Broader Social Impacts Committee

Human Origins Initiative Broader Social Impacts Committee

Broader Social Impacts Committee

The Challenges Posed by Evolution

In the vibrant scientific field of human evolution, new discoveries and research findings are regularly reported as lead stories in newspapers and other media. Despite strong public interest, however, many people find the idea of human evolution troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. While polarized public opinion on the matter is the usual focus, the diversity of contemporary religious responses to evolution is less recognized. These responses point to opportunities for a productive relationship between science and religion without assuming a conflict between the scientific evidence of human evolution and religious beliefs.

There are a number of different approaches to the science-religion relationship. One approach is to see science and religion as separate domains that ask different questions focusing on separate interests in human life – for example, about the natural world in science and about God in religion. This approach depends on respecting and maintaining the distinctions but can sometimes overlook the ways in which scientific interpretations may have an effect on religious beliefs. Conflict is seen to arise when efforts are made to eliminate the separation that the first approach assumes. The strongest conflicts develop when either science or religion asserts a standard of truth to which the other must adhere or otherwise be dismissed. An alternative approach sees interaction or engagement as positive. Engagement takes many forms, including personal efforts by individuals to integrate scientific and religious understandings, statements by religious organizations that affirm and even celebrate the scientific findings, and constructive interactions between theologians and scientists seeking common ground, respect, and shared insight into how the science of human evolution contributes to an awareness of what it means to be human. 

Surveys on the public acceptance of evolution indicate that the conflict approach continues to impede public understanding of scientific methods and ongoing discoveries. Looking beyond that, however, the wider variety of perspectives suggests that there is considerable support for maintaining the integrity of religious understandings of the world while embracing the factual basis of evolution, including human evolution, at the same time.

(Rick Potts, Director of the Human Origins Program)