distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


May 02, 2012

All Or Nothing

I don’t do many posts about evolution here. It is a topic of interest to me and many years ago I went through a spate of reading everything I could find by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and a few others to try to wrap my head around it. What I came away with—and this is very important for a point I intend to make later on—is that I am persuaded that evolution is real, that this is a pretty accurate description of how life operates, and that our future understanding of biology will be based solidly on these principles.

I do not have to be an expert on it to accept it.

But this is usually what is required by those who oppose evolution, especially on religious grounds—if you can’t answer their questions with definitive, rigorous fact and keep it all straight, then you are totally wrong and their definition of how life operates is automatically true.

As a technique for debate, this is maddeningly stupid and often effective in the short term. But before I go on, I’d like to present this video, which shows a rather remarkable process going on within the creationist community even as we ponder this difficulty:

For those of you who may not know, Kent Hovind is an apologist for creationism and has been conducting seminars and giving talks for years as to why evolution is categorically wrong. Yet when you look at what’s happening in his own models, it’s obvious he’s accepting certain elements of evolution, just renaming them so as not to evoke the offensive label which is seen now as a counterargument to Genesis. Hypocrisy? Maybe not. After all, every major shift in knowledge occurred, individually and collectively, in opposition to an accepted position. It was a usually a gradual change. It evolved.

Now, the one thing that is not addressed, except very briefly toward the end and rather cheekily, is the main bugbear of all creationists. Human evolution. Maybe creationists don’t get quite so strident about it anymore, realizing that a categorical argument for special treatment doesn’t play as well as it once did, but this can be traced back to Darwin’s day and possibly the best encapsulation of it came from William Jennings Bryan, he of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

The man in the 20th Century who came to exemplify the fundamentalist response to evolution said in his famous Menace of Darwinism speech: “…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.”

There you have it. The hangup is Man. It says in Genesis that Adam was hand-crafted by the Almighty and anything suggesting otherwise is simply unacceptable.

Well, the problem is everything we’ve learned since the Enlightenment and Cuvier and then Darwin. That homo sapiens sapiens is a mammal, an animal, and in every respect but our self-delusion we obey the same genetic and environmental laws as every other critter. Furthermore, if we try to pretend otherwise when it comes to medical care, the results are spectacularly ineffective.

But the thing I really wanted to talk about here is this debate tactic that requires us—someone like me—to know everything about the position I defend in order to have even a chance at making an impact while my opponents don’t have to know anything, either about my position or theirs. Argument by default, basically. If I am in error in any detail, if I misremember a fact, or don’t know the proper answer to a particular question, then I am instantly wrong and the Default Position is automatically—and inarguably—right.

Recently, in Waco, TX, Bill Nye—yes, the Science Guy—caused a controversy by saying that the moon reflects the sun. It was a minor point, but it was a contradiction of a poetic line from Genesis in which Yahweh is said to have made “two lights” in the sky. Nye was explaining that the moon does not radiate its own light but reflects the light of the sun and a group of people stormed out on him, loudly claiming that “We believe in God!” Well, you may say that this is simply an example of local stupidity, and you’d be right. Not only didn’t these folks understand astronomy and how the solar system works, they didn’t realize that a good deal of the Bible is metaphor and poetry—you know, not literal. If asked “Okay, if it didn’t happen as science has shown us it did, then how did it happen?” they would probably come back with a pat “God did it!” Well, sure, but how? What’s the process? And how come what is described contradicts what we actually see? They wouldn’t have any answers, not only because they don’t know anything about science but they know just as little about their own holy book or theology. All they “know” is that they don’t like questions that seem to undermine that special feeling they’ve always had when it comes to the “fact” that they were “hand-made” by god.

Which they weren’t.

But it’s that debate technique that interests me here. Because it crosses all disciplinary lines. Politics, economics, history—if I offer a perspective that runs counter to common prejudice, I am required to know every bit of the fact involved in my position and not one iota of it can be in error, otherwise I am completely wrong. Contrariwise, though, my detractors aren’t required to know a damn thing factually.

Carl Sagan once stated that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But lately it seems it is the extraordinary claim that seems to require no evidence and the claims of reason are under siege by a requirement that its supporters know ALL. Of course, many if not all “extraordinary” claims along the lines of creationism have no evidence behind them, so requiring it is a bit disingenuous, but really, shouldn’t people even know a little something about what it is they’re defending?

The problem with fact, though, is it doesn’t go away at the behest of ideology. Hence the contortions of the Kent Hovinds, who are trying to find ways to address what is undeniable that don’t contradict their beliefs. Eventually, they may even find out that what they’ve been defending all along has been, well, a misinterpretation. Their positions will evolve.

Meantime, for the record, let me state that I am not an expert on evolution. Nor am I an expert in history, political science, physics, or any philosophical school. I don’t have to be. Because I can look it up.

It’s called using your brains.

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