Sunday, March 2, 2014

Evolution Sunday

I was asked to give the message at my Quaker church for Evolution Sunday 2014. This is usually celebrated the second weekend in February in honor of Charles Darwin's birthday but a rare Portland snowpocalypse postponed it until the first weekend in March. Here is what I wrote. What I said was slightly different, but for details and impressions from the gathered crowd you'll have to ask someone who was there. Enjoy!

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It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us..... There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Chapter 14, Concluding Remarks

Today is evolution Sunday, a day when we reaffirm that science and religion or spirituality are not enemies but both ways that we humans find meaning in a world that all too often seems meaningless. I have always been a nature girl. My mom took me and my friends out on nature hikes all around the San Franscisco bay area from the time I was very little and there was always a sense of awe and wonder in those natural places. From climbing on redwood logs as tall as a house to catching newts and bugs in creeks and playing in the ocean, I was always most happy outside. As a teenager I spent hours wandering by myself through the forested parks in this neighborhood and my sense of wonder grew as my awareness and understanding grew. My studies of natural history and science in high school and college led to some of my first explicitly spiritual experiences - laying on a log overwhelmed with awe at xylem and phloem one year, stunned at the intricacies of the body systems of the starlings flying above me another year, grinning with joy and awe at the migrating vultures overhead another year. I watched the moon and saw the face of god there. I climbed mountains and swam in rivers and studied the workings of the earth and her inhabitants and I was in awe.

Like so many students of science before me I found wonder and awe in the theories that scientists have used to explain and understand the world, too. Mathematicians and physicists often describe equations as beautiful and I don't quite get that, but I do see stunning beauty in Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. It is beautiful because it is simple, but out of that simplicity comes immense variation and flexibility. It is beautiful because it is based on observed evidence and it is beautiful because it allows me to make some sense out of an otherwise rather senseless world. 

The theory of evolution by natural selection says that over time populations of organisms change because some of the organisms have heritable traits allow them to survive more easily and thus have more offspring. A classic example of this is the story of the peppered moth, a standard sort of moth found in England. The typical variety seen before the Industrial revolution was a pretty white grey with some darker specks, allowing the moth to blend in perfectly with the white grey and speckled tree bark and lichen found in its forest home. As coal burning became more prevalent during the Industrial revolution the trees in England became stained with soot, making the pretty white grey with speckles colored moths easy targets for the birds who wanted to eat them. Luckily for the moth population, some small number of moths were born with darker wings and they blended in well with these new, darker trees. In recent decades, with stricter air quality standards and cleaner trees, the lighter speckly variety is again more common. Other classic examples of populations that change because some traits are more adaptive that we all know and love are things as mundane as dog breeds and as important as antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Evolution by Natural Selection is beautiful because it is simple, but out of that simplicity comes immense variation and flexibility. It shows a biological universe where just a few simple rules, carried out with novelty, creativity and fecundity, lead to stable ecosystems where every creature's needs are met. The rules of natural selection really basic: gather enough food and evade becoming food long enough to create the next generation. The ways creatures fulfill these rules are staggeringly varied and the results it allows for are mind boggling. Dandilions grow in any patch of soil and quickly flower, sending out millions of seeds on fluffy parachutes into the world in the hopes that just one or two will survive. Coast redwood trees, however, don't even begin to produce seeds until they are 10 or 15 years old and only about 15 percent of those seeds are viable. Cheetahs and antelope have honed each other into lean running machines though countless generations of "arms race" competition. Slightly less fast antelopes get eaten by slightly more fast cheetahs while slightly less fast cheetahs are outrun by the slightly more fast antelope. Each generation slightly faster than the last until we find in the plains of Africa today these amazing creatures. Sometimes the sheer number of types and individual living things overwhelms me. We get blase about it but our entire planet is covered in living things. Grass and weeds, ants and bugs, sea gulls and pigeons. There is so much variety of life. All I can do some days is gawk in awe.


Evolution by Natural Selection is beautiful because it is based on observed evidence and it is beautiful because it allows me to make some sense out of an otherwise rather senseless world. Charles Darwin spent twenty years studying and compiling evidence for his theory and scientists have spent 150 years continuing that work. Darwin himself saw evidence for evolution by natural selection in the distribution of species such as his famous finches in the Galapagos islands, in fossils and in the comparative anatomy he studied for most of his adult life. The story told in every biology text book of the bones in the forelimb of mammals is classic for a reason - my human hand has the same bones as the flipper of a whale, the wing of a bat and the paw of a cat. Common descent with modification explains that fact in a simple, logical, sense making way. North American paleontologists have discovered a well preserved series of fossils showing the change over time of a little forest dwelling leaf eater with four toes into a large, grassland dwelling single hoofed and long necked horse many of love today. Not all lines show such well preserved evidence, but exciting discoveries in fossil whales and feathered dinosaurs support the theory with evidence. Darwin knew nothing about genetics but we know lots about the biochemical mechanisms of inheritance today, and all of it shows that vastly different kinds of living things are related to each other. People talk about "believing" in evolution but that seems to me completely besides the point. It's not a matter of faith to me, it is simply the best explanation for the evidence observed. Every new way we question nature with scientific methods we see patterns of common descent and patterns of change in populations over time due to environmental pressures. I have to believe that scientists know what they are talking about, but scientific thinking provides evidence for conclusions. The overwhelming variety of life on earth makes sense when we understand evolution. There is a pattern, there is order in this chaotic complexity. And that is beautiful.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is beautiful because it is simple, but out of that simplicity comes immense variation and flexibility. It is beautiful because it is based on observed evidence and it is beautiful because it allows me to make some sense out of an otherwise rather senseless world. I see in our Quaker community a similar, beautiful system of variety out of simplicity and order out of chaos with evidence to support it. 

Here at West Hills I see a system of just a few rules carried out with creativity and novelty that lead to a stable system with room for all who want to be here. We don't have a long list of rules rigidly enforced to keep the good from the bad, we let the equilibrium of the system that is in touch with it's source do that heavy lifting for us. Our rules really are few: the Inward Teacher is within every person, listening for that Still Small Voice together allows us better access than seeking alone, and we must love each other and God in the same way for they are the same thing. In this very room right now we have people who have widely varying beliefs about the figure of Jesus Christ, about the best ways to live a moral life and the best way to sing Happy Birthday. But all of us together make for a forest full of variety and adaptability. 

I also see at West Hills a system of practice based in the evidence of what actually works. George Fox, in his journal, told of his first opening to understanding that the spirit of god could speak directly to his condition. He finished his report with the words "and this I knew experimentally". He had tried listening to the priests and the preachers, he had examined the paths of soldier and tradesman and none gave him the peace and understanding he sought. But listening to his inward teacher, "who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power" worked, he had evidence for a fruitful path. The earliest of Quaker advice and queries such as the Balby Letter of 1656 admonish Friends to gather regularly and "speak the word of the Lord at such meetings, that it be done in faithfulness, without adding or diminishing". They reminded each other to care for those in need in their community and "all be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility". These weren't rules just to be followed because those 17th century Friends liked rules, they were advice given based on what they had experienced to work. They saw in their meetings that Friends who spoke the words of the Lord clearly and faithfully contributed to the life of their meetings. They saw that taking care of each other, walking with humility and grace and being discrete in their confrontations of straying Friends made their lives together better and made it easier to hear those words of the Lord. Quaker practice is an evidence based practice. I don't need to take it on faith that it will work, I've seen it work for four years and three centuries of Friends before me have seen it work. And that is beautiful.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is beautiful because it is simple, but out of that simplicity comes immense variation and flexibility. It is beautiful because it is based on observed evidence and it is beautiful because it allows me to make some sense out of an otherwise rather senseless world. Quaker practice is beautiful because it is simple, but out of that simplicity comes the adaptability to accept all who want to come. It is beautiful because just as George Fox before us "knew it experimentally", we see the fruits of our work, we see evidence for our best practice. And that is pretty darn beautiful.



What do you see in the human life of the mind as beautiful? What is your experience with waking up to the beauty of the natural world?

Where in Quaker practice do you see flexibility and adaptability coming out of simple rules? How has quaker practice taught you, experimentally, to hear the still small voice?

What signs of spring are showing you the beauty of life all around us?