Feb 12 2009

Some Darwin Day News and Fun

This will complete my brief series on evolution and creationism leading up to Darwin Day – the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Shenanigans In Belfast

As reported by the Guardian, a museum in Belfast is planning an exhibit on Darwin. In response, Mervyn Storey, a Democratic Unionist member of the Northern Ireland assembly, warned that he will take legal action to force the museum to give equal space to a creationist exhibit. The Guardian quotes him as saying:

“They could be subject to a legal challenge under equality legislation within Northern Ireland if they chose to ignore alternative views that many people here in the Province believe in.”

I wonder to which “alternative views” Storey (a born-again Christian) is referring? Perhaps he wants to give space to the Raelian view that humans were planted on earth by aliens. The museum clearly needs to make space for an exhibit of space aliens cloning the first humans in their image. Or maybe that’s not what he had in mind.

Conspicuously absent from Storey’s statement is the word “science”. It would be legitimate to reflect in the exhibit any viable alternative scientific views to evolution, but at the present time there aren’t any.  Mervyn’s “equal time” argument has already failed in the US, but here there is a constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. I am not familiar enough with the laws of Northern Ireland to comment on the legality of trying to force religious views into the scientific arena.

Mervyn also offered up this old chestnut:

He also described Charles Darwin as a “racist” over his description of aboriginal peoples in his other classic tome The Descent of Man. “In this politically correct society we live in today, if Darwin expressed those views about other peoples of the world now he would not be put on any pedestal.”

I love arguments that are both factually wrong and logically flawed. This is a clear attempt to poison the well by painting Darwin as a racist. This is done through cherry picking data and presenting them in the wrong context. It is not fair to judge Darwin by the standards of today. We live in a different time. By today’s standards many of the comments of Abraham Lincoln, who shares Darwin’s birthday, would also be considered inappropriate.

But Darwin is on record in his personal correspondence of being vehemently opposed to slavery.  His views were actually progressive for his time. Darwin makes a very poor villain, but that doesn’t stop some creationists from trying.

And finally, of course, it is entirely irrelevant. If Darwin were a womanizing, drug-abusing, criminal racist, evolution would still be correct. Unable to attack the science of evolution, however (at least not successfully), some creationists try to equate the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory with “Darwinism,” and then attack Darwin.

There is a ray of hope for Northern Ireland, however. The Guardian reports:

The former school teacher is also campaigning to have creationism and intelligent design theory taught in Northern Ireland’s schools. However the Sinn Fein education minister, Catriona Ruane, insisted they would not form any part of the schools’ curriculum.

That’s good to hear.  Mervyn should be treated as the fringe crank that he is, and hopefully there are enough scientifically literate and reasonable people in the education ministry to keep him on the fringe.

The Pope and Darwin Make Up

The Vatican has finally cleared up speculation that Pope Benedict XVI might have sympathies toward intelligent design (ID). They are hosting a conference on evolution in honor of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. They are using the event to make it clear that the Vatican has no problem with Darwin or evolution.

In fact they initially planned to ban ID from the conference, calling it “bad science and bad theology,” but have since relented, allowing it to be discussed only as a “cultural phenomenon.” The TimesOnline reports:

A leading official declared yesterday that Darwin’s theory of evolution was compatible with Christian faith, and could even be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. “In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God,” said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The fact that the Catholic church is now trying to take some credit for the theory of evolution is a good sign (if historically dubious) – that’s often the final stage of acceptance, taking credit for it all along. To be fair, they admit that the Vatican was initially hostile to Darwin, although they never rejected him or evolution, and claim that as far back as 1950 the church has accepted evolution as science.

Religion and Evolution

Of course, evolutionary theory is a science and stands on its own according to the scientific evidence.  Whether or not any religious authority accepts evolutionary theory is irrelevant to the science. But it is important to the culture.

I am happy to see a major faith moving in this direction. I have never had any problem with personal faith. Although I currently am agnostic and have no need for personal faith, it really doesn’t concern me what answers people come to for unanswerable questions.  However, I have a big problem with one group imposing their faith on others, or with imposing one’s faith on the practice of science.

It strikes me as a failed strategy for a religion to go to war with science – to hitch their faith to empirical claims about the physical world. This is a setup for disaster. If the world does not match their claims, that either jeopardizes their faith, or they must subjugate science to their religious beliefs.  This leads to bad theology and bad science, as the Vatican pointed out.

I think Kenneth Miller (a Christian and evolutionary biologist) got it right in Finding Darwin’s God when he wrote:

The creationist opponents of evolution make similar arguments. They claim that the existence of life, the appearance of new species, and, most especially, the origins of mankind have not and cannot be explained by evolution or any other natural process. By denying the self-sufficiency of nature, they look for God (or at least a “designer”) in the deficiencies of science. The trouble is that science, given enough time, generally explains even the most baffling things. As a matter of strategy, creationists would be well-advised to avoid telling scientists what they will never be able to figure out. History is against them. In a general way, we really do understand how nature works.

If nature is self-sufficient – if it works – then evolution is an unavoidable consequence. Denying this has not worked out well for any faith, and has only served to hamper mankind’s scientific progress.

What Miller is leading to is the necessary separation of faith and science.  We can have a philosophical argument about naturalism, agnosticism, or any metaphysical view of reality. But this is separate from science as a system of investigating the natural world (and which is only dependent upon methodological naturalism, not philosophical naturalism). Science works, and the process of science must be respected for it to work properly, regardless of one’s faith about ultimate reality.

The religions of the world would do well to follow the Vatican’s example. Believe what you want, but leave science alone to do what it does. If you war with science, both suffer, but in the long run science seems to have the edge because it works.

Some Concluding Darwin Day Fun

I will leave you with this bit of fun. Take it for what it is (i.e. not serious commentary). Some of you have probably seen this already – MC Hawking raps about creationists.

Happy Birthday, Chuck.

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