Sunday, May 2, 2010

EVOLUTION VERSUS WHATEVER

The controversy about evolution, with efforts by some to dismiss the theory as “only a theory,” as if divorced from fact, continues. It raged for 65 years after the Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” appeared in 1859. It subsided after the Scopes trial in 1924, when Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan and embarrassed the champion of anti-evolutionists. Since then, a small majority of Americans has regarded even leading anti-evolutionists as dumb rubes. That unflattering opinion, perhaps true then, is false now. Today’s anti-evolutionists have evolved; they are more educated and eloquent, sophisticated though also sophistical, people, many with advanced degrees in the relevant sciences. In recent years, they have taken up what most had dismissed as a lost cause to challenge the science curriculum in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Although almost all scientists favor evolution, a large minority of Americans still does not accept it.

Notwithstanding, evolution is so well established in science as to be tantamount to a fact; it explains not only “the origin of species,” but also and more importantly the means by which they change. A knowledge of evolution supports efforts to address human concerns about disease and health, famine and food, and the biosphere in which we live and which we share with other organisms. It enables a better understanding of how we got to be who were are, what we might and perhaps should become, and how we can be better stewards of what some call “creation.” So why do many people reject a theory, or a fact, well established by science which is the basis of enormous benefits to people and their planet?

One reason is that some people resent or repudiate the idea of an ape-cousin in the family tree.

Another reason is the fact that many Americans know little science. Those who “sound off” to the media repeat objections to evolution raised and razed decades ago. Allegations of “gaps” in the fossil record assume that evolution occurred gradually over hundreds of millions of years, time for many incrementally different, intermediate forms; instead, it occurred in short spurts of rapid change, with small, transitional populations leaving few traces, between long periods of equilibrium. The allegation of a missing mechanism to explain evolution was valid in Darwin’s day, but it no longer exists; mutations of genes and mergers of DNA materials explain evolutionary change.

The main reason is the fear which many Americans have, namely, that evolution—as they see it, random, purposeless, materialistic—counters or corrupts their religious and moral beliefs. To them, its worldly benefits matter less than spiritual ones. So they seek to banish the study of evolution from public education, have its status demoted to “mere” or “unproven” theory, or balance it with pseudo-scientific alternatives. Whatever the proposed alternatives—creationism, intelligent design, or, more recently, the bogus balancing of the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution”—the driving purpose is to inculcate a basis of belief in a “higher power”—“God” is the word always lurking behind euphemisms like this one. The issue is not one of “free speech” or “equal time.” Texas talk of being “fair” to both “sciences” is clap-trap; there is science and non-science—period.

By such schemes and sleights of hand, anti-evolutionists think to reinforce their faith by conning others to accept their beliefs. Their effort would be unnecessary if they were as strong in their faith as their rejection of evolution and their insistence on Biblical inerrancy suggest. Thus, for them, the Bible states the literal or nearly literal truth. A few believe that the world was created in six, 24-hour days; more believe that those six days were six periods totaling a few thousand years. Except for such small differences, all believe that a cogent, compelling being created things once and forever, even what appears to be the fossil record itself. But why create that “record” if it misleads?

Whatever the answer, even if it be to test faith, anti-evolutionists misunderstand faith in its relationship to truth. The Biblical account of creation, for example, cannot be both a matter of faith and a matter of truth. The two are different things. Faith allows doubt about things unknown or unknowable; truth reflects certainty about the known. So the insistence on Biblical inerrancy is a sign, not of strength in matters of faith which lacks all doubt, but of intolerance of doubt and of insecurity in need of certainty.

Many non-anti-evolutionist Christians are strong in their faith without a belief in the Bible as the literal truth to sustain their faith. Holy it is to them; guidance it is to them; science it is not to them. Christian faith is stronger for admitting doubt and relying only on doctrine understood in light of revelation, tradition, and reason. It is not stronger for denying doubt and depending on Biblical inerrancy. It is weaker for needing the prop of pseudo-science trying to validate Genesis 1.1-2.3—one of many Semitic creation myths, including Genesis 2.4b-25—as a history of the earth. Indeed, not one moral command or religious doctrine depends on a geological or paleontological fact; more generally, faith is based on moral myths, not facts. So, the Bible need not be true to be good, but it can be the Good Book and do good if read with humility and used for humanity.

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