Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Evolution Fight As Proxy

A reader emails me:
Pardon me if I've mentioned this before.

I see the ruckus over evolution as partly a proxy for something else.

Some years ago, Buckley convened a panel discussion between evolutionists and scientific creationists. I don't know what the latter is, but they seemed prepared. I gathered they could have taught a course in evolution if they'd felt like it, which of course they didn't.

On the evolutionists' side of the table sat, as well, Barry Lynn of Americans United for The Separation of Church and State, and the then-head of the national ACLU. As scientists, these guys are probably pretty good golfers. For them to think they had a dog in this fight is illuminating.
My impression, also, is that this is partly a proxy for the whole issue of the ACLU's rather bizarre definition of the First Amendment, and partly a real argument about evolution itself. There are more than two factions fighting this out. There are, at a minimum:

1. Scientists who believe that evolution is a proven fact, right up there with Newtonian mechanics. I think that these people believe this, and they can't imagine why ANYONE would disagree with this. They genuinely don't see that teaching evolution as established fact presents philosophical problems (how do we distinguish a well-grounded theory from an experimentally provable fact?), political problems (a lot of Americans, not all of them Christians, are offended at having their kids encouraged to hold their parents' beliefs in contempt), and free speech problems

(why does only one faction--evolutionists--get to use public schools to promote their agenda?)

2. There is the ACLU, which sees this as an opportunity to continue imposing its anti-religious, but specifically anti-Christian viewpoint on kids in the public schools. My wife had a high school biology teacher for whom the teaching of evolution was part of her campaign of denigrating Christianity. (The teacher had planned to be a missionary at one time, before a crisis of faith overcame her.)

3. There are Intelligent Design advocates, some of whom are respected scientists, such as Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University. They are raising legitimate questions about the mechanisms of evolution--and suggesting that the evidence suggests that we should at least consider other explanations.

4. There are "theistic evolutionists," who believe that while God could have certainly created every creature in its current form, that He did not, but instead manipulated the environment to evolve life into its current set of forms. I lean this direction.

5. There are Creationists who believe in an old Earth, and that the major structural divisions of life represent God's creation of the different phlya--with evolution (directed by God) taking place thereafter.

6. There are Creationists who believe in an old Earth, but deny evolution.

7. There are Creationists who believe in a young Earth, deny evolution, and insist that the apparent age of the Earth is an illusion. This crowd gets a lot of attention, to the point where #4 through #6 almost don't exist.

I have received an enormous number of emails (mostly polite and friendly) who seem not to understand that being belligerent about how evolution is taught in the public schools is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory--much like Tennessee's decision to prohibit the teaching of evolution back in the 1920s turned out to be. A little humility goes a long ways, and I get the distinct impression that for some Americans, they are about as willing to allow discussion of alternative claims today as Tennessee was willing to allow evolution to be taught in the 1920s.

This is still a democracy, and one where a very sizeable fraction of the population has serious misgivings about evolution. Imagine what the reaction would be if government classes taught that free markets are destructive, and that government exists to suppress them. There was a time, not that many years ago, when the textbooks used in much of the U.S. taught exactly that, and enjoyed overwhelming support from academic economists for that reason.

Try to persuade the population about evolution; this constant need to use force to suppress dissent is making you no friends.

Oh, for those who insist that Newtonian mechanics is just as much a "theory" as evolution, sorry, this isn't going to fly. In physics class, we did repeatable experiments to verify that a lot of the basic equations actually worked as claimed. In freshman physics at USC, we verified that momentum really is conserved by measuring motion in x and y of an air puck, and then the motion of the air puck it ran into. The very small deviation from the prediction (fractions of a percent) were within the range we expected for conversion of kinetic energy into heat, as well as measurement error. In high school, we did experiments with springs, tension, weights, etc., and received plausible results. Freshman chemistry at USC had us doing experiments with measuring pH as we added acids to buffered solution, and the results matched the equations. The exact mechanisms by which some of these events take place are certainly in the realm of theory, but we could experimentally verify them all.

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