July 8, 2012
As a member of the 15% (according to the poll) who believe that God played no part in the origin and evolution of life (a member of the 97% if I am a scientist), I have thought a lot about the difference between believers and non-believers. In my childhood I was well aware that my best friend, Paul, went to Sunday School where his mother taught. I have very fond memories of Paul’s mother who was very supportive of me while Paul and I did sports and everything else together except for going to Sunday School. In high school many of Paul’s and my close friends were from practicing Jewish families and the subject of our faiths never came up between us except when practicing their religion interfered with our plans for the day.
This is a picture of me and Paul at Norwalk High School graduation rehersal in June 1961 with close friends, Alan Green now Chairman of the psychiatric department of a noted university, Gary Goldstein a dentist associated with Harvard, Bob Swan a violinist at the Chicago Symphony, Ed Steinlauf a dentist in Branford (deceased), and Pete Blank a business executive. We all got together in Branford in July before 9/11. Paul’s career was at Dupont as a chemical engineer, now a retired VP. Paul and wife Pam became devoted Christians, helped build the local church, and on their last trip to the Galapagos Islands proclaimed the Galapagos as God’s creation in their last Christmas letter. It came across to me as sort of a swipe at Darwin’s noted visit in 1835 which resulted in powerful observations about natural selection by other naturalists who examined Darwin’s plant, bird and other animal specimens.
In my childhood days I was not exposed to church except on two occassions, one when my parents and I were invited to attend a Sunday Mass in Darien and a second time when I asked my father to take me to the local church in Rowayton on Sunday. I remember deciding not to return after that second time. I don’t recall my parents ever expressing a disparaging word toward people who practiced their religion. This is the way me, my sister and three brothers were raised. I never discussed religion with any of my grandparents and am left with the strong impression that they didn’t practice a religion publicly but I cannot speak to their personal beliefs.
My father’s sister, Ruth, married Joe a career naval officer and devout Catholic. Joe was my favorite uncle because of his genuine interest in us as cousins to his five daughters. We were always aware of their Catholicism. I vividly remember being at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in the early 1980s when my uncle Joe approached the priest after a Sunday Mass to tell him that he had terminal cancer. Joe’s five daughters were enraged when the priest just turned and walked away without comment.
Over the years I have often thought of an observation that I have made over and over again. It goes like this. Children who are raised as Christians in the church end up later in life as true believers even if they left the church in between. This may not be true for people who call themselves recovering Catholics. It’s my impression that there aren’t many who later in life migrated to Christianity without being exposed to the church as a child. A lot of our beliefs originate from what we learned and how we were brought up in childhood.
I was amused by an account of Darwin’s visit and return visit two years later to Tierra del Fuego in the early 1830s. The Beagle had previously sailed to the east coast of South America for several years to map the coast of South America before Darwin’s 5-year voyage that began in early 1831. The ship returned with three Fuegean “savages” from Tierra del Fuego. Members of the ministry of the Church of England trained these Fuegeans in the graces of the gentry and to be good Christians wearing British clothes. One of the missions of Darwin’s voyage was to return the Fuegeans to their home along with a minister who was to become a missionary to the tribes in Tierra del Fuego. When Darwin saw these naked natives for the first time he was alarmed by their unruly behavior and savagery. He considered them gross in their social behavior. He thought that perhaps their behavior was influenced by the harsh environment of their habitat noting that all life forms adapt to their environmental niche. After three weeks, the missonary decided not to stay fearing for his life but hoping that the Christianized Fuegeans would spread the faith. The Beagle then sailed away for almost two years but returned to learn the fate of the three. They found that the Christianized Fuegeans had completely returned to their savage lifestyle likely in order to survive in their remote society. This outcome might be expected in any society today.
Since I was not influenced to practice a religion during my impressionable childhood, I was free to see the world as though it was on the first day of creation.
Harold Urey’s finding at Berkeley that putting electric discharges into sealed primordial atmospheres generated organic molecules that were the building blocks of life, e.g. amino acids and the like. This could also have taken place in deep sea thermal vents as suggested by Nick Lane at the University College London. At some point macromolecules were formed that were capable of self-replication sort of like infectious prion proteins that cause mad cow disease. Eventually membranes were formed around the replicating molecules to provide energy in the form of voltage potential, and further along nucleic acids began replicating with the help of proteins inside membrane encapsulated cells. Millennia later, the first single cell organism as we know it was formed and later photosynthetic bacteria, cyanobacteria, populated the ocean generating oxygen for the atmosphere from carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean. These cyanobacteria already had more or less the genetic code that humans have today. Multicellular plants with nucleated cells (eukaryotes) evolved by assimilating bacteria that became chloroplasts to generate more oxygen for earth’s atmosphere. At some point after land plants a wide variety of multi-cellular species evolved from single cell organisms like yeast that had assimilated bacteria to form mitochondria. These cells were the precursors of fish, reptiles, and YES, mammals, all with the same genetic code (from bacteria to man, and their viruses too). The evolution of humans from lower primates only took place in the final second of the entire process of evolution of life as it stands today (see “Better Monkeys”). Natural selection was responsible for the demise of species and/or appearance of new species that proliferated. Now man (meaning women too) is creating new forms of life first by breeding and in the last 30 years by creation of transgenic organisms that have been transformed with recombinant DNA. The recombinant spores of genetically engineered crops are all around us. There is no need to invoke God.