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Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: Knowledge Fight

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Nathan Otto

Knowledge Fight

Where did we come from? Few questions in history have provoked such tremendous and heated debate. Though most scientists have agreed that evolution, via mutation and natural selection, is the best explanation for illustrating our origins, many others have disagreed fervently, and the decision of what and how to teach children about the entire issue remains a fiercely contested social and political topic.
The scientists have more evidence to support their claims. But the religious establishment makes an important point that the absence of evidence should not be grounds for intellectual dismissal. (X) By examining the assigned readings from class I will attempt to show that (Y) I side empirically with the scientists, yet still sympathize with the lobbying proponents of intelligent design, (Z) in order to protect new avenues of thought and questioning.

The Church and Empiricism
I do not believe in intelligent design. On my best days I would probably describe it as a backpedaling hail-mary by a desperate religio-political complex in an attempt to secure its dwindling prestige and status.
The problem with the religious establishment, in the minds of many rational people with good memories, is that it is constantly redefining its dogma – sacrificing its philosophical principles – in order to pander to populist sentiment. What was heresy even a hundred years ago, e.g. heaven is not an actual place with harps and angels, is now redefined in religious leaders’ writings as a form of relationship with God. Even on the topic of evolution, the Christian church – the primary institutional support behind the intelligent design movement – has changed its official position many times, in the last century from ‘we didn’t come from no monkeys’ to Pope John Paul II “[conceding] that Darwin’s theory of evolution might be correct.? (Bloom p. 275)
The problem with this is that it is very difficult to have faith in what the church is currently saying – especially when it conflicts with science - when they will seemingly arbitrarily redefine their dogma to reflect people’s growing awareness of basic scientific principles. The church would have lost credibility had they refused to acknowledge for too long that the earth revolved around the sun despite the growing belief in such a phenomenon. Yet they did stubbornly refuse it as much as they could - until they saw they were fighting a losing battle. The church realized that despite their persecutions, too many people were believing Galilean and Copernican ideas, and that if the church were to stay relevant and powerful they could not lose these people. And so now the earth revolves around the sun. John Paul II would have been torn limb from limb had he had the unfortunate luck of being born 350 years earlier.
Of course, what is the alternative? To just keep shaking your head and refusing to acknowledge any sort of validity to new information or values? This is the problem with fundamentalism. From a philosophically epistemological position, some would claim that it is slightly more respectable than issuing dogma after dogma, then changing your claims depending on how loud you hear people murmuring. At least the fundamentalists don’t give a damn. They appear to know what they’re talking about; just look at how confident they are. Science can be confusing, and as Daniel Dennett stated, the very technicality of the issues can be exploited to your own advantage, “counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details,? (Dennett p.43). How aware are people of the almost perfectly similar metabolic pathways between a snail and an ape, and a snail an ape and a human, for that matter? But I don’t look like a snail, I know that. Snails and I have very little in common. I like sun and beer, snails seem to like mud and slime. So the fundamentalists have this type of awe-inspiring, I-don’t-care-what-those-ivory-tower-eggheads-say…you’re-nothing-like-a-snail angle that is appealing. Of course, fundamentalists reveal their insanity through other means and avenues, leaving no room for subjectivity or other people’s feelings, or by being philosophically forced to cling to notions like the sun revolving around the earth; for if they changed their mind and redefined their dogma, they would lose their identity as fundamentalists.

Scientific Change in Comparison
But what about the scientists? Surely, many times throughout history, science has changed its mind. The earth going from being accepted as flat to its current model of roughly spherical dimensions is one example. Michael Ruse refers to Thomas Kuhn and the importance of such drastic paradigm shifts in terms of how people see the world: “[t]he paradigm sets the rules, it marks out the limits...? (Ruse p. 20). But then a new study comes along telling you that chocolate is actually good for you, and has been all this time! So what is different about science and religion, when they both flip-flop?
I would say the answer lies mainly in motivation. Religion changes its mind to attract followers. Science, ideally anyway, changes its mind based on honesty. Indeed, Edward Wilson would have us believe scientists clap their hands red whenever a new model usurps the current one, even if it is their own. Religion hasn’t settled on a uniform stance on evolution, because various proponents have different opinions on whether acknowledging it or refuting it will attract more followers. Science, on the other hand, in its aloof attitude regarding if people like the facts or not, has ironically drawn significantly more interest in the last century. Science is the bad boy motorcyclist who smokes and spits and gets all the girls anyway.
The danger with science, however, is that it is not always practiced in an ideal sense. It is subject to the Kuhnian nonepistemic influences outlined by Ruse (Ruse p. 22). And at times, the scientific paradigm on a particular subject can become so entrenched that the establishment is hostile to new ideas or objections to the supposedly forgone conclusions. Stephen Gould, for example, encountered such resistance when he laid out his reservations about the practicality of traditional Darwinian ubiquitous adaptationism (Ruse p. 137), and offered the theory of punctuated equilibrium to expand, and even replace, certain components of Darwinism.

The Modern Classroom
In the 1920’s, the state of Tennessee had as an educational statute: “it shall be unlawful for any teacher to teach any law that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals? (Mooney p. 175).
I can understand scientific hostility to such a statement. The statute is unpalatable in so many ways it doesn’t merit any additional discussion here. But in the 2005 Dover trial over intelligent design the resolution stated: “[s]tudents will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design,? (Orr p.174).
This is a far different statute. The evolutionists’ recoil and outrage is understandable, but not entirely warranted, nor entirely scientific in the truest sense of the word.
Understandable, because nobody likes to feel like they are losing ground. Not entirely warranted though, because – if enforced – the ruling is an asset for those who truly are interested in pursuing knowledge. Darwinism does have gaps and phenomenon that it does not entirely explain. This is widely acknowledged, but many evolutionists point out that this is a small pittance compared to intelligent design’s lack of positive claims (Orr p. 196). Yet the Dover statute’s main claim is elementary: it states that students will be made aware of problems in Darwin’s theory and be exposed to alternative theories of life. Theories of life definitely belong in a biology classroom. Darwinism does have problems, which, anecdotally speaking for a minute, were - and still are - hidden from students like me by the academic biological establishment, through all my years of schooling, and I am a biology major. No biology major should hear about William Dembski’s and Michael Behe’s claims, for example, for the first time in their senior year because of a fluke English assignment (Orr “Devolution?).
Evolutionists, or more specifically, anti-intelligent design lobbyists, lament that this ruling is just a creationist Trojan horse, with which the religious establishment will enter into the school system and create an army of brain-washed children to do their political bidding. Though this may be an exaggerated statement – no anti-ID-ist may say it – this is what they fear.
Fear is not a part of science. The paradox is, by objecting to such a benign statute, the evolutionists sacrifice their principles for political protectionism, acquiring all the worst characteristics of the church establishment in the process. In addition, the statute could even gain the evolutionists political and epistemological ground. Comparing intelligent design and evolution side-by-side is not a necessarily damning blow to evolution. In many cases, such a comparison illustrates the scientific brilliance of Darwinism that much more clearly. Yes, intelligent design still gets a platform, but it is up to students to decide if it is “as scientific? as Darwinism, and that, after all, is the their choice, no matter which establishment is trying to cram its views down students’ throats.

Works Cited

Bloom, Paul. “Is God an Accident?? Best of American Science Writing. Ed.
Atul Gawande. New York, London: Harper Perennial, 2006. 272-290

Dennett, Daniel. “Show Me the Science? Best of American Science and Nature Writing.
Ed. Tim Folger. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. P.39 -45

Mooney, Chris. “The Dover Monkey Trial? Best of American Science and Nature
Writing. Ed. Tim Folger. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 172 – 179

Orr, H. Allen. “Devolution? Best of American Science Writing. Ed.
Atul Gawande. New York, London: Harper Perennial, 2006. 194 -207

Ruse, Michael. Mystery of Mysteries. Cambridge, London: Harvard University
Press, 1999