Less Science

In Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, one of the Firesign Theatre’s best albums, a story within the story concerns Porgie and Mudhead’s attempts to find their high school, More Science, after it’s stolen by the students at Commie Martyrs. ‘Commie Martyrs’ is certainly passé. But is ‘More Science’ far behind?
The recent attempt of the Kansas Board of Education to introduce Intelligent Design into the public schools—creationist in all but name, to judge from some Board members’ comments—is only one of many (see the NCSE website for details). Here in Missouri a bill introduced at the end of the House session was not acted on (NCSE, “Antievolution bill dies in Missouri”, 17 May 2005). In our neighboring state of Oklahoma, the Tulsa Zoo has agreed to a display depicting the six days of Creation (NCSE, “Tulsa Zoo to Add Creationism Exhibit”, 10 Jun 2005; see also “Tulsa Zoo and Creationism” at Panda’s Thumb).
The issue is not one of science but of power, of resentment fueled by the suspicion that the sort of people who regard evolution as proved look down on the true Christians who oppose them. H. Allen Orr, in his New Yorker piece, summarizes the issue from the standpoint of the scientists:
Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.
(The “Dover” in question is Dover, Pennsylvania: see the NCSE listing of articles.) It is all too easy for the creationists, or their retooled successors, to take the designation “junk science”, however deserved, and treat it as an expression of contempt for the religion that motivates them and their defenders.
“Junk science” refers, on the one hand, to science done badly, to research that is methodologically deficient or contrary to established fact, and on the other, to hypotheses that are no longer serious contenders. Research in a mature natural science typically occurs at the margins of a large body of established experimental results and middle-level theories. Claims contrary to those results and theories are not serious. To put forward such claims is therefore the mark of a crank or an uninformed amateur. The expertise needed to discern the serious from the silly is possessed, typically, by rather few people. Given the difficulty of laying out the reasons for their judgments to a lay public, and their social position, it is not hard to portray them as elitists, as narrow-minded, as censorious—especially when the experts express their opinions about silly theories in the sometimes harsh and peremptory manner they are accustomed to using with each other.
The anti-evolutionists of the Christian right would undoubtedly be happy to see Intelligent Design taught with, or instead of, evolutionary theory in public institutions. A strategy more likely to succeed, however, is that of diverting money to Christian schools and universities. On our way through Indiana to godless Canada we encountered a number of large billboards advertising Christian universities. Their purpose is to provide students with the experience of “academic and Christian discovery”—this is the slogan of Anderson University in Anderson, a town of about 60,000 people near Indianapolis. Not far away, Taylor University, the alma mater of Stephen L. Johnson, now head of EPA, offers students an “intentional, Christ-centered community”.
At Taylor, the only mention of evolution I could find is in the description of BIO203, “Principles of Genetics”: “Population genetics is studied as well as natural selection and the concepts of evolution and creation”. At Anderson, courses in the foundations of biology and on bird and fish biology mention evolution (or “postulated evolutionary relationships”); there is also a course called “Integration of Faith and Science” that discusses origins. In short, evolution, though not avoided altogether, is played down in favor of the synchronic disciplines: molecular and cellular biology, natural history, and ecology. That is what biology without Darwin looks like: it’s a good question how much of it would exist had Darwinism never darkened the face of the Earth.
If some good comes of the political controversy (which is only a scientific controversy insofar as scientists feel obliged to show that Intelligent Design rests on bad science), it will be that university teachers come to realize that inattention to, or disdain for, K-12 education is imprudent (see, however, the letter from Steve Case quoted by Reed Cartwright in the article mentioned below), and that to marry evolution to militant atheism is rhetorically inept.
I think it is philosophically dubious also. What follows from the truth of evolutionary theory is that what was once thought to be empirical evidence for an intelligent Maker no longer can be treated as such. Even if it were successful, the Argument from Design could not demonstrate that the Maker has the usual attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. It is at most an adjunct to other arguments that do demonstrate the existence of a being with those attributes. Its historical importance—and so too part of the religious import of Darwinism—rests on its being the argument best adapted to a vivid, immediately comprehensible presentation. To defeat that argument is to shift the burden of showing that belief in God is rationally permissible or obligatory to the remaining arguments or to faith.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Churches of the West had come to terms with the new science, which was henceforth enlisted in an enormous apologetics largely devoted to detailing the evidence of divine providence in natural and human history (see the references below). Darwinism dealt that enterprise a serious blow. It was the last, and the closest to home, in the group of theories that treated nature and culture under the heading of “development”. Cosmology and geology had already begun to offer explanations of the formation of the solar system and the Earth; there too final causes—divine ends—had to give way in science to “blind” efficient causes governed by the laws of nature.
“We, the Biology faculty, believe in God, whom we know in Christ: the triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit as revealed in the Scriptures of our Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. We all believe that the creation (the entire Universe and all its inhabitants) is utterly dependent on God for its origin, its moment-by-moment existence, its governance, the value it possesses, and the purpose for which it was made”
The human sciences, meanwhile, exhibited the historical, mutable character of religious systems, and attempted to explain their existence and character by reference to human nature and contingent historical events.
The effect of all such explanations was to make reference to supernatural agencies superfluous. Descartes had already recommended that natural philosophy forego appeal to divine purposes, and received for that the opprobrium of Leibniz, who tried to instill new vigor into the Argument from Design. His example shows that leaving God out of the study of nature need not entail atheism: on the contrary, it may be a necessary measure to distinguish what belongs to faith or to rational theology, so as to shield it from the loss of credibility suffered by natural theology.
The proponents of Intelligent Design are the soft-speaking avant garde of the big-stick-toting demagogues whose aim is to suppress whatever in science they take to be inimical to their version of Christianity (see Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch, “The Wedge”, Academe, Jan-Feb 2005). At the moment those who have serious money with which to influence political decision-making do not oppose them. The literal interpretation of Genesis has not yet proved bad for business, and the Christian right, with its opposition to unions and what it thinks of as big government (meaning Medicare, not the Patriot Act), provides useful cover for their program of removing constraints on corporate activity.
I’m not sure, in fact—and the curricula mentioned above seem to suggest otherwise—that creationist biology would be bad for business. The money to be made from biology, it would seem, comes from applications of the synchronic disciplines, not from the theory of evolution. Turning back the clock might have, perhaps, only the secondary economic effects that would follow upon an exodus of top-notch biologists from any state that mandated the teaching of creationism. It would be some time before those were apparent, and they might not make any difference politically: the Jim Crow South suffered economically for decades. The sense that some sort of disaster or decline would follow upon meddling with science may be of a piece with the general belief, or hope, that somehow the just are rewarded and the unjust punished.
Cartwright, Reed A. 2005. Exchange of words in Kansas. Panda’s Thumb, 13 May 2005.
Dizikes, Peter. 2005. “A real monkey trial”, Salon, 13 May 2005.
Kansas Citizens for Science. 2004–2005. Standards 2005. Documents on the 2005 hearings.
National Center for Science Education. 2005. “All over but the shouting in Kansas”, 17 May 2005. Also at Kansas Citizens.
Rosenau, Joshua. 2005. “More on KS BOE”, Thoughts from Kansas, 2 Feb 2005.
Wichita Eagle. 2005. Expose politics of State BOE hearings, 24 Apr 2005. Also at Kansas Citizens.
Intelligent design
Anchorage Daily News. 2005. “Board restores reason to evolution studies”, also at the Juneau Empire, 14 Jun 2005. Via Nick Matzke, “Evolution in Alaska” (14 Jun 2005). —The Alaska Board of Education voted unanimously “to upgrade the theory of evolution from a grudging parenthetical reference to its central role in the life sciences”.
Forrest, Barbara. 2002. The Newest Evolution of Creationism, Natural History, Apr 2002 (republished at ActionBioscience.
Orr, H. Allen. 2005. Devolution: Why intelligent design isn’t”, New Yorker, 30 May 2005. Summary at NCSE.
Blogs that discuss intelligent design and the politics of evolution include
Natural theology
Boyle, Robert. 1674. Excellency of Theology. The first of several works in natural theology. See the Boyle Papers for manuscript versions of this and other works, and the Boyle Project Homepage for biographical information.
Various authors. Boyle Lectures. 1692–1732. See Andrew Pyle’s introduction to the Thoemmes Press reprint.
Derham, William. 1713. Physico-Theology.
Derham, William. 1715. Astro-Theology.
Saint-Pierre, Bernardin de. 1784. Études de la nature.
Saint-Pierre, Bernardin de. 1815. Harmonies de la nature.
Various authors. 1833–1837. Bridgewater Treatises. Eight works in twelve volumes. Among the authors: Charles Bell, William Prout, Peter Mark Roget, William Whewell. A ninth treatise, by Charles Babbage, was never completed. It is noteworthy that the authors of the Treatises were among the leading scientists of their time. The same cannot be said of the proponents of Intelligent Design.

LinkJune 15, 2005 in Academic Affairs · Current Affairs · Religion · Science