to begin with.


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