Monday, July 25, 2005

The Gradual Illumination of the Mind.

The Gradual Illumination of the Mind.
Michael Shermer, Scientific American, February 2002 issue.

In one of the most existentially penetrating statements ever made by a scientist, Richard Dawkins concluded that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Facing such a reality, perhaps we should not be surprised at the results of a 2001 Gallup poll confirming that 45 percent of Americans believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so"; 37 percent prefer a blended belief that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process"; and a paltry 12 percent accept the standard scientific theory that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process."

In a forced binary choice between the "theory of creationism" and the "theory of evolution," 57 percent chose creationism against only 33 percent for evolution (10 percent said that they were "unsure"). One explanation for these findings can be seen in additional results showing that just 34 percent considered themselves to be "very informed" about evolution.

Although such findings are disturbing, truth in science is not determined democratically. It does not matter what percentage of the public believes a theory. It must stand or fall on the evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution. The preponderance of evidence from numerous converging lines of inquiry (geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, genetics, biogeography, and so on) points to the same conclusion--evolution is real. The 19th-century philosopher of science William Whewell called this process of independent lines of inquiry converging together to a conclusion a "consilience of inductions." I call it a "convergence of evidence." Whatever you call it, it is how historical events are proved.

The reason we are experiencing this peculiarly American phenomenon of evolution denial (the doppelgänger of Holocaust denial, using the same techniques of rhetoric and debate) is that a small but vocal minority of religious fundamentalists misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions. Given this misunderstanding, their response is to attack the theory. It is no coincidence that most evolution deniers are Christians who believe that if God did not personally create life, then they have no basis for belief, morality and the meaning of life. Clearly for some, much is at stake in the findings of science.

Because the Constitution prohibits public schools from promoting any brand of religion, this has led to the oxymoronic movement known as "creation science" or, in its more recent incarnation, "intelligent design" (ID). ID (aka God) miraculously intervenes just in the places where science has yet to offer a comprehensive explanation for a particular phenomenon. (ID used to control the weather, but now that we understand it, He has moved on to more difficult problems, such as the origins of DNA and cellular life. Once these problems are mastered, then ID will no doubt find even more intractable conundrums.) Thus, IDers would have us teach children nonthreatening theories of science, but when it comes to the origins of life and certain aspects of evolution, children are to learn that "ID did it." I fail to see how this is science--or what, exactly, ID-ers hope will be taught in these public schools. "ID did it" makes for a rather short semester.

To counter the nefarious influence of the ID creationists, we need to employ a proactive strategy of science education and evolution explanation. It is not enough to argue that creationism is wrong; we must also show that evolution is right. The theory's founder, Charles Darwin, knew this when he reflected: "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science."

Michael Shermer [the author] is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of The Borderlands of Science.

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