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--Edward Gorey

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Creation and Intelligent Design: We're Not In Kansas Anymore, Or Are We?*

Binky, over at BloodlessCoup, in a painfully short post entitle "Ye Gods and Little Fishes," pithily calls attention to this story, which -- make no mistake -- certainly warrants our attention.

The article sums up the situation thus:

Evolution is going on trial in Kansas.

Eighty years after a famed courtroom battle in Tennessee pitted religious beliefs about the origins of life against the theories of British scientist Charles Darwin, Kansas is holding its own hearings on what school children should be taught about how life on Earth began.

The Kansas Board of Education has scheduled six days of courtroom-style hearings to begin on Thursday in the capitol Topeka. More than two dozen witnesses will give testimony and be subject to cross-examination, with the majority expected to argue against teaching evolution.

Many prominent U.S. scientific groups have denounced the debate as founded on fallacy and have promised to boycott the hearings, which opponents say are part of a larger nationwide effort by religious interests to gain control over government.

"I feel like I'm in a time warp here," said Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray who has agreed to defend evolution as valid science. "To debate evolution is similar to debating whether the Earth is round. It is an absurd proposition."

I'm certainly not going to defend the format of the proposed debate. Furthrmore, I am whole heartedly committed to seeing evolution continue to be an integral part of school science curricula, since whether it explains life's origin on Earth or not, it certainly explains quite a lot going back hundreds of millions of years. Nothing any intelligent design advocate has argued convinces me to buy the absurd conclusion that the fossil record is some contrivance of a Creator to test our faith or otherwise create the illusion that the earth is older than the 6,000 or so years to which Christian orthodoxy would have us subscribe.

That said, however, a while back Brian and an ongoing discussion on topic at DCH led me to read Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, which ably criticizes the utter failure of Darwinism writ large, and particular its contemporary exponents, to account for the origin of complex life processes.

I've now read something like two-thirds of the book, which makes a pretty compelling case (to this non-scientist with some significant science in his background) that Darwin breaks down when it comes to accounting for the complex cellular and molecular structures and processes necessary to the formation of life as we understand it, which are, as he styles it, "irreducibly complex" (that is to say, like a mousetrap, presenting an intractable problem for natural selection inasmuch as no benefits accrue from intermediate steps, thus nature would have no reason to select for the many biochemical processes on which all terrestrial life depends). His critique is all the more resonant for his indifference to the identity or nature of the "designer" he believes must have played an integral role in the instantiation of terrestrial life, and for the fact that he is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University instead of a pundit, minister, or wingnut politician.

My point in rejecting the liberal orthodoxy that we must detest anything that even vaguely sounds like a new Scopes debacle, I suppose, is that with the way states like Kansas go about it, with their unabashed ulterior objective to promote Christianity to a predominately Christian school body, I can't embrace the so-called "debate" they propose because, plainly, the policy makers in question have no real interest in it. But if someone were to argue rationally, in something like an a-religious enlightenment-informed way, that books like the one I'm reading be taught to encourage discussion of the legitimate questions regarding, and flaws contained within, Darwin's seminal theory, I'd be all for it. For that first-principle iconoclasm, that unwillingness to go down with problematic theories rather than open one's mind to difficult alternatives, is the root of scientific inquiry. And last I checked, it's the scientific method, not dogma, that we're supposed to be teaching our children in public school. And best I can tell, both sides of this debate tend toward the dogmatic, which disserves our children and our society.

* Pun shamelessly derivative of Binky's Toto joke.

UPDATE: More on this fascinating topic here and especially here.

4 Comments:

Anonymous binky said...

As if juxtaposing gods and fishes (with feet?) wasn't shameless enough. :)

3:08 PM  
Blogger brian said...

A couple of comments...

First, as a Christian, I can't and won't jump aboard the "bash evolution" bandwagon. If you're a strict, six day creationist, you better also belief the earth is flat too. I'm willing to wager that the fossil record is not a result of the Fall. Evolutionary theory (scientific evolutionary theory, that is) makes compelling arguments about the development of species. Who am I to say that God couldn't use evolution as a means of creation? And, let's keep theology in its proper sphere.

Second (and I think you're speaking to this) I detest the fact that Darwinists refuse to acknowledge the religious nature of their beliefs (see Dawkins, Richard). Evolution does not prove or disprove the existence of God. Does evolution cast some doubt on the literal creation story? Yes, but I know Christian scientists who believe that even the Old Testament Hebrews understood that Genesis was a story. We live on an old Earth, and evolutionary theory goes a long way in describing that. It does not, however, speak to ontology and theology. Science is limited to the natural world.

What's also unfortunate is that evolutionary scientists refuse to acknowledge that there are problems with evolutionary theories. Scientists have to see themselves within the scope of history. We are not, as some might have us think, at the "end of history." As technology advances, we will increase our understanding of the natural world. Chances are, scientists will be forced to refine evolutionary theory in light of that understanding.

3:20 PM  
Blogger brian said...

For further reading about a different sort of Christian response to Darwinism, read Alister McGrath's Dawkins' God. McGrath is a scientist/theologian who argues for the strict separation of those pursuits, and this book his response to the deification of Darwinism as practiced by the Darwinian evangelist Richard Dawkins.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Joe Kearns said...

Just a minor terminology note. In the original post, there is an association made between intelligent design advocates and a young earth. Though the young earthers could be seen as forming a subset of the intelligent design theorists, the latter term is usually reserved for folks like Philip Roth, who are old-earthers, so to speak. I myself fall into the latter category. The core of ID theory is that, however long it took, and it looks like it took a long time, the changes we see could not have occurred by undirected chance but indicate design. These ideas are mostly based upon arguments noting irreducible complexity, or arguments starting from information theory. (ie, while it may be true that some monkeys banging a typewriter for a billion years could/would someday produce Hamlet, it would not "be" Hamlet, or any other meaningful document, without the pre-existence of the symbolic system called English, which would never arise in the process of the banging...)

4:48 PM  

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