Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bereshith

Creationism has been on my mind a lot, along with its evil twin (well, more evil twin) Intelligent Design.

I recently watched a news clip of a Georgia school board hearing where the creationist contingent won their case to have science textbooks teaching evolution marked with a warning label, like a pack of cigarettes. The pro-label crowd -- mostly women as far as I could see -- yelled and clapped and waved their arms like soccer moms cheering little Jesse's goal. The leader of the group stood there with a proud, defiant and at the same time humble look on her face. It was the look of someone who had challenged a powerful, impersonal establishment on behalf of the underdog, and won.

Erin Brokovich, meet the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The comparison isn't entirely absurd. Williams Jennings Bryan, who argued the anti-Darwin case on behalf of the state of Tennessee, made his political career as a fierce populist, fighting big business, big government, and what he viewed as their corrupt connivance with one another. (He also opposed the jingoist expansionism of the Spanish-American war, one of the few American politicians to do so.) And although some people see "creationists" as agents of an over-reaching Republican agenda, they may view themselves more as victims of a different kind of elitist power base, represented by liberal school boards, the Supreme Court, and the godless, immoral media who control the movies and television programming they and their families watch. Go figure.

However, given the pervasive anti-intellectualism of American life, it's not enough to simply rail at creationists for ignoring the superior logic of science, as opposed to the faith of the local pastor or their own hometown instincts. As our low world-wide ranking in test scores attests, many Americans are not only ignorant of science but actively disinterested in it, however important it may be to their cell phones and satellite dishes and Viagra prescriptions. And let's be honest: of the 45% (45%!) of Americans who do believe in evolution, how many could give a coherent summary of the evidence and arguments? So righteous indignation alone won't win the day (though I'm all for ridicule, e.g. cartoons showing baboons cheerfully endorsing Jerry Falwell's claim of no family relationship whatsoever). We need to pinch our noses and take a hard look at how the cunningly evolved brains of the creationists are working for their herd's survival.

It's not a monolithic field. The woman in the Georgia school gymnasium, who declared her faith in a literal six day creation, some 4000 years B.C., at least had the virtue of consistency and the courage of her convictions. The advocates of "Intelligent Design," by contrast, are a much more sleazy and intellectually dishonest crowd. This quasi-scientific "re-interpretation" of the evidence of biological history seems to have two primary motives. First, to skirt the church-state issue involved in the Supreme Court's 1987 prohibition on teaching creationism in public schools. Second, to provide cover for those who want to dupe the public or themselves into thinking that that truly open-minded schools should teach a range of "scientific" viewpoints. A recent story on the National Center for Science Education website shows how tricky but also how transparent the advocates of this movement can be.

Alas, neither the work of high-minded science educators or ACLU-sponsored lawsuits seem sufficient in the face of a growing popular viewpoint and zealous and well-organized interest groups that have the support of the Republican power base, on the state level at least:

http://www.theocracywatch.org/texas_gop.htm
http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=7139
http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_id5.htm

Hopefully the significant minority of Americans who believe in the evolutionary struggle for survival will take Darwin's lessons more to heart, and voters, educational groups, and politicians will organize themselves to effectively challenge today's Neanderthals -- in the schools, in the courts, and in public opinion. As the great British evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, this is not just a fight for good science: an electorate ready to swallow one set of carefully crafted half-truths can always be led to embrace others.


["Bereshith" = "In the beginning", the first word of the Hebrew Bible]

[12/6: See Tom Friedman's column this morning in the NYT, deploring the cut in the National Science Foundation funding by the Republican-led Congress' . He calls it supremely irresponsible; others would just call it "chipping away at the opposition."]

[1/1: A bracing last word from Stephen Jay Gould in the New York Review of Books, 6/12/97: "The very phenomena that traditional views cite as proof of benevolence and intentional order—the good design of organisms and the harmony of ecosystems—arise by Darwin's process of natural selection only as side consequences of a singular causal principle of apparently opposite meaning: organisms struggling for themselves alone. (Good design becomes one pathway to reproductive success, while the harmony of ecosystems records a competitive balance among victors.) Darwin's system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature's factuality in any case, so why not take the "cold bath" of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life's causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?" The article is also interesting for its critique of a scientific "fundamentalism" in the intepretation of Darwin's ideas among "strict adaptationist" thinkers, including Richard Dawkins.]

[1/13: Well, looks like there is a God, though a God who obviously believes in Darwin not himself: the AP reports a federal judge in Georgia ordered that Atlanta school system to remove stickers from biology texts calling evolution "a theory, not a fact", arguing that "the disclaimers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion". Score one for the ACLU sponsored lawsuits after all!!!]

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