When I first heard the title for this essay it seemed to contain the paradox I’ve been grappling with since asked to debate the theory of evolution in sixth grade science class—the eternal struggle of what must be true by virtue of evidence and what we believe as an article of faith.
Even though I was the fourth out of five Catholic daughters, I accepted the Theory of Evolution as God’s honest truth laid out for me to find. But perhaps because my teacher knew I was a Catholic, or because I possessed what she called the ‘gift of gab,’ she placed me on the anti-evolution side of this debate. If our parish priests ever spoke against the theory of evolution, I must have missed it. In any case, I couldn’t bring myself to speak against what I knew to be true.
But how did I know? Why did I believe the evidence when my fellow debaters considered it poppycock, or worse, a conspiracy? Was my faith so weak? Or was the evidence deposited across millennia like a Clue game of cosmic proportions simply too strong to deny?
The answer didn’t crystallize until I visited an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago documenting the origins of mythological creatures. The same fossils that provided Darwin with the incontrovertible proof he needed to posit his Theory had also been the basis for the Ancients’ creation myths. Dinosaur bones protruding from cliffs became dragons. Mastodons, when assembled in an upright fashion that was anatomically impossible, became Cyclops. I saw two perspectives on the same evidence that could not be further apart, but there was a common thread—both resulted when human beings used words to make sense in a mystifying world.
Truth is never absolute, but always changing as new evidence appears. Faith, however, is unwavering. My certainty in Darwin’s correctness did not change my belief in God, in hope or kindness, or that all human beings long to be loved. It is those very qualities that allowed humans to flourish in every climate, against stronger beasts with better instincts.
I believe in the power of words to shape our experience of the world. Words set humans apart, allowing us to explain, to profess, to inspire and to codify laws. Without language, we would have neither science nor beliefs. Both are necessary for civilization, for each tempers the other. And so I choose my words carefully knowing that this gift, or adaptation, carries with it undeniable power and the burden to use it responsibly.