Distal Muse

Evolution And Morality II

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     Iíve been prompted to do a follow-up on this by the events in Dover, PA and Kansas.  Not news anymore, but to recap, the trial in Dover over the school boardís insertion of Intelligent Design into public school science curriculum is over.  The judge wonít hand down his decision till January, probably, but in the immediate aftermath, the citizens of Dover ousted the entire school board and replaced them with less insidiously doctrinaire people.
     I say insidious, because this can no longer be seen as well-intentioned people blundering into controversy unawares.  Weíve been having this crap now for a couple of decades at least, in Kansas back in the 90s, and the issue is well-enough known and the stakes thoroughly understood by enough folks on both sides that anyone moving to circumvent the Supreme Court decision (Edwards vs Aguillard, 1987) is doing so with the knowledge that they are being duplicitous.  They have decided that, as they cannot win their case on the basis of fact and reason, and since they believe they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, any tactic by which they may advance their cause is just fine.
     Science, meanwhile, is hamstrung by its in-built integrity--not that scientists themselves are not often duplicitous or even insidious, but they work with a process that, sooner or later, ousts the B.S.  This is a point the Creationists seem to miss about science.  Or maybe they donít, but they just donít care.  Scientists, in other words, end up having to play by the rules, because the rules are well-defined and function well enough that fraud is inevitably discovered and error corrected.  Bad science doesnít stand because of that process.
     While it is true that there have been scientists whose work has been vilified by fellow scientists, this proves nothing.  Eventually, if their work is sound, they are vindicated by the very process that will then discredit that bad or incomplete science blocking their work.  This has happened time and time again.
     Likewise, it proves nothing to hold science up as some sort of religion with its own dogma, barring the radical and guarding the gates of orthodoxy like Cerberus, because in time the watchdogs are put down and good work has its day.  Consider the rather shameful episode of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose book World In Collision suffered censure and open censorship when it was published.  The scientific community reacted so negatively to the book that it went through its own period of HUAC stupidity in its treatment of Velikovsky.  Carl Sagan, in an exercise of integrity, righted this by having a forum of scientists give Velikovsky and his work serious consideration.  The result was the book Velikovsky Reconsidered , which is a collection of papers done on Velikovskyís ideas.
     Velikovsky was shown to be in error.
     But some good science came out of the forum, most especially with regard to Venus.
     Point being, science changed its mind.
     Religion canít really do that.  At least, the religiously dogmatic canít, not without throwing over their dogma and admitting what they believed was in error.  And thatís why it doesnít mix with science.
     On the opposite side of the Dover issue, Kansas once more entered the field by reinserting Intelligent Design in their curriculum and changing the description of science as it is to be taught in the schools along the way.
     It prompts one to ask: What Is It With These People?
     Now you must ask, then, which people am I talking about?

     There are two elements involved in this specific issue that canít get around each other.  The specific issue I refer to is the place of religion in public education.
     One element--those who are pushing the Intelligent Design aka Creationism inclusion--believe that part of our problem today is a lack of religious instruction.  We have, they say, banned god from the classroom.  This has led to immorality and decay, degeneracy and national weakness.
     The other element are those who adamantly refuse to allow religion into public schools at any level, anywhere.  They fuel the fires of the debate--the barred will clamor for inclusion till the gates break down.  This is Americanism at its core, we canít deny it or avoid it and we try to maintain an exclusionary posture at our peril.  Because if we canít hold those gates shut--and we canít--when they do finally give way, weíll have no control whatsoever on what comes through it.
     I take issue with the false syllogism of the religious advocates that we are in the grip of immorality because of the ban on teaching religion in public schools.  I take issue with it because I canít think of a single period in our history when we havenít been in the grip of degeneracy and decay.  We know this because there isnít a single period in our history when the critics of society havenít loudly pointed this fact out to us.  We have always lived in a stew of sin and corruption.  Even when we did teach religion in the schools.  The presence of school prayer, catechism, evangelism, and god in the public schools has made no difference in the level of so-called immorality in our society.  None.  You can find tracts written at each decade of our nationís history attesting to the fact that we are Sodom, we are Babylon, we are doomed.  Taking religion out of the public schools has had no real impact at all.
     Now, it can be argued that the kinds of immorality have probably changed.  We didnít have drug peddlers pushing Ecstacy to grade schoolers in 1890.
 But wait a minute--a lot of that is simply opportunism.  But when you look at the culture at large, you can see that the roster of national sins has changed a bit.  Not much.  Iíd argue that for a lot of people, things have improved, and perhaps we have a level of common morality more in evidence on the individual level today than ever before.  Just check the donations to charity, the kinds of charity being donated to, and the range of civil tolerance we experience today that was impossible to expect in, say, 1954.
     So that argument, to anyone with any smattering of historical perspective, is patently false.
     But thereís another argument that can be made to support a contention that religion ought to be included in school curriculum.  We pride ourselves on tolerance, and it is true, we canít get around it, that the basic principles of tolerance in the West are fundamentally Christian principles.  Not church principles, but the ideas that came from Yeshua--Jesus, for those who donít know who I mean.  In fact, the codification of tolerance has its earliest manifestation in religion--everywhere.  The idea that we should respect others, that we should regard our fellow creatures as no better or worse than ourselves, is a religious idea.
     The irony, of course, is that secularists have in recent times been the best practitioners of it, at least in a public forum, and is lost on most religious ideologues.  Pat Robertson and the rest of his ilk wouldnít be half so irked at Dover, PA, if they werenít well aware of this seeming contradiction.  Consider this quote from the ďillustrious pastorĒ on the occasion of the Dover decision:

     "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city, and don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin, and I'm not saying they will. But if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, then don't ask for his help, because he might not be there."

     But I do have a problem with banning religion from public education and it is that we live in a world of religion, and to ignore it is to invite the abuses of ignorance.  You could argue, I suppose, that it is desirable to ďprotectĒ children from strong ideologies until they are of an age and a sophistication not to be overwhelmed by them--but we certainly donít do that with regards to other aspects of the world.  We underestimate both childrenísí capacity to handle complexity and our own ability to present a subject in such a way as to open a childís mind to possibility and choice along with reason.
     So I would put religion in school curriculum--as part of history (I donít know how you teach about the Crusades and avoid deep religious discussions) and as a part of some form of civics.
     This is unacceptable to the Creationist advocates.  They donít want religion taught as a Subject, they want it taught as Truth.  They want it to have dominance over all other subjects.  To do this, though, would require a distortion of those other subjects, especially science.
     Which brings the other element in as counter.  Those who would blindly bar religion in toto .  Seeing the intent of the first group, the latter, in an argument we have seen time and again in politics, claims that to let a little in is to eventually yield the field.  This is sometimes called the problem of the camelís nose.  You canít let the camel poke his nose into your tent, because before you know it the whole camel is in and youíre sleeping in the open desert.
     So they sue and countersue and the country must stand by and watch as the issues mangle the subjects.
     Now, I wonít be coy about where I stand.  Religion is not compatible with science.  Sorry, it just isnít.  Faith is subverted by a process demanding proof, and science is nothing without that very process.  I think religion is both inevitable and unfortunate in this regard.  People seem to require it.  If we managed to stamp it out in one generation, the next would rediscover it.  Itís my opinion that religion is a kind of emergent property of communities.  There is not one culture on the planet ever found that lacked a religion.  In all the wild variety human creativity offers, they multiply, and appear as if out of nowhere.  The binding commonality of our humanity is indicated by the concerns all these religions share--where did we come from?  What is truth?  What shall we do?  What shall we not do?  Is there an afterlife?  Who are the gods and why do they have anything to do with us?
     More than that, though, a religion is the strongest form of group identity.  Everyone believing the same thing, worshiping the same thing, claiming descent from ancestors who also believed and worshiped the same thing--when politics and economics change and even language is suspect one generation to the next, this is a powerful bond.
     Of course, itís based on faith as much as any other element of a religion--how do we know we believe the same way our great great grandparents did?--but the nature of faith being that which cannot be analyzed, proven, or disproved, the bond is potent and all but unassailable.
     But it doesnít stop at belief.  It spills over into everything else.  Not only do we believe like our distant forebears, weíre no different from them in any way!  There is a continuity of conscience and values and even physicality implicit in the religious view.  From Abraham to Jesus, The People did not change, outwardly or inwardly, except for the waxing and waning of their faith.  But they were in all things essentially the same people.  No discovery, no insight, no invention altered them qualitatively in any way.
     And there seems to be some comfort in that.  Certain a kind of validation.
     Thatís gone.
     Enter the Industrial Revolution.  From the 18th Century till today, the one thing for certain is that we are never the same one generation to the next.
     At least, thatís what it looks like.
     Hereís where the core assault on Evolution enters.
     First we realized that humans are just one more species on the fecund body of the Earth, biologically no better or worse than any other.  An opportunistic organism hell bent (he chooses his words carefully) on dominance of the biome through any means available, the first line of assault being reproduction.  We secured a position through a particularly large neocortex overlaid on a big brain, and after building cities and colonizing the entire globe, thought of ourselves in our fevered imagination as the ultimately pinnacle of creation--an idea we invented as well to explain the hierarchy we assumed to be ďnaturalĒ, which idea itself is perverted by the notion of special creation, with human beings at the crest of it.  Our ideology itself was employed in the battle to dominate--our hubris is probably an evolutionary benefit, since it obliterates the kind of humility and sensibility that would check our nature-driven surge for dominance, a dominance not only over the so-called Animal Kingdoms, but over arbitrarily-designated ďlesserĒ human breeds.
     Right nasty piece of work.  When we understood that we were just part of nature and not the divinely-appointed landlords, it didnít take long for some among us to start looking closely at the long trail of human history and trying to figure out alternative answers to the thorny questions.  Many were wrong.
     But just questioning that continuity was a chancy practice and got a lot of individuals killed along the way.
     Something was awry, though, because the animal kingdoms we thought we understood turned out to be a lot more...unique...than we suspected, and begged more questions than weíd been offering.
     When Darwin came along with his little notion of natural selection, well, the whole thing revealed itself to those with clear eyes.  There was no ďspecial creationĒ--the whole thing was a continuum, a ongoing round of cede and supercede, new species displacing old, whole genomes transforming, disappearing, transmuting.  The animal kingdoms we knew were johnny-come-latelys, emerged in the space left behind by far older kingdoms that had never know Humans at all--because we didnít exist when they held sway.  Which meant that we were only another phase in an age-old process of change and replace and recombine and...evolving.
     Which destroyed the cozy sense of eternal continuity we assumed for millennia.
     Which has driven certain people crazy.
     It amazes me that we still hear the rejection we heard in the 19th century and even in Dayton, TN--ĒI am not descended from an ape!Ē
     The man in the 20th Century who came to exemplify the fundamentalist response to evolution, William Jennings Bryan, said in his famous Menace of Darwinism speech: ď...our chief concern is in protecting man from the demoralization involved in accepting a brute ancestry...evolution in plant and animal life up to the highest form of animal might, if there were proof of it, be admitted without raising a presumption that would compel us to give a brute origin to man.Ē
     As it has transpired in the course of the 20th Century, science has pretty well established that evolution occurs.  All the arguments mustered against it, from gaps in the fossil record to the intricacy of the eye and its impossibility of emerging by evolutionary process, have been answered.  We have ample evidence in the fossil record and are finding more all the time.  That is simply not an issue anymore.  The eye has been explained.  More than that, in the laboratory evolution has been witnessed on the single cell level for decades.  The only way to make sense of viral mutation is through an evolutionary model.  Humans themselves have been instrumental in evolutionary process through selective breeding of cattle, pets, and the manner in which we change environments and displace species.
     Plus, we keep finding new species.  They are emerging all the time.
     But the bone of contention (if you will allow me the pun) is with the descent of Man.
     Up to the present day, beginning with Bryan, people have made a link between special creation and morality--as if without the hand of god having made us in a separate manner from all the rest of creation, we could not possibly evince a single moral principle.  I addressed this in the previous essay.  Based on a historical reading of our conduct as a species, there isnít a shred of evidence to support the contention that more religion equates to more morality.
     But that isnít where this is coming from, I think.  I think thatís a dodge.
     The issue is obsolescence.
     The view that religion gives us is that Man (humankind) was the last living thing created, and that it was an act of special creation, different from all the rest of the living world, and furthermore the model used was the Creator Himself.  The inescapable implication of this is that we--human beingsó are the pinnacle.  Weíre It.  The Best.  The supreme, end result of six heady days of creative exuberance performed by a Being of Infinite power and knowledge and imagination.
     Better could not be done.
     Well.  If true, then Evolution is the democratic revolt dethroning us from that position.  Because evolution states that weíre just one more species among millions and we have as much chance as surviving to the end of time as the dinosaurs--which is, none to speak of.  We arenít special.  We can be replaced, and, by the logic of evolution, will be.
     The king has no throne.
     Whether people consciously react to this or not is beside the point.  Unconsciously, Iím certain they do.
     And some reject this process of replacement utterly.
     We will not be made obsolete.  We will not be shoved off the top of the hill.  We will not be replaced.
     Our provenance, as descended from a long, long line of other primates, must therefore be rejected, because to accept it is to accept the possibility of our being just a stop along the way to something else.  Not even, if we read Darwin correctly, something superior--just something else.  We canít even look forward to a more human human.
     The passion of rejection exhibited here suggests no less than a personal stake on the part of those who would see evolution denied.
     In my humble opinion, this is pathetic.
     There are always people who take credit for their ancestorsí accomplishments, people who rely on family name and honor to supply them with the dignity they otherwise havenít earned.  For such people who get by on the stories of greatness achieved by grandparents or great grandparents, people like me--who really could care less what the family did a century ago--must appear odd.  To me, they appear ridiculous.  Likewise those who plead social incapacitation based on transgression done to forebears, as if the transgression had been done to them.  My name is German.  That does not make me heir to the crimes of the Nazis or the absurdities of Kaiser Wilhelmís Reich.  Nor does it suggest anything about my work ethic, my sense of humor, or my tendencies toward dress, decorum, or music.  Yet I have heard this kind of thing throughout my life.  ďOh, thatís the German in you!Ē
     How?  I am an American by birth.  Characteristics that have to do with socialization do not transfer genetically--thatís Lamarckianism and itís demonstrable false--yet there are people who assume they do.
     All this is part and parcel of a process of borrowing self-worth--or special pleading--from lineage.  If that lineage is long and immutable, well...
     But itís not.  To pretend it is is a habit born of centuries of human habit, passed from one generation to the next not by genetic processes but by the stories and customs we carry with us, handed down through families, towns, nations.
     Yet there are American born Irish who will pick fights about slights done by the British against the Irish a hundred years ago.  Examples abound.  This is false self-importance, indulgence in claptrap.
     And the granddaddy of such claptrap is Special Creation.
     Ultimately, if itís not true, then weíre responsible--utterly and alone--for our own situation.
     I suppose that really frightens some people.

copyright © 2005 by Mark W. Tiedemann