September 22, 2007

"Politics of Evolution" and the Dismantling of Reason

The following was written by one Mark Manetta to the Daily News Record of Harrisonburg, VA. It could have been written by any number of Creationist nitwits, of course, but it makes an original, albeit ridiculous, claim, so I thought I'd share while tearing it up a bit.

Why is Evolution so entrenched in the world of academia? Why is something classified as a theory viewed as fact? Why is a concept that has such flimsy supporting evidence unchallenged by many? Frankly, I am at a loss to explain it. Perhaps, we need to look at the politics of Evolution.
Dear Mark,

I will answer your questions in order.

Evolution is "entrenched in the world of academia" because people who study biology have found no explanation that better fits the tremendous mounds of evidence that come to us not only from biology, but also from chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, etc. It is the only theory that explains everything we see in terms of the life that exists on this planet as well as that which we do not find in nature. It explains everything from why cats, cheetahs and tigers can't taste sugar but dogs, rats and humans can to why we see no animals on earth that are winged quadrupeds. It makes absolute sense in terms of every phenomenon we see in life as it exists today and for as far back as we can trace it through time.

You, like most Creationists, are ignorant (whether willfully or not I cannot say) of what the word "theory" means. A theory is never an absolute; it is always subject to revision in light of new facts that contradicts it as it stands, and so is not classified by anyone who understands the meaning of the word as a fact. Facts are what theories explain, not theories themselves. We can state factually that all existing evidence (facts) support evolutionary theory. So far, no fact has been seen that lends credible evidence against it. So we can say that, for example, facts that come out of molecular biology, the fossil record, anatomy, etc., all point to a common ancestor for man, gorilla, and lemur, and evolution is the theory that emerges every time and is the only one to explain why the facts exist in the first place. There is not only overwhelming evidence to support evolutionary biology, there is no evidence against it. Hardly "flimsy." It is one of the best-supported (by the facts) theories in any scientific discipline.
I have heard that Eisenhower brought this theory into the school during his presidency. He did it because the Russians had beat us into space and they taught Evolution in the schools.

This is ironic for two reasons.

First, when has it ever made any sense to pattern our children's education after that of a communist country.

Secondly, what does Evolution have to do with getting into Space? It has been said that one of the men that devised the calculations for landing on the Moon openly believed in God the Creator. In fact, while writing down these calculations, he stopped a few times to write down his praises to God in the midst of his scientific notation.
This is the original and ridiculous claim I mentioned earlier. That someone hears something certainly doesn't make it true, and apparently this Manetta fellow is a bit short on critical thinking skills. After all, he's talking about the same Eisenhower who wanted to add the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance to keep Communism out of public schools during the McCarthy Era, and anything connected with Communism was certainly frowned upon at any time during Eisenhower's tenure, not only by Eisenhower but by everyone in government. Remember, this is the period during which even an accusation of Communist sympathy was liable to ruin someone's life. Mark Manetta, I think, needs to stop believing uncritically in what he's heard somewhere and learn a bit more about American history. Moreover, the Federal government did not then, nor does it now, have anything to do with setting school curricula. Lastly, the assertion that Eisenhower was responsible for introducing evolutionary theory into schools forgets entirely about incidents such as the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 which was, of course, exactly about teaching evolutionary ideas in public schools.

Evolutionary theory has precisely nothing to do with getting into space, though it may someday prove to have a good deal to do with what we do after we've gotten further into it and started thinking about setting up permanent dwellings out there. I have no idea who Manetta is talking about when he mentions "one of the men who did the calculations" for the moon landing. It's quite possible that some engineer or mathematician did do what Manetta alleges, and it's just as possible that the claim holds as much water as does the assertion about Eisenhower. I have no idea, and it has nothing at all to do with evolutionary theory — which Manetta himself states, so its inclusion in the letter is little more than a demonstration of the author's own muddled thinking.
Apparently, though, today, Evolution serves a purpose. Without it, aetheism could not exist because there would be no way to explain how we all got here sans God. This theory allows schools to keep education godless. After all, Creation is "politically incorrect".
Utter nonsense; there were atheists long before Darwin was even born and before the first evolutionary theories (which predate Darwin, by the way) were ever conceived. Moreover, evolutionary theory is not an all-encompassing world view; it is a scientific theory, a system of ideas and the facts that corroborate them, that answers a very basic and restricted question, namely that of why we see both similarities and differences in all the living things of which we are aware of ever having existed. Period, end of story, that's all there is and there ain't no more. The only thing that can be said about religion in terms of evolution is that there is no evidence for divine intervention anywhere in the process of the arisal of diversity. There simply isn't a need, therefore, for evolutionary theory to take religious ideology of any stripe into account. Now, it is true that many of us who study evolution, as well as many other scientific disciplines, do wind up as non-believers. This is a by-product of critical thought in general, however, not specifically of evolutionary biology. That is to say, when we view the claims of religion in light of everything we know about the universe, we find that religious beliefs generally contradict reality. In other words, while evolutionary theory itself says nothing about any religion, the same thought processes that lead us to the most parsimonious explanations embodied in that theory also lead to discarding notions of invisible omnipotent beings when applied to religious matters.

Nor is it true that education is "godless." In fact, when I was in junior high and high school, I learned about several religions as part of social studies classes, and I heard about them again while in college in courses with titles like "Religions of South Asia" and "Introduction to World Geography." Manetta's assertion is one that could only be made under two circumstances; one, that Manetta himself didn't get very far with his education and so never took such courses (which I took in allegedly ultra-liberal New York City, by the way) or two, that Manetta is not referring to education in general but to science education, in which case his general ignorance of science comes into play. I suspect some combination of these two may be the explanation for his ability to make such an unfounded argument here, but I do not know his circumstances factually and am drawing this suspicion based solely upon what he's written here.
If we allow this alternative to Evolution to be taught, then we must reconsider our views on prayer in school, homosexuality, moral relativism, and the acceptance of Non-Christian viewpoints. I, for one, believe Creation should be taught in schools. However, for the reasons stated above, this will never happen.
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Manetta's problem, as is almost always the case with American Creationists, is not that education is godless, but that it doesn't serve as a vehicle for indoctrination into his religion. Of course, one can have non-Christian Creationism; every religion has its stories that would fall under the category of Creationism. What Manetta is advocating is the teaching of a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts of creation. This is part of a larger agenda; Creationism itself has nothing to do with things like homosexuality and prayer. If we were to assume that there was an initial act of creation undertaken by an omnipotent deity, we still would have been told nothing about why homosexuality exists or the effectiveness of prayer. Thus, Manetta wants much more than an explanation of life's diversity, what he wants is taxpayer-funded Christian madrases that offer an entirely religious education. This would, of course, obviate the need to question why there can be homosexuals or moral relativists in the first place in a universe created by an all-powerful being who disapproves of homosexuality and moral relativism. Manetta's idea of education amounts to unquestioning study of biblical doctrine; things are the way they are because they are the way this book says they are. No thought, no questions, no analysis, no discovery would be possible in the America envisioned by Manetta and people like him. That isn't anything like education, of course. It's nothing but indoctrination. One can only imagine the punishments he has in mind for those who dared to question what was being force-fed them on the basis of absolute intellectual authority.
Those that decide the curriculum are afraid of what will happen if truly viable alternative to Evolution shows up in schools. Students might believe in God. There are two groups of people who believe in Evolution. There are those who accept it because they have not seen enough of the evidence that condemns the theory.

Secondly, there are those that have seen the evidence but are in denial. To roughly paraphrase one of the Evolutionists, "I am forced to believe in the impossibility of Evolution because I do not want to acknowledge that there is a God who is sovereign over my life". That is a very dangerous denial.
This is a long way from Manetta's assertion that Creationism is politically incorrect, and that's why I've waited until here to bring up that earlier point. There are no fewer than four politicians currently running for the presidency who have publicly stated their "disbelief" in evolutionary theory. There are certainly millions of Americans who are quite vocal about such a position, too. Saying that one is opposed to evolutionary biology is hardly "politically incorrect." The problem with Creationism isn't that it's politically incorrect, it's that it's scientifically incorrect. It doesn't explain what we see, and were it to be shoe-horned into the educational system, biology as a scientific field would simply cease to make sense. We would be left with absolutely no explanation for the simultaneous similarities and differences that we see in life. We could no longer explain what we know about genetics and anatomy; none of it would connect anymore. There would be no reason beyond "because that's the way it is," nothing but tautology that would leave us neither with information nor a platform for advancement. That's what happens whenever one clings to a hypothesis that doesn't have to account for evidence; the evidence simply stops making sense and you're left with nothing but disjointed facts and no explanation for the relationships between them. That's why science deals with revisable theories in the first place; in order to be able to make predictions based on the theoretical, we must be able to revise theories to account for new phenomena that were previously unknown. This happens all the time in real science. As an example, very recently nuclear physics was challenged to revise its theory about the structure of neutrons. It is precisely the flexibility of scientific theory that allows us to discard a defective model in favor of one that includes new information. Conversely, it is precisely that rigidity of Creationism that prevents it from accepting anything new that comes to light. Physics doesn't come tumbling down because we find something that contradicts our previous set of ideas, but in the fundamentalist mindset, if any part of religious dogma is demonstrated to be incorrect, the whole house of cards collapses and the result is atheism. This is exactly the mindset that prevented rational inquiry for hundreds of years in Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. And what's with that alleged paraphrasing sentence, anyhow? It sounds to me like it directly contradicts Manetta's position and is, again, evidence of some very sloppy thinking (or non-thinking) on his part.
The danger lies not in an educated and informed rejection of some particular theology, as Manetta maintains, but in basing a society on such an inflexible dogma. In doing so, we would run the risk of having that society utterly break down when that dogma inevitably was shown to be incorrect. We should not, after all, expect that what we thought about the way in which the universe works five hundred, or a thousand, or five thousand years ago to be unchanged compared to what we know with the assistance of better observational tools and the accumulation of new facts. Of course, nobody wants their society to break down, and in order to prevent it from doing so under these conditions, it becomes necessary to forcibly suppress both inquiry and dissent. We would then be left as sitting ducks in the crosshairs of whatever new disease came along, which we could only explain as being "God's will," and thus be forced to accept whatever plagues and horrors were thrown at us. We would be forever bound to the earth's surface because the bible says nothing about how gravity works or how to calculate the trajectory of a projectile. We would never invent televisions, computers or MRI machines, because all of these things rely on an understanding of the nature of matter and energy that contradicts literalist doctrine. We would have no pesticides, no vitamin supplements, no chemotherapy, no reliable anesthetics. If we became ill, if we might die in child birth, there would be nothing for it but prayer, because the very investigations that lead us to medicine and technology also lead, inexorably, to evolutionary theory and, whether they understand this as their intention or not, it isn't just one scientific theory that Creationists want to ban, but the very thinking that went into both the formulation and revisions of that theory as it now exists.

What a world Mark Manetta envisions for us. The best suggestion that I can offer for people such as him is that they should go and find a place where they can build the sort of society they want for themselves and leave the rest of us to run the risk (in their eyes, of course) of damnation and hellfire, and of divine retribution in general. They'll never do that, of course, because it isn't enough for Creationists to cling to their outdated, observably incorrect ideas. They want to make sure that every one of us is also forced to accept them. They oppose not only political democracy but anything resembling freedom of thought. If this were not the case, surely they could have all departed from the midst of the rational world to carve their vision of religious utopia on some island. The fact is that deep down, they also know that they can't survive without the benefits that scientific thought has given them... but they'll never admit it. To do so violates their literalist viewpoint, after all.

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