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Monday, November 08, 2004


stickers in schoolbooks

as the aclu attempts to battle creationism in georgia, the absurdity of what is transpiring is amazing. parents in cobb county prevailed on their school district to rewrite their biology textbooks with stickers pointing out that evolution, the explanation of the broad and deep evidence concerning both the fossil record and the rise of mankind, is just a theory.

consider the aclu's position for a moment: evolution, they would claim, is not a theory? it is, of course, and will always remain theoretical. so, for that matter, are our explanations of gravitation and electromagnetism.

what lies at the heart of the controversy seems to be the word "theory". there seems to be an agreement, somehow, between both sides to refuse to understand what is meant by theory. evolution is not simply an observation of change -- it is also a mechanism to explain those observations, i.e., a theory. when one examines a fruit fly population over forty years and observes change, that is evolution and a fact subject to falsification; however, the theory of evolution (particularly, natural selection, which was darwin's core contribution to biology) is the explanation as to how and why such change occurs. and it, as it is based on observable facts and is subject to falsification, is certainly still being revised and developed as a theory.

while we observe the fact of gravity everywhere, we have only theory of gravitation to explain how and why gravitation works. that theory may be revised to fit observations, or even entirely rejected. but gravity will still be observable regardless. so it is with evolution.

creationists seem to believe that they can dismiss the insurmountable proof that species change over time in response to their circumstances if they can keep evolution -- an explanation for the mechanism of such change -- from becoming a "fact". conversely, the aclu seem to think that such evidence as has been accumulated constitutes the final word that precludes any future refutation of the mechanism or some of its aspects.

in their vigor to counter ridiculous creationism, the aclu betrays two fundamental, related failings: devotion to scientism, and irrational opposition to religion. it is, whatever the aclu would like to believe, perfectly consistent to believe in a divine power and accept evolutionary theory. the vast majority of scientists throughout the age of reason were deists, who thought of the universe and all that's in it as a sort of deterministic clockwork, set in motion by god. evolution easily works within such a view and its theological descendents -- darwin himself was an anglican skeptic but not an irreligious man. the advancement of secularism in our society to sometimes militant levels should not blind us to that compatibility.

it is also perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that science does not explain everything. the mechanisms of evolution are not well understood. old ones may be discredited, as has been lamarckism. new ones may emerge. this is the nature of scientific inquiry and the proposal of theories, and it is not a weakness but a strength.

for all their flaws, they are opposed by a far more bizarre and silly crowd -- biblical literalists, who believe that the book of genesis is somehow literally factual. literal, in this sense, must mean their specific interpretation of the words (of course, there is no one literal interpretation of any writing). part of this interpretation is that species have not changed since the creation of the world, which was accomplished by god in six days some time ago.

casual creationists would do well to study the history of transformism, also known as transmutationism. it was recognized even among the ancient greeks that species were related, and that they transformed over time. saint augustine in the 4th c. philosophized on the diversity of life and proposed adaptation to circumstance as a way of linking species. thomas aquinas in the 11th c. recognized and advocated aristotle's embryology. raleigh in the 16th c. understood that dogs and wolves were related, and that races of men were related. buffon in the early 18th c proposed adaptation through interbreeding. lamarck, cuvier and lyell in the late 18th further fleshed out transformism by adaptation. all these men were christian.

a viable mechanism for transformation was not understood and the evidence to study it systemically had not been collected in these cases -- and that's what darwin supplied in evolution. but that species changed and that humans were related to animals was not in dispute.

this is not, then, as many mischaracterize it, a battle between all science and all religion, as though the two were monolithic structures. there is considerable compromise occurring. for example, the catholic church has admitted as much as the transmutation of species and the possibility of evolutionary theory as being the mechanism thereof -- noting that imparting of the soul upon man by god is what they hold inviolate. likewise, many scientists (including evolutionary scientists) are faithful people who see no conflict between god and science.

it is, however, the confrontation of western civilization by a new phenomena -- the rise of cults. of course, reconciliation with evidence isn't what drives the growth of literalist christian cultism. radical primitivism in the face of the confusing dislocation from our cultural heritage and the advent of speed are the basis for their appeal -- a desperate search for an anchor in times of decadence, rather a sort of substitute comfort in lieu of psychoanalysis and xanax.

it essential to see that the appeal of christian cults is in absolutism, reductivism and primitivism -- the simpler, older and more unquestionable it appears, the better. christian cults have revised the splendor and complexity of two thousand years of christian thought and philosophy into a few luddite mantras, selectively eliminating the vatican's long history of slow circumspection and tolerance in tradition that would give rise to difficult questions. immediate clarity, even at the expense of reality, is the prerogative. this explains the appeal of cults to the simpleminded masses lost in western decadence, and the cults' approach to science and complexity. when conflated with a sense of traditional values -- even though offering only a sentimental, reduced view of those -- perceived to be under attack, their appeal only grows.

the ease with which christian cultism has spread in the united states -- a majority of americans call themselves "re-born" -- is testament to the potency of the moral and philosophical directionlessness it reacts to, which is a consequence of decadence. cults are increasingly visible around the westernized world -- though it seems that the united states is particularly the epicenter of christian cultism. the movement has gained such prevalence that the presidential election was largely decided along such lines -- hopelessly simplified "moral values" were the deciding driver of the republican vote.

in the end, each side represents in some fashion both the decreasing intellectual standard of our times and the rejection of the fully-embellished tradition of western civilization.

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