Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Genesis for the rest of us

Festivus!Festivus!  F     G
  E     E
  S     N
  T     E
  I     S
  V     I
  U     S

Stick it to Scalia, and a blogospheric free-for-all erupts on someone else's blog. Such is life as a resident of the Internet's long tail.

I shall explain. Jonathan Adler joined me in trashing Justice Scalia's performance in Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler. I labeled Justice Scalia's gratuitous dissent from the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari "the most scientifically irresponsible passage" in the Court's history and an act of "shameless pandering [and] judicial aid and comfort of the highest order to the creationist lobby." By comparison, Jonathan much more temperately concluded: "I see no defense of [Scalia's] reference to the Scopes trial. At best, it was an ill-considered rhetorical flourish. At worst, it reflected a shocking level of scientific illiteracy for such an esteemed and intelligent jurist." The resulting torrent of commentary in response to Jonathan's post really must be read to be appreciated. Apparently it is perfidious to (1) defend evolution and (2) criticize Justice Scalia (3) on an overtly conservative forum.

Scopes trialThe most serious efforts to defend Justice Scalia's performance in Tangipahoa invariably deflect attention toward the seamier aspects of the Scopes trial. In a comment posted at Jurisdynamics and an earlier post at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren has detailed the racist and eugenicist cant of the textbook at issue in the Scopes trial. Edward Larson's reconsideration of Scopes, likewise aimed at defusing the cultural power of the admittedly fanciful Inherit the Wind, was deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

Whether couched as serious condemnation of early twentieth century social Darwinism or as a thinly veiled apology for creationist politics, efforts to deflect the debate to the particulars of the Scopes trial are beside the point. It's one thing to rehabilitate the misunderstood William Jennings Bryan, as Michael Kazin has heroicallly attempted. It's affirmatively noble to set the record straight on a hotly contested episode in American history. But it is downright disgraceful to write, as Justice Scalia did in Tangipahoa, that a school has any business "suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution -– including, but not limited to, the Biblical theory of creation -– are worthy of their consideration." I stand by what I wrote in Tangipahoa (the Jurisdynamics post) and in my article, Legal Mythmaking in a Time of Mass Extinctions.

But this subject, I strongly suspect, is unlikely to die. In the spirit of my Jurisdynamics teammate, J.B. Ruhl, who has spent his blogging career on extended series rather than episodic posts, I shall now undertake an extended series on evolution, natural history, and naturalism as a source of inspiration, even religious satisfaction, for a world all too ready to rip itself apart over minute, offensively irrelevant theological differences. In a spirit no less playful than Seinfeld, I'll call the series Genesis for the Rest of Us. Those who know me intimately understand how profoundly my life has been shaped by the question, ¿Respecte usted la Virgen?, and how I answered it. This is not about what I believe or what anyone else believes. This is about the beauty and the power and the glory of the story of life, told as we best understand it to be the truth.

First in this series: In the beginning.


Blogger Jason Harrow said...

Professor Chen-

First of all, a disclosure: I strongly believe in undirected evolution, I believe in the importance of its being taught in public schools, and I agree that Justice Scalia's comment that you highlight is wildly off-base. However, having read your posts and Section III of your paper, I think you might be doing the same thing that you accuse Scalia of doing: giving aid and comfort to the ID/creationist movement.

Now, I hardly suspect that very many ID supporters regularly read the Harvard Environmental Law Review, but if they did, they would find that your paper is openly dismissive of not just the teaching of creationism or ID in schools, but of religious thought in general. Within the framework of a paper about environmental law, you’ve written a sweeping treatise on the state of rational thought in American society. Indeed, nuggets such as, “To date, the Enlightenment’s commitment to empirical observation and the scientific method has not overcome a significant portion of the American public’s evident preference to seek the truth (or at least a good measure of truth) through spiritual revelation,” do not further your purpose of defending the teaching of Darwinian evolution, but rather sound more like a wholesale rejection of anything but the most liberal religious (or atheist) doctrines. And like it or not, we live in a country (and, increasingly a world) where your view seeking at least a good measure of truth without turning to religion is the deep minority view.

As I mentioned, Professor, I’m 100% on your side. But I just wrote an undergraduate thesis in philosophy on this topic, and my university paid for me to go out to the Discovery Institute in Seattle (a hub of intelligent design thought) and talk to several leading ID advocates, and, while I firmly believe they are wrong, I believe that their message is not entirely unreasonable if someone is religious. After all, I asked them point-blank whether intelligent design works within a young-earth paradigm, and they admitted it would be crazy to believe that the universe is less than billions of years old; they also believe that things like anti-biotic resistant bacteria are naturally evolving and are a real threat. Given those admissions (which signal that ID is at least more reasonable than young-earth creationism), why not work with them instead of isolating them? Why not present ID (and its numerous, glaring faults) alongside Darwinian evolution and let all those in the middle see the beauty and power of Darwin next to other, more feeble theories?

I also agree that the increasing religiosity of this country and world is a problem, and Scalia’s comments are symptomatic of this - but you and I aren’t going to solve the problems caused by Fundamentalism in America or the Middle East or Africa by keeping intelligent design out of the school system. So how about instead of fire-breathing back at them or banning their viewpoints from schools (which only embolden them further) we try to understand where they're coming from and then present our side’s best arguments (especially if you really want to accomplish your paper’s nominal goal, which is increase understanding about the imminent environmental problems we face)? It seems to me that what you’ve written will not go anywhere toward accomplishing that goal, but will certainly give more fodder to those who believe in that OTHER myth of the right (which is equally wrong): the godless ivory tower liberal who slowly poisons the minds of America’s youth.

8/29/2006 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, Jason, I see you saying three major things:

1) Jim is somehow aiding the cause of ID by "protesting too much" and making himself look like a hard-case.
2) ID should be taught in public schools because it suffers in comparison to scientific evolution theory. BUT,
3) Scientists should accommodate the unfounded mythology-stories of non-scientists with respect to a scientific theory.

Bullhockey, my dear. People who stand forward and speak according to reality do not need to kiss the rear ends of people who avoid reality in favor of mysticism. Religious notions presented to children in school who are of that religion is religious instruction, tantamount to saying, "If you are this religion, this is what you must believe." And when ID advocates can play on the level field of science, then they deserve one minute's condescension, and not before.

If that's poison, then make me a poison sandwich with a large poison and a side of poison fries.

8/29/2006 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

harorw, while ID advocates may shy away from more of the grandly awful YEC arguments, they are no friends of honest or rational debate. There is no "working with them" as long as they continue to basically play a PR assault on science, alleging conspiracy and perfidy at every turn. Jonathan Wells just put out a new book. Ann Coulter just put out a new book ghostwritten by leading lights in the movement. These sorts of awful, misleading, sloppy, and downright insulting attacks are not minor or reconcillable differences of opinion between honest people.

8/29/2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

References to Festivus and social Darwinism? I was born to comment on this post. As I note in the second post (the one not about Seinfeld and literary modernism), there's no such thing as social Darwinism. There's racism, and there's eugenics, but "social Darwinism" as a coherent philosophy, as something to be fought, has always been a bogeyman. First for the left apologists for the New Deal, now for the right critics of all evolutionary theory. (Every slippery slope seems to terminate in it, somehow.) That said, I'm eagerly looking forward to your series and hope you're not forced to spend too much dealing with the kinds of nonsense bandied about at Volokh's place.

8/29/2006 3:48 PM  
Blogger Jason Harrow said...

Speedwell and anon.-

It's true I'm in the minority of many liberal philosophers of science and legal commentators when I argue that it might be a GOOD thing (and even the right thing) to actually be able to mention the words "intelligent design" in science class. But here's the thing: I have a HUGE problem with the right assaulting science in general. Most "good" ID theorists, though (like Stephen Meyer) actually work within the scientific framework - they're just doing poor science.

We Darwinists need to recognize the importance of that shift. Young Earth creationists are simply not willing to trust anything other than the Bible, but the ID theorists attempt to look at cells and fossils and DNA molecules. That's a big step, and one that Darwinists ought to acknowledge and applaud. After all, at least we can now agree on the rules of the game: fossils and cells and molecules are something to be studied, not ignored in favor of the Bible. Once we get on that page, I'm convinced that in due time, very few people will look at the evidence and believe in ID.

I believe that Darwinists ought to completely reverse tack. The motto should be: debate is what science is about. You show your evidence, I show mine, and let's get it on. Will this add legitimacy (temporarily) to a movement that is, as far as I can tell, wildly wrong as a matter of science fact? Yes. But eventually we'll change people's minds, and that's better than the alternative: continue to let the right use the banning of ID as yet another rallying cry in their culture war.

8/29/2006 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't behoove scientific mapmakers and astronomers to give academic tolerance, let alone airtime and credibility, to the advocates of the idea that the earth is flat, Jason. Sorry.

8/29/2006 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his attempt to argue for some sort of dialogue between The Disco Institute's ID "theorists" and genuine scientists Jason Harrow displays a charming (but lethal) naivete. I suggest that Jason read Jonathan Wells' Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, and then read the series of reviews of its chapters at The Panda's Thumb. And while doing so, Jason should bear in mind that Wells is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Science and Culture of the Disco Institute, and the Disco Institute is hosting a web site for the book.

I leave Jason with a quotation from Casey Luskin, Program Officer:

"If you're anyone seeking a book full of fascinating anecdotes and straight-talk about the debate over Darwinism and intelligent design, written by a credentialed biologist with enjoyable writing skills, this truly is the book for you."

Read the recommended reviews, Jason, and tell me with a straight face that scientific dialogue with those folks is possible.


8/30/2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Jason Harrow said...

RBH and others:

I have, in fact, spoken extensively with both Wells and Luskin on these topics; while they may be wildly wrong, I belive they are at least engaged in something akin to scientific investigation and the scientific method. We members of the "enlightened class" ought to remember that we are shockingly, sadly, disconcertingly in the minority, and what we should ask ourselves is not "is Darwin right?" (we already know that he is) but rather, "how do we become the majority?"

I still maintain that it is a major step from creationism to ID theory, and one that we should try to capitalize on in order to convince more people to make the full leap to Darwinism.

As the Harvard philosopher WVO Quine wrote, "for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind." He wrote this because Homeric gods were not supposed to be taken to exist on faith, but rather as explanations of phenomena like Volcanic eruptions and lightning strikes. Analagously, ID theory signals an epistemolgical shift from thinking about the origins of life in purely faith-based terms to more scientific ones. As Quine would say, Creationism and Darwinism differ in kind, and one would need a major paradigm shift to go from believing in one to the other. But ID and Darwinism differ only in degree - a large degree, for sure, as much as the difference of believing in electrons as the cause of lightning to believing that it was Zeus - but it is one that I believe can much more easily be bridged.

In sum, I think that we should never forget how genuinely difficult it is to reconcile religous doctrines with modern biology; for many who grow up religous, it's a major shift of mindset, not a minor tweak. Making the change takes time, and likely has to be done gradually. Treating those who may eventually come to our side with respect and understanding will go a long way toward ensuring that more and more people accept the consequences of Darwinism.

8/30/2006 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most "good" ID theorists, though (like Stephen Meyer) actually work within the scientific framework - they're just doing poor science."

I'm sorry, but the problems with Meyer's arguments, and the tactics he's used, have been pointed out too many times to him without him changing his tactics. Again: these are not people who are willing to have an honest debate, who are really looking at all the evidence and coming to different conclusions. They are engaged in what they see as a cultural war in which tactics is far more important than science.

That you would defend Wells is a sign that you've either never read his books, or are just shilling for him. The sloppy errors and outright slanders he lays down are simply not consistent with practicing science. They are practicing hitmen who'll say anything as long as they can get away with it by targeting an audience that doesn't know any better and generally doesn't want to either.

8/31/2006 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason, I don't doubt that Luskin and Wells and the others said all the right things to you. I've spoken with a number of ID advocates, and they also say the right things. But the test is not what they claim in conversations, it's what they do over time. And as the Anonymous poster above said, what they do over time does not change in response to evidence. Again, I urge you to read Wells' "Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design", and then read the analyses of it on Panda's Thumb and tell me with a straight face that this is a new scientific paradigm.

The ID movement has made no argument that is not clearly prefigured in so-called "scientific creationism". The late Henry Morris complained not long ago that creationists have already made all the same arguments that IDists make: "Our other hesitation to get on this [ID] bandwagon is their use of the same arguments and evidences we Biblical creationists have used for years, while simultaneously trying to distance themselves from us." All ID is doing is casting the old creationist arguments in more formal terms. But the argument is the same: stuff is too complicated to have evolved.

The notion that ID is some sort of way-station between creationism and "Darwinism" (by which I infer Jason means modern evolutionary theory) is simply naive on any reading of IDist literature.


8/31/2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger Jason Harrow said...


You make good points; while I have read a lot of ID literature, I concede that I have not yet had a chance to read Wells's treatise. I'm quite sure, like you, that much of it is wrong.

But my larger point is that it's not a priori impossible that a kind of divine being influenced life on Earth; it's an a posteriori point, one that ought to be investigated by science.

Well, for me the evidence is in, and it doesn't look good for those who want to believe in a divine influence. But come on: treating these questions as a posteriori, as ones that more proof that just Biblical testimony is vastly different than creationsim. I'm genuinely surprised that lots of smart people make the mistake of saying that ID is creationism in new clothes, because that's flat out wrong.

Creationism treats the question of human origins as either one that is a priori due to God's work or based wholly on a Biblical account. Creation science nominally seeks to validate the Biblical account with a few "facts," but this is no better.

ID, on the other hand, is a different animal. Separate, for a moment, the bias you have against certain current advocated of ID. Can you agree, at least in principle, that it's not at least a logical possibility that something outside of our current physical ontology had a hand in shaping life? It it's not impossible, then let's look at the evidence. ID (again, in theory) attempts to that. It fails unequivocally, at this point. But I'm just not willing to say that there is no POSSIBLE evidence that could pursuade me of ID's truth. To admit that would be to take your stance as dogmatically as those whom you deride.

8/31/2006 1:15 PM  
Blogger Jim Arvo said...

Hello Jason,

You are quite right in asserting that it is *possible* that some supernatural agency had a hand in "designing" life on Earth, and that some ID folks may well have good and serious intentions of discerning the signs of such. However, there seems to be a fundamental sticking point in labeling this pursuit "science": the hypothesis is inherently untestable. If one is willing to postulate the intervention of an arbitrarily powerful entity whose methods and motives are unknown (and perhaps unknowable), then there are *no* observations that can possibly falsify this premise. Every conceivable observation is compatible with the existence of such a being (or a design team of such beings) as he/she/it/they may have decided to hide their tracks or intervene in the most subtle of ways. What this premise then invites is for gaps to be misconstrued as evidence of intervention. Beehe's IC is an excellent example. By labeling a structure to be "Irreducibly Complex", it is simply a concession that we cannot imagine how it could have formed naturally (which in every case I am aware of is an incorrect statement, but that's a different point). Giving the label any more credence than that is simply an argument from ignorance, and could have the chilling effect of thwarting further investigation.

Thus, I think it is inherently incompatible with the philosophy of science to introduce an unobservable, untestable, unlimited agency to explain hitherto unexplainable phenomena. If science is ultimately unable to explain something, then it should remain unexplained by science. If there is a supernatural agency that creates by fiat, then science will undoubtedly hit a brick wall at that point. So be it. Science, under its normal methodology, cannot peer beyond such a wall, and any promise that it might is simply fatuous. Neither could science even delineate such a wall, as there is no way to distinguish between ignorance and providence. Therefore, it's difficult for me to see how ID is anything short of a perversion of science--the co-opting of a good name to lend credence to ideas outside its purview.

9/12/2008 3:46 PM  

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