Poor DarwinApr 11th, 2012 | By Special Contributor | Category: Essays, Uncategorized
The Scopes trial, opening version, played itself out in the Tennessee hills long ago and now replays nationwide on a kind of ghastly, humiliating continuous-loop video in which each of us plays some silly part.
What we are experiencing is an utter failure of education. Contrary to appearances, however, the failure is not of education in science; it is a failure of education in letters. We have emphasized the development of mathematicians, scientists and technicians ever since the Sputnik scares of the late 1950s. Arguably, we have failed in the effort, but demonstrably, we have succeeded in the corollary devaluation of other disciplines. We have failed to convey to whole generations of students the value, depth and nuances of arts and letters. The consequence is a citizenry loaded with people unable to distinguish between empirical fact and poetic or mythical truth, between science and literature, between the natural world and the spiritual world.
The whole evolution debate is just so painfully stupid and unnecessary. Science is sublimely silent on the subject of gods. Most scientists are conventional monotheists. They believe in intelligent design. They believe in a Creator. It appears to them that the universe is too complicated to have sprung up without some intelligence behind it. Of course they also accept the fossil record and radiocarbon dating for what they appear to be.
Full disclosure is in order here. For my own part, I understand the compulsion to believe in a creator, or creators, because of the complexity of things. I happen to believe, however, that just as compelling an argument can be made for the idea that a creator who is both omnipotent and beneficent could not possibly have created a universe as screwed up and fraught with evil as this one. So, like science, I am silent on the subject – without opinion. But that’s just logic. So far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with faith. Such a declaration, in such a world, is a little risky. Why?
Why, indeed? Why do so many good people, with functional brains, insist on the mixture of religion – their own religion – with science and politics? I’ve already suggested the failure of education. There’s more. I think the anti-evolutionists have given up. I think they are frightened and defeated by the incessantly increasing pace of change and have retreated into an atavistic, simplistic world of fantasy.
Understood as myth, especially with the literary grace of, say, the King James version, the religious stories of creation exercise great power. They are designed to lead people to an appreciation of the natural world really quite apart from the tedious length of the scientific enterprise. Understood as literal fact, these same stories are simply ridiculous. To see the difference, however, requires people to think in ways that initially are uncomfortable. It requires them to grow intellectually into discriminating, sophisticated views of the written and spoken word. It is a challenge often declined, and the declining is excused by a world divided. One part sees science as the only truth, and the other sees revealed truth as the only thing that matters.
In such an environment, where this insipid controversy is insistently cast as one of God versus science, it is scientists who are usually called upon to defend science. The deck is stacked against them. First, the argument is framed inaccurately, and second, most of them march unarmed into a war of words against such people as James Dobson and Pat Robertson, who make a nefarious living by manipulating words.
The issue is, of course, not God versus science, but science versus one of the creation stories. Because of emotional needs, there are people who choose to believe the story is factual – true in a literal and unalterable way. And because science is rooted in fact and empirically unassailable in many of its conclusions, the story has to be defended by people who represent themselves and their own methods as scientific.
Then it is scientists who are called upon to define and defend science. The definition of science is a question, not of science itself, but of philosophy. Scientists typically don’t know much about philosophy. They founder on the rhetorical rocks of a debate set up to end in infuriating stalemate, and they end up sputtering helplessly about the imbecility of those who have just stampeded their own brilliant minds into inescapable logical cul-de-sacs. Call a troglodyte a troglodyte and he’ll wear the label proudly while he contrives to make you ashamed to call yourself a liberal.
Facts do not trump faith, at least insofar as persuading people of faith. Scientists, arguing with people who also call themselves scientists, just can’t win this thing. So who can? People of faith who are also people of logic and believers in science, that’s who. When the Episcopalians and Presbyterians and enlightened Catholics take on the hands-in-the-air charismatics and the money-grubbing televangelists and fight them on the elevated ground of intellectually defensible Christianity, then maybe some sanity comes to the debate. Jews and others won’t be of much help on this one. It’s all about brands of Christianity. It’s just that the better brands need to find some spine.
If they can do it, then maybe some educators will locate a little backbone, as well. Respect for people’s faith need not entail acquiescence in superstition and outright falsehood, and a teacher who never challenges or changes beliefs is shirking duty. Then again, teachers need the backing of school boards, and boards need the backing of legislators. Legislators require backing too, in this case of a clergy that needs to get less polite and more engaged.