Sunday, August 28, 2005

Don't say monkey trial

Living in a foreign country with a foreign spouse is a lot like living with your in-laws. Their ways can be a little bit strange, not wrong necessarily, but different. Little things can get on your nerves. Occasionally, these little things can pile up (store opening hours, the British approach to ‘customer service’, the way you have to debase yourself to get anything out of a civil servant, the traffic calming, the lack of free drink refills, no ice tea anywhere) and the Vol Abroad feels the need to vent. The usual target of this venting is the Vol-in-Law. When my critical view of the UK gets too much for him, he says two words, two little words, not "shut up", not "calm down", but "monkey trial."

For he knows that I find it a matter of shame that my state put a science teacher on trial for teaching science. I used to be able to counter that that was a long time ago, but the shoddy customer service I received was in the last ten minutes. But the controversy over Intelligent Design is proving that triumph of faith over reason is alive and well.

Now that we have Sky television (Rupert Murdoch owned), we have access to all kinds of new wacky channels, including about 50 shopping channels, Fox News and a slew of American televangelist channels (best of all is a channel which shows nothing but TV movies based on ‘true stories’). The other night we were watching one of these televangelist channels, this one really a clinic for becoming an evangelist (so it was educational), and they were going on and on about the evils of Darwinism. Now they seemed to view Darwinism as some kind of cult, which leads to all sorts of nasty things, like eugenics and they seemed to be implying that everyone who thought evolution was a reasonable theory were moments away from joining the ranks of jack-booted fascists.

Here is where the creationists and ID-ers go horribly wrong. They view the world through the lens of faith, through a kind of literalist faith, and think that scientists do, too. I believe that evolution is a reasonable explanation for the development of species as we see them today, but I do not cling to that belief blindly. I know that there are gaps in the fossil record, which we can never ever get back (dang erosion, stupid plants and animals not dying in areas where they could become fossils). I know that there have been arguments within the context of evolution – e.g. incrementalism vs. catastrophism. And I certainly don’t read Darwin as if it were the literal truth; it was really the first great treatise on evolution, but not the end of the story. I do doubt that anything is going to shake my belief that evolution is the mechanism by which we evolve (a bit of tautology) but as knowledge develops, or new techniques such as genetics working hand-in-hand with paleontology and paleo-anthropology, the accepted details change. Knowing for a certainty that our best knowledge now will be put in the shade by our best knowledge in 20 years only confirms my empiricist tendencies.

I have a degree in Geology, so I’ve known and been taught by a number of evolutionary scientists (I was more fascinated by crystal chemistry and metamorphism than dead bugs, so I perhaps didn’t pay as close attention as I might have). A couple of these guys were incredibly religious, they were steeped in the theory of evolution and thought it was such a beautiful thing that there had to be a higher power which provided a spark of creativity, But they didn’t believe in Intelligent Design (not that it was around then as such), they believed that through evolution a series of wonderful creatures with wonderful features could develop. They didn’t think that evolution worked just so far and then bingo-bango something irreducibly complex was needed so an Intelligent Designer stepped in and created an eye. (If you want real irreducible complexity, don’t look at biological systems, look at the atom or the molecular structure of a diamond).

Good science is often about picking holes in existing theories, but with evidence, not tortured pseudo-logic. The development of the ID movement really bothers me, because it’s faith dressed up as science. It’s picking holes without offering a testable alternative explanation. It also bothers me because ID-ers and creation scientists are not really willing to engage in debate within the framework of real science. They are not swayed by argument or evidence (as are scientists, who can change their minds).

I recently had a conversation with a Muslim who said she didn’t believe in Evolution. I don’t believe we descended from monkeys, she said. (Me neither, monkeys are a whole ‘nother branch of primates). She admitted she was a bit stumped by the whole dinosaur thing, as obviously they had existed, but she said that she had spoken with a friend about this who was ‘more knowledgeable in the Koran" and who had set her mind at ease. She said, I can’t convince you because I haven’t read the whole Koran, so I’m not as knowledgeable as I should be. Really, I said, it wouldn’t matter if you had, because it’s not science, so I can’t engage in a scientific debate by using reference to a religious book.

If she wants to believe that way, that’s fine with me. But it is a little worrying, because if you’ll turn your back on well-established science in favour of religion, you’ll turn your back on accepted ideas of civil society, free speech, allowing others to live their lives the way they choose (so long as they don’t hurt others) in favour of imposing a popular view of religion on the rest of us, too.

ID-ers want to push their religion on me, they want to teach it in schools, and they want to dress it up as just offering counter-evidence against a theory. But it’s not evidence it’s argument. They think they’re fooling the rest of us by arguing that it’s really science, but it’s not. It’s a worrying step toward imposing the fundamentalist world view on all of us in other areas, too.

On a final note, Britons avoid the whole controversy of evolution by just failing to teach it at all to school age kids. Rather than facing it head-on, dealing with the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus and their various approaches to creation, they just don’t teach the science at all.


S-townMike said...

But intelligent design is not faith. It is based more in reason--flawed and unsubstantiated reason, but reason, no less--than in faith. It is a variation of the scholastic "proof for God," which is of little concern to science.

Fundamentalists are not fighting for faith against science, they are fighting for modernity, because they are enthrall to the power of science more than they are to God Almighty. They don't intend to claim religious authority in any way but symbolically. Instead, they are trying to tap into social power, and the highest power in the modern era is science (including medicine), if not law. Those are the disciplines that order money and power. So, laying claim to science is their access to modernity without appearing to slough off religion as secularism has.

This is not a fight between religion and science. It's a contest between competing logics, both appealing to the same method. We just have to figure out which one makes the more compelling case. I think that the intelligent design advocates are losing.

Vol Abroad said...

I think Intelligent Design will lose because many of the people who get behind it don't actually believe in it. I grant you that Intelligent Design isn't a complete refutation of the concept of 'natural section', and I think most fundamentalists ultimately refute that - even in the face of modern examples.

I don't think fundamentalists are fighting for modernity but against it.

S-townMike said...

Fundamentalists rose up as a reaction to modernity, but given their reliance on and perhaps even faith in technology, I don't believe they oppose modernity at all. They say and sometimes act like they do. I think they are more at odds with the concepts of progress and utopia than with modernity.

Vol-in-Law said...

I think utopianism is absolutely fundamental to fundamentalism, actually. :)