September 04, 2007

Lost Junior Wanders Into ID's Big Tent at the University of Pennsylvania

I consider the University of Pennsylvania a good school. When I was doing my undergraduate research, I got invaluable assistance from a graduate student there in the form of specimens that proved to be a boon in understanding the relationship between an insect and Ganoderma fungus and how that relationship might have evolved. Thus, I was a little disappointed when I ran across a blog entry on ProgressiveU from a psychology undergrad there named Beth. Her brief piece, entitled Evolution and G-d. A Perspective Less Taken?, is so filled with the kind of fallacious reasoning and ignorance of evolutionary biology usually displayed by the Creationist/Intelligent Design crowd that I can't understand why she thinks that it would do anything to resolve the dispute between what she calls the "zealots" on the religious side and the "atheists" arguing in favor of the scientific perspective. She seems to think that she's come up with something novel (hence the title), but what she has written is just another piece promulgating the idea that some supernatural entity has intervened repeatedly during the course of evolutionary history and so, to my mind, it falls squarely on the side of religiously-motivated argumentation.

I realize that this person is a college junior and expressly not well-versed in evolutionary theory nor the evidence that supports it, but since she doesn't let that stop her from publishing her views on the subject, I don't feel that I ought to let this slide by without some dissection. I'll step through it piece-by-piece.

So the main reason I joined this site was to rebuke someone's ignorant views of evolution. But I have noticed that the people engaging in the Creationism vs. Evolution arguments seem to be on either extreme of the religious spectrum: zealot (Creationism) or atheist (Evolution). That's where I'd like to come in.
Unfortunately, the views presented in this post reveal quite a bit of ignorance about evolution. I don't know what arguments this was supposed to rebuke, but what follows isn't much better. I also don't know what experience Beth has had dealing with anyone else who writes or speaks about these topics, but her division of those engaged in the debate into two extremist positions might well indicate a certain lack of experience. Personally, I have seen numerous individuals who express some religious affiliation argue in favor of evolutionary theory and a few atheists who argue in favor of a kind of Creationism, albeit one involving extraterrestrials instead of supernatural entities.
Some background on me: I'm a Reformed Jew. It's how I was raised (I'm 100% Jewish) and while I do not attend services, not even for the High Holidays, anymore, I still fully associate myself with this religion, culture, and ethnicity. I also happen to believe in G-d. But I also like to think I have a decent grasp on scientific theories. I scored high enough on my AP and IB exams to get college credit TWICE for Biology, and have written a 4000-word paper on Ground-Level Ozone. I have always succeeded in science classes. I believe in the scientific method.
If the furthest this author has gone with her education in biology is to have taken a couple of high school exams, albeit advanced placement exams, the likelihood is that she doesn't have much knowledge of evolutionary biology. Even after an undergraduate degree in evolutionary biology and the beginning of a doctorate, I must in all honesty plead ignorance myself to much of the evidence and theoretical mechanisms because I still find myself learning new things about it all daily. I'm not sure what writing a short paper about air pollution has to do with the topic at hand, but it becomes clear from what follows that Beth's dedication to scientific method is superficial.
That being said, I would like to address Creationism and Evolution. First, Creationism. I'm sorry for the religious ones who thought I would "take their side" but the plethora of evidence supporting evolution severely outweighs that supporting creationism (for sources, go to any blog about evolution and you'll see what I mean). I think you are kidding yourselves. Not every detail may be known about the process, but the methods used to date findings are credible and reliable. As a bonus, in my religion, you can still be a good Reformed Jew and not believe in Creationism. Heck, you can still be a good Reformed Jew and be an atheist. It's more of a follow the laws and do good kinda thing. So I don't see the conflict.
It's nice that this author acknowledges that the evidence clearly points to evolution, but in the context of her opinion piece, I can't tell whether she means by "evolution" some limited form based on the definition of microevolution proferred by ID advocates, the totality of evolutionary theory, or some entirely different thing. She misses the point wildly, however, when she inserts her religious bias into the discussion. The whole point of science is that it doesn't matter what a given individual believes in; it is neither a necessary handicap nor a "bonus" to subscribe to a particular religion. She also appears to be confusing evolutionary biology with paleontology here; the fossil record is one line of evidence that supports evolutionary theory, but it's certainly not the only one nor even the most important in all cases. "Dating findings" is helpful, of course, but she makes no mention of points such as the mutual support of those findings and molecular biology, instances of host-parasite coadaptation, etc. Accurately gaging the age of fossils wouldn't be nearly as meaningful without those other lines of evidence.
Conversely, I must point out that Evolution is not nearly as well understood as it's made out to be, but I think most well-informed partisans of this side know that and acknowledge that fact (bonus points to you!). But even so, how the world has evolved is nothing short of a miracle (pardon this trite idiom, but it's for lack of a better way to state my idea). I definitely believe a higher power had a hand in molding our world. Maybe that sounds ignorant and myopic of me, but you also cannot prove G-d doesn't exist. I'm not saying I think someone's constantly controlling the world (we can look at the Holocaust for this point), but maybe a little help came about our way.
Here we get to the core of Beth's argument. Evolution is not nearly well nderstood as it's made out to be by whom, exactly? Evolutionary biologists certainly have a good handle on it; we haven't yet seen anything that contradicts the predictions made by evolutionary theory. To me, it seems most likely that Beth herself doesn't understand evolution very well, and certainly there are quite a number of people like her who don't understand it. After this bit of argumentum ad ignorantum, Beth now launches into one of the typical theistic canards: nobody has proven "G-d" doesn't exist. Of course, if Beth had any grasp of science at all, she'd realize that science never proves that something doesn't exist, it merely creates models that best explain the evidence at hand for a given phenomenon. It's not that science attempts to prove or disprove the existence of "G-d," but that there isn't any evidence that needs to be taken into account in the first place and no necessity to include supernatural causal agents in any scientific discipline, let alone biology. In fact, by its very nature as a claim of supernatural existence, proof of any given deity falls outside of the realm of scientific endeavor altogether. It's not a testable or falsifiable claim. On the other hand, using this as a support for what she believes does falsify the earlier claim of having an understanding of the scientific method. What we have here, instead, is a typical "god of the gaps" assertion — the author doesn't understand something, it seems miraculous, and therefore "goddidit."
So I basically just wanted to get my point out there that I don't think either side of this battle knows the Truth. I think the side of Evolution is much closer, but that does not mean religion does not take a part or has become moot, it just has a different purpose. It's hard to get by in today's world without a little faith in something more. However, looking to old books written by men should not be the informing source of knowledge about our surroundings and history.
At this point, the author is starting to babble a bit. Again, science isn't interested in, and doesn't even posit the existence of, eternal truths (I take Truth to indicate that use of the word). Scientific, provisional understandings are always subject to change in light of contradictory evidence. One solid data point that cannot be explained by a theory, evolutionary or otherwise, is enough to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Beth's assertion that one can't get by in life without faith in divine intervention is disproven daily by millions of people around the world who do just that — not all of them atheists. Not all religious people believe in divine intervention in their own petty struggles, although Beth apparently does and is happy to tell us in at least two places in this piece. Moreover, there are plenty of "old books written by men" that are perfectly good sources of knowledge about both our surroundings and history. I don't know if Beth intended to say what it sounds like she's saying, but her statement smacks of a post-modernist attack on authenticity. Perhaps she's trying to argue against the literal interpretation of religious texts, but if so she needs to write more clearly and get that point across.
And, as a side note, I should probably point out that one doesn't have to be an atheist or religious zealot to believe in Evolution and Creationism, respectively, or vice versa (I do realize that that's how i presented my argument).
If that's the case, then why present it that way in the first place? It's bad form to contradict your whole argument at the end of making it. Doing it is like saying that there was no point to presenting your ideas in the first place
All in all, Beth has wound up presenting an argument for a folkish form of Intelligent Design Creationism. I don't think she meant to because it doesn't appear from the piece itself that she actually understands what she's presenting in the first place, but it's clear that her own ideas are exactly that. What her essay does make a good argument for, however, is the idea that her background in both science and basic critical analysis is sorely lacking, no matter what her scores on an AP exam were. One of the problems with secondary-level science education is that it typically presents science as a series of facts to be memorized rather than as a tool or process that can be applied to any body of factual information. What we see here is a product of that weakness. That it can continue into a student's third year of an undergraduate career at a generally well-respected university is unfortunate, and I'm not sure why this is. Then again, I don't know a thing about how well this author is doing in her classes, whether she pays attention, etc. Clearly, something is lacking in Beth's interaction with her university's curriculum if she can state that she understands science while so clearly misinformed about its most basic analytical underpinnings.

What is also clear is that Beth, and probably a lot of other students like her, are advocates for Intelligent Design nonsense without even being aware of it. That's in part due to a deficit in science education, as I've said, and also in part to the incredibly nebulous definition of Intelligent Design itself. It has been said by its proponents that Intelligent Design uses a "big tent" strategy in its culture war against science. That big tent incorporates any sort of argument from ignorance and personal credulity regarding evolutionary biology, so it's quite easy to wander unaware into that tent, just as this junior from the University of Pennsylvania appears to have done.

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