Friday, January 14, 2005

Evolution Stickers

The evolution versus creationism debate has reared its ugly head again this time taking the form of a precautionary sticker on a Cobb County (Atlanta) High School biology textbook proclaiming evolution to be a "theory not a fact" that needed "critical consideration." A group, lead by the ACLU, sued the school contending the disclaimers violated the separation of church and state and unfairly singled out evolution from thousands of other scientific theories as suspect. Fortunately, a Federal judge ruled yesterday that since the sticker:

"refers to evolution as a theory, the sticker also has the effect of undermining evolution education to the benefit of those Cobb County citizens who would prefer that students maintain their religious beliefs regarding the origin of not that the school board should not have called evolution a theory or that the school board should have called evolution a fact........Rather, the distinction of evolution as a theory rather than a fact is the distinction that religiously motivated individuals have specifically asked school boards to make in the most recent anti-evolution movement, and that was exactly what parents in Cobb County did in this case."

(We'll let the judge slide on his use of the term "origin of life" a separate and distinct theory from Darwin's theory---the use of the 2 interchangeably is a common erroneous colloquialism that has taken root via the poor scientific vernacular of the country as a whole---but I digress).

The judge is correct in pointing out that evolution was singled out by a group of individuals who find Darwin's theory upsetting to their personal religious sensibilities (represented more often than not by a fundamentalist protestant group heavily emphasizing biblical infallibility and literalism). However, what must be understood is that all of science continues to exist within the realm of "theory" based upon observation and repeated experimentation. As an example, most individuals accept as fact prima face that all matter is composed of smaller building blocks known as atoms. However, as strong as the evidence for said assertion is, it still is known in the scientific community as "atomic theory" (as it is a common misperception that theories can somehow morph into "laws" if they pass multiple scientific tests---this is simply not the case). Therein lies the relevance of the ruling, and lack of understand by the school-board, highlighting a single theory and placing emphasis on the concept that it is "only a theory" undermines the integrity of one of the most sound and breathtaking achievements in the biological sciences. The school board did not place a sticker within the book to herald the fact that "atoms are only a theory" because atoms in no way conflict with a sacred text in general and a literal reading of Genesis in particular. That critical attention should be paid to any scientific theory is an important lesson that should be taught to students and must be applied universally to the whole body of science not individual theories (lest science languish in the past).

As an alternative to evolution "creation-science" has been proposed as a competing theory to be taught alongside Darwin's theory. There is a large problem with this (in addition to the confusion of terms noted above) the foremost being that creation-science is an oxymoron. Karl Popper, arguably the most important philosopher of science to emerge in the 20th century, has demonstrated that the key element of any true scientific theory is its falsifiablilty (click the link for a discussion about the implications of this). By definition creationism cannot be falsified, hence it is not science, it is at best metaphysics. Recently deceased Christian Theologian Langdon Gilkey understood this; his testimony in favor of evolution instruction in 1981 became a seminal landmark for which to turn in cases of science versus religion:

“Inherently, science has a secular character,” Gilkey testified. “It cannot be appealed to a supernatural cause. By its own rules, [science] rules out discussions of a deity”.........“His testimony in McLean and in his many books and articles reflected a religious sensibility that respected and drew inspiration from science, but which was also true to his vision of the meaning of Scripture” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.........In fact, Gilkey considered evolution a tool of creation, said his last doctoral student, Berea College philosophy and religion professor Jeff Pool.

The only competing scientific theory evolution has ever had has been the fixity of the species, not creationism.

What troubles so many individuals about evolution is that they either insist upon a word for word literal interpretation of the Bible (which I would argue, particularly the Old Testament, was not the original intent) or they assume evolution carries the metaphysical necessity of a reductionist materialism. This is simply not the case and is the opposite of the situation above. Here we have scientists moving from the comforts of observational science to the arena of speculative metaphysical philosophy (or the philosophy of science) and disguising their conclusion as scientific treatise. There are many individuals (myself included) who do not find there to be an intellectual dissonance between science and theism; in fact, true faith can only be enhanced by the truths that science finds not reduced by them. One of the great ironies lost on this particular lawsuit is that the author of the textbook, Brown evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller, is a devout Christian who has written a book on the interplay between science and religion.

The debate will continue to occur within society without a foreseeable end as long as individuals continue to close their minds to the astonishing discoveries science uncovers. The quote below is from Australian physicist Paul Davies, who demonstrates how science can inform a true 21st century theology:

Here then is a wonderful example of how science is increasingly informing theological debate. The question of whether life formed by law or chance can, and I believe will, be settled by observation and experiment. If life is finally made in a test tube, or discovered on Mars and shown to be completely independent of earthlife, then the meaningless fluke theory will be disproved. Life and mind will be revealed as part of the grand cosmic scheme, embedded in the nature of things at the deepest level of reality. Our own existence will be seen as linked to this deep level in an intimate and purposeful way. Instead of us playing a trivial role as incidental cosmic extras, with life on Earth an insignificant accident in a pointless universe, our place in the cosmos will be far more inspiring. True, it wouldn't return us to the centre of the universe or to the pinnacle of creation - our place is far more humble - but nor will it relegate us to the status of mere moving mounds of atoms. In my view, the discovery that life and mind have emerged as part of the natural outworking of the laws of the universe will be strong evidence for a deeper purpose in physical existence. Since it is easy to imagine other universes and other sets of physical laws that would prohibit life, the fact that our universe is so ingeniously bio-friendly would surely be a fact of the utmost significance. I hope you see the drift of my thinking. Invoking a miracle to explain life is exactly what is not needed to see evidence of divine purpose in the universe.


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