Monday, February 09, 2009

Happy birthday, Papa Darwin

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced from the same laws acting around us."
--Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species

It’s Darwin week: Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth, and a host of radio shows, newspaper columns, television specials, and yes, even blog postings, celebrate, ruminate and mull over his contribution to the world today and the always-ongoing controversy that the theory of evolution inspires.

Freud famously observed that there had been three great blows to the human ego, delivered by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud himself (a modest one was Sigmund). I find it interesting that of these three, Darwin is really the only one who still gets up people’s noses. A handful of flat-earthers aside, there’s really no one out there suggesting we continue to teach the Ptolemaic system; and while Freud has been more or less jettisoned by psychology, he nevertheless lives on in the thriving therapy trade (I like to tell my students that Freud’s greatest sin wasn’t the appalling gender politics of theories like penis envy or the Oedipal Complex, so much as the fact that he effectively made Dr. Phil possible).

But Darwin still stokes the fires of controversy. I find this interesting because of the three, he is the one whose theories seem to me the most intuitive and unremarkable. I imagine that this is because I grew up on books about dinosaurs and paleontology, about the sudden extinction of the great reptiles and rise of the mammals; my geological time line has always been on the scale of hundreds of millions of years, and human beings have for me always been relatively recent arrivals. The Copernican Revolution, on the other hand, has always fired my imagination, especially in terms of such books as John Banville’s novels Dr. Copernicus and Kepler or popular histories like Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers—outer space has, in other words, always been site of discovery, whereas evolution always just seemed like common sense.

All of which is why, on occasions like this week, I regret my otherwise wonderful circumstances as a professor at a Canadian university. Why, do you ask? In a word, because I never have occasion to run into people who want to argue with me that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, much less people who advocate Creationism. Though universities can foster a special breed of wingnuttery all their own, I never find myself in the vanguard of the culture war arguing with religious fundamentalists or people convinced that Obama is a secret Muslim.

(The exception to this last example was when my friend Jen, who has a great TV blog called Nik at Nite, was talking a lot about Sarah Palin in the run-up to the U.S. election—in the context of Tina Fey’s brilliant portrayal of her—and had a stunning flood of comments attacking her for attacking Palin, and a great deal of the “you’re a Canadian and therefore have no right to talk about our politics” kind of thing. I commented in a few of the back-and forths, but when someone made the Obama-is-Muslim accusation, I jumped in with both feet-- because really, where was I going to have that opportunity again?).

I would like to have those arguments. I honestly have no objection to people believing in Creationism or Intelligent Design, but I do object rather emphatically to the suggestion that to be fair and equitable we need to teach one or both in schools alongside the Theory of Evolution. I won’t rehearse the usual arguments against Darwinism; suffice to say they tend toward the facile and disingenuous. My perspective is more of a disciplinary one. Were I confronted with someone asking me if I thought Intelligent Design should be taught, I would say yes—absolutely. Just not in Biology class. Teach it to your heart’s content in Religious Studies, in Sunday school. What the advocates of ID argue is that it is a perfectly acceptable alternative theory to Evolution and should therefore be taught in tandem.

This is where their suggestion is disingenuous. The fact of the matter is, if you are religious with any degree of devoutness, you have a de facto belief in Intelligent Design. That is to say, if you believe in an absolute divinity or omnipotent being at all seriously, it follows that He, She, or It had a hand in the creation of the universe and all of its denizens. There is of course a range of beliefs within this proposition, from the notion that God wound it all up like a clock five billion years ago and has left it to run its course, to a sense of immediate and constant divine intervention. But the point is: if you believe in God, you believe (or at least accept) the premise of Intelligent Design.

Nor is this at all problematic or reprehensible, but is a matter of religious faith and personal belief. To suggest however that what is essentially a matter of faith has a place in science class is simply ludicrous—and it is ludicrous because it fails spectacularly to meet the criteria defining academic disciplines.

Every discipline is more or less in a state of flux; not a huge or visible state of flux (in fact, most disciplines appear static or even stagnant), but in a constant state of negotiation as new work, new research, new ideas are tested out within a community of experts. What defines a discipline at any given moment is a critical mass of accepted practices, knowledge, and standards, and the criteria for determining them. Now, fields like Philosophy and Literature are not subject to the kind of empirical testing that is standard in the sciences, but we nevertheless proceed along similar lines by way of peer-review and accepted standards for how we do research and produce scholarship.

The issue of empirical testing is fundamental to the scientific method, and effectively has been since Galileo. Much remains in the realm of theory—relativity remained just an interesting idea for some dozen years until a comet passing through the solar system provided an opportunity to observe concrete evidence. And Evolution as a theory has undergone massive changes, and no biologist worth his salt will claim it has been worked out to the last detail. It remains however, as far as the balance of experts in the field declare, the best theory explaining how we biologically arrived where we are—and evolutionary biologists work to arrive at the point where what remains in the realm of theory can be empirically verified.

It is this last point that is the rub, for that kind of empiricism is fundamentally at odds with religious faith. Faith is just that, and proof positive that your belief is true sort of obviates the need for faith. Hence, unless the fundamental principles underwriting scientific inquiry are overturned, Intelligent Design is perfect for religion or theology classes but is antithetical to science. Which is why all the ostensibly reasonable arguments for introducing ID into science curricula is rather transparently a sort of back-door Creationism.

Anyway, in lieu of ever getting to make this argument with a bona fide Creationist, there’s my tribute to Papa Darwin.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Looking for a passionate Creationism argument? I'll put you touch with my parents... I've had more than my fair share...*insert a sigh of dismay*.

Here at Northwestern, we have a relatively new program called "One Book, One Northwestern," in which a single text is (in theory) read by the entire campus, followed by a series of relevant lectures, discussions, etc. This year's selection was David Quammen's "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," and I was lucky enough to attend a lecture he delivered on campus last week that covered both his book and his research into Darwin in a much more personal light. The book is definitely worth reading.