Only A Theory

January 31, 2009

For a long time, I have been putting off the inevitable blog entry about evolution and why the notion of creationism in schools makes me so angry. Last night, I finished reading Kenneth Miller’s new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and now I feel ready to tackle this entry while discussing his book.

I am not going to spend much time on the concept of evolution as “only a theory”. There are plenty of accounts that explain why this is a ridiculous claim (Miller’s book among them), I will say only briefly that relativity, plate tectonics, and electricity are also, scientifically speaking, theories. However, nuclear bombs, earthquakes, and televisions are very real. My concern in this entry is more to talk about the societal catastrophe that could occur if Intelligent Design proponents are successful.

I am starting at the end of the book. Let us consider this excerpt from a famous creationist/ID (yes, they are the same thing) document known as the Wedge Document:

If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points… We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID).

In case that excerpt does not make it clear enough, the goal of ID is not simply to overthrow evolution, but to overthrow all of science. The goal is to redefine science such that it includes supernatural phenomena as possible explanations. This boggles my mind. It would be extremely difficult for me to articulate how devastating this could be, fortunately, Mr. Miller does it for me:

What would happen to science if its ground rules were changed? What would a science of the future look like if we considered “nonnaturalistic” causes to be legitimate scientific explanations? At a stroke they would be accepted in every branch of science. That earthquake devastating part of the third world might have been caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, but it could also be a punishment for the sinfulness of those now suffering in the rubble. Why bother to conduct an exhaustive molecular search through simian virus genomes to find the source of HIV when clear-thinking ID scholars have concluded that it was sent as a devine warning against deviant lifestyles? In fact even the rainbow might just be a phenomenon presented to us by a “whimsical” designer, according to ID theorist William Dembski. Why worry about the physics of light when the mystery of the rainbow can be solved by easy reference to the personality of the creator?

If that does not scare the ever-loving-shit out of you, it should because I have heard different versions of this kind of blather from all over various conservative religious organizations and individuals. I can IMAGINE this happening, and it scares the hell out of me.

The primary complaint of the ID crowd has always been that science has gained a class system. There are the elite who believe in and push their mainstream (naturalist/materialist) ideas, and there is everyone else. “This isn’t fair!” they cry. “Our ideas are just as valid as yours!” Except they aren’t. All of science can be distilled into two words: Prove it. If you cannot PROVE what you are asserting, if you cannot find some way to test if what you are saying is true, then it is not science. What the ID movement is trying to do is make unprovable supernatural explanations valid. They are trying to turn SCIENCE into a matter of OPINION. Science has no room for opinion. Evolution has been proven again and again and again. It has passed every test. Just because it has not yet explained every adaptation in every living thing on earth does not mean it is invalid, it just means there is more to be learned, and we are learning more everyday.

Miller understands the dilemma that many people have, however. He understands that for many people evolution would serve as a final nail in the coffin. Their world is godless. There is no meaning to their lives. Everything is random. He talks about how understandable these feelings are. And then he deconstructs the entire argument. Now, if you want the full version, go read the book, but I’m just going to give you a taste. As Miller points out, according to science we could never have existed if the conditions in our universe weren’t exactly perfect. Further, if our ancestors and their ancestors hadn’t shown the ability to change and adapt with circumstance, we never would have developed into the lifeforms we currently are. In fact, we share a deep and profound heritage with every living thing on earth. This is a very good story and, here’s the best part, it’s true! It doesn’t mean there is no god. In fact, he rightly points out that if you do believe in god, then it seems silly not to acknowledge that NATURE is the creation. The universe is the creation, and that studying natural laws and coming to naturalistic solutions does not in anyway conflict with the existence of a god.

I will say here, before I close, that I do not believe in god. At least, not in the Christian sense. I don’t really know what may be out there, but at the same time, I do not need a god to imbue my life with purpose. I find purpose enough in living my life. I write. I love my wife. Soon, I will raise a daughter. I try to make the world a little better, a little nicer. That’s all the purpose I need, but many people do believe in god, and if any of those people are reading this and struggling with whether or not they really CAN believe in evolution without violating their faith or losing their tether in a confusing and difficult world, I will leave with this quote from Galileo which explains why even the godly should value science:

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.