Friday, 5 December 2008

Creationists launch new attacks on evolution

More blurring of the boundaries between fantasy, science and fiction this week!

The fundamentalist Christians are at it again, in their constant search to find some crack in the edifice of scientific knowledge into which they can force a wedge. Their strategy is to try to find any aspect of the natural world which scientists can't yet explain, so that they can argue that its purposeful creation by God is a valid possible explanation. In this way, they hope to get their religious beliefs accepted as worthy of being taught in schools alongside science, as a major step towards their goal of embedding religion within education. The focus of this activity is in the USA, in which religion is kept out of public education by law, but there is an increasing spill-over into other countries which are on the receiving end of lots of pro-creationist publicity and teaching materials.

Many of the fundamentalists believe that the universe and everything in it was created by God exactly as described in the Bible, over a period of six days a few thousand years ago. There is the slight problem that Genesis 1 has the creation of plants, animals, man and woman in a different order to that listed in Genesis 2 – they can't both be right – but that doesn't seem to faze the creationists. The big problem they have in selling this idea to non-fundies is the vast and ever-growing body of evidence from many different fields of research (astrophysics, astronomy, geology, geomorphology, palaeontology and biology, to name the obvious ones) which clearly point to the enormous age and slow development of life, the Universe and all that. Clearly, the creationists' beliefs are pure religious dogma and stand no chance of being allowed into US state schools, as emphasised by various legal rulings.

So they switched tactics to low cunning, and during the late 1980s and 1990s developed the concept of "Intelligent Design", or ID. Here we need to mention the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, which is a major sponsor of the "wedge" strategy for getting religious beliefs accepted within mainstream education, and is closely associated with ID and other recent attempts to subvert the ban on teaching creationism. The tactic this time was a lot more subtle. Darwin once observed that it would only take one example of a feature of a living thing which could not have evolved from some earlier feature to disprove evolution. The aim of the creationists is to identify any such feature they can, and argue that this is evidence that this must have been the act of an "intelligent designer". They carefully avoid mentioning God as the likely designer, or using the forbidden words "creation" or "religion". However, this strategy suffered a major setback in 2005 when the proposal of a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to teach ID was challenged in court. After a high-profile six-week trial, the verdict went against the creationists. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy,” the judge wrote. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would, time and again, lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.” To make matters worse for the ID proponents, their prize exhibit – a complex flagellum which they claimed could not have evolved – has since been found in a simpler form, indicating an earlier stage of evolution.

So the fundies switched tactics again, to an even more subtle approach; the defence of academic freedom! They are promoting the argument that teachers have the right to hold "open discussions of scientific theories" – such as evolution – with their students, and can introduce books and other materials from outside the standard curriculum to help the students "critique" the science they are taught. This has been supported by a "teach the controversy" public campaign (ignoring the fact that as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy over the theory of evolution). This is a clever move, since who could be against academic freedom? But what it really does is open the door to an attack on evidence-based logical reasoning (the basis of the scientific method) by a belief system which rejects objective evidence and reason in favour of a dogmatic adherence to the exact words in an ancient book. Despite this, in mid-2008 Louisiana approved a state law which defends such academic freedom, and other states have been considering similar measures.

No doubt buoyed by this success, the fundamentalists have recently found what they perceive to be another point of weakness: our understanding of human consciousness (reported in the New Scientist on 25 October). In particular, they attempt to draw a distinction between the human mind and the material brain, with aim of arguing that a non-material mind is something entirely separate. It must therefore have had a separate origin, which leads into the existence of a "soul"; another angle to get a religious belief accepted as having a valid place in science. It is once again a clever move, because the nature of consciousness is an area of genuine debate among scientists working in the field, with different views being held. However, the New Scientist article points out that the arguments in favour of the mind being separate are flawed. Its proponents argue that brain scans reveal that when people use their minds to consciously change what they are thinking, this can be shown to affect brain functioning. Therefore, they say, the mind must be separate from the material brain. Their opponents point out that this is a logical non-sequitur; there is no reason why the brain cannot change itself. Furthermore, the fact that something is not yet understood by science does not mean that it will never be understood; in fact, the scientific method has a staggeringly consistent record of success in pushing back the boundaries of ignorance. If it weren't for evidence-based logical thinking we would still be living in caves and killing animals for food by throwing stones at them.

In case some readers feel that this blog is an attack on religion, I must point out that most Christians are not creationists, despite the attempt of the fundies to imply that true Christianity equals creationism; to put the debate (in the words of a car bumper sticker) in the form of "Jesus v Darwin". In most of the Christian world, creationists are in a small minority. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anglican churches oppose the theory of evolution. Even in the USA, which is at least 75% Christian, only 39% of the population rejects the proposition that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals (compared with 40% which accepts it, and 21% "don't knows").

Is any of this important? Does it really matter if children are taught religious beliefs as if they were on a par with science? Yes, I believe that it is and it does, very much so. What the fundamentalists are doing is attacking the basis of the knowledge which humanity has accumulated over many centuries. Knowledge acquired through patient observation of phenomena, the gathering of evidence, the development of hypotheses to account for the observations, the testing of these hypotheses (by experimentation wherever possible), and their validation by other scientists, leading to the establishment of theories which remain our best explanation for the phenomena – until contrary evidence or a theory which better fits the evidence comes along. The agenda of the fundamentalists is to sow doubt about this entire process, to encourage children to believe that rational and non-rational modes of thinking are entirely comparable and equally valid as a means of explaining the material world in which we live, rather than occupying separate aspects of human life. If they had their way, children would grow up in a world of medieval superstition, ignorant of the importance of evidence-based logical thinking, and thereby completely unequipped to deal with the increasingly complex and technical problems which we are facing, including resource depletion and climate change. From my perspective, that would be a crime against humanity.


Fred said...

I was raised a Catholic--8 years Catholic grammar school, and 4 years in a Catholic h.s. My first serious exposure to evolution came in a biology class in the Catholic h.s., taught by an Augustinian priest. He saw no conflict between the RC Church and evolution.

Creationism or ID or whatever it's being called today is not science. It's a matter of faith. When they begin to show me positive proof to substantiate their claims, I'll begin to listen to them.

Bill Garthright said...

Nice summary, Tony! This "teach the controversy" stuff reminds me of every true believer in pseudoscience I've ever known. Whether it's astrology, Bigfoot, homeopathy, psychic powers, or... whatever, I'm always admonished to "keep an open mind."

But science is a matter of evidence. You must have evidence to support any belief. The fact is, there is overwhelming evidence to support evolution and no evidence at all which supports ID. Zero. Even if creationists could discover some evidence to reasonably doubt evolution (there is still much we don't know, of course), that doesn't mean it would be evidence FOR ID (and no scientific theory in the world would make that fundamental mistake).

I've got to think that our educational system has failed, since so many people are this ignorant about science. We'd be better off teaching what science IS, and why the scientific method has been developed, than what scientists have discovered (ideally, of course, both should be taught).

Anthony G Williams said...

I find it funny when believers in the unprovable and improbable (such as astrology and the other things you mention, Bill) accuse me of not having an open mind. My response is that of course I have an open mind - I am always willing to change it if given sufficient reason (in the form of hard evidence) to do so; THEY are the ones with closed minds, since they cling on to their beliefs in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary.

I agree with you about the education system, Bill, and think it is getting worse. Certainly here in the UK, hard sciences are declining because they are seen as a hard option, with "soft" sciences like psychology, sociology and economics being far more popular; the exception being biology, which tends to be popular with girls, possibly because they think it is something to do with horses ;-). In the US you have the additional problem of the large percentage of Christian fundamentalists (in which I include all creationists) who are indoctrinated against science anyway. It is a bit depressing to think about, because I don't see any signs of improvement, or any means to achieve that.

billbunter said...

It seems to be part of a wider attempt to unify church and state. I also intuitively feel that there is a link between globalisation, vast edifices of laws about staying healthy (even if you'd rather not) It's all rather worrying.

billbunter said...

Globalisation. health directives all concerned with making the individual part of some supervisory moral scheme. Individuality knocked back to medieval times and now the slow assault of the church on the state. We are heading for a unification of church and state and its a tad worrying

Anthony G Williams said...

I'm not sure that there's any connection between globalisation (driven by commerce), increasing government involvement in people's private lives (driven by politicians) and the attempts to expand church teaching into everyday life (driven by religious belief). More a case of separate developments which happen to be running in parallel, I think.

billbunter said...

nthony, I'm not sure either regarding the three - globalisation, health care and religion. It's just a gut feeling.

The fact they rise in parallel is suggestive in itself and suggests some kind of shift in world view. The whole tendency leans towards restrictive, rule bound practice - thou shalt not do this...

Just a thought

billbunter said...

nthony, I'm not sure either regarding the three - globalisation, health care and religion. It's just a gut feeling.

The fact they rise in parallel is suggestive in itself and suggests some kind of shift in world view. The whole tendency leans towards restrictive, rule bound practice - thou shalt not do this...

Just a thought

Bill Garthright said...

It seems to me that globalization and religious movements are almost opposite in worldview. Religions are insular, one Truth, 'us' against 'them.' Globalization is open, outward looking. A completely different mindset.

And I don't see how health care fits into any of this. But you mentioned individuality, too. Far from being "knocked back to medieval times," this is probably the best time in history for the freedom to be yourself. The Internet, in particular, has been a huge boost to that. It is the closed-in, insular societies which are the worst oppressors of individuality - not today, when the world is at your fingertips.

billbunter said...

'It seems to me that globalization and religious movements are almost opposite in worldview.' Bill

I used to feel the same Bill, and may be you are right. I stress this is much of an intuitive feeling.Globalisation assumes a kind of one world mentality and that has equally worrying implications to me as one religion. I've been struck with the experience of going to various countries and seeing the 'indigenous' population disenfranchised. To use the example of Roses,Spain. Ghettos of Dutch, German and English rich live in walled castles virtually, while the Spanish remain in the tiny town and look on in envy at the interlopers. This to me is a side effect of globalization: a form of alienation.

Regarding health care - there is a health model which has taken on almost moral tones and I really equate this with religion. Smoking is banned everywhere because it is good for you. The next step is to stop people drinking too as it causes anti social behaviour.The emphasis ,like religious proscriptions is continually towards some kind of ideal and quasi moral behaviour. transgressing the rules results in punishments and often the appeal is to conscience. IE' You shouldn't smoke - it affects others' I actually on't care if someone smokes near me even if it does harm my health. It's something to do with freedom to be bad...

If you don't believe there is a link between morals and religion have a look at this: :)

billbunter said...

I agree about the possibilities in the internet Bill

Bill Garthright said...

This is getting increasingly off-topic, but smoking (tobacco) is still perfectly legal, at least here in the U.S., and I've heard no clamor to change that. Prohibiting smoking in public buildings, businesses, restaurants, etc., is not about the health of the smoker, but about the health of innocent bystanders (and, to some extent, by private efforts of businesses to cut their health care costs).

Public drunkenness and DWI have long been illegal, but I've seen absolutely no attempt to bring back prohibition. But really, legislating against recreational drugs is certainly nothing new, anyway. If you're looking for a trend, I don't see it.

And regarding the 'ghettos' of Spain, it's been a LONG time since I visited that country, but I find it hard to believe that Spanish citizens are prohibited from owning property anywhere in the country, in favor of other Europeans. I don't know what you mean by a "one world mentality," but it's certainly a SMALLER world than it used to be, and we're increasingly recognizing that actions in one country may have consequences everywhere else. Those aren't bad things at all.

Patrick said...

I apologize for seeming as if I do not take this subject seriously, but I found this article to be hilarious.

Only 'stupid' Christians would use such arguments to defend creationism.

Faith, after all, is believing in what you cannot and should not see or have proven to you.

Science, on the other hand, is all about observation and proving something is correct.

The two are opposites, though not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, I think it would be sad if a person only had faith, but ignored science, or vice versa.

Besides, isn't this a sight about Science Fiction and Fantasy? This should be a great place to explore both in a safe, non-attacking way.

billbunter said...

This link is a good pointer to one simple example the 'health' trend I mentioned. If you don't feel you want to look at it, it refers to a man being arrested for smoking in his own van.

I'm merely saying that we are increasingly using a health model to introduce more restrictions. It becomes a moral question. Morality is related to religion as many sociology texts will point out and I recall whole chapters on Health as a new moral paradigm that iw as forced to imbibe.

Maybe its a European problem.

I can't, and wouldn't want to make you see a trend if you don't see it Bill so I'll happily say no more about it.

Here's a small example of the complaints of Spanish residents. I refer particularly to the article on foreign businesses (30% don't speak Spanish)

The sentiments here could be echoed in numerous European countries as globalisation creeps across the continents, allowing more cultural contacts. In one sense its a good thing, in another it raises concerns.

I didn't say anyone was prohibited from doing anything Bill. I simply observed that there were no Spanish people in the 'walled' cities that surround Roses. That certainly makes you think.

I agree about it being a smaller world and that it easier to see and express concern about things in other countries. You can instantly sign any petition or protest and so.

Anthony G Williams said...

Patrick, I entirely agree with you that religion and science do not need to be mutually exclusive; science explains the physical world, religion is focused on the spiritual. The problems come when religion tries to explain the physical world in ways which conflict with what we have learned from the objective processes of observation and logical reasoning. And, as I said in the conclusion of my post, the problem with that is that it leaves people ill-equipped to cope with the challenges ahead.

If you read the 'Welcome' section you will see that I draw a fairly broad line around the topics I post here.

The Gray Monk said...

As a practicing Christian and in Ministry myself, the Creationist and Intelligent Design pundits scare the living daylights out of me. They refuse to accept that science and religion are not mutually exclusive and, as you rightly point out, Darwin himself pointed to there only needing to be one example of some craeture not having evolved to prove evolution a false trail. Nothing so far has - and why can't evolution itself be the tool of a Creator? If you read Genesis I (Which is actually a poem in the Hebrwe and Greek versions) the word the King James version (Probably the least accurate translation going!)which is given as "Day" can actually mean "era" or "eon" either of which put a different spin to the creation story. Coincidently, Chapter 2 is actually a reworking of the Ballad of Gilgamesh with one important difference, it changes the gods - plural - from a rather self serving bunch who regard humans as playthings to be tormented into God who sets out a set of rules and moral codes which bind himself as much as his creation.

Church and State coming together? We tried that in the UK under Cromwell..... We are still suffering the consequences of letting religious fundamentalists run the country.

That said, I am concerned by the constant insidious attacks on Christianity in government, the media, the schools and universities and in literature. No faith doesn't mean no belief, it is simply transfered to something else - which is why Islam is growing in the UK.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree with you that humanity clearly has a pre-disposition to believe in something beyond the visible, material world. Exactly why this should be so is a fascinating question, although I suspect that the type of answers suggested would differ between religious and non-religious people!

I have no religious beliefs myself but I have no argument with the vast majority of religious people, who evidently obtain great comfort from their faith and may be motivated to be better people because of it. Those pushing the creationist agenda are just giving religion a bad name.