Friday, July 08, 2005

Killer New Republic article about evolution

This article, which is available to registered readers at The New Republic (registration is free), is awesome--it's a summary of interviews with 15 prominent conservatives (William Kristol, Grover Norquist, David Frum, Stephen Moore, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, William Buckley, John Tierney, James Taranto, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Brookhiser, Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson, Rannesh Ponnuru, and David Brooks) about their views on evolution. The questions were tapered to fit each respondent's general thoughts, but they basically break down into...

-Whether they personally believe in evolution
-What they think of intelligent design
-Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools

10 of them more or less say yes to the first question, 4 hedge, and Buchanan says no. They're split evenly on what they think of intelligent design--about half say it's legitimate, half say it's not science--and they're also split evenly on whether it should be taught in public schools. Goldberg was particularly good:

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I don't think you should teach religious conclusions as science and I don't think you should teach science as religion. ... I see nothing [wrong] with having teachers pay some attention to the sensitivities of other people in the room. I think if that means you're more careful about some issues than others that's fine. People are careful about race and gender; I don't see why all of a sudden we can't be diplomatic on these issues when it comes to religion." Great point.

In fact, all of the answers seemed straightfoward, well-thought-out, and fair, except for one comment of Frum's:

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I don't believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. ... Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. ... I don't believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle."

We can't go by what offends people--we have to go by truth.


At 12:08 AM, Anonymous A. Uhle said...

Charles - one comment about your final sentance "We can't go by what offends people -- we have to go by truth."
First off, a basic principle of not offending people unless absolutely necessary might not be a bad idea. You know I am not talking about sugar coating everything, but you certainly don't want your kindergartener ruining Christmas for twenty of his "non-truthed" classmates by letting them in on a little secret about Santa Claus, right? I am not saying evolution is the same thing as Santa Claus, but hopefully you get the general principle. Something more than cold hard truth needs to be taken into account when teaching children and young adults, they are very open to persuasion and may not all be ready for certain truths at a given time. The questions then becomes, is evolution a truth that everyone should know about during middle school? That questions needs a little more work, I will leave that to you.
Second but related comment. Evolution is an incredible powerful theory, but lets be careful about rating it with "snow is white" or "George Washington was our first president." There is a lot going on with the evolution debate and I think the Churches need to address the issues before the schools. I am not saying evolution is not consistent with the facts, but it is also coming under fire in a way that the Big Bang or special relativity never has. Obviously there are religious issues involved, but it is a theory that as far as I can discern (and I have to admit only a cursory knowledge on macro-evolution, being a physicist) can not make the same kind of scientific predictions that can be verified like relativity. The same goes for the stellar nebular theory in astrophysics. Looking back it explains a great deal, but galaxies form so slowly it is hard to check its predictions yet.

So my two comments are:
1) Sometimes in teaching truth isn't always the best standard for early development (technically quantum mechanics trumps newtonian mechanics, but we aren't teaching that in high school. They can't grasp the math, but maybe they can't reasonably understand the religious issues with evolution in the same way at that age).
2) Evolution looks a lot different than other truth, even scientific truth like special relativity, so lets be careful about crushing people with it so easily.

Again, I am not against evolution being the best explanation we have at this point, I think it works well with a serious reading of the Scriptures, but the Churches need to get in on this intelligently and we need to respect the early development of students as well. The issue is not as cut and dry as "truth telling scientists" vs. "silly fundamentalists." Well, not always as cut and dry.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I registered... but I still can't read much of anything at New Republic without subscribing...

Anyway, in regards to evolution, the problem with accepting it as unequivocal truth is that a lot of the gaps in the theory are at key areas. Until conclusive (or at least reasonable) evidence can be provided for questions such as how life began and species jumps, it seems premature to treat it as the end-all. Not too long ago people thought maggots came from decaying meat...

I don't totally buy into the intelligent design theory hook, line, and sinker, but the fact that many parts of the body are irreducably complex casts serious doubt onto evolution. In the article Grover Norquist says, "I've never understood how an eye evolves," and the truth is... neither do evolutionary scientists. An eye requires that many seperate, complimentary organs and processes occur seamlessly in order for vision to happen. It would be impossible to evolve these one at a time, since the eye is useless unless it has the whole package. A good analogy would be any simple machine, and I'll use a bike as my example. You couldn't evolve a bike by taking a frame... evolving pedals... then a chain... some gears... and eventually the wheels because until you have the complete package, each part is useless to create movement- and you can't seriously suggest that organisms evolved extraneous parts randomly until a use for them emerged.

There, I think that is all I wanted to say. Now I'll await my customary thrashing from CharlesPierce and J. Morgan Caler.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

My point in this post was simply to say that it's interesting to note that most conservative commentators more or less accept some form of evolution, and only question its teaching in high schools.

a. uhle, what you're really saying is "the theory of evolution has holes in it, and shouldn't be used to disprove God's existence." Granted, and granted.

"Is evolution a truth that everyone should know about during middle school?"


You obviously missed me quoting Jonah Goldberg approvingly--he says we're tactful about race and gender, and we shouldn't use evolution as a club to bash fundamentalists. I said "Great point." I thought Frum's comment was a gross generalization and pretty relativistic--that's all.

jackscolon: Yeah, even as a TNR online subscriber, you only get about 30% of the content. Still, that's something.

Irreducible complexity is 1) a valid criticism of macroevolution, and 2) NOT a competing scientific explanation. It makes a purely negative point.

As thrashings go, that was pretty mild.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I was only using irreducible complexity as a criticism- just one example in an attempt to show that evolutionary theory is not as airtight as some members of the scientific community would have you believe...

so maybe I escaped my thrashing totally...

At 11:01 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

I am not interested in debating theology, but we have to be honest that teaching evolution is not a debate outside of America because the vast majority of people outside of America don’t hold a theology about creation that requires a reject of evolutionary biology. We (Americans) aren’t debating this because most of us have serious doubts about the scientific validity of Punctuated Equilibrium after careful study - we are debating this because there is a strong and vocal Evangelical presence in the United States that is committed to a particular reading of the biblical account of creation. So Uhle’s and jackscolon’s comments about the scientific challenge to evolution seems irrelevant to the actual debate. Nonetheless, I want to talk issue with something Uhle said:

“ certainly don't want your kindergartener ruining Christmas for twenty of his "non-truthed" classmates by letting them in on a little secret about Santa Claus, right?”

Here is the problem: telling kids that there is no Santa DOES ruin Christmas, telling kids that evolution is true DOES NOT ruin Christianity. In fact, it doesn’t ruin anything – middle school students know that apples fall because of gravity (not because they are heavy) and that the Earth travels around the sun (not the other way around) – there is no reason they should not know that species differentiation occurred over millions of years. It doesn’t ruin anything for kids to have a basic (I liked your Newtonian/quantum analogy) understanding of natural history.

Here is what I cannot get around: what Christian parents are teaching their children about the Genesis narrative and creation is patently false and is the result of an unskilled interpretation of Scripture*. Macro-evolutionary biology is a well-established, well-researched paradigm that accounts for a great deal, despite the gaps that have come to light in the last 20-25 years. Why should we give deference to something that is totally wrong over and against something that is flawed but generally right?

*I am making the claim that it is false purely on textual and historical grounds. So, even if everything we know and can demonstrate about the physical world DIDN’T contradict the American Evangelical understanding of the Genesis narrative (it largely does), it is still a demonstrably wrong understanding of Scripture at which we shouldn’t have arrived in the first place.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I don't do it often... but I'm jumping on J. Morgan's bandwagon here. I agree that the actual debate isn't on what parts of evolution can be proved true or false, in fact- for the most part, it isn't even a debate at all. It's more like the card game between Julian and the delivery guy in Big Daddy, each side is playing by different rules.

I tried to talk to my mom about things like this when I was growing up, and it isn't that she was trying to knowingly mislead me, it's just that for her, it wasn't even a real issue. For her, anything read out of the Bible is literally true... no questions asked. It doesn't matter what facts you show, or logic you use because they're irrelevant next to "God can do anything". This (among other things, many other things) led to my abandonment of the church, and I'm still unreconciled (although that has nothing to do with the conflicts in Creationism).

I think if progress wants to be made between evolutionary and creationary Christians, the debate has to change from scientific facts- to more theological ones, specifically that evolution is not necessairly an affront to the nature of God. From conversations with my mom, I think (let me stress how much conjecture this is) that the problem with her even considering the idea that the Creation story isn't literally true is that she believes it somehow detracts from her idea of God.

I don't know how good of a post that it... religious issues for the most part are uncharted waters for this guy...

At 12:55 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon: I think you moved into a productive area.

I grew up in a Christian household as well, but for me, liberal politics and evolutionary biology were givens just as the literal truth of Genesis is for your mom. When I got to my Christian high school, I was blown away that there was even a debate about the truth of evolution: I simply took it as a theologically-UNrelated fact.

God's creation of this world and his continued sustaining of it are important theological facts that are (1) true and (2) taught to us by Genesis (3) absolutely unrelated to our biological heritage. When we're doing biology in high school, we don't mention the big G-man; when we're in church, then we synthesize all other spheres of life into a religious outlook. Unless you're going to introduce God into math, physics, and sociology, I think he should be left out of biology; there are MULTIPLE explanations for each event, and evolutionary biology happens to be a phyisicalistic (and therefore partial), but still stand-alone, explanation of how we got here.

That was disjointed. I hope it helps anyway.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Two comments -
1. J. Morgan, I know uhle was not saying that evolution ruins Christianity, so maybe some clarification was in order. At the present state of the Church, if a kid was taught "full" evolution (term left unexplained) that WOULD ruin Christianity for him/her. Not because of anything inherent in evolution, but because there is such a marked divide between Evangelical Christianity and evolution. Until we correct that divide, I think it COULD ruin Christianity, for that kid.

Second comment. This is about bringing God into physics and science in general. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to sound like a fundamentalist idiot here, but I think if the Christian story is in any sense true, there should be an account made for the Triune God in every sphere of life, including science. This is very much a part of the Radical Orthodoxy project which I find impressive. Scientific modernism made God the grand old man in the sky and the Western world became implicitly Deist because of it. Maybe now that postmodernity has freed us from certain metaphysical demands, we can be more willing to discuss the Triune God in subjects like science. Clearly He is involved, the question of making that powerful and insightful is something I think 21st century science will be dealing with as more intelligent Christians take the field seriously.


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