Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If My Wife Dumps Me I'm Marrying Paula Kirby

...if she'll have me.

This editorial from the Washington Post's On Faith column should be required reading. She begins with the question posed to the panel:

Q: Rick Perry, at a campaign event this week, told a boy that evolution is 'just a theory' with 'gaps' and that in Texas they teach “both creationism and evolution.” According to a 2009 Gallup study, only 38 percent of Americans say they believe in evolution. If a majority of Americans are skeptical or unsure about evolution, should schools teach it as a mere “theory”? Why is evolution so threatening to religion?

So-called “reality TV” has done the world a grave disservice. I don't just mean because the vast majority of such programs are mind-numbingly tedious, but because they have given people the idea that reality is something that can be decided by popular vote. In a “reality TV” show, the winner is decided through a popularity contest: the person who gets the most votes from viewers emerges triumphant. Anything less like reality it would be hard to imagine - when it comes to facts about the world, at least.

In the real world, facts are stubborn beasts. They are supremely unmoved by whether we like them or not. We may sternly disapprove of the idea that stepping off the window ledge of an apartment on the 14th floor will result in our death; we may go further, and resolutely contradict all claims to that effect, clinging religiously to our belief that such activity is nothing more than an enjoyable and exhilarating way to spend an afternoon; but neither our disapproval nor our disbelief will make the slightest difference to the real-world splat.

And it is the same with evolution. Evolution is a simple fact. We can choose to remain ignorant of it, we can stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to think about it, we can even rail against it and shout and scream that it is not allowed to be true. But facts are facts, and will not go away just because we don't like them. We don't get to vote for our preferred method of having come into existence as a species, any more than we can choose to have been delivered by stork rather than conceived and born in the usual way.

The primary role of the school is pretty straightforward: it is to educate. It is to give young people the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the world, on the basis of the very best knowledge we have. Education is about overcoming ignorance - so the idea of allowing ignorance to set the school curriculum and to perpetuate itself by continuing to teach generation after generation information that for the last 150 years we have known to be false, is a shameful betrayal: a betrayal of young people, who put their trust in us and who deserve better; and a betrayal of the very concept of education itself.

Remember that 'ignorance' is not an insult, but merely a term for 'lack of knowledge'. Many of the people who protest so vociferously against the teaching of evolution do not understand how overwhelmingly strong the evidence for it is; and many of those who proclaim “But it's only a theory” do not understand that the scientific and everyday usages of the word 'theory' are very different. In everyday English, 'theory' can mean something vague, a hunch, a guess. In scientific English, it is almost as far from that meaning as it's possible to get: in science, a theory is the best explanation for a set of facts. It carries real weight: in science, nothing can be called a 'theory' until it is very well established indeed. Science has its own term for what, in a non-scientific context, the rest of us might call a 'theory': the scientific term for a suggestion, a best guess, something that seems plausible but has not yet been shown to be reliably true, is 'hypothesis'. You will never, ever hear a scientist talk about 'the hypothesis of evolution', for the simple reason that evolution is long past that stage. Evolution is a theory in the scientific sense of the word - tested, researched, explored and supported by masses and masses of evidence. There may still be specific details that are not entirely agreed upon; but the fact of evolution itself is not disputed by any reputable scientist. (If you are in any doubt about the evidence for evolution, I highly recommend The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins or Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne , because both authors have explained comprehensively, beautifully and very accessibly just why we can be so sure that evolution really is a fact.)

To deprive children of this knowledge, or to water it down so as to pretend that it's just a wild guess, is to deliberately deprive them of one of the most powerful and illuminating pieces of knowledge that humans have ever acquired. It is to deliberately keep them from what we know to be the truth. It is to conceal from them their true identity, and all meaningful knowledge of their roots. To suggest that creationism is in any way a rival 'theory' is to confuse reality with myth. Creationism is to evolution what Santa Claus is to frazzled parents frantically buying and wrapping presents for their children at Christmas. There comes a point in our childhood when we must let go of the fantasy of Santa Claus; and there comes a point in our civilization when we must let go of the fantasy of creationism too.

Evolution is science, and should be taught in science classes. Creationism -- let us be very clear about this --is a purely religious doctrine, with no scientific underpinning whatsoever. Indeed, all the evidence points very strongly to its being false. It therefore has no place in a science lesson. Science proceeds on the basis of evidence, religion on the basis of faith, and any teacher who tries to teach faith-based dogma in a science class is clearly demonstrating her unsuitability for the role.

But of course evolution poses a problem for Christianity. That's not to say it poses a problem for all Christians, since many Christians happily accept evolution: they see Genesis 1 as merely a metaphor, and declare that if God chose to create us using evolution, that's fine by them. I used to be this kind of Christian myself; but I must confess that my blitheness was only possible because I had only the vaguest possible idea of how evolution works and certainly didn't know enough about it to realize that unguided-ness is central to it. While I welcome anyone who recognizes that the evidence for evolution is such that it cannot sensibly be denied, to attempt to co-opt evolution as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly superficial understanding of the subject. Not only does evolution not need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving. Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work. An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things - but loving would not be one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful. Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love.

Evolution poses a further threat to Christianity, though, a threat that goes to the very heart of Christian teaching. Evolution means that the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis are wrong. That's not how humans came into being, nor the cattle, nor the creeping things, nor the beasts of the earth, nor the fowl of the air. Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place.

Christianity is like a big, chunky sweater. It may feel cozy, it may keep you warm, but just let one stitch be dropped and the whole thing unravels before your very eyes. Evolution is that stitch. Evolution destroys the loving creator on which the whole of Christianity depends. I can quite understand why the evangelicals throw up their hands in horror at the very idea of it and will do everything in their power to suppress it. But they can throw up their hands all they like: it won't make any difference to the reality. All that will be achieved by their determined efforts to keep young people misinformed about it is that another generation of Americans will be condemned to ignorance, unable to understand the world around them properly, and at a real disadvantage when having to deal and compete with their peers from more enlightened countries. Willful ignorance is a choice; evolution is not.




The great Richard Dawkins' response is similarly entertaining and brilliant and contains this zinger:
The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

Wow. Very well written. It gives you a lot to think about. I believe in evolution and I believe in a Creator, just not the God of our various religions. I've never thought the Creator had to be humanistic, loving, wise, etc., only that the Creator intended to create and design life, that the Creator was beyond my understanding. Not a perfect explanation, but it's one that works for me.

wunelle said...

Though her message finds exact resonance with me, part of my admiration is the quality of her writing. Every time I read Kirby or Paul Krugman I'm reminded of what good writing is (well, one kind of good writing, and of a style I might aspire to on this blog): terse and to the point, devoid of extraneous bullshit. I so often sputter and fume without focus.

shrimplate said...

I fail to understand why simplicity of expression and depth of thought (Billy Cobham!) are such anathema our political wannabees.

wunelle said...

You are a musical polymath! (Perhaps the qualifier "musical" is unnecessary.) Not many people who post their favorite sopranos or lutenists would have any clue about who Billy Cobham is! I haven't heard anything of his in 20 years. Any recommendations?