Friday, July 08, 2011

Darwin matters

Townhall, a conservative webzine, recently published an article by one Marvin Olasky in which he lambasts the theory of evolution, while revealing his utter ignorance of what evolution states, what it does not state, and what a scientific "theory" is and is not. Click here.

His first paragraph defines the issue as political, and important in view of the coming campaign season. His second paragraph raises theological objections that are "literally crucial because they tell us whether the Cross was necessary." The article was lifted from the Christian magazine that Mr. Olasky edits; he apparently did not bother to re-edit it for a secular audience. The crosses (there were many of them) were necessary for the Romans to get rid of people they considered troublemakers, but that's not the real point. The point, which Olasky completely misses, is that the cross (only one is important to him) is irrelevant to American politics and to science. He asserts that "if the Darwin was right the Bible was wrong," but our Constitution could not care less if the Bible was right or wrong. Nor is the word "God" mentioned in the entire document.

The rest of the article raises a grab-bag of social issues that evolution supposedly influenced in a negative way. There is nothing new here; it is difficult to find anything new in the arguments of Christian (or Jewish) fundamentalists. The obvious answer to all these issues is that they are irrelevant. Any scientific theory can be misused or abused; that does not affect the validity of the theory. Arsonists use matches to start fires, but we do not ban matches. Instead we make positive use of matches while we try to catch and punish arsonists. That Olasky and his Christian audience do not understand the function of a scientific theory points to the inadequacy of science education in this country, which those of Olasky's ilk would perpetuate and which bodes ill for our ability to compete in the global economy. China, India and Japan are not Judeo-Christian societies and their science is not stymied by religious nonsense. Their scientists come here to train in America's best graduate schools and then fill positions in our finest research universities while this country does not turn out enough people who are up to the task.

In brief, the function of a theory is to explain data. Data are the "facts" of science, the results of experiment and observation. The more data a theory explains, the wider the range of fields that produced the theory, the more successful the theory is. It follows that scientists do not use the word "theory" the way the general public does. A scientific theory is not somebody's guess, supported by tenuous evidence or no evidence. When scientists dignify a statement by calling it a theory, it is robust, supported by a large body of evidence from many different avenues of research. Accordingly, there are few theories in science. We have the atomic theory, the theory of universal gravitation, electromagnetic theory, quantum theory - and evolutionary theory. All but evolution do not generate political firestorms stoked by religious know-nothings. And evolution is supported by as vast a body of evidence as any of the other theories. As with all scientific theories, evolution has unanswered questions. That's what this business we call science is all about - investigating the unanswered, constantly broadening our understanding of how the world works.

It is worth noting the hypocrisy of politically conservative thinkers who want the government to have our children taught pseudoscience instead of real science. Conservatives say they believe in limited government, yet they don't hesitate to invoke the power of government to enforce the scientific or political positions which they favor, or to suppress those which they oppose. It all depends on whose ox is gored. And evolution helps us understand many of the social problems that fundamentalists blame it for creating. If we are descended from ape-lile primates (and share about 99% of our genes with modern chimpanzees), it follows that human behavior is related to the behaviour of other primates, chimpanzees in particular. Darwin showed that we are animals, but we always knew that we were much more. We, alone among the animals, are capable of conceiving a right and a wrong, and guiding our actions accordingly. I and other religious students of evolution - and there are many more of us than Olasky and his crew care to consider - don't read evolution as a license do do anything our animal nature dreams up. We read it as a signpost and a warning. It shows us how strong our animal nature (what Jews call the yetzer hara) is and how intense our efforts to overcome it with our higher mental faculties must be.

So yes, Darwin is important, but not the way Marvin Olasky thinks.

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6 Comments:

Blogger cipher said...

This is what three decades of conservative hegemony have produced. Even teachers in blue states are afraid to do more than mention evolution in passing for fear of offending any creationist parents who may be lurking. The lunatics of the Christian Right are now running the show, and it could get worse; Michelle Bachmann has a very real shot at becoming president. They’ve made us the laughing stock of the developed world – and we deserve to be.

Objective reality is entirely irrelevant to these people, Zev. All that matters is that they get the ontological security blanket for the few brief decades they're here. If billions of their fellow human beings (for many, this includes their own children) have to be damned to hell as a byproduct - it doesn't bother them in the least. Indeed, many of them (and I maintain it's most) look forward to it.

They are the worst people in the world, the worst people in all of human history. I never descend into Godwin territory, but for this one exception (and I hope this doesn’t offend you) - in my view, they’re worse than the Nazis. The Nazis wanted to exterminate us; I don’t think they gave much, if any, thought to what would happen to us in the afterlife. By contrast, millions of these people eagerly anticipate our eternal damnation, along with that of billions of “unsaved” gentiles. They genuinely believe their “heavenly reward” will consist of hanging around a mezzanine in heaven, chugging beer with Jesus and Dubya, peering over the balcony into the bowels of hell, watching everyone they dislike (which turns out to be pretty much everyone) being tormented unimaginably for all of eternity, while they point and giggle like schoolchildren. They meet the DSM’s qualifications for Antisocial Personality Disorder – lack of empathy and willingness to see others suffer. They are what used to be called “psychopaths”, and they’ve spent the past thirty years, since Reagan and his cronies organized and empowered them, commandeering the political process, voting into office the criminals and lunatics who are chiefly responsible for our current socioeconomic debacle. We aren’t coming back from this, and as we continue to go down, we’ll be taking the rest of the world down with us. The prognosis for human survival is grim.

These are the only people in the world who are crazier than the Haredim. The inmates are in charge of the asylum, and, shamefully, they’ve been aided and abetted by politically conservative Jews who consider their theology to be “irrelevant”. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told “Who cares what they believe? We don’t believe it.” This absolutely floors me. I don’t want to have coffee with someone who thinks I’m going to hell; I certainly don’t want to take money and political favors from him. The fact that these lunatics want to use Israel to trigger Armageddon and the Rapture appears to bother them not at all.

I just can’t see any way in which to put a hopeful spin on any of it.

Mon Jul 18, 07:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Neandershort said...

I respectfully disagree. I don't really care if somebody thinks I'm going to hell, as long as he does nothing to accelerate my arrival there. And if he does, I'm not averse to kicking his butt. Some of these people can make the case for Israel better than we can, to influential Gentiles who need to hear it.
Ezekiel foretalls a cataclysmic war with enemies from the north (approximately what is now Iraq, Iran and the mini-stans of what used to be the southern USSR)converging on Israel for their own destruction. It will come when it will come, and nothing we or the Christian fundies do can hasten or delay it. And when it comes, with God's help we will win, and Mashiach will come. I heard it said, half in jest, that when he comes he will be asked if it's his first coming or second, and will reply, "No comment."

I've always regarded psychology, especially "pop psychology," as "soft science" at best, incapable of the kind of rigorous hypothesis-testing that is a sine qua non in, say, biochemistry. It seems like any deviation from society's norms, e.g. not being able to sit quietly at a desk for six hours straight without becoming restless or looking out the window every now and then, is pathological. Yet homosexuality, for which there is evidence of brain malfunction and which is clearly maladaptive, is not recognized as an illness by DSM. Most of what we call "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder," "antisocial personality disorder" and the like are simply variants of the human personality. Throw away the cookie cutter and celebrate humanity's pizzazz. The Soviets used to give their dissidents mental health diagnoses and lock them away in asylums, until Ronald Reagan pushed their evil system off a cliff.
If we want to take back our country from the Bible thumpers, we will have to get off our arses and become involved in the political process.

Mon Aug 01, 01:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger cipher said...

I'm aware that the DSM gets reorganized every few years, and a diagnosis such as Antisocial Personality Disorder becomes irrelevant. My point is that their mind-state is pathological. There is now, actually, a nascent body of evidence, small but slowly growing, indicating a neurological basis for fundamentalism. I've suspected it for decades, and I'm convinced it will be borne out - or would be, if we had the money for more research and the time left as a species (about which, as you know, I am not hopeful).

I think it will come as no surprise that I can't agree with you about homosexuality. Sexual orientation would appear largely to be a function of brain physiology, but I don't see same-sex attraction as maladaptive. The best evidence we have right now indicates it isn't as polarized as was once assumed, but strong same-sex attraction appears to be limited to about 3% of the population. Specific continuity isn't threatened, and we don't know what, if any, benefits may be involved.

Some of these people can make the case for Israel better than we can, to influential Gentiles who need to hear it.

I don't know. I've been told Israel needs them, and I've been told it doesn't. Obviously, I'd prefer to believe the latter, but I don't feel I'm knowledgeable enough about the situation to have an opinion. However, if it does need them, I wish we'd just be honest with ourselves and admit it's a marriage of convenience.

I understand pragmatic necessity. I understand doing something one would prefer not to do in order to survive; however, no Jew has ever said to me, "Yes, they're psychotic, and their belief system is obscene, but we need them, so shut up and don't make waves." Not one. Rather, all I ever hear is, "Well, we don't believe it - so why do you care?" Makes me crazy - it's an utter abdication of responsibility. It's like saying, "I don't care that he abuses his wife and kids - as long as he does what I want him to." Sometimes, you have to do business that way - but let's admit that it is business. These people are not our friends.

I think it's too late to take the country back from the "Bible thumpers" - they're too deeply entrenched and have done too much damage, and now we're out of time - but, as I've told you, I understand not wanting to believe that. I don't have children, so I don't have the investment in continuity others have. I have the luxury of despair.

Mon Aug 01, 06:54:00 AM EDT  
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