Defending Darwin?

Posted on March 30, 2015 by Tommy McGuire
Labels: random

Regarding Defending Darwin, a recent article by James Krupa in Orion magazine: Keep in mind that there are several confounding factors in teaching evolution in a religiously conservative (in the American sense) area.

  1. If you're not from around here (or even if you are), you may not realize that the United States are not especially unified, culturally. Essentially everyone lives in a bubble, scientists, Swedes, Baptist ministers. No one is really evil ('cept me; but I'm always rooting for the underdog); very few people are actually stupid and the term "ignorant" is one to use with care (it applies some people much of the time but everyone some of the time). Unless you've had this fact rammed down your throat, the fact that some people say different things than you do often seems like prima facie reason to believe that there is something seriously wrong with them.

  2. The conflict between religion and science is at a much deeper level than evolution or any other specific question about facts. Religion is based on belief in the absence of (or even in conflict with) evidence. Science is (or should be) based on doubt even in the presence of evidence. (Quick quiz: Did Albert Einstein waste the last half of his life opposing quantum mechanics?)

    I enjoyed Stephen J. Gould's book on the conflict between religion and science, but he rather missed the actual point. ("I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive": yes, at the risk of having to compartmentalize the activities of science and religion; but everyone does that anyway. I like to fancy myself a scientist, but my understanding of most of science is at the level of religion; I don't have enough physics to really evaluate evidence, so I'm just going along based on results. Likewise, I don't have the chemistry or the biology. I suspect the vast majority of any scientists or engineers are in a similar boat, although I know too many of both to expect not to be set on fire for this statement. In any case, I'm mostly going along because I like the results.)

  3. Evolution, on the student side in this article at least, is essentially irrelevant to the lives of the students. (Modulo, of course, the evolutionary medicine points; many of those are as compatible with creationism, though.) This is a course on biology for non-biologists; the facts of biology have no practical, visible effects on their lives. That might change if they go full-crazy and assert something like the immutability of species, but that isn't the mainstream of creationist thought. Whether whales descended from a strange, wolfy sort of critter is as irrelevant to non-biologically inclined students as whether whales' tails are oriented vertically or horizontally to students in Kansas. Or, whether nitrogen compounds are exciting.

Teaching evolution in these classes is valuable solely because it teaches an understanding of how science works, which (a) most practising scientists don't really have but which (b) is kind of important if one is going to be dealing with modern policy decisions. Which one is. On the one hand, that makes this class one of the most important that the students could take, but on the other it makes this class one of the least important: personally, I don't care if you believe in evolution or not if you can make reasonable, reasoned decisions. (Unless you believe the world was created 4000 years ago, all of the evidence otherwise was planted as a trick, and that the god who did so is benevolent. I'm staying away from that guy. There's something seriously wrong with him.)

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