Sunday, February 24, 2008

Evolution Yet Again

The creationists are back, but the new law cuts both ways ...

In past posts (here and here) I've written about the shoving match going on between, on the one side, those who distrust Darwin's theory and consider it an attack on their religious beliefs and God's Own Word and who therefore want everyone in the public schools to be instructed that it is not a fact but only a theory and that there is a perfectly plausible alternative in the form of Intelligent Design that explains why it is more logical to believe that God just built everything exactly the way it is without any need for later revisions--between those people on the one side, and on the other, well, everyone else.

Alas, now in my own home state, nicknamed "Sunshine," the legislature has seen fit to write into law a two-edged solution to this so-called debate. On the one hand, they prescribe that evolution must be taught "as a theory, not a fact." But on the other hand, they say that it must be taught, which they have not decreed in the past.

I suppose we could take comfort in this. At least our students will not be denied all exposure to Mr. Darwin's excellent work on the subject. But I fear that more harm than good is being done because of the endorsement of such muddy thinking. Besides the bogus issue of fact versus theory (or fact versus fiction), one news story actually reported the following:

"Evolution would have to be taught as a theory, like Einstein's theory of relativity, rather than as a fact, such as Newton's laws of gravity."

Ouch! Can you feel me cringing? Last I heard, Einstein's formulas were working pretty well when it comes to things like generating nuclear power, explaining why the sun hasn't burned out yet, and turning cities into smoldering piles of rubble.

Mr. Newton, on the other hand, despite his laudable attempts to at least describe what gravity does, never told us anything about what it is. Furthermore, his "laws" have since been found not to apply at the small scale of subatomic particles, and to be less than complete when considering the universe as a whole. For many years now, Einstein's theory has been accepted to have superseded simple Newtonian physics, and is now being superseded in turn by quantum and string theories.

So first of all, can we not agree on the definition of a theory? A theory is an idea that explains the observable facts. So right away, we agree. OF COURSE EVOLUTION IS NOT A FACT -- BECAUSE IT'S A THEORY THAT EXPLAINS FACTS. WHO CALLED IT A FACT? I'm pretty sure the first people who dubbed it a "fact" were Creation--er, I mean Intelligent Design activists.

Here's how it works:

  • A fact is: The sun appears in the eastern sky each morning, at a predictable time, and disappears, also predictably, in the western sky each afternoon.
  • One theory to explain this is: The earth stands still at the center of the universe, and the sun goes around the earth once a day.
  • Another theory is: The sun stands still at the center of the universe, and the earth rotates around its own axis once a day, which makes it seem as if the sun is moving.

The first of these theories was long held to be so abundantly obvious (and scripturally correct) that it defied questioning. Copernicus was threatened with excommunication from The Church (you remember, the one and only church in Rome?) unless he withdrew his proposal of the second alternative. But in science everything is a theory except that which can be observed. And all theories remain open to revision indefinitely. Theories are tested by how well they explain the observed facts, and whether they can predict the outcome of further measurements and observations that could only be expected if they are correct.

People went to great lengths to cling to Theory Number One, even calculating the ornate loop-the-loops that the planets would have to perform to explain why the earth was still the center of everything. But in the end they just couldn't keep it up. The weight of the accumulated observations tipped overwhelmingly in favor of Copernicus and Theory Number Two. Plus, Theory Number Two could also explain the seasons, the length of the year, and solar and lunar eclipses. Maybe this made it easier when Theory Number Three came along and explained that the sun wasn't the center of the universe either, but only one of the billions of stars in the humongous whirlpool of the Milky Way Galaxy--oh, and by the way, that there are billions and billions of other galaxies out there, and we're not at the center of them, either.

Now along come the Intelligent Designers, as I think I will call them, and want us to convince our school kids that Theories Number Two and Three are just theories, not facts, and that there is a perfectly sound reason to keep believing in Theory Number One. Shall we also put in a word for Theory Number Zero, "the earth is flat?"

Opponents of evolution may protest that they are not advocating against any other scientific theories, only that one. (Not yet, anyway.) But I have deliberately used the example of a different theory--one which seems to be generally acceptable to everyone now-- to illustrate the point that we have more to fear from ignorance than from knowledge of the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. And once we begin to travel the path of ignorance, how will we ever know where to draw the line?

Humans have not been diminished by our exclusion from the center of the universe, as was feared in the past, nor have our faiths and social institutions collapsed. We have not thrown up our hands at our insignificance in the scheme of things. Instead we have grown in stature by virtue of our knowledge, and have hugely expanded the size and grandeur of the universe we live in. Rather than this single cramped stone we call home, roofed over by a lid full of twinkling lights, we now inhabit a vast space full of an endless variety of other worlds, and it is all laid out for us to explore.

So before we throw out the baby, bathwater, and washbasin of science altogether, I've got a better idea: How about if we also teach all the alternative creation myths from throughout history and around the world? Shouldn't our kids know that Adam and Eve in the Garden is just a theory, not a fact, and that others (Hindus, for example) have believed the world swam through the sea on the backs of four elephants standing on a turtle and surrounded by a giant snake? Wouldn't our kids end up learning more that way?

Of course, this is just a theory. But we could test it ...

1 comment:

  1. I’m glad to see my old friend Steve has decided to update his blog once a week. His ambition has encouraged me to try to respond, at least once a month. I don’t really have anything to say about Phillip Glass, but evolution and intelligent design – now that one I can get a grip on. First of all, let’s not miss an opportunity to discuss the Creationism Museum. The thing that cracks me up about these guys is that instead of taking the high percentage approach of framing their argument in faith-based terms, ie “We believe it. End of story.” they have adopted the language of empiricism and the, ahem, scientific method to make their case. This had led to the hilarious exhibits described in press reports on the museum – the one explaining dinosaur bones in the fossil record by presenting dioramas of little cave children romping with their pet pterodactyls is a favorite of mine. Surprisingly the Museum’s web site does not present too much of the weird science, but it does mention that a certain Ken Ham will be giving a speech entitled “Origin of Races.” Ken Ham? Origin of Races? That’s gotta be a gag, no?

    The work of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a group made up to stretch the boundaries of the “my theory is as good as yours” argument, is another thoughtful contributor to the conversation. Check out their “Letter to the Kansas School Board” http://www.venganza.org/about/open-letter/ for a taste of their noodly pastafarian logic.

    Finally, let’s not just skip over the “world sits on the back of four elephants who are standing on the back of turtle” hypothesis cited in Steve’s last paragraph. This hypothesis has historically called forth further hermeneutical analysis with regard to the matter of what the TURTLE is standing on. The traditional answer is that it’s turtles, all the way down.