The Geese are Flying South: Problems with Darwinian Gradualism
Seen from our earthly abode, they appear as white harmonic formations, gliding across the enormity of the deep blue sky toward their winter homes. Seeing them fly so freely in such a precise manner, one wonders: Are the geese going south because a little hormone in their bodies has triggered a series of actions which make them flap their wings and head south? Or do they already know that they must make their long trip or perish? Or is it because they have sensed the herald of a long and cold winter through a code in their chromosomes? Or is it the One Who protects all living creatures who has told them that it is time for their annual pilgrimage?
These apparently poetic formulations of a common observation in the northern hemisphere bring into sharp relief some of the most important issues in science-religion discourse. This essay focuses on one issue: the relationship between the biological and spiritual realms.
Modern science has equipped us with a lot of data which point toward amazing facts. Consider, for instance, the following:
Bees need beehives. Beehives are structures which serve certain purposes. The most optimal structure of a beehive would be the one which could be constructed with the minimum amount of beeswax but which would hold the maximum amount of honey. The cells of a beehive are hexagonal in cross-section, packed together without gaps. While square cells would have also packed without gaps, a beehive constructed out of square cells would be weaker than the one constructed from hexagonal cells.
When we solve the optimality problem for an hexagonal pyramid of unit radius and height h, compute a benefits-costs function and attempt to maximize it with h as the independent variable, we find that the apex angle of the individual cells to achieve the maximum capacity for the minimum surface would have to be exactly 70.529 degrees.
Amazingly, all species of bees throughout the world construct their beehives to this exact specification. Could this be through natural selection from millions of possible shapes and forms? Could it be mere chance? The probability of bees picking this angle randomly from an infinite number is zero and bees certainly did not use modern calculus to determine this angle. Is it safe, then, to assume that the bees were provided with this information in their genetic code by their Creator?
Examples of other such phenomena abound in nature and can be quoted adinfinitum: the precise orbits of the celestial bodies, the water cycle, the migration patterns of many species, the navigational techniques of bees, ants and bats, the fact that even incredibly minute changes in certain universal constants would have made life impossible on earth and the fact that all living things exist in pairs–all these lead us to ponder over the question of relationship between biological and the spiritual realms.
Just as the geese have a biological clock which tells them to move south at the beginning of winter and just as thousands of other fine-tuned natural phenomena consistently display a remarkable regularity and order, so does the human body constitute a marvel in itself. With its 96,000 km of blood vessels through which blood circulates to all parts of the body, its fine-tuned neuro-system and the complex submechanisms of brain and other organs, the human body is still a mystery to our scientific understanding. What makes us think? How are the memories carried and how do we learn to speak? All of these are still very much questions. We have scant knowledge about these some of these mechanisms and know even less about their mutual relationship.
The amazing array of scientific facts about the biological functions of various species was used to formulate a theory which changed the notion of human origin, at least for some people. Since 1858, we have learned to marvel at the power of “Natural Selection”, yet Darwinism and its many extrapolations did not lead to any conclusive proof against the existence of a primordial relationship between the biological and the spiritual realm. What it did was destroy a degree of sacredness about the origin human beings and that’s all.
What Darwinwas trying to do was rather simple. He wanted to categorize an enormous array of data which had been collected to date into a theory. He went for a slow, evolutionary route. Though warned by his friend Thomas Henry Huxley, he did not pay heed to the counsel and, in his enthusiasm to account for the great antiquity of the evolutionary record, he allied himself with the belief Natura non facit saltum (“nature does not make jumps”).
But by the end of the century, “gradualist Darwinism” was already on the defensive: Johann Mendel had observed that the flowers of pea plants in his Brnomonastery were either one color or the other but not some color in between. Further studies led us to even more complex answers and when, in 1906, the formal study of the mechanism of inheritance was named “genetics” by William Bateson at Cambridge, England, we had the beginning of a new science which promised to provide answers to the nature of relationship between various species. But ninety-three years later, we are still not clear about the genetic basis of the differences between related species.
What is clear, however, is that our attempts to reconstruct a Darwinian grand road to the evolution of Homo sapiens, runs into quite a few cul de secs. We can circumvent some but not all such dead ends. We have learned, though. Instead of relying on fossil skeletons, we are now staking our hopes on the human genome. Soon, we hope to have a neat list of all the human genes. Once we have a complete list, we hope to identify those genes which are mainly responsible for the development of brain and from there we can construct another evolutionary path, perhaps.
But one thing is sure in this world of uncertainties: the more we learn about the biological origins of the human race, the more we know how much we don’t know. We may not find answers to some of the basic enigmas of life but the years ahead will surely be filled with deepening of our questions about the nature of relationship between the biological and the spiritual realms.
Taken by itself, the biological system is but a machine, albeit a complicated one. It has many parts. What science has managed to do so far is to take these parts apart and, like a dutiful engineer, name each part, determine its properties and relationship with other parts and put it back in its place. This is the main component of typical scientific process. Take, for instance, the case of the brain, the focus of scientific research during the last quarter of a century. What has been discovered about the function of the brain is really amazing. Fortunately, we now know more about the functioning of the brain and its relationship with the nervous system than we knew twenty-five years ago.
More research will lead us to an understanding of the genetic nature of the nervous system and once we know which genes play a major role in the development of the nervous system, we will then be able to better understand that most complex part of our body: the brain. The nervous system, taken by itself, is a complicated collection of neurons some of which send signals, others (called glial) act as a kind of scaffold upon which migrating neurons travel, some are “carriers” and some act as “receivers”. We know, at least to some extent, the process of which goes behind the “signaling” through these neurons. But what we still do not understand is the cumulative effect of all these complex processes. How does mere signaling of neurons bring to human mind that distinct recollection of a beautiful dawn in the steppes of Central Asia or the ecstatic elation felt upon hearing a Beethoven symphony. This, I believe, is the missing link in our approach to understanding the two scientific and the spiritual realms.
Somewhere, we are missing a connection. Perhaps there is a basic flaw in our methodology. What we have managed to do is to look at parts, with the hope that once we understand each part in its own right, we will be able to understand the whole.
That hope may very well be a valid hope. One day we may be able to put thousands of smaller units together and reach at a grand synthesis. Then we will be able to understand why the geese are flying south?