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Let's talk sense about our origins

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Any time someone discusses evolution without speaking nonsense, it is a triumph of the human spirit

Dinosaurs are not extinct. I know, I saw plenty this week. I went dinosaur-watching, and saw Circus aeruginosus, Recurvirostra avosetta and Tyto alba. I didn't even have to travel too far to find them: they are part of the landscape of East Suffolk. They stem from the maniraptors, which include Tyrannosaurus rex (below), but only one line still survives and that is the Neornithes. You can find it today represented by creatures better known as birds. Feathered dinosaurs.

Ah yes, evolution. You will hear a good deal about evolution over the coming week as the BBC celebrates the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the book that changed the world. The high spot will be Sir David Attenborough's Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, on BBC One tomorrow.

This programme will present the unalterable and unquestionable fact of evolution in as lucid a manner as anyone could wish for - not that I've seen it yet, but we all know that Sir David is a genius. And any time we see anyone talking evolution without talking nonsense is a triumph of the human spirit. Sir David, as always, will be worth cheering.

Clash of creation

I don't know who brings me closer to despair. Sometimes I think it is the creationists, wilfully blind to fact. At other times I think it is the advocates of intelligent design, who are quite clever people wilfully blind to fact. But then I think that the proselytising atheists of science are the worst of the lot.

If you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, you have to be pretty selective and overlook, for example, that there are two contradictory accounts of Creation in the first two chapters. But some creationists move beyond the literal and bring us abominations such as intelligent design. They seek to explain the history of life by saying that what happened couldn't have happened. This, they say, proves (as if this were Cluedo) that God did it. Well, it doesn't.

Evolution is a fact. There are a million scientific disagreements and controversies about evolution, but not that evolution happens. If you wish to deny evolution, you must prove that science has been wrong for two centuries and that all biology is based on a faulty premise. Rather you than me.

Sir David told BBC Wildlife magazine that people tell him: “We love your programmes, but why don't you give credit to the Creator?” He said: “They talk about hummingbirds and roses and orchids and lovely things. But I think about the little boy sitting on the banks of the river in West Africa who's got a worm boring into his eyeball that is going to turn him blind.”

So much, then, for benign creation; let's leave the creationists to fight that one out among themselves. But what of the legions of self-trumpeting atheists? What of Richard Dawkins, who had the arrogance to write a fat book about God without troubling to read up on theology, a discipline that includes many writers as subtle-minded as himself?

I can understand any scientist getting cross about creationists and their demands for equal time in schools. But getting cross because some people believe in God - well, what's that got to do with science? No believer can prove that God exists: isn't faith rather the point? And no scientist can prove that He doesn't.

You may believe that you have a soul. Professor Dawkins believes that you don't. Both positions are equally tenable in that both are matters of belief, of faith. This stuff can be neither proved nor disproved, therefore it is nothing to do with science. This comes down to the magniloquent phrase of Stephen Jay Gould, the American palaeontologist and writer who proclaimed the Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA.

“The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the Universe made of (fact) and why it works that way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” In other words, the clash between evolution and religion is a non-issue. To sum up: both sides should shut up and stick to their lasts.

Our joined-up world

In the mess and kerfuffle of the evolutionary slanging match - I shall not dignify it with the term debate - we have lost, perhaps deliberately, the main point. Evolution tells us that human beings are not something imposed on the planet, something radically different from every other aspect of life. Evolution is not a long-winded way of making human beings. Evolution does not separate humanity from the rest of life; it joins us. We are kith and kin with apes, with rats, with the Great Barrier Reef, with hummingbirds and eye-boring worms.

We are just a part of the impossible complexity of life, and the more aware we are of that, the better we will manage the planet - not only for every other form of life, but also for ourselves. That is the essential implication of the fact of evolution, and it is so obvious and so absurdly controversial that we hardly ever get round to mentioning it.



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