Peter and Rosemary Grant homeschooled their children in a cave or sometimes in a tent. They were the only sheltered places on the island of Daphne Major, a small cinder cone in the Galápagos chain. When they first set foot on that inhospitable island, the two evolutionary biologists couldn’t have known they’d spend 40 years there. Nor could they have known what they’d observe. They just knew they had gone for the finches. It was a nearly perfect laboratory for them; large enough to support hundreds of finches and small enough that the Grants and their students could band, number, and recognize almost every one. Their children got in on the game, too, joining their parents in collecting data on the birds after finishing their school lessons. Evenings the family would read, listen to one of their daughters play the violin, or walk to the water to see one of the sea lion pups they’d befriended. “It was magical,” said Nicola Grant, the oldest daughter, “like what the Celts call ‘thin places’ — places where the veil between heaven and earth is frayed. . .”
The veil was thinner than anyone thought. For, as the Grants observed the finches, they slowly began to realize what they were seeing. Over the years, they noted things they would have expected, like changes in the finch population based on excessive rain or drought. But they also witnessed something they would never have expected: the development of an entirely new lineage of birds. As writer Jonathan Weiner put it, “[the Grants] were watching evolution in real time, evolution in the flesh.” No one knew it could happen so fast. The Grants published the results of their work last year in a book entitled 40 Years of Evolution. In it, they detail the emergence of the new lineage, which can be briefly described as the arrival of a large finch from a neighboring island. This finch had a strange song, he was adapted to feed on both the seeds of plants and the nectar of cacti, and he mated with the local finches over a period of 13 years. That lineage has now lasted for 30 years and seven generations, yielding descendants that are more suitably adapted for survival on Daphne Major. All of this unfolded before the Grants’ eyes, they witnessed it and delighted in it. There on the small cinder cone island, the thin place between heaven and earth, the marginal space between adaptation and extinction, they watched as the four billion year old story of evolution played out on a small stage right in front of them. It took their breath away.
It is interesting to consider the finches today, on a day when we come to remember and celebrate Charles Darwin, who spent five weeks in the Galápagos himself, famously observing the different adaptations of the birds in the island chain. Today begins Darwin Week, a series of events sponsored by the College of Charleston highlighting the conversation between religion and science in our search for truth and meaning. This week our church joins with 448 congregations in 45 states and 13 countries to affirm that religion and science are partners in the search, not adversaries. And it is interesting to consider the finches as we draw from one of the wisdom teachings of our tradition, a text that talks of birds and lilies before raising a vital question for anyone interested in science, religion, and the ethic toward which they lead us.
In the sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus offers a saying to his students. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells them:
. . .they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly [Parent] feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?. . .Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
On the surface it’s a beautiful teaching, trading in natural images in order to relieve anxiety. Do not worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, but trust in life’s mystery and give thanks for it. Yet right in the middle of the teaching lies the telling and troubling question: Are you not of more value than they?
On the one hand, it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus is asking if we aren’t at least as valuable as birds and lilies. If they manage without worry and if they find provision, then we should also live as naturally and free. Yet on the other hand, the question is a real one. For religion has long placed humans at the center of its narratives, oftentimes at the expense of the natural world, which has been deemed a commodity for our consumption and control. In many if not most religious schemes, it goes without saying that humans are more valuable than animals, plants, and other forms of life. Part of what science has been showing us and what evolution has been teaching us, however, is that our connections are much deeper and closer than we have previously imagined. But the question of value is a real one and it gets to the heart of the current debate between those of us who see religion and science as partners and those of us who see them as adversaries. And it clarifies what’s at stake.
In his wonderful book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen brings the tension to light. Religious critics of evolution, he tells us, often claim that a blind or random process of natural selection displaces the idea of God. That may be true, Quammen admits, but it’s not what’s really at stake. “Let’s be clear,” Quammen writes:
This is not evolution versus God. The existence of God—any sort of god, personal or abstract, immanent or distant—is not what Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of [Humanity]—the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored. . .
To listen to Quammen is to begin to hear the deep anxiety of the religious critics of evolution. People are afraid of being displaced from the center, being made to feel less special, being set as equals with birds and lilies, mushrooms and mitochondria. Perhaps because their religious teachings have inculcated the idea that in order to be special we must also be superior. And if we aren’t superior, then we become anxious and insecure about our place in the order of things. But the whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that we let go of our anxieties and insecurities. “Can any of you by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?” Perhaps we should consider the birds again.
It seems clear from the body of Jesus’ teaching, that the question he poses is the rhetorical kind. We’re at least as valuable as the other animals and plants. Yet we need not place ourselves above them, rather beside them as members of the kind of egalitarian community he formed among his followers. It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself adapted the teachings of his tradition to suit the environment in which he found himself. He started a new lineage, as it were, and it has survived and been passed down through the generations. Yet there are radically different variations, as we know. Some strands of Christianity are the anxious kind, struggling to claim uniqueness as a way of dealing with existential anxiety. And some strands of Christianity are trying to learn to let go, moving beyond the illusion that we are at the center of it all into a much larger story with countless beings our kindreds and equals. Today we celebrate that larger story and the ways we are, in Darwin’s words, “ennobled” by it. Philosopher Donald Crosby puts it best, describing the movement from our superiority to a deep and abiding equity with all things. “We can note,” he writes:
. . .that all species are special. . .Our difference as humans from other creatures of the earth is relative, not absolute, a difference of degree, not kind. We are animals and, like other animals, we depend crucially upon such things as the warmth and energy of the sun; the photosynthesis of plants and their place within the food chain; the water in the clouds, rivers, and seas; the fertility of the soil; the microbes and minerals in the ground and in our bodies; the intricate relations of species, including our own, with one another and with their natural environments; and the laws of nature. To acknowledge these facts is not to demean us or to denigrate our status in the scheme of things. It is to celebrate our participation in the community of creatures, our oneness with the earth, and the privilege of our being at home here.
Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he told us not to worry. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field. Watch the finches on the island. Feel your participation in the community of creatures, your oneness with the earth, the privilege of being at home here. Friends, this is the kind of religion that the world could use. It is needed in our city, our state, our country, and the wider world. And there is much at stake.
I don’t need to remind many of you that in the past year the voices of anxious religion tried to insert creationist ideas into the public science curriculum in our state. Many in our church called, wrote letters, and even drove to the State Board of Education in Columbia to testify on behalf of sound science standards. And I don’t need to remind you that in the past few weeks, we have heard the voices of the anxious anti-vaccinators, who dismiss the science of vaccinations and have brought back the measles, one of the most contagious diseases we’ve got. Whereas we had achieved a kind of herd immunity, protecting our most vulnerable children, we must now go back and restate the case for the common good of immunization. And I don’t need to remind you that there are voices in our government, many in control of powerful chambers and committees, that cast doubt and skepticism on the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change and the grave dangers it now poses to life on earth as we have always known it. For a growing number of theologians and scientists alike, this represents the most important ethical issue of our time. And we find ourselves in the position of trying to engage those who would deny what is happening to the natural world and shirk the responsibility of protecting, preserving, and passing it on to our descendants. So as we gather this Evolution Sunday, we do so knowing that what we are doing matters greatly. And the religion that we practice is telling. Is our religion anxious and anthropocentric? Or is it willing to let go and embrace the larger whole? More importantly, is it able to begin telling of the larger whole in ways that evoke our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe?
For at the heart of it, that is what we are doing. And that is what Darwin showed. He, more than anyone, displaced us from the center of things. But when he did, I think he connected us more deeply in a different way. His religious point of view, which was as unorthodox as it was beautiful, called us to look and to listen again to the great family of which we are a part. “There is grandeur,” Darwin famously wrote at the end of The Origin of Species, “in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Put another way, there is a meaning that is greater than ourselves alone. We are but participants in it.
“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Are you not of more value than they?” To which we can only answer with a smile. No. We are not of more value. We are kin. And for that we say, the religious and scientific alike. . .
 Jonathan Weiner, “In Darwin’s Footsteps,” New York Times, August 4, 2014.
 Joel Achenbach, “The People Who Saw Evolution,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 23, 2014.
 Peter and Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
 Matt. 6.26-29, New Revised Standard Version.
 David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (New York: Atlas Books, 2006), 208-209.
 Donald Crosby, Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 100.
 Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Philip Appleman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 174.