This post first appeared on Felloffatruck Publications on 1 October 2007. What caused me to bring it back now is the online publication of Scientific American‘s January 2009 issue, which is all about the science of evolution and its place in today’s world. And, in particular, the article on creationism that appears there, coauthored by Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott.
For what it’s worth, Scott featured (ahem) prominently in the satirical video Beware The Believers (for further information on this video, look here), a tribute (of sorts) to her anti-creationist activism.
Anyway. The article opens with a tale of a professor attempting to remind a former student of his education in the sciences. Trouble was, the professor was still a mere professor, while the student had grown up to be Governor of Louisiana. And His Excellency ignored the professor and signed a pro-creationist piece of educational legislation into law.
Needless to say, the professor, along with Scott and Branch and a pretty fair chunk of the scientific community, was appalled and incredulous. How could anyone educated in Darwin’s evolution of life by means of natural selection do something so damaging to self-evident truth? (A truth, by the way, that I fully accept.)
But. I don’t see the proponents of this truth ceremoniously welcoming infants and their families into the fold. I don’t see them communing with each other at birthdays and funerals, celebrations and crises. I don’t see them bonding at bake sales, or Christmas cantatas (earplugs optional), or on missions to Guatemala’s poorest. I don’t see them carrying picket signs, or getting out the vote on behalf of a common cause.
Most people, I reckon, do not encounter evolution as a means of looking at the world until long after they have absorbed the lessons of the religious creed in which they were raised. For these people to accept evolution as the principal explanation of the living world and how it works, and the atheism that is (let’s face it) the natural consequence of accepting evolution, they have to actively reject the basis for the social and ethical structure with which they grew up. On which, I argue, practically all of American society, outside of a select few of its professional guilds, depends. And replace it with the society of people who accept evolution.
A society which even Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) admits has all the cohesiveness of a herd of cats. Cats whose rugged individualism makes them the Libertarians of the ivory tower; who have allowed themselves to be thought of as doing the evolution rap only so they can “make more dollars than Allah” (an empty claim – ask any televangelist, if you can get the Lexus to stop). Evolutionists are great at arguing the fine points of sexual selection in damselfish. Helping you cope with the loss of your dog, or your job? Not so much.
Or getting enough votes together so that a politician has to pay attention.
In Louisiana, a professor of evolution presumed to educate his former pupil. His story makes me wonder: who needs to be educated by whom?
The other day [this was back in September 2007 – Amoeba], I learned of a recent Gallup Poll that asked Americans:
True or False:
- A. Evolution; that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.
B. Creationism; that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.
My first thought was “What? Again?!?” After all, I’ve had a professional interest in this debate, as a student of evolutionary patterns and processes in microorganisms, for thirty-two, count ’em, 32 years.
So I did a little web-browsing. And discovered that indeed, after thirty-two years, and multitudes of forests killed, and glass wires overheated, and speakers on both sides roasted (or worshiped, which is worse), little has changed. Unless you count the 25% of Americans who have come to believe, with Ambrose Bierce, that it is best to suspend judgment by believing both [theories]”.
Not even the tenor of the debate has changed much.
Creationists, in the eyes of the proponents of evolution, are dense at best, and at worst are willing participants in a global conspiracy to reduce humankind to slaves in a despotic theocracy. Who will make only niggardly contributions to scientific research (cf., declining National Science Foundation funding during the Bush Administrations).
Evolutionists, in the eyes of creationists, are religionists just like they are, except that they are worshipers of
the Devil Charles Darwin (and, perhaps, Richard Dawkins). Worshipers who, if they are allowed to persist in their perfidy, will bring about Armageddon. And won’t be putting much money in the weekly collection plate.
The same arguments as in 1975. Hell, 1875. Darwin and his proponents copped the same dirt. Complete with death threats.
Darwin, so far as I know, did not respond in kind. He was too busy with his “long catalogues of facts”. Others, however … I realize that Dawkins is passionate in what he believes, and besides, he’s trying to sell books (the rest of us in evolutionary research should be so lucky). But still, there are times that I wish he would, for once, stow his petrol cans back in the flammables locker of his lab and just shut the hell up.
Because I’m tired of all the thunder and lightning. Of all the wasted time and energy. Of all the thrashing and hashing that, over 150 years, seems to have advanced the debate not one frickin’ millimetre.
Why not? Forgive me, but the reason why not seems to me to be crystal clear. It’s based on these two observations, and the consequences of both.
1. The world began, continues, and will end (if it does) on the basis of the same natural laws that are observable today.
This is the premise from which Darwin, following the geologist Charles Lyell, began. If it were not true, then you wouldn’t be reading these words right now, for the world would not behave predictably enough for technologies like the computer to be conceived of, never mind invented. Our world would be the world of Albus Dumbledore, not Albert Einstein. As far as I am concerned, this is not a matter open to belief. It is a fact – nay, a long catalogue of facts – constantly observed, constantly supported by experimentation. And it applies to all entities in the world. Including the living ones. Who are, therefore, subject to evolution. The same processes of evolution that apply to mountains and oceans and atmospheric masses.
2. The entire social and ethical structure of the Western world is anchored on belief in a Being that has the power to transcend natural laws. Not only has the power, but:
a. Will exercise that power on your behalf when asked, if you’re a follower in (more or less) good standing, and if the Being feels like it;
b. Will exercise that power in your despite if you transgress against the social rules for which the Being stands (again, if the Being feels like it).
It was, indeed, one of the prime religious innovations of the Hebrews, as I understand the matter, to put the Divinity in the position of establishing, and regulating, human conduct. Prior Gods, the Greek ones for example, were just humans on steroids. Judging from their sexual and military exploits, they must have been some steroids.
And, as the theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, one accepts the existence of this Being not through logic, but through a process (“leap to faith”) that often goes against logic. And that cannot then be reversed without destroying the personality, if not the person, of the believer.
Therefore, by attacking the belief structure of a set of people who cannot afford to lose those beliefs, whose entire system of correct conduct in society is based on them, the attacking evolutionist does the cause of scientific acceptance no good. Indeed, if the Gallup Poll’s finding that, in America, “creationists” outnumber “evolutionists” by nearly two to one, enough so that a major candidate for the American presidency in 2008 openly professes creationism, the attacks are doing irreparable harm.
It is time for scientists – who tell the truth about our world and our place in it, but do not tie that truth to an acceptable set of ethical precepts and social support structures, or at least have allowed themselves to be portrayed as uninterested in, if not opposed to, such things – to adopt another strategy.
– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.