Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Which I Despair: Happy 200th Birthday, Charlie.

Politics—that is the actions, processes, events, occurrences, etc. done by or to or as a result of the body politic (i.e. the world, or in this case America)—rarely drive me to despair. I have practiced disengagement of the emotions from massive matters over which I have little or no influence. Indeed, it is my preference to treat such matters as coolly and rationally as possible, understanding that reasonable minds may differ and that there are many viable solutions to the problems facing 300+million people.

Nonetheless, I am still not able to overcome the sickness in the throat, chest and belly I experience when I read of certain compatriots’ continued resistance to evolutionary theory and the teaching thereof to young people. It is symbolic, I suppose, of a much deeper ideological evil that I sense from time to time in America, all the more disheartening because it comes from the middle class, as a rule, and not the wealthy and powerful, whom I have never trusted an inch. If people can’t accept the mountains of evidence that support Mr. Darwin’s theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor through the mechanism of natural selection, I despair that they will ever be able to think through larger issues—nonscientific ones—that trigger even stronger emotional responses. We Are Doomed.

The “scientific” arguments of creationists (in which group I include the re-branded Intelligent Design™ people) are without merit. From “it’s just a theory” to “microevolution is OK but not macroevolution [speciation],” these people require a level of proof and clarity unknown to any other field of scientific endeavor. No, the speciation event has not knowingly been observed in the field or in a lab. Nor has gravity, but creationists to not seem to take issue with the latter body of knowledge and processes generally accepted as true until disproven (i.e. theory). We see the effects of gravity; we see the effects of evolution. There is, frankly, more evidence to support Darwin than there is to support the existence of a magical, invisible force that keeps us from flying off the planet. Where, I wonder, are the creationists who argue the reason we stay on the ground is because choirs of angels are pushing on our heads?

In fact, gravity is a serious problem for physicists. Stand up. Lift your arm. You’ve just overcome the gravitational force on your body. If the remaining three forces identified by physicists were anywhere near as puny—the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetic force—everything would periodically fly to bits and then (hopefully) snap back together. The energy required to split an atom (i.e. overcome both the strong and weak nuclear forces) is phenomenal, as is the energy generated by doing so. That is how nuclear power works.

Physicists build enormous cyclotrons, miles long, to accelerate particles at ridiculous speeds and bang them into one another or run them through teeny filters and separate them. To date, no particles, waves, or other thingummies have been observed, such that physicists can point to them and say, “gravity.”

Contrasted with the amount of evidence that exists to support evolutionary theory, gravitational theory seems like a dream. And yet, there is no hue and cry from creationists about teaching magic to kids in schools. Newton was wrong (about gravity; calculus still seems to be going strong). He is still taught in physics classes everywhere. Gravity. That’s the real scientific conspiracy.

Fossils are where they are supposed to be. No fossils are where they are not supposed to be (i.e. no trilobite fossils found in the same strata as, say, Archaeopteryx fossils). The same set of virtually identical genes control development in organisms as diverse as the fruit fly and the human. They result in the fly’s segmented body and humans’ spine, ribs, arms and legs (segments). Widespread misuse of antibiotics has resulted in the selection of a population of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis and streptococcus bacteria (might these be new species? Perhaps). Carrying the recessive gene for sickle-cell anemia provides a selective benefit to people living in malarial Africa, as the malaria parasite preferentially feeds on sickle-shaped red blood cells. Therefore, this gene persists at relatively high levels in that population, despite the sickness it causes before the carrier reaches reproductive maturity. See? Darwin’s theory tells scientists where to look and when they look, they find what his theory would predict. To date, evolutionary theory is batting a thousand.

Not so much gravity. Einstein’s gravitational theories break down at the atomic and subatomic level. Quantum theory fails to explain the actions of large bodies, like planets. Theoretical physicists have come up with string theory to unify the two. No strings have ever been observed; it’s all math and philosophy. Physics is in serious trouble. More cyclotrons are required. Silence from the creationists.

I don’t know if a god or gods exist. Darwin didn’t know. It’s not something that can be known, in the way science knows things. Just as I do not look to evolutionary theory to tell me whether it is morally OK to cheat on my imaginary boyfriends, I do not look to faith-based methods of knowing to tell me how the physical world operates, has operated and will operate. Each arguably has a place, along with other ways of knowing. But people need to think about which to use when and whether to combine them, if ever. And that, I suppose, is why I despair of ever laying this ridiculous “controversy” to rest.

It’s funny; of the Darwins, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus was the true radical. He was more a philosopher, really, than a scientist (although he was an enthusiastic one). He rejected the established Church, charged religious belief with all or much that was wrong in his world, believed that reason, science and education would liberate humanity from its wars and hatreds, and that all would proceed merrily down the path of thoughtful discovery. Why wouldn’t humans want to be free?

I wonder what he would make of all this.


  1. We must never underestimate the power of fear, the greatest fear possibly being fear of the unknown. If your entire world view is colored by the belief that the Bible/Torah/Koran is the infallible word of God/Jehovah/Allah, then disproof of even a small portion of it throws its validity as a whole into question. I have spent years studying religion and what finally drove me from the church was people’s inability to embrace religion as a philosophical belief system as opposed to a dogmatic life plan. Believers confronted with scientific theories that run contrary to what they have been taught become insecure, afraid and react accordingly.

    I think the easy way to start to bridge the understanding void that exists is to present evolution as a less threatening alternative. As you quite accurately state much of this falls into the category of un-provable. Christians and other monotheists feel under attack to a certain extent by society at large. Creationism is banned as being a violation of the separation of church and state (a grotesquely misunderstood concept in our constitution). This causes them to lash out at the thing that replaces their deeply held belief. Teach the theory of intelligent design along side evolution. When I was in school I was taught that at one time people believed that the world was sitting on top of an elephant’s back. I was not confused or inclined to think that old theory had any merit. The history of science is inextricably intertwined with religion. If we could start looking at them under the same light and let people come to their own conclusions I think the world would be a better place.

  2. I've always had a great fellow-feeling for Charles. I see him as a reluctant radical - at root, he wanted nothing more than the quiet life of an English gentleman, but his intelligence and his conscience wouldn't let him live like that. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate", he wrote once, "but at last it was complete."

    SMG makes good points, amounting to a persuasive argument for the teaching of intelligent design. Unfortunately, our schools have got into the habit of breaking down "knowledge" into inviolable categories - science, maths, literature etc. - and so what happens next is an equally bitter argument about which category it should be taught in...

    I heard a fascinating Radio 4 programme the other day, which argued that the present bitter relations between the "religious" and "scientific" camps in the US is a by-product of the "culture wars", which are generally held to have begun in the 1960s. In Britain, you'd have no difficulty finding devout Christians, Jews and Muslims who all accept evolution as a proven fact. Those people exist Over There too, but they've been marginalised in the culture wars.

    Which leads me to hope that there's nothing inevitable about the "culture wars". They are unique (as far as I know) to America - no other country suffers them in such a virulent and long-lived form. They can be ended. But only by someone who isn't trying to win.

  3. I understand what it feels like to have your strongly held beliefs challenged, I do, but I just...I suppose it's a failure of my sympathetic imagination. Oh well. I'm imperfect.

    That being said, I can't support teaching ID to any age group in any discipline. It's a nothing theory; a reaction to perceived godlessness and an attempt to undermine science with pseudoscience. At best, it's pop philosophy that belongs somewhere on the shelf near the self-help section at Borders. I do, however, support teaching the Torah and Gospels in a Western Civ or Intro Literature course in middle school or high school, as foundational texts of Western culture. It's ridiculous that they are not and cannot be taught. I'd also require a history and philosophy of science course for all college students in the sciences. I don't disagree that religion as a human endeavor demands serious study, but the two fields of thought and practice have diverged considerably over the last several hundred years and, well, that's life.

    I'm not wedded to inviolable subject categories by any means--theoretical physicists are more like philosophers than real scientists and many philosophers are more poets than thinkers, etc., etc., etc.--but maybe I'm shooting for a methodological inviolability? Epistemological separation?

    I suppose any war can end if no one tries to win it. In the immortal words of my mom, it takes two to tango. But some things are worth fighting about. Maybe this isn't one of them, maybe it is.

  4. What gets me is, natural selection should be axiomatically self-evident, especially now that we know something of how DNA works.

    I remember a Doonesbury strip a while back which floated the idea that, logically speaking, creationists should only be taking old antibiotics that are now ineffective against the new virus strains that have evolved.

  5. Indeed. Although, in fairness to the creationists, I'm not sure when a virus or a bacterium becomes officially a New Species. Hell, 100 years ago when I was in college, we learned that biologists were still arguing over whether viruses were alive. So there's that.

    I wonder too if creationists aren't reacting to their culture's treatment of Science as a god. That, too, is ridiculous, but the answer isn't to combine the two, it's to separate them more completely.

  6. Excellent point, although I actually think efforts need to be made to synthesize science and religion. More precisely, religion needs to be better at embracing and incorporating scientific knowledge. "Intelligent Design" doesn't cut it though.

  7. Oh, this is frustrating indeed.

    I watched Nova this week, it was a reenactment of the trial in Dover, MD, the modern-day Scopes trial. Great Janus, Thor, and Bast -- when are we going to stop this non-argument?

    But I saw one thing in that program that I thought was really clever. Someone compared ID to Astrology. Now there, I think, is a good comparison. Should we be teaching Astrology in schools too?

    Hell, we probably already are. I wouldn't know.

    Maybe human knowledge is subject to entropy.