Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Darwin Day

It's February 12th in 2009, so on this day 200 years ago 2 revolutionaries were born. One was Abraham Lincoln, freer of the slaves, first republican president. The other was Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution changed more than anyone the understanding of what it means to be human. Evolution by natural selection despite it's controversy and implications, has stood the test of time and immense scrutiny to the point where in science it's about as certain as science can be. The theory has been modified as all science goes through, but the core ideas of selection and interrelatedness still remain.

The word "Darwinism"
There was an interesting opinion piece in the New York times about the use of the word Darwinism, while the article makes some good points it seems to miss the mark. Both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne give good rebuttals and are well worth the read. Personally I dislike the use of the word Darwinism and don't use it for a variety of reasons. At best I say Darwinian evolution as a means to distinguish it from other forms of evolution like Lamarkian or theistic evolution. So I should be all for the decoupling of the term from evolutionary theory, right? Well, no.

The reason I'm against trying to change the word is simple: this is nothing more than a PR exercise that misses the core of the problem. A brand change will not stop the creationist attacks on adherents to evolutionary theory, nor will it stop the links between Darwin and evolution. The word evolutionist is being used in exactly the same sense as Darwinist by creationists as an insult against supporters of evolutionary theory. It seems naïve to think that changing the academic use of the word will stop the use of the word as an insult among circles who have never listened to a scientist in the first place. And even if that word is removed from the lexicon, there are already many other words with exactly the same inference out there being used. In short, taking the word away won't address the problem the word brings.

It goes even further than that, by shying away from a word purely from negative association. Surely creationists would lap up this re-branding PR exercise just as we have noticed that "Intelligent Design" and "teach the controversy" are re-branded forms of creationism. A similar problem exists with the word "theory", there are plenty of people who use the colloquial sense of the word when applying it to a scientific theory, where the meaning is very different. Should science also engage in an exercise of PR re-branding in order to stop the misconceptions that stem from the basic yet profound misuse of the word? Again, I would argue not.

It's hard to imagine that anyone who actually knows about how science works would think that those who accept evolutionary theory are doing so on the authority of Charles Darwin. The systematic dishonesty of creationists to propagate the association between Darwin's authority and evolution is a far more core issue. Ignorance begats ignorance, and those who play on the misinformation willingly exploit those who don't know better. I call it the Beetlejuice Principle, by simply repeating the same thing enough times then it's bound to come true. Like the lie that Darwin repented on his death bed, never happened but it's become so ingrained as part of the story of Darwin that it's repeated by creationists and non-creationists alike.

What Charles Darwin did for evolutionary theory is astounding, he was the one that gave the idea a plausible mechanism under which to act (natural selection). Since Darwin evolutionary theory has changed, and Darwin was wrong on certain matters. To put him up on a pedestal does undercut the 150 years of scientists who made advancements in the field, but to take him away entirely would be to belittle the role that Darwin played. Creationism would exist and be vocal regardless of whether there's an 'ism on the end of Darwin or evolution. Just as the same type of arguments get thrown up on both sides of the global warming debate. The same charge of climate change believers is thrown by those opposed to the notion time and time again, and that's without an authority on the matter. Maybe global warming proponents will become followers of Goreism given enough time and energy, but that's not going to solve the debate.

Darwin's dangerous idea
I was born less than 25 years ago, as a result I've grown up with the societal advantages that the last 200 years have brought. I've grown up with the modern evolutionary theory as a constant. Chimpanzees have always been my near cousin, and the octopus a distant cousin. Even the trees which were made into furniture were distant relatives - all life has always been related for me and thus it seems absurd that anyone could see humans as the ultimate species on this planet crafted by God.

For me I've grown up reading science books, both my parents saw to it that I had a plethora of books on science, even encyclopaedias for children that explained how the world works. As a child I was fascinated by the heavens, astronomy was then a keen interest of mine. Seeing the grandeur of space inspired a sense of awe, and even to this day I sometimes just go outside to sit and watch the stars. Yet if I were doing this only 500 years ago, I would have been taught into thinking that everything is orbiting around the earth. Likewise thanks to the time and place of my birth, I've grown up learning that all life is related, all created and shaped by a process called evolution.

I can try to appreciate the extreme difficulty in reconciling evolution with God. On a purely academic level, it's just one more naturalistic explanation that has replaced a supernatural one that has persisted for thousands of years. Evolution in this respect is no more a threat to God than the nebula hypothesis or plate tectonics. But on the philosophical level, it does radically change things because it takes God out of the process of our origins - it hits at the very core of our being. Darwin knew this at the time of penning his work, he likened his theory to "confessing a murder." While many theists have been able to reconcile God and evolution, the continual conflict between religion and science is showing that despite the best efforts of individuals to bridge the gap, that gap will always exist. In Why People Believe Weird Things Shermer brought forth a statistic that only 9% of Americans believe that life came about with no divine intervention. That's 9% who share the same scientific opinion as over 99% of biologists. Tack on those who believe evolution in the general sense but with some theistic intervention, and the number approaches 50%. A spectacular fail on account of science there.

In the arguments of creationists and by proxy the arguments of the faithful, the arguments against evolution are so often tied in with atheism. The charge of atheism is even brought against theists who argue for evolution. The academic misrepresentation of evolution is made clear by the philosophical reasoning behind the charge. Philosophically for many, take out creation and you take away the fall of man and the need for redemption. Of course evolution isn't the only science that sits alone, geology, nuclear physics, plate tectonics, astronomy and cosmology all contribute to timeline of the universe. Taking evolution out doesn't solve the problem, so at some point it means for the creationist position to be valid, then either a gross amount of scientists are lying, or God intentionally made the universe and world look old. The former is unrealistic and the latter is even more philosophically distant from the theist god that is preached.

Darwin's idea was dangerous 150 years ago because it changed who man was and what role man plays in nature. It changed how we think of ourselves. Even today the persistent rejection of evolution shows the idea is still as dangerous philosophically as it was 150 years ago. But the volume of evidence supporting the theory is overwhelming so it won't be going away any time soon. Keeping both God and evolution has been a bridge too far for many, though it's not impossible to reconcile. And reconciled it must be because both evolution and religion are not going away any time soon.


Eivind said...

This has nothing to do with the content of your post I'm afraid, but a blog comment seems to be the best / easiest way to get a hold of you. Anyway, over at the blog Pharyngula you made this comment a couple of months ago:

"Singer gave a review of that debate in the Atheist Foundation of Australia newsletter, it was a good read. "

You are here referring to the debate between Peter Singer and Dinesh D'Souza.

I've been trying to find said article online (a review of the debate between the two by Peter Singer), but have had no luck. Found Dinesh's less-than-stellar review of said debate easily, though.

So my question is: where may I find this review? Is it available online, or only in paper form (if this is a non-electronic newsletter)?

Many thanks in advance for any help you're able to give!

Kel said...

The newsletter was non-electronic, so I'm not sure how you would go about obtaining a copy. You're best shot is to email The Atheist Foundation of Australia: and ask them if it would be possible to send you it electronic form. It was from the October 2008 newsletter from memory, though I'd just write "late 2008" when referencing it if it were me emailing.

Good luck in finding it.