"Evolution is gentics plus time." -- Professor Steven Jones

This afternoon I attended a lecture at Liverpool University given by Professor Steve Jones from the Department of Biology at UCL with the title ‘Why evolution if right and creationism is wrong.’ It’s part of a series of talks being organized by the Department of Philosophy on the subject of ‘Thinking about Mathematics and Science’. Just to add to the eclecticism, they’re currently appearing in a lecture theatre in the Law Building, a modernist wooden paneled room set out like a court room, with definite witness boxes, jury benches and a very grand set of chairs at the front where the judge probably sits.

I’ve always thought of Jones as being one of those celebrity professors in the same bracket as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, a household name with books and television and radio productions with his name on them. So I was amazed to hear that no one I mentioned the talk to had heard of him, which possibly says more about me than them. But I did want to go along to see the man essentially doing his day job, lecturing to students (although the talk was open to all). He was a highly entertaining speaker, offering photographs from bushorchimp.com to demonstrate the similarity between humans and primates.

Despite the surrounds, he wasn’t about to put creationism on trial as such -- this wasn’t going to be an academic version of Inherit The Wind. He even opened the talk by saying that the Old Testament was probably the first genetic text book, full of evolutionary questions such as the development of ancestry. Instead he simply dismissed it out of hand, talking about how the story of Adam and Eve is just one of countless thousands of creation myths all of which are perfectly interesting but unlike Darwin’s theory cannot tested against available data.

He also agreed with my argument from the turn of the year that ‘intelligent design’ is simply an annoying way of trying to rationalize the current unknowns in science and that it’s barmy to teach it on the same level as evolution in schools -- he called it ‘creationism with a college education‘. He said essentially that you could, as I once did, believe that all of science was sparked by a God, but that had nothing to do with the science itself -- the two are entirely different entities and that to talk about the philosophy of science doesn’t work.

This simplifies a one hour lecture and a question and answer session down to its fundamentals but Professor Jones covered more ground as he demonstrated how evolution works, using the spread of the AIDS virus as an example. I’m not even going to try and pretend I understood all of this (the last time I looked at a science text book was at the age of sixteen) but I think what he was essentially saying was that the reason that AIDS has spread in humans rather than chimps is because at least physically we’re far less evolved than they are -- there are elements of their immune system better suited to coping with an influx of the virus -- we’re essentially the primate that didn’t evolve.

But the fundamental difference is that we’re intelligent enough to be able to cope with the appearance of the virus because we have the capacity to research and discover ways of treating patients so that they live far longer, we’re clever which is why we’re largely able to survive. Unfortunately, we’re also economically evolved and if I understood the inference as he talked about the plight in Botswana were the average life expectancy has dropped by forty years because AIDS is so virulent and isn’t being treated by the expensive drugs available in the rest of the world. What he did say though was that some members of that population have stronger immune systems than others, so, to use his example, sex workers can have the virus and it doesn’t present itself even as their clients contract pneumonia.

He spoke too of language development, explaining that Darwin could have been influenced by Sir William Jones, a language expert working in the late-Eighteenth century who was the first to infer that all language has a common origin (in much the same way that all life must have developed from somewhere). There was a startling audio clip of the Queen talking to her fellow countrykids during the second world war at the age of sixteen and then of her grandson Harry at the same age, her cut glass receive pronunciation giving way to his posh-mockney. When I originally went to college I remember our hall president noting that within a week or two everyone would be talking in the common student accent -- now it seems everyone is slowly affecting those speech patterns as well.

Eventually, at the close of the Q&A (after I’d asked why humans aren’t described as having breeds to be told that its because we can all make love with each other perfectly well from the Eskimo to the Aboriginal) an argument sprang over the question of whether creationism should be taught in schools. Surprisingly, Profressor Jones said that he thought that it should, but then tempered that admission by saying that it should only be at the opening of a science course to say ‘at one point we thought that the world was only 6000 years old -- now we think it’s something rather different’.

On the way home I did wonder why we are given religious education in school in this day and age at least as a separate subject. Then it occurred to be, that its actually a simplified version of a Theology and Philosophy class, getting kids to think about the big questions in a small way, just as all of the other subjects are simpler versions of the larger subjects they become at university level. Instead of Wittgenstein and Socrates though, in school they have a stricter context and at the same time (assuming things haven’t changed too much since I went to school) introduce children brought up in one faith into the ideas and teachings of others.

All of this does touch upon some deeply held beliefs. Jones notes that one of the reasons that he is skeptical about religion (he’s an atheist) is because gene research has actually found a part of our make-up which means that we have tendency for religious belief, and why would we have that if God exists? But even he concedes that we need to at least have an awareness of religion because it’s part of society and we’d have to be entirely ignorant if we decided to try and stop ourselves from being exposed to it, even if it’s to understand the opposing view. As he says, you can’t refute that The King James Bible is an amazing piece of literature.

Ultimately, the lecture didn’t change any of my own beliefs but at least confirmed that in some cases I was on the right track. I won’t be changing what I’ve written on Facebook under the Religious Views heading to something other than ‘Questioner‘. I really can’t explain why, despite my misgivings about monotheistic religions why I’m often awed in churches. As I’ve said before though it could simply be that I’m taking in the human achievement that’s led to the creation of even the smallest of medieval churches and their historical legacy.

After all, I felt much the same way as I sat in that lecture theatre today with its Scandinavian-style wood panelling -- but perhaps I was just feeling a bit nostalgic, it being the first time I’d sat in an ampitheatre of learning since I left university for the second time last year. I can’t ever deny to myself that I’m never happier than when I’m learning and I suppose if Professor Jones can go, as he described, from working at Unilever to becoming one of the foremost thinkers on Biology, that scarily enough my academic journey might not be over just yet.


Annette said...

Sounds like it was an interesting lecture. In my high school biology class I was taught virtually nothing about evolution, I assume because my teacher feared what the "creationist" parents out there would say. Sad what that says about America and its school system.

On a related note, I also wish they taught religion in American schools like you say they do in Britain, but that'll be on a cold day in hell (if there is one). Religion is definitely more of a touchy subject here; I can just imagine the protests if that ever came to pass.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Goodness I'm absolutely horrified by that. If you weren't taught about evolution in biology class, what were you taught about in biology class? I'm guessing proper sex ed wasn't high on the agenda either.

As I said, my knowledge of what's taught in uk schools is a decade or so old so the way religion is taught could have changed. But when you were at school, were you taught about a range of faiths or simply the Christianity-based theology?

Annette said...

You should be horrified. We were taught about biology, plants and animals and cells and all, just not about origins. And you're right, no proper sex ed, either *snickers*. There was some teaching of world religions in a world history class. Christianity isn't endorsed in the public schools, even if that is the majority religion.