Monday, 29 November 2010

Opening eyes

Because of the strange hours I work, I often finish a shift after the point at which it's possible to get public transport home, in which case I'm entitled to a cab. I therefore spend several late evenings, often after midnight, talking to cabbies about whatever's on their mind. I've had some extremely interesting coversations with some of these lads but, perhaps because many of the drivers are Muslims and their faith is important to them, the most frequent topic of discussion seems to be theology, or the relationship/debate between theology and science.

These discussions have, without exception, been friendly, mutually respectful and interesting, however strongly each speaker may have held their beliefs, but something I learned the other night nonetheless left me saucer-eyed with surprise. A chap driving me home had never even heard of the theory of evolution. It wasn't that he didn't believe in it, or had been taught some other theory, he had literally never heard of it. Only by talking to me did he learn that not everybody thinks that God, or Allah, or whatever you call your deity of choice, made animals and plants exactly as they are now. I had to explain how the theory works - what evolutionists think happened (and is happening, of course). He asked the same questions that everybody who doesn't subscribe to evolutionary theory thinks, though in his case he asked out of a detached interest in my beliefs rather than to try to refute them.

He asked: If Man came from apes (a simplistic explanation given the likely tangled routes of our hominid evolutionary past but the best I could do to explain it to somebody who had never even heard the theory before), what was before the apes? And what was before that? And before that? And where did it come from in the first place?

Why aren't apes still evolving into humans? (A question I've heard before, but one which so completely misses, or misunderstands, the point that it's hardy worth answering).

Why aren't we, and all other plants and animals, still evolving?

I answered as best I could but I'm not an evolutionary biologist, my grasp of divergent evolutionary theory is not sound enough to be thinking about passing it onto other people and the cab ride was only 25 minutes.

For his part, his biggest surprise was that, just as he's completely committed to his beliefs, so am I to mine, despite that fact that mine contains bits marked 'I don't know'. For him, the central beliefs by which he lives his life are utterly certain. Mine are not, and he couldn't reconcile what he saw as a contradiction between my committed atheism and belief in science, and the fact that science is full of uncertainty, indeed built upon it. There are gaps in our understanding of the origins of the universe, and of life on our planet, but I'm as committed to my beliefs as he is to his. For me the beauty of science is that it's principal position is 'we don't know'. It's still capable of new revelations, of new beauties, of changing a position you believed in completely before with some startling new piece of knowledge.

But I started this post really not to write about my bumbling efforts to explain evolutionary theory to a man interested in hearing it but absolutely 100% committed to a different belief, but about my shock at the fact that there is anybody out there, anybody at all, living in a Western culture in the modern media age, who's never even heard of it. I find this so staggering that I just had to put it down here.

1 comment:

  1. Survival of the fittest!
    Giraffes with longer necks survived coz they could reach the leaves higher up the tree.
    Fish with a patch that was sensitive to light (with eventually evolved into eyes) survived coz it recognised when a predator was nearby and swam away.

    There's 2 examples of evolution... might help explain it next time...although surely there can't be a next time?!