“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Isaac Newton certainly did see further than other people of his time.
When the entire scientific world was trying to understand the nature of light — was it a particle or a wave? — Isaac was playing in his bedroom with some prisms and mirrors, and came up with an answer that put much of the debate to rest. His science-shattering “Corpuscular Theory of Light” is hailed today as a monument in scientific achievement.
One reason that the rest of the scientific world hadn’t been successful till then was that they didn’t have powerful enough mathematics for the challenge. Isaac recognized that limitation, and simply invented an entirely new class of mathematics — calculus — which has since turbocharged many other fields of science.
Coming up with two major scientific breakthroughs is hard work: one day, while taking a break in his backyard, leaning against a tree while looking at shapes formed in the clouds in the sky, Isaac noticed an apple drop from a tree. That got him thinking, and he quickly scribbled out a whole new theory, complete with mathematical equations and diagrams, to describe forces of attraction between two chunks of matter — the Theory of Gravity — which later helped us put men on the moon (sorry ladies, your time will come).
Three permanent contributions to human history that will be forever remembered. And he was only in his twenties when he made them!
But when attention was drawn to him and his astounding achievements, he deflected the praise with his “…standing on the shoulders of giants…” comment, another way of saying, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of Bob, and Nathan, and …” He recognized that he was taking ideas from many others before him and, from the new perspective they gave him, looking just a little bit further than they did. Even in using this metaphor he was borrowing from the words of another luminary, Bernard of Chartres, a philosopher who used it centuries before him.
I thought that image — of someone standing on the shoulders of a giant — was a perfect metaphor for the subject of my second book, which focuses on human evolution and the evolution of religion/theology.
What is evolution, but the building up of newer, better ideas on top of previously great ideas. I blogged before about the ability of an organism to see, which you must admit is a fantastically advantageous thing to be able to do: how that occurred through a slow accumulation of changes to proteins. Changes to one protein which caused it to rearrange its shape when it absorbed a photon of light (Isaac, take a bow), and changes to other proteins which caused them to fire off an electrical signal when their shape was rearranged: vision! Albeit in black and white. But through yet another small change in that protein, it became possible to see in two colors. And then another change gave us three colors. As I noted in that blog, some women can see in four colors! Small changes building on accumulations of previous ones to give color vision.
The same process can explain (in part) many other ever increasingly more complicated biochemistry … and cells … and organisms … and hominids.
Sometimes progress involves letting go of old ideas when newer and better ones come along. Another previous blog looked at how goosebumps, and being able to wiggle ones ears, and nerves that trace very bizarre paths in our bodies, and genetic coding to produce a tail or egg proteins, make no sense to us anymore today, but made perfect sense to ancestors long ago who needed those to survive.
So one way to see the world around us is as a slow accumulation of great ideas (genes and proteins), and the occasional setting aside of old outdated ones. Which brings me to the title of book #2: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.
As humans spread across the earth, we carried with us a sense of something bigger out there, and tried to understand it (again, a subject of a previous blog). Across all of human history, all corners of the globe, and every slice of the demographic pie, we have tried to understand the “Great Being,” and have developed all kinds of religions and theologies, often borrowing ideas from other groups and developing them further in our own unique journey. As we sat around the communal fires and listened to our elders, we shared ideas and added our own insights. So our understandings of the Great Being began to change shape, and develop shades of grey, and colors, and take on lives of their own, developing into ever increasingly complex forms that we call religions and theologies.
One of those campfires was started by Abram and Sarai, when they left Mesopotamia and its many Babylonian gods and stories, and began a journey to Canaan … and to monotheism. Their descendants continued to build on those ideas, adding more and more insights: the unique perspectives of JHWH had by people like Moses, David, Isaiah, and many others.
Once again, though, as was the case with biological evolution, sometimes progress involves letting go of old ideas. Jesus gave us a whole new perspective on those ancient Jewish teachings: “You have heard it said … but now I say …” The Apostle Paul, who was thoroughly trained in the ways and thinking of Judaism, looked across that Jewish tradition from his new perspective and developed a new framework around the “first Adam” and “the last Adam.” Augustine scaled Paul’s shoulders and took that theology further yet with his teaching of Original Sin (which isn’t in the Bible) which he said we all inherited from father Adam following the Fall in the Garden of Eden (Judaism understands this event and the concept of sin completely differently).
But today, we see much further than Paul and Augustine: we have since learned that there never was a “first Adam.” They built up an entire theology on a metaphor. And metaphors have a tendency of breaking when you stretch them too far, as you try to use them to cover more and more of reality. If we want to find truth, then it seems to be time to re-think some of that theology because it’s clearly bumping up against cold hard fact.
That’s the main focus of book #2: how do we adjust Christian theology in light of the new—and absolutely compelling—evidence of the evolution of humans, and of human religions?
Doing so doesn’t mean we have to erase God from the picture. None of what I wrote above necessarily excludes his involvement. Many people believe that he intervened from time to time, stepping into human history in various ways to nudge us along toward a greater understanding of him. If one can accept that he prodded religious evolution through these little nudges, one can also say he gently prodded biological evolution. It isn’t absolutely necessary that evolution be random and unguided. Humans have been guiding evolution for millennia by selecting out certain strains of plants or desirable breeds of animals: adding our fingerprints to “natural” selection. More recently, we’ve begun to introduce new mutations into those plants and animals: those genetically-modified organisms that are now appearing on our supermarket shelves. Life will look quite different a million years from now because of human intervention in the two processes of mutation and selection: why can’t one accept that the same kind of nudging could have been occurring at the hand of God?
Only an inflexible desire to believe … note that word: believe … that there is no God.
Even if one chooses to ignore the evidence that hominids and religions have been evolving, it’s still important to understand it. Otherwise, one loses the ability to relate to the next generation as they go to high school and other campuses of higher learning: they will take Biology 101, and will encounter new theologies and world views. They will take their place in a society that assumes an acceptance of Evolution Theory. And unless we inform ourselves, we won’t be available to give them any advice or guidance as we hand off the torch to them. They will see the previous generations as being just as out-of-touch as the Flat Earthers and those who once believed in the Dome/Firmament that covered the Earth like a great upside-down bowl. Statistics show clearly how they’re responding to the new perspectives which science—the search for truth—has given us.
It’s a bold claim to make: “we can see further than Paul.” But do we have reason to make such a claim? It’s time to climb on the shoulders of the giants that went before us and expand our horizons.
Tell me what you think. Does this threaten your faith? Or does it help you hold onto faith in the face of science? Do we need to put the words of the Bible ahead of the findings of science? Can we call into question the teachings of inspired writers from two millennia ago, even giants like Paul?
The ball’s in your court …
Leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
Check out my Archive for previous posts on other topics in the Faith-Science dialogue.
“Follow” my blog posts here (lower right corner) or on Twitter, or “Friend” me on Facebook.
And please share this article with your friends (links below).