My Evolution on Evolution


This is my review of "A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING" by Bill Bryson.

Read ItYou like science • You think you don't like science • You struggle with understanding science • You want to know the salient points of natural history • You want to learn something without feeling talked down to • You want to learn about general concepts in the broadest sense

Don't Read ItYou're indifferent to science • You have already decided what you believe about the origins of the world • You think most scientists are conspiring together to deceive you • You are a scientologist and you don't want all this science mumbo jumbo to mess up your thetan count • You prefer the science of fantasy worlds in the books you read

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Big Bang

I remember when we dissected fetal pigs in biology class.

First of all, the smell of formaldehyde is deeply unsettling. Formaldehyde doesn’t smell bad, per se–it smells unnatural. It goes against the way your nose wants to experience the universe.

I don’t remember anything about the pig’s anatomy. I only remember two things. One, the board game “Operation” is so unrealistic. There is no way you can remove one thing without touching everything else. Two, the pig had to be dead in order to dissect it. 

I’m not a secret sadist who wished to experiment on a living piglet. I merely observed that, if the pig wasn’t dead before the dissection, it most certainly would be dead by the time we finished. 

We’ve made some astonishing observations about the universe. According to the history we’ve assembled for ourselves, the human experience is the thinnest ring near the outside of eternity’s tree. In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series, he compares the time from the Big Bang until now to a year’s calendar. Humanity begins only moments to midnight. 

Still, in that matter of time, we have learned a great deal. And “A Short History of Nearly Everything” does an incredible job of making that story accessible to the kinds of people who struggled with science class. Bill Bryson takes big ideas, concepts, and historical events of groundbreaking discovery, and weaves them together with lighthearted simplicity. I really enjoyed learning a little bit about everything we know, and why we know it. I was engaged–and dare I say entertained–without ever being intimidated.

But there is a small disconnect. 

The disconnect from my personal history says, “you need to be skeptical of all this stuff. The universe is only 6,000 years old.”

And whenever I get conclusive, I feel silly. And I still want to ask "why".

In the attempt to reconcile science and religion, so much has already been said. As Albert Einstein put it, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” My conflict was not in how I interpreted Genesis–my conflict was in  why I asked “why” in the first place. Am I looking for meaning, or am I looking for understanding?

At a certain age, children will ask you “why” and their inquiry will never stop. And this sort of curiosity is the healthiest engine for all science and reason–some people just refuse to stop asking why. Beneath every explanation, and beneath every answer, lies a new set of conditions and possibilities worth exploring. 

This leads, naturally, to the second purpose of the question “why”–what is the meaning of it all? To understand the biological systems behind how a pig lives, the pig itself must die. And anything dead can be dissected. But when my wife and I were dating, she asked me for a “baby piglet” calendar, not a “dead fetal pig” calendar, and I’m sure glad about that. I think I know why she prefers the cute pigs over the dead preserved ones. I think there is more to life than just biological self-sustainment. I think this whole thing has a meaning.

Perhaps there is no grander purpose. Perhaps we’re only sentient because there was some evolutionary advantage to our consciousness. Perhaps love and loss are just illusions wrapped around a biological drive to have sex. Perhaps our sense of meaning is only a subjective way to protect our human motivations.

But for many people, this kind of dismissal just doesn’t satisfy. Saying “there is no meaning” when someone asks why is just as ignorant as those who answer “God did it” when an astute observer seeks deeper answers.

Do you see how we have shut each other out? Do you see how we have stifled the curious, and rejected those seeking? 

We who believe life has an overarching meaning have a role to play in science. Just as scientific discoveries can and should, have an impact on our faith. Embracing mystery in science is a form of resurrecting the dead. We simply cannot afford to stop either kind of questioning. 

What if we stopped doubting the narratives of faith and reason, and instead began to honour the motives we share? Some seek understanding, and some seek meaning. Some look for logic, others for inspiration. Questions move our inquiry forward, but they do not create life. We are all interpreting a human experience that is much too short.

If we enter the conversation and we actually listen and humble ourselves, then eventually we will be invited to contribute. Consider the “Big Bang” itself. When you imagine your god speaking your world into existence, was it quieter and less dramatic than our physicists claim it was? I've heard leaders in my faith talk about the beginning of the world and make Genesis seem so much smaller than our scientists testify. Even if they're right, they're depressing.

 Bryson claims,

"In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second (A second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics... In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too.

Doesn't that compliment our own creation story? Isn't that an astonishing, fascinating claim about the beginning of all beginnings? Or are you hung up on the 13.8 billion year time difference?

And what about the origins of species? Instead of fighting for the right to rebrand our creation story as “intelligent design”, what if we decided to consider the God who set evolution into motion? I’ll give my fundamentalist friends the benefit of the doubt: evolution could be no more than a misguided theory. But isn’t it a beautiful idea–even if it's wrong? What does evolution say about the origin of the universe? Right now, because we refuse to engage the possibility, some evolutionists presume a universe without grander purpose.

We've abandoned our side of the "why"–we've stopped infusing meaning into scientific discovery.

Evolution, if true in its most literal sense, means God was so creative that everything He created would continue to create itself!

the man behind the curtain

In this beginning of all beginnings, time itself began. And matter and energy expressed itself throughout the universe. Something started, and has continued until now. Whether or not you think any of it matters is entirely up to you. I simply hope you understand how endless the why question always is–whether you’re set on an eternal quest to find causes for your effects, or whether you look for the significance behind this arrangement of atoms. 

And I hope you’ll continue to ask those “why” questions anyway. If you stay quiet, and if we refuse to compliment and dialogue with scientific discovery, the pig stays dead on the table.  Even though we'll never come to the end of our "why", you will certainly uncover new truths about faith and reason. In fact, you might rediscover the force behind the fabric of the universe. And you'll feel like you're five again. 

The secrets of the cosmos have only ever come to children.

The photo used in this review is of Bill Nye–champion of evolutionary science. For a good primer on the two positions between Creationism and Evolution, watch the Ken Hamm vs Bill Nye evolution debate on Youtube.