When evolution is outlawed…

Apparently, our President wants equal time for intelligent design in American schools, saying that “both sides ought to be properly taught” so “people can understand what the debate is about.”

It’s probably not really worth too much discussion in this forum, but it’s fascinating to see how this culture of false debate has emerged. If a public figure were to go out and say that the sky is green, the press would simply report it, and then ask someone else what color they say the sky is, satisfied that by presenting “both sides” of the issue they’ve discharged their duty, and (seeing that there are clearly two sides who disagree) now being able to describe it as a disputed issue. What you won’t hear is the press actually checking the facts themselves; such things are “not their department.” This is especially true when there are a large number of people who, for one reason or another, feel strongly about backing whomever it was who made the false statement; the media are really averse to flat-out contradicting someone when that may alienate readers.

But if a political movement grows, and out of fear of contradicting them nobody ever says they’re wrong, where do we end up?

The rather simple problem with the “debate” over the teaching of evolution, which nobody ever seems quite willing to say, is that the reason we don’t teach “intelligent design” or other forms of ersatz creationism in school isn’t because there’s a secular humanist bias, or because we don’t want to favor one religion over another; it’s for the rather simple reason that these things are false, and known to be false. The fact that one group strenuously advocates for them doesn’t make them any more true, and no matter how loud these groups are, the fact that people are out there saying something does not make it true, nor does it make the debate legitimate or worth people’s time; if a thousand people claim the sky is green, even by divine revelation, the sky will still be blue, and trying to convince them will still be an elaborate waste of time.

Or to say this in a more religious context, we are given senses and a faculty of reason, and we do not derive our laws and our sense of the universe from omens and signs. As R. Jeremia said, the Torah has already been given at Sinai; that is, the set of divine interventions needed to create this world was done at the creation of the world, and so the world is complete within its own context: we can study it in its own right, without having to resort to revelations “explaining” for us things which our own senses can understand on their own. (Baba Metzia, 59a-b) (Yes, I realize that making a religious argument in this context seems odd, but I don’t believe there’s any fundamental contradiction between religion and reason; only when people start misunderstanding the difference between stories and the world around them, to the extent that they reject the evidence of their own senses.)

And now, our president has decided that he needs to weigh in on this issue, because without his wisdom and guidance, where would we be?

Published in: on August 3, 2005 at 10:09  Comments (35)  
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  1. I was having some related thoughts in the past couple of days, wondering what a scientifically rigorous, yet devoutly Christian fundamentalist, geologist would be like. My biblical scholarship isn’t exactly deep in any way whatsoever, but is there anything in either testament (even taken in the most literal way possible) that would directly refute the possibility that when God created the Earth, he created it old?

  2. Not really; it depends on the reading of the text. The creation story in Genesis 1 talks about “days,” but as Clarence Darrow famously pointed out, it refers to three full days that happen before day and night were actually started up, so you’ve got to take those numbers with a pretty serious grain of salt. The creation story in Genesis 2 is completely different and focuses on humans, and leaves the pretty strong implication that it’s not a pure creation story, since there seem to be other people around living elsewhere.
    Basically, unless you’re of the faction that wants to believe every single word of the text to be literally true, even the self-contradictory parts, it’s really not that hard to reconcile.

  3. My childhood pastor always put it that way. If He could create the world, he could create it old (ie, dinosaur bones, plate tectonics, etc.).
    Also, some people counter that the 7 days thing is a metaphor, so that could easily be 7 millenia, or 7 largish chunks of time, not necessary all equal. In the english translations, there’s a lot open to interpretation, unless you beleive that the King James version is the one and only perfectly worded edition…

  4. Well, even if it was 6 literal 24-hour days, it doesn’t say “An lo, He created it such that the Carbon-14 in the rocks was in a perfect state of radioactive wholeness”. If you’re taking the omnipotent angle, creating a 4-billion year old planet in six days, with living beings whose composition and organization is consistent with a pattern of incremental development over millions of those non-existent years, doesn’t sound all too difficult.
    Sort of like the old joke that God created fossils and put them in the earth just to mess with paleontologists, except it leaves more room for less capricious reasons.

  5. Pretty much. Of course, by the same token the world might have been created ten minutes ago, with us complete with our memories of the past, or it might be continuously created in every moment. Damned hard to actually detect that.

  6. >> or it might be continuously created in every moment.
    *gasp* TIME! *head explodes*

  7. Metaphysics is dangerous stuff, man.

  8. Contrast this with my pastor, who is a firm believer in modern science; for him, the full breadth of scientific findings from sub-atomic particles and ancient supernovae to species differentiation and DNA, are proof that the universe is Really Astoudingly Beautiful. He might say that the Bible contains and reveals Truth, which isn’t the same as saying that it represents a true account of everything.

  9. I like that way of phrasing it. Your pastor sounds like an interesting guy.

  10. It would be pretty tough, since we deal in such long time-spans. Something that happened 10 000 years ago is *young*, which creates problems if you believe the earth was created on (27?) october, 4000-some-odd years ago. And dammit, I can’t remember the guy’s name at the moment, who figured that out! I guess you would just use, as suggested, the “what is a day to god?” argument. But let me tell you, it would be pretty weird. Also, C-14 is from organic material, not directly from the rocks. Now folks are using U-Pb and K-Ar and Ar-Ar dating, because they cover different ages and can be found in minerals. And the earth is 4.5 billion years old. 😛

  11. Not exactly a literal take, but I’ll point out that C. S. Lewis’ explanation is that God exists in dimensions transcending space and time, and that if you represent the human-scale “time” axis as a one-dimensional line, God might be imagined to be a piece of paper that is folded into a curved shape such that every point on the “time” line is in contact with the piece of paper.
    Pretty darn close to many conventional S.F. ideas of “wormholes”, actually.

  12. On the other hand, if the laws of physics really are deterministic, then you could just as easily specify a consistent set of boundary conditions at t=now as at t=big bang, or at t=end of the universe, for that matter. It’s perfectly possible to write boundary conditions at t=4004BC that would describe a 4.5Gy-old planet, it’s just a lot more complicated than writing ones for the start of time.
    (At least, so one presumes. If there’s no simplification at all, and you would need equally information-rich boundary conditions at every possible epoch, the whole game starts to look oddly rigged…)

  13. Say you have a rock that is 10000 years old. How do you know it isn’t really just a 4000 year old rock that was 6000 years old when it was created? (see Yony’s fun metaphysics comment)
    More specifically relevant to my original question, is the concept that is a 4000 year old rock that was 6000 years old at creation potentially theologically acceptable from a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint? I’ve been meaning to ask Adam about this one for a couple of days, actually.

  14. Of course, a Zepellin fan would say that classic rock is timeless.

  15. *throws classic rock*

  16. I hurt.

  17. I think it would be…. Since all these things (fossils, radioactive dates, etc.) are here to test our faith in god.

  18. And is having faith in God (again, still from the fundamentalist viewpoint) mutually exclusive with attempting understand the mechanisms and natural processes that He appears to have built it on?

  19. Well, there’s Tertullian’s arguments on this matter (“credo quia absurdam” – anything which the rational mind can understand does not require faith, and therefore faith consists in accepting the incredible. My old comparative theology professor seemed to interpret this as a command to look for incredible things to believe in.). Some fundamentalists I’ve heard want to accept the Bible (typically in the KJV) as literally, verbatim true, and when they come across passages that are directly contradictory they describe that as a “mystery” or meant to show that there are things that the mind of God can comprehend that the mind of man cannot.
    To me, that sounds an awful lot like just punting on any attempt to understand anything, ever, but I may be missing some sort of point. Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research said, “When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data;” I’ll leave the interpretation of that to someone who knows what the hell it should mean.
    I’m pretty sure that it’s not a problem for non-fundamentalists. 🙂

  20. depends on the type of fundie you are. Though it would be tough in some areas. For example, you could examine stratigraphy, grain size, emplacement mechanisms, volcanism, and get stuck on the ages. You could do physics in its myriad forms (hey, look what subjects I do and don’t understand! lol) and get stuck on the microwave background radiation. Then there’s the whole evolution thing, since obviously we adapt and have adapted since God placed us on earth fully formed in His image (woo hoo! I can talk the talk!) but it’s tricky when you get down to primoridial soup and apes. I think mostly they just ignore the tricky bits, or go into professions that don’t require examining these things.

  21. “But if a political movement grows, and out of fear of contradicting them nobody ever says they’re wrong, where do we end up?”
    I think that is influenced by compulsory political correctness. Everyone is afraid of offending anyone else, so all actual debate ceases, as nobody can think critically and say what is really going on.
    Also, here is something I think you will appreciate:

  22. Interestingly enough, that unwillingness or inability to “talk politics” is really only something I’ve encountered in this country, of all the ones I’ve been to. The other countries are also “politically correct” but it has only been taken to the extreme here.

  23. and by “this country” and “here” I mean the United States.

  24. My parent’s church wasn’t nearly so… progressive. It’s not just Truth, it is a true account of everything. A literal, true account.
    Which is why I don’t go with them when I go back to MI to visit them.

  25. > When evolution is outlawed…
    …only criminals will have evolution.

  26. Shouldn’t that be, only outlaws will evolve?

  27. I’ve seen it in other places before. It’s an official policy in places where the government cares a lot about ideology (Fascism, Communism, etc.), but it often shows up unofficially wherever there are powerful groups and a fear of social instability. Notice how French newspapers are always very careful not to offend Muslims, for example.

  28. I’ve seen it in other places before. It’s an official policy in places where the government cares a lot about ideology (Fascism, Communism, etc.), but it often shows up unofficially wherever there are powerful groups and a fear of social instability. Notice how French newspapers are always very careful not to offend Muslims, for example.

  29. Bwuahaha! That’s even better!

  30. Blame the NRA; it’s their slogan I’m corrupting. 🙂

  31. *nod*
    That’s what I was going for, but misremembered their slogan.

  32. OK. I don’t know the detail of Intelligent design, but I am sure that it’s not that difficult to come up with a creationist model which can not be proved nor disproved.
    Therefore the real issue is not that the model like intelligent design is wrong, but rather it can not be proven wrong. (not even wrong in Peter Woit’s favorite words!), therefore, doen’t belong to science classes.

  33. So are you suggesting that there is a perception in this country that the true believers of evolution will cause civil unrest? (i don’t think you are, i just like the thought.)
    Frankly, i just assume it is another form of evolution: The reporters that cause the least trouble stay around the longest. I am not suggesting that there is anything malevolent going on, just that the natural course of affairs in today’s culture where any big business get involved.
    On a side note, i have always wanted to say agree with a devote creationist. I have always wanted to say, “Yes! Evolution is just one theory! We all know that Prometheus created mankind! That is a theory that some people think that is true! It should be taught in school!! And that thing about jesus!”

  34. Well, I was thinking more about the true believers in creationism, or rather the political groups that back them. The Religious Right has shown that it has the ability to cause enough trouble for a newspaper or business that it somehow thinks is not good that the media do tread very lightly around them, and likewise politicians. And they do have the ability to cause civil unrest; consider what happens when someone tries to open an abortion clinic (or one of several such things) in an extremely conservative community.
    I’m not talking about the ability to cause civil war, mind you. But I think there is a perception that there’s a large population in this country that feels generally disenfranchised, and has turned to a very rigorous form of religion as a way of asserting some power. In areas where these groups are strong, it’s genuinely dangerous, both economically and sometimes even physically, for a group to go against them.
    The reason that the reporters that tread the lightest stay the longest is, after all, associated with what their editors and publishers see as outside pressures…

  35. It’s simply a story
    Let’s say you are God, and you have created everything, down to every last biochemical detail. Let’s then say that you want to explain the creation of the world/universe to the guy that wrote that story in the Old Testament (think of the current level of science in that day and age). What exactly do you tell him? He’s not going to get it, so why not just use a simple story? To me, that’s the most likely thing.
    I’ve never understood the battle between Creation and Evolution. If God made everything else, why not evolution? It seems rather obvious to say that God simply created Man through evolution and put an end to the debate.

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