Friday, July 15, 2005

The three sins of evolutionism

A brief article entitled "Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate" posted at Tech Central Station surveys the field of battle of the evolutionists and creationists and mentions some of the sins of each side. I won't mention the sins of the polemical creationists since I just blogged on a similar topic last week with my post "Jesus Christ, string theorist". But the three sins of the evolutionists make an interesting set of points for discussion.

The first sin on the list is complacency:

The first is a profound failure of the imagination, which comes from a certain laziness and complacency. Somehow people, who should, because of their studies in biology, have been brought to a state of profound wonder and awe at the astonishing beauty and intricacy and generosity of nature, can think of nothing better to say than to gloomily pronounce it all meaningless and valueless. Even if one is an atheist, nature surely has a meaning, that is, an abstract and volitional and mental implication: the human world and its ideas and arts and loves, including our appreciation for the beauty of nature itself.
It's hard to see what's so sinful about this. Without delving too deeply into the nuances of meaning, I would agree that everyone, including atheists, could admit to subjectively ascribing a meaning to nature. That doesn't strike me as a particularly controversial stand. On the other hand, it's precisely the crux of the argument whether one can demonstrate an objective meaning to nature. As I mentioned in last week's post, explaining away the appearance of design appears to be a fundamental goal of science in general, not just of evolutionary biology in particular. Whether the author would agree that "design" is equivalent to "meaning" in his article is an open question, but for me, asking evolutionists to spend more time discussing the meaning of nature thus seems less like an appeal for evolutionists to acknowledge an intellectual failing and more like a veiled attempt at "begging the question" at the heart of the debate.

The next sin on the list is ingratitude:

The second sin is a profound moral failure -- the failure of gratitude. If one found out that one had a billion dollars free and clear in one's bank account, whose source was unknown, one should want to find out who put it there, or if the donor were not a person but a thing or a system, what it was that has so benefited us. And one would want to thank whoever or whatever put it in our account. Our lives and experiences are surely worth more than a billion dollars to us, and yet we did not earn them and we owe it to someone or something to give thanks. And to despise and ridicule those who rightly or wrongly do want to give thanks and identify their benefactor as "God" is to compound the sin.
I think it's incorrect to say that evolutionists are not grateful for the gifts of living (by the way, thanks Mom and Dad). On the other hand, asking the atheist evolutionists to acknowledge the existence of a single benevelent entity who is the provider of the gift of existence is again a veiled attempt at begging the question at the heart of the debate.

The final evolutionist sin on the list is the same dishonesty indulged in by the creationists:

The third sin is again dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.
There's no doubt that the abuse of science to support ulterior purposes is one of the sins of our times; just ask Alan Sokal what he thinks about the journal "Lingua Franca" to get an idea of the extent of scientific abuse. But the abuse of, well, practically anything in the service of some greater political goal is a failure of humankind in general. Even Aristotle concluded that politics was the master art in the Nicomachean Ethics. One of the advantages of science as a professional discipline is exactly that advantage that the author would claim as an advantage for organized religion: an institutional framework (or at least an institutional ideal) that is independent of the government.

Unfortunately, the author also indulges in what appears to be a wild proliferation of charges. It's not clear, for example, why the legal, therapeutic and caring professions would have any professional stance on evolution beyond the general convictions of their members as to its truth or falsity. And don't these professions have as much interest in maintaining their independence from the state as any others? Even laywers might greatly prefer being private laywers rather than government ones.

Another charge in the excerpt is an apparent reference to the recent Kansas School Board hearings on the teaching of evolution and a boycott organized by the scientific community. Whether the boycott tactic was wise or not is debatable, but surely the scientific community can and must be able to assert the legitimacy of science against those who are attempting to undermine it. Taking a stand on scientific truth must be right, even if the "evolutionary partisans" are the indirect beneficiaries, provided that even the evolutionary partisans have their statements exposed to criticism and verification as well.


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