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God and Darwin Square Off
Report from Oz

by Clay Farris


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 2.


If Michael Crichton were going to write a novel about the science-creationism battle, this is where he'd set it: right here in Lawrence, on the hilltop campus of the University of Kansas, during a conference. And these are the characters he'd put in it: the embattled chancellor, rotund, gray, and conventional, struggling to please all sides; The eccentric physicist, awkward and brilliant, with a mop of curly hair and a Lotka accent. The antagonist (Boo! Hiss!): a young-Earth creationist, armed with Scripture and the latest allegations of failures of mainstream science. The female off-lead: a biologist given to exploring "sacred depths" and possessed of the unlikely but somehow fitting surname "Goodenough." And our hero? To reach the broadest possible audience, the Suits would insist: he must be expert yet plebeian, brilliant yet plain-spoken, casual yet stylish, handsome yet homespun, and, most important of all, a champion of both science and God!

Sadly, however, the weekend of the Origins, Teaching, and Science Conference would not follow the plot of a well-researched blockbuster. There was no great crisis, no brilliant reversal, and no calming dénouement. Instead, there was a chilling demonstration of how ill prepared scientists are to defend their ramparts from the fundamentalist besiegers. 

The scene of the conference was a cathedral-like hall, fully loaded with the latest innovations in display technology. A rather fitting arena, it seemed, for the collision of science and religion.

Things got off to a peculiar start. A wiry young man with wire-rimmed glasses and a mop of curly hair abruptly began to lecture us. (In Crichton's book, this would be the eccentric physicist.) "People think we're nerds," he said, as he prowled like a caged professor at feeding time. "Well, let's be nerds, then." 

Who is this guy?, I wondered. He never did introduce himself, but eventually I twigged that he was Hume Feldman, the co-organizer of the conference. (Named, perhaps, for the atheist philosopher? I mused: could nomenclature be destiny?). At the opening session, the chancellor of the University of Kansas, Robert Hemenway, who has, we were given to understand, suffered the slings and arrows of outraged Kansans, made a brief plea for peaceful coexistence. He concluded with the declaration, "I believe in God, I believe in evolution, and I believe in gravity!" Coexistence was to emerge as the leitmotif of the conference, as speaker after speaker offered variation on the idea that science and religion can be good neighbors. But that proved a tune that creationists were unwilling to whistle. 

The keynote speaker was biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University (the hero of the drama), and author of the book, Finding Darwin's God: the New Battle Over Evolution. Miller, a man of considerable charm and ebullience, delivered a razor-sharp critique of Creationist attacks on evolution, a sock on the jaw to the atheistic zealots . . . and a plug for his book.

Miller sorted creationist positions into three camps, which may be labeled young earth (guys who think the world is 6,000 years old, 'cause the Bible tells 'em so), irreducible complexity (biologist Michael Behe's pet claim), and fixed formula (lawyer Philip Johnson's brief). He then proceeded to cheerfully demolish their arguments with smart-bombs of information. From dinosaur coprolites to the origins of the Krebs cycle to the discovery of North American insect speciation during the history of the United States, Miller had a remarkable trove of refutations.

Having dispatched the anti-evolutionists, he then whirled about and mounted an attack on the atheists. Miller, a self-declared Catholic, regards the scientific account of universal and biological evolution as consistent with God's Plan. In spite of Miller's vigorous defense of theism, creationists in the crowd were unhappy. 

 

Day Two, and Counting

The next day dawned bright and full of hope, but indoors the atmosphere turned stormy as the conference sailed into the turbulent waters of cosmology, geology, and biology. We began with Cosmology 101, as presented by P.J.E. Peebles, Einstein Professor of Physics at Princeton. Peebles is the man most credited with discovering the background heat of the Big Bang. It seemed almost absurd to have the Einstein Professor of Physics gently explaining the recession of the galaxies with the aid of a "little green man" cartoon-rather like having your first golf lesson from Tiger Woods.

This cut no cheese with the young-earth creationist in the crowd, who lit into the whole cosmological scheme the moment Peebles was done. Several physicists joined the fray, and for some time the air throbbed with red-shifts and background radiation and, of course, the Big Bang itself. But Mark, the creationist, sabred away all the scientific evidence with a claim that the speed of light is falling, thus allowing a quasar that appears to be 12 billion light-years distant to actually be stationed a mere six thousand and change away. To my regret, none of the "nerds" in the crowd was able to do a calculation swiftly enough to show how rapidly the speed of light would have to fall to accommodate such an illusion. My guess was that in a few days it would be moving slower than a city bus at rush hour.

The task of explaining biological evolution fell to the marvelously named Ursula Goodenough. A famed cell biologist, she is also the author of The Sacred Depths of Nature, a popular paean to "religious naturalism." Like the other presenters, Goodenough made a point of saying that science cannot pronounce on the existence of God. "Ultimacy," she declared, "is outside the bounds of science." In bounds, however, plenty of juicy biology remains to be explored, and it is there (to judge from her writings) that Goodenough finds her religion-in a communion with nature rather than an anthropomorphic deity. Goodenough outlined not one, not two, but six-count 'em, six- wonderful ways of genetic variation. 

John Geissman, a bright-eyed and mustachioed geologist from New Mexico, attempted to underscore the differences in lay and scientific terminology by starting his presentation with a recitation of the National Academy of Sciences definitions of "theory," "hypothesis," and "fact." Unfortunately, these were projected atop a background of blue skies and craggy Western landscapes, making it all but impossible to read them.

He went on to give a great presentation on what geology knows and how it knows it, emphasizing the dynamic nature of that knowledge. However, his careful presentation gave way to barely articulate passion when Mark the young earth creationist rose to ask about research by "Dr. Steven Austin" of the Institute for Creation Science on rocks at the top of the Grand Canyon. Mark contended that Dr. Austin's study proves radiometric dating always produces old readings no matter what the sample source. Geissman grew so angry his mustache twitched. "That's wrong!" he cried, referring to the slicing method by which Austin presumably dated the rocks. But a creationist is always ready to move the goalpost. Mark triumphantly announced that these measurements were performed on whole rocks! "But!" Geissman sputtered. "That's even worse!"

And no doubt it is, but the creationist tactic of casting doubts on the legitimacy of science in the language of science proved its mettle here. The scientists were rarely prepared to debunk their accusers in plain language. And when they got angry, they sometimes sounded like the ideologues creationists accuse them of being.

Things got even worse during the geology discussion period. KU astrophysicist Adrian Melott had begun the morning looking much like the Buddha after a good breakfast. By the afternoon, however, his chin jutted, his brow creased, and his eyes smouldered. Finally, he could bear no more. Denouncing creationists as charlatans, he accused some of them of "bearing false witness." A nice turn of phrase. No doubt he is in their prayers even now.

And at another discussion, Hume Feldman rung down the curtain by pronouncing: "There are some things we just know! The universe may be 10 billion years old or it may 14 billion years old, but we know it is not ten thousand years old!"

Well, sure, as a summary of the scientific consensus, that's fair enough. But to lay ears, that sounds very much like hardshelled dogma. In the hands of a propagandist that can be made to sound like anti-biblical prejudice.

The scientists, for the most part, were unprepared to explain the tentative yet cumulative nature of their knowledge. It was a very curious thing. Apart from the rudimentary terms offered by Geissman, they seemed to lack an epistemological theory. Isaac Asimov would have said, "Of course science is wrong! It was rather wrong yesterday, and it is, admittedly, somewhat wrong today, and it will be ever-so-slightly wrong tomorrow! But it is continually becoming less wrong, and it is demonstrably closer to the truth about nature than any other form of knowledge. Now, kindly tell us, where is your religion wrong?" (See Asimov's essay, "The Relativity of Wrong.")

Fortunately, there was at least one scientist at the conference who was a two-fisted pugilist on matters theological and scientific. That would be Ken Miller. When the Kansas State geologist bogged down in a trench fight with Mark the creationist over radiometric dating, Miller bounded to the front of the room. He seized a marker and, with rapid strokes, graphed the decay of rubidium into strontium. It was all a bit technical for the laity, but when he was done, the debate was over. Verdict: creationist objections to radiometric dating are only persiflage for the uninformed. Moreover, Miller scored the winning point of the conference when he described the way he teaches evolution to students "who believe they will lose their immortal souls if they learn this stuff." He tells them they don't have to believe it, they only have to understand how the theory works. No one in America has to believe in evolution.

 

Aftermath

When I got back on the road, twenty-four hours later, nothing had been resolved. 

To be fair, the Origins, Teaching, and Science conference surely had no ambition of altering the landscape. It set out to tackle a handful of questions: What do we know? How do we know it? Why are we confident in our knowledge? In answering these, the conference did offer comfort, encouragement, and a wonderful refresher course to the imperiled science teachers in attendance. It may also have helped some of the scientists who took part to better understand each other's disciplines.

But friends of science and science teaching must understand this: the question many people silently ask themselves is, "Why should I believe in science?" Given their frame of reference, the cost of belief in science (a diminution of God's power) is enormous, while the benefit of science appears to be available whether individuals believe in its claims or not. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that summed it all up: "If you don't believe in God," it read, "you'd better be right." Printed flames from below lick at the words. It's Pascal's Wager all over again.

The challenge, then, is to explain why Americans should believe in science, at least enough to preserve it in the public sphere. They need to answer the question in political terms. A start might be to tell religionists that science provides a neutral buffer between aggressively competing religions, that without it we would be on the road back to religious oppression as various sects and religions battle to seize the governmental imprimatur. 

In Crichton novels, a bit of scientific deus ex machina has a way of creeping in. Remember in The Andromeda Strain how evolution itself took a providential hand in the resolution? Perhaps if Crichton had written this scenario, the roof would have parted and the Old Man in the Sky would have commanded his followers to quit kvetching and accept evolution. Or perhaps the hero would have stumbled onto a discovery so profound that everyone, believer and infidel alike, would have altered their worldview forever. But, alas, the conflict between science and religion will not be so simply resolved.


Clay Farris is the founder of the Lincoln, Nebraska, chapter of Rationalists, Empiricists, and Skeptics of Nebraska, known as REASON.  The conference Mr. Farris writes about took place in April 2000.  In the fall elections, some officials who had supported the deletion of evolution from Kansas's education standards were defeated, and in February 2001 the policy was at last reversed.


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