Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dubious Design, Creationism, and Evolution

An adapted excerpt from God and His Demons, a forthcoming book by Michael Parenti

What is called "creationism" is the belief that in six days the Judeo-Christian god created the universe and all the earthly species including humans in finished form much as they exist today. For centuries this view prevailed throughout the western world. Even after evolutionary science had emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the scenario sketched in Genesis remained the only one acceptable for most of Christendom. Not until the early twentieth century did Darwinian science enjoy a fully receptive hearing in the scientific and academic communities of the United States.

But today, rather than riding triumphant, evolutionary science seems to be barely hanging on in the arena of public opinion. A 2007 Gallup poll reported that only 49 percent of the US public accepted evolution and 48 percent did not. Another survey found 42 percent of Americans held strict creationist views. And various school districts throughout the country have experienced furious dust-ups over the teaching of evolution.

Of late there has emerged a more refined offshoot of creationism called intelligent design (ID). It argues that living organisms are so irreducibly complex they could not have evolved haphazardly over the eons from more primitive forms but were precisely created in one fell swoop by a higher intelligence.

In their assault on evolution the creationists and ID protagonists summon an urgent refrain. To quote from a statement by an anti-Darwinian school board in Dover, Pennsylvania: “Darwin’s Theory is [just] a theory. . . . The Theory is not a fact. Gaps exist in the Theory for which there is no evidence. . . . Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. . . . Students are encouraged to keep an open mind.”

Critics of evolution almost have a point. There certainly are “gaps” in an evolutionary theory that is neither fixed nor final. But the same holds true of all scientific theories, be it nutritional science, meteorology, astronomy, biology, geology, or physics. Science frequently produces theories that contain unanswered questions and invite varying interpretations.

Truth be told, there are no fixed and final scientific laws. Many scientists do not even like the term scientific laws, preferring to speak of “scientific theories.” For it is in the nature of science – when practiced at its best – to keep everything accessible to further investigation and conceptualization. Seemingly triumphant scientific breakthroughs can open up additional areas of inquiry that lead to still more unanswered questions.

Be this as it may, an established body of science is not something to be dismissed out of hand just because it harbors unanswered questions. That a scientific theory is incomplete does not give us license to ignore all the evidence it has accumulated. The data provided by paleontology, geology, zoology, entomology, molecular biology, and other fields make a strong case for evolution and have yet to be explained away by the intelligent designers.

Scientists have been devising new ways of charting how life develops from simple to more complex forms, which is the essence of evolutionary theory. By reconstructing ancient genetic materials from long-extinct animals, they have been able to show how evolution created a new and more complicated component of molecular structure from existing parts.

By its very nature, life depends on adaptability. This means that change, complexity, and development are inevitable components of the natural world. Not all organisms reproduce with uniform success. Reproductive capacity arises directly from how well creatures (including human ones) are able to compete for resources, both against other species and against other members of the same species – and against problems presented by the natural elements themselves.

Not only competition but a highly evolved cooperation may advantage various species. Given this infinitude of interactive forces, it would seem improbable for evolution not to be happening.

Indeed evolution continues before our very eyes as demonstrated by the recently discovered ways that viruses and other microbes acquire new traits, adapt to new habitats, and move toward becoming new species in a matter of days. New pathogens such as SARS, HIV, and more virulent tuberculosis bacilli continue to evolve. Unfortunately it is their evolutionary capacity that is likely to make these microbes resistant to antibiotic drugs. Evolutionary theory explains their dramatic adaptability; the Bible does not, nor do the intelligent designers.

There is something else to be said about scientific theory. When intelligent designers insist that evolution is a theory and not a fact, they are juxtaposing theory and fact as two mutually exclusive and competitive concepts. This is a view commonly held by laypersons who know nothing about science, who assume that there are “hard facts” on the one hand, and airy theories facilely spun out of one’s head on the other.

So we are admonished to stop “theorizing,” stop devising abstract speculations that by definition are more fanciful than factual. Sometimes “theory” is even made to stand for something that is presumed by many to be ipso facto false, as in “conspiracy theory.”

In both the natural and social sciences, however, theory is something more than mere speculation. Theory is the generalizable distillation of empirical investigation, the payoff that comes from gathering and connecting a heap of pertinent facts. It takes facts to build a scientific theory but it takes a theory to organize and make sense of the facts.

Theories are valued for their explanatory power. A developed and confirmed theory is what science aims for. It is the gold standard of scientific inquiry. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are not lacking in facts just because they are theories. To dismiss something as just a theory and not a factual science does not make sense from a scientific point of view. Theory is not all that “soft” and, for that matter, facts are sometimes not all that “hard” or firmly fixed.

This essay concludes on Monday, June 30...

Michael Parenti’s lastest books are Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007), Democracy for the Few, 8th ed. (2007), and The Culture Struggle (2006). This two-part essay is adapted from his forthcoming book God and His Demons. For further information about the author, visit www.michaelparenti.org

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