The God Fossil

Most Americans who accept evolution think God created it. These scientists think they can prove the opposite.

That's proved a brilliant tactic, resonating with millions of Americans who seem to relish the idea of scientists' having second thoughts about Charles Darwin's historic insight. The thing is, it isn't true. Biological evolution is as strongly held, and experimentally and observationally supported, as ever. There is no retreat from evolution, despite what ID adherents desperately want school boards around the country to believe.

But strangely, scientists themselves appear to have little taste for fighting back. Instead, for the past couple of decades, high-profile biologists and other scientists have gone out of their way to assure the public that their studies are no threat to God or religion. It has become fashionable for scientists to proclaim that they are churchgoing Christians or Jews, and Time and Newsweek can't seem to put out enough "Science finds God" special issues. Well-known figures like Stephen Jay Gould (Rock of Ages) and Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin's God) have assured the public that science and religion describe different spheres and that there is nothing wrong with believing two seemingly contradictory ideas: that God created the planet and its species as the Bible says and that natural selection, over billions of years, produced the amazing variety of life on Earth.

Some scientists, however, can't reconcile the two. For the past 20 years, a small cadre has been working on explaining religion as a product of evolution itself. These anthropologists and psychologists wonder if the nearly universal human tendency to believe in gods is a kind of programming that resulted from natural selection. Until recently, the field had an unwritten rule: Focus your work on the beliefs and spirits of little-known "primitive" societies in far-off lands.

FAU Professor David Bjorklund didn't expect much furor over their study. But he thought Jesse Bering (following picture) might find protestors outside his classes.
Colby Katz
FAU Professor David Bjorklund didn't expect much furor over their study. But he thought Jesse Bering (following picture) might find protestors outside his classes.

But hands off Jehovah.

"It is worthy of serious scientific investigation," Bjorklund says. "It's something that serious behavior scientists should consider. Religion is not just for anthropologists anymore."

A tall, ruddy man with a square jaw, the professor is from a small-town Massachusetts family with Swedish roots. He says he didn't foresee a Florida future in which he'd take God to the mat.

As he stands at the front of a morning class at FAU, fiddling with a malfunctioning projector, he appears for all the world to be an unremarkable, kindly college professor. With a self-deprecating laugh, he says that his career is an accident.

At FAU since 1976, much of Bjorklund's work has examined the way children learn and remember. Through the 1980s, Bjorklund says he was a mainstream developmental psychologist, making "narrow and arcane" advances in a large field. His interests were wide-ranging — he studied the emergence of homosexuality in children as well as the best methods of disciplining unruly kids. His most influential work showed that what children know influences how they remember.

But increasingly, he says, he found himself drawn to a new discipline: evolutionary psychology. The newish field has suffered from comparisons to its earlier, controversial incarnation as sociobiology, a 1970s phenomenon tarnished by its tendency to justify, for example, gender inequalities in the workplace as natural byproducts of evolution. But the field is gaining adherents — and a pop culture sheen — in part for its newer reliance on experimentation. Resurrected by a University of California at Santa Barbara husband-wife professor duo in the early 1990s, the field attempts to show that human behaviors, just like bones, organs, and blood vessels, could be seen as evolutionary adaptations.

Bjorklund realized that the way the field described the evolution of the human mind seemed similar to his own ideas about how a child's mind works. "I saw this and thought they could be talking about development," he says.

He began to wonder if childhood itself could be seen as an adaptive trait — that there was some evolutionary advantage to the long maturation period of human beings. Some of his experiments showed that immature behavior may be adaptively beneficial — such as, for example, when an immature child overestimates his ability to solve a problem, making him more likely to tackle it optimistically and with a higher rate of success. Bjorklund co-wrote a paper suggesting as much in 1992. "I was sort of challenging the conventional wisdom that immaturity is something one must get over," he says.

But the science world is skeptical. His books have received a lukewarm welcome, and Bjorklund admits that he's somewhat discouraged. "When I first got into this, I thought you could meld [the two disciplines] together," he says. "I was wrong."

Still, he hopes for a synthesis, and a new book on his ideas about childhood as an evolutionary adaptation, Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young, will soon be released. He hopes it will become his legacy.

Fifty-six years old and at the peak of his career, Bjorklund is hardly a scientific radical, making him the perfect counterbalance to Bering, a young hothead who is determined to shake Western society to its core.

When Bjorklund first met Bering, the younger man was a wide-eyed college student in love with chimpanzees. The son of a transient glue salesman, Bering was a religious and shy child afraid of ghosts, specifically the ghost of the prophet Elijah that is said to enter the house on Passover. The discovery at 15 that he was an insulin-dependent diabetic convinced Bering that he would die young, adding a sense of urgency to his curiosity about the supernatural.

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