Eugenie C. Scott speaks in San Diego
Evolution Vs. Creationism(s)
Review by Andy Pavelchek
On Monday, January 10, 2005, the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry (SDARI) presented an engaging lecture on EVOLUTION VS. CREATIONISM(S ) by Dr. Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the leading organization concerned about the teaching of evolution in the United States. Dr. Scott is a physical anthropologist who taught at the university level before becoming Director of NCSE in 1987. The NCSE "is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for ... citizens working to keep evolution in public school science education. ... NCSE is religiously neutral, though it cooperates nationally and locally with religious organizations, as well as scientific and educational organizations" (link). The following is an overview of my observations on the evening.
Dr. Scott's presentation centered on two main topics. The first was a description of the continuum of beliefs from Flat Earth believers through Young Earth Creationist and Progressive Creationist to Theistic and Atheistic Evolutionist, including several other positions along the way. The assault on teaching evolution has been led most recently by proponents of "Intelligent Design". The "Intelligent Design" (ID) approach is traced as a descendant of William Paley´s discredited Argument from Design (Paley, 1803). The ID effort has been rather cleverly and disingenuously crafted to be copasetic with almost all of the creationist camps and some Theistic Evolutionist. This has allowed it to draw on support from many groups that otherwise would think each other wacko, even though it's strongest advocates tend to be of the Young Earth or Gap Creationist stripe. This part of her presentation is well captured on the NCSE website.
The second major point was the nature of science and viewing it as a way of explaining natural behavior in a natural world via natural causes. She stressed a distinction between Methodological Materialism (the idea that the behavior of nature is not arbitrary) and Philosophical Materialism. She advocated for the teaching of Methodological Materialism in schools, that is the scientific method, which would include evolution as the best and only operative theory for the origin of species and life. Philosophical Materialism, basically monism (the belief that "stuff' is made of one thing and there is no supernatural), is her personal belief but not a component of science or science education. Agnostic, Humanist and Atheistic beliefs are classical Philosophical Materialism beliefs. (Personally I am a dubious monist. Atheism is clearly the operative assumption but one wonders what the nature of consciousness is.)
A common tactic of ID proponents is to cherry pick criticisms of current evolutionary theory and say: "AHA! see evolution doesn't work!". The fact of the matter is that the current arguments are all about the details of evolution. Scientists almost universally consider the question the evolution of species and life to be a settled issue. The points of discussion are only about specific mechanisms and sequence.
The worry of some creationists is that this acceptance of evolution implies no god, implying no salvation implying no reason to be good. (In my view, if anything, this points to weakness in the moral foundations of theists but that's another discussion.) I also believe that a large segment of creationists feel that they would be at a loss in determining where biblical "truth" begins if the bible were not to be held as literally true. This would result in an ambiguity about what their faith should hold as true, exposing the truly arbitrariness of Judeo-Christian theism.
My own education was strongly sectarian through high school. However, though theology was expected it was not imposed (a consequence of the pro-intellectualism of a prep school). Students learned about religion and science in a religious environment. As an atheist through almost all of high school, I interpreted more hostility from the pledge of allegiance than from actions by any priest on the faculty. At that time, the Catholic Church was open to the advancement of science, the evolution of species, and the separation of physical and theological spheres of philosophy. While it's official position has changed little, there seems a strong fear that modernism leads away from theism. (Well they are right.)
Most of the follow up questions at the lecture came from the creationist camp. The first questioner thought Ms. Scott had presented the conflict in a very respectful fashion and although he held up a document he purported to hold serious questions about evolution, he expressed that the described approach to teaching was not unreasonable. Subsequently, a public high school teacher objected to not being able to teach evolution as theory. This was not very well addressed due to interruptions (although the NCSC website has a section on that specific issue). A few simple points could be made on this topic: all science is taught as theory, as such, evolution is taught as theory. It happens to be the best theory, as evaluated by experts in science, and there are not currently any reasonably competitive theories. And importantly, ID is not an operative "theory" in any practical sense of the word.
The last major event of questioning came from John Baumgardner of the Institute for Creation Research who wanted to discuss what he saw as problems with neo-Darwinian evolution, and the how "information", as in the genome, arises. His questioning didn't really provide any insights and the monitor was barely able to prevent exchanges from devolving into an argument amongst audience members. In discussions after the lecture Baumgardner disclosed that he is a young earth creationist who believes that Jesus was genuine and that since Jesus endorsed the "word of Moses", the Old Testament is true. At answersingenisis.org, Mr Baumgardner is described as believing in the "deliberate use of evolution to assault and destroy the faith of Christian college students". He is a degreed geophysicist who espouses a theory of catastrophic plate tectonics as an explanation for the "Genesis flood".
In general, it seemed like the complaints of the creationist side were "why are we treated like the crazy aunt in the attic" and "why do you deny the problems with evolution?" Clearly, the scientific community still needs to address a several "Man in the street" concerns that Creationist key on:
1. The lack of intuitive answers to complexity, consciousness and a meaning for life.
2. Effectively address the new creationist meme: "the weakness of evolutionary theory" [link] and explain problem of common descent. Dr. Scott expressed that a lot of this is the difficulty people have conceptualizing the time-frames involved that are way beyond personal experience.
3. Science's openness to teaching alternative theories unfortunately, "theories" such as ID are so weak that any reasonable teaching of them risks being highly derogatory towards religion because it should accurately address the origins of the idea. As a result, advocates look like the crazy aunt in the attic. What's required is to teach what science is.
Conservatives and biblical creationists in particular, have fostered an anti-intellectualism that has been used to attack artists, academics, environmentalist and yuppies alike. The pseudo-intellectual arrogance of ID provides an opportunity to expose the shallowness of their thinking if the proper formulation can be found. ID's strategy of course, is never to get pinned down and they are trying to make their case by casting doubt on the viability of evolutionary theory.
There are other resources available besides the NCSE such as www.scienceormyth.org which was set up by the Burlington-Edison Committee for Science Education describing their efforts to counter the effort to put creationism in public schools. It provides an illustrative example of a tactic to assault the education of children in small rural communities that don't have the resources and may or may not have committed and educated members to deal with the intrusion of well organized and effort promoted by organizations like the Orwellian named "Discovery Institute"
"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." - Charles Darwin