The miracle of convergent evolution and faith

convergence4There’s an interesting thing that happens in evolution called “convergence.” That is, through selective forces such as habitat or climate or competitive adaptation, different kinds of animals and plants can appear to look alike. One of the most familiar examples is the convergent evolution of functional wings in birds, bats and insects.

Playful evolution

It’s an interesting fact that evolution sometimes also works in “reverse” when it comes to evolved physical characteristics such as wings. That’s why we find flightless species of penguins and cormorants. These birds no longer needed to fly to survive and their wings have evolved to be used for different purposes, or practically no purpose at all.

Flightless cormorants are birds whose wings have "devolved" through lack of need to fly.

Flightless cormorants are birds whose wings have “devolved” through lack of need to fly.

Why would any bird cease to fly? There seems to be so much value in the ability to fly away from potential predators or to fly in pursuit of potential prey. The answer (in part) is that when you live in an environment where swimming for prey and escape is the more efficient manner of existence, then flying becomes an unnecessary use of energy.

By contrast, penguins use their wings to propel through water in pursuit of fish while flightless cormorants simply rely on their back feet to propel them through the water in pursuit of the fish they eat. And it works. So are penguins going “backwards” in terms of evolution? Not really. They’ve simply evolved in a different direction from other forms of flying or flightless birds.

Dumb choices? 

Penguins sometimes use their bellies to slide across the ice.

Penguins sometimes use their bellies to slide across the ice.

If you choose to think in anthropomorphic terms (projecting human characteristics on animals) you could criticize penguins for making poor evolutionary choices.“Look at you stupid penguins! Now you’re not like the rest of the birds! You made a dumb choice. Now you can no longer fly!”

There’s a problem with that line of thinking. The many species of penguins on this earth did not “choose” to become flightless. They became flightless in practical response to the environments where they live. Flying to capture food or escape predators was no longer useful.

Evolution at work

txblindsalamandersm807cu

A Texas blind salamander

There is no end to the odd number of ways evolution** works on living creatures. We also have blind salamanders that live in caves. They no longer need their eyesight to find food in an environment where there is no light. We also have mammals known as bats that have poor eyesight, yet navigate through the night sky using echolocation to avoid trees and zero in on flying insect prey.

Nature is thus a highly creative source of evolutionary invention. This includes convergence, where different types of animals or plants evolve the same characteristics such as limbs or wings or eyes. There is also divergence, where through genetic variation or interbreeding changes in physical structure become part of the selective forces at work in the survival of a species.

About sex

Of course evolution also works with physical and behavioral characteristics in seemingly confusing ways. In the animal and plant world it is quite common for all sorts of living species to have both male and female sexual characteristics. In such cases we use the general scientific term of  hermaphrodite to describe these multisexual life forms.

In nature hermaphroditic animals and plants are known to assume both sexual roles in the mating process. Some types of living things begin as a male and change into a female. Others work female into male within a single lifespan depending on their lifecycle. Still others are bidirectional in nature, switching sexual roles from one gender to another and back again.

There’s a difference, but it’s natural and normal

Among human beings the term used to describe people with both sexual identities or physical characteristics is intersex or transgender to describe people with both male and female body parts. 

Again, these are not people who have chosen to be both male and female, nor are they. Yet transgender people are often forced by culture and society to make choices people should never have to make. Society seems to demand that they choose one sex or the other or be forced to live in a dichotomous world where they are not accepted by either sex.

The same holds true for homosexual people as well. While the sexual characteristics of a homosexual person are not necessarily demonstrated in a physical sense, the sexual orientation of a homosexual person who is sexually attracted to those of the same sex is just as biologically expressive as being transgender.

Fears and actions

Of course these differences in human sexual characteristics and orientation have long been ostracized by societies that fear differences of any sort. In fact many societies fear even the common sexual expressions in women and men. Basic functions such as menstruation were once considered “unclean” by ancient cultures. This prejudice and fear against menstruating women was codified in the Bible with calls to isolate women from society for a period of days until they were judged to be “clean” again. The same rules applied for men who ejected semen onto their clothes.

Even in today’s society, sexual repression and control over a women’s body is carried out in ancient tribal traditions that mutilate the clitoris of young women to deny them sexual pleasure in intercourse. This brand of controlling behavior is the sign of a culture that has not evolved in its comprehension and understanding of individual equality and gender roles in society.

Canonized fears

Even supposedly advanced cultures embrace ancient taboos because they mask a brand of machismo based on ignorance and fear about the female gender. These male fears are canonized in the Genesis creation story where Eve tricks Adam into trying fruit from the “tree of knowledge.” Notice the interesting theme at work in that creation tradition? Right away it is knowledge that is the enemy. Remain ignorant and you’ll be safe from all temptation, says Genesis.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

It carries through many other biblical stories as well. When Delilah secretly cuts the hair of Samson he loses his legendary strength. The power of such stories holds true to this day, as evidenced by this question and answer posted on Yahoo! Answers.

Q: Do you lose strength when you cut your hair?

A: Wow, are we bored today? No, you cannot lose your strength if/when you cut your hair. Samson was a biblical fable used to demonstrate that when you forget your faith, and rely on the wrong thing, you can and will lose everything you have. (Not that I’m really Christian or anything, just completing the train of thought, *grin*)

Of course the real meaning of the story focused on being dedicated to God in faith. Yet how interesting it is that this notion persists that a man could lose strength by having his hair cut.

There are many such perceptions that masculine traits are evidence of strength and personal valor. When people don’t follow these “norms” they immediately come into question by society. These prejudices against men who act feminine or engage other men in a homosexual relationship are also canonized in the Bible.

It is interesting to note that while the Bible calls homosexuality a sin in some cases, it is just as often used as a warning of symbol for fears about falling into other types of sins. Here is one such example:

Romans 1:26-32, “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.”

wipe_out_homophobia_by_wipeout_homophobia-d4835i7This passage foremost condemns anything other than the “natural use of a woman,” which is rather a patriarchal manner in which to view women as a rule. And the fact of “men with men working that which is unseemly” actually reveals the entire lack of knowledge that in most of nature, such clear lines of demarcation and behavior do not always exist. Absent the knowledge of modern science, the Bible falls into a definition of “normalcy” that depends far too much on fear and not enough on understanding.

And for homosexuality to stand at the start of it all seems like a certain condemnation. But the real message of this passage is a condemnation of people acting out of control. That’s the real message of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in the Bible as well. When strangers wander into town, they take refuge with Lot. The townspeople call them out because town tradition states that strangers found after dark are fair sport for all sorts of abuse. God is disgusted not just with this tradition, but all sorts of abusive behavior in these towns. He blots them out for their transgressions, but homosexuality was not the sole cause for that wrath. Yet that story has been used to condemn homosexuals for “sodomy” based on a fear of sexual practices that do not supposedly fit the “normal” behavior of human beings.

Thought control

It’s all about thought control, plain and simple.

In 2015 this practice of imposing thought control based on ancient and ignorant prejudices is being called into question by none other than Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church. He takes ancient bad habits to task by calling people to remember that Jesus himself came to turn the law over on its head. The Catholic News Service reports:

Jesus did “strange things,” like “walk with sinners, eat with tax collectors” — things the scholars of the law “did not like; doctrine was in danger, that doctrine of the law” that they and the “theologians had created over the centuries,” he said, according to Vatican Radio.

The scholars were safeguarding the law “out of love, to be faithful to God,” the pope said, but “they were closed up right there,” and forgot all the ways God has acted in history.

“They forgot that God is the God of the law, but is also the God of surprises,” he said.

“God is always new; he never denies himself, he never says that what he had said is wrong, but he always surprises us,” the pope said.

20130911cnsbr1564-1024x730But the Pope doesn’t stop there. He dispenses with ancient prejudices by taking his line of thought to conclusion in this way, as the CNS reports:

The scholars of the law also forgot that the people of God are a people on a journey, “and when you journey, you always find new things, things you never knew before,” he said. But the journey, like the law, is not an end in itself; they are a path, “a pedagogy,” toward “the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when he will come again.”

The law teaches the way to Christ, and “if the law does not lead to Jesus Christ,” he said, “and if it doesn’t get us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead.”

Pope Francis is forced by tradition to make these statements as part of a transitional focus on change. The church cannot just flip its doctrine lest it come off as too flip for its position as an authority on faith. Yet the message is clear: We must dispense with ancient prejudices or find ourselves set apart from God and Christ.

And this is the convergent evolution between the church and the life of Christ. It has taken 2015 years for the church to come around to this understanding. In between there have been persecutions of millions of people based on ancient prejudices against Jews and Muslims despite Christ’s call to love our supposed enemies. There has been canonized and politicized prejudice exercised against homosexuals, lesbians and transgender people despite the fact that all these characteristics and orientations are manifested wholly in God’s own creations. It continues to this day. 

thYet perhaps we are finally evolving as a faith. The church can only find use of its true wings if it is allowed to embrace all the many forms of human beings. That is, we are homo sapiens.

The word “homo” means man. The word sapiens is based on the root Latin word “sapere” that means wise. Perhaps now the scientific term describing human beings––home sapiens––is at last converging on something approaching the truth. Sometimes it takes a long time for evolution to work in this world. 

* unprincipled (often used as a humorous or affectionate reproach)

**For a long time questions by those who doubt the theory of evolution focused on the idea there were no transitional forms in the fossil record to demonstrate links between ancient dinosaurs and modern creatures.

In the world of birds we have long had the skeletal imprint of the archaeopteryx, an apparently transitional form of dinosaur with feathers. Thanks to recent fossil discoveries from China we how have dozens more examples of feathered dinosaurs. These extinct life forms demonstrate structural progressions from feathered dinosaurs to modern birds. Some of these fossils exhibit such clear detail that scientists are even able to discern and analyze structures such as cones in the retinas that tell us these creatures could perceive color. These similarities demonstrate clear structural and functional relationships and serve as clear evidence of evolution at work throughout history. .

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