Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Truth, Intelligent Design, O.J. and that Damned Herd Instinct

My dander has been up lately over the furor over Intelligent Design. Not only the subject itself, which it is hard not to see as a calculated lie by a group of intellectually deficient or at least dishonest people, but over the fact that they're getting any traction at all. Daniel Dennett had a brilliant OpEd piece in the NYTimes about it yesterday called Show Me the Science. This all reminds me of the ruckus caused by the O.J. Simpson trial, which coverage seemed to confirm that we were a culture now fully incapable of distinguishing between news and entertainment.

(I immediately plunge into a diversion. I had to cringe to think of what Europeans or people from other parts of the world whose educational systems were functioning thought to see this 24 / 7 coverage on every network of an event utterly devoid of importance or any significance--except to the families directly involved--apart from its spectacle value. I felt similarly embarrassed during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq--regardless of where one stood on the issue itself--that our news media spent so much time covering the White House Cafeteria renaming “French Fries” in protest to the French refusal to provide the demanded rubber stamp, while the French media were seriously dissecting the real issues on the table in excruciating detail.)

The verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial seemed to affect Americans, those who cared, almost entirely along racial lines. The media circus aside, we had a labyrinthine legal system evolved over time to suss out the truth of a case presented to a jury, and yet here we were facing the prospect of a person’s perceived guilt being solely a function of his race. I just couldn’t get my head around this! Surely his race had no bearing on whether the facts were sufficient to convict him of a brutal crime! It is not truth that is arrived at by way of a democratic process, whatever good things those processes deliver to us.

Now here we are looking down the barrel of a similar gun. A bunch of religious zealots seem to be convincing the same nation that cannot keep Saddam Hussein separate from the events of 9/11 that evolution has flaws so great that the teaching of an alternative is urgently needed. Not just any alternative, but a specific one whose flaws measured on the same scale they use to dissect evolution leaves their “theory” without an iota of credibility. Is it really that hard to determine what is known and what is not, and what conclusions are to be drawn from it? Like the laughable Christian “Truth” fish one sees on bumper stickers devouring that irksome little “Darwin” fish with legs, it seems that Christians must define truth quite differently from the population at large.

But I just never really thought of Truth as a flexible word. And it’s not, even to those same Christians most of the time: they trust the science-based engineering which makes their minivans safe, the science which brings them modern medicine and cellular telephones and iPods and radio and television and a zillion other things they’re not willing to live without. But on an item abstract and--it must be admitted--unimportant from any immediate practical standpoint like the origin of life, that same science is now rejected, likely without even being grasped, in favor of a mythology. I envision a courtroom scene where kidnappers are on trial, claiming the child is really THEIR child, and the child’s presumed biological parents are on hand with DNA evidence supporting their claim. The judge reviews the information and awards custody to the kidnappers, saying “This just feels right to me.” “But what about the irrefutable DNA evidence which shows that she is the product of our genes?!” the biological parents scream incredulously. “No, no; these people just feel to me like they should be the girl’s parents.”

I learned a long time ago that the primary function of any organization--any church or government or university or labor union or student organization--is very soon its own perpetuation, and that this stands in the way of truth. We see in the organized churches a power structure which for centuries has legitimized the power and control of an elite group of white men over the population at large. Churches used to be indistinguishable from government (and in many places still are) and we know how great our own government is at keeping us accurately informed. Historically, a position within a church heirarchy was a dandy meal ticket, delivering one from the crushing poverty and ignorance which prevailed in primitive societies and which it was in the church’s interest to keep as the status quo. We must call a spade a spade. Evolution, and the science of biology which now rests almost entirely upon it, stand squarely in the path of a religious explanation of our universe and all things in it. The threat to the church’s hold on the people is clear.

But what is true and known in the world is not a function of who benefits or suffers, any more than O.J.’s guilt is a function of his skin color. The facts about natural selection are not in question. The truth which is revealed by this theory is not comprehensive, but what we learn is so strongly supported by evidence that it meets what most informed, reasonable people would require to label it true. That evolution occurs is known beyond all question; Darwin saw and documented it even among the Galapagos Islands, and the existence of the myriad breeds of domesticated dogs (all of them created by artificial selection by human hand) and innumerable observable things make this a known quantity. A fact. A truth. What is speculative is not the existence of evolution, but that the same process we know to be responsible for the shape and strength of a finch’s beak is also what has shaped us from lowly single-celled beginnings. Still, there is very compelling evidence that supports this hypothesis, exponentially more than that supporting any other theory. And, as Daniel Dennett points out, Intelligent Design is not even a theory. It’s not even a myth, though the Judeo-Christian creation myth is the puppet master behind the Oz of Intelligent Design.

This all leads to a discussion about what science is, what the scientific method is, which is not nearly so well known as it ought to be. But that’s another day.

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