Fate and ignorance
Posted on Wednesday, December 29, 2004
It is my supposition that the Universe is not
only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer
than we can imagine. —J. B. S. Haldane
In the popular imagination, influenced by a thousand
Hollywood "sword and sandal" epics inspired by Edward Gibbon’s "Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire," great nations perish through moral
decay. (The more half-naked slave girls, muscular gladiators and lisping
upper-class twits, the better the box office.) But there’s such a thing
as intellectual decadence, too. The role of sheer ignorance in
determining the fate of civilizations cannot be overstated. Believe it
or not, this insight struck me recently while watching a two minute
"debate" on CNN about the merits of teaching Darwinian evolution vs.
something called "intelligent design" in high school biology classes.
The utter vacuousness of the anchor creature refereeing this exhibition
needn’t be dwelt upon. Suffice it wasn’t her reasoning skills that got
her the job. Rather, it was the farcical nature of the whole enterprise
that struck me: the central organizing principle of biological science
as the shuttlecock in a "Crossfire"-style colloquy between an earnest
young lawyer and a smug preacher who appeared to have borrowed Sen.
Trent Lott’s lacquered hair helmet and dyed it orange.
Not long afterward, The Washington Post chronicled a dispute among
parents and school board members in Dover, Pa., a suburb of Harrisburg.
There, 11 parents, under the aegis of the ACLU, have sued to prevent"
intelligent design" from being foisted upon their children in biology
classes. They claim it’s a smokescreen for teaching fundamentalist
religious doctrine in place of science.
Judging by the newspaper’s account, they’re surely correct. The school
board member who introduced the measure explained that he was taking a
stand for Jesus. Another member, an Assemblies of God pastor, said, "If
the Bible is right, God created us. If God did it, it’s history and
it’s also science."
A local gift shop owner rather evocatively named Lark Myers summed it
all up for the Post reporter: "I definitely would prefer to believe
that God created me than that I’m 50th cousin to a silverback ape. What’s
wrong with wanting our children to hear about all the holes in the
theory of evolution?"
Sigh. The single best answer I’ve seen to all this nonsense was given
by Rev. C. O. Magee, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Little Rock
School Board during a federal court test of an Arkansas
"creation-science" law more than 20 years ago. "Any time religion gets
involved in science," he said, "religion comes off looking like a bunch
of nerds.... The Book of Genesis told who created the world and why it
was created and science tells how it was done."
Can I get an amen? Frankly, I doubt the fair Lark would try to adjust
her own satellite TV receiver without expert help or summon an
Assemblies of God preacher to repair her dishwasher according to
biblical principles. Yet she feels herself competent to pronounce upon
the alleged holes in one of the most massively documented theoretical
constructs in the history of science.
To anybody even faintly aware of what’s going on in the visible world,
biological science has made astonishing advances in recent decades.
Biologists have discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, broken
the genetic code, sequenced the entire genome of several species and
documented with extraordinary specificity how a tiny, single-celled egg
develops into an adult organism.
Paleontologists have unearthed so many so-called missing links in
mammalian evolution that clever creationists now avoid the topic.
Suffice it to say that none of these discoveries would be conceivable
absent the intellectual scaffolding provided by Charles Darwin’s
"Origin of Species" in 1859.
But while Darwin’s insights have been elaborated upon, adjusted,
amplified and corrected over the past century, the panicky response of
his authoritarian-minded opponents has not. Properly understood,
evolution no more mandates atheism than does the tax code, which also
excludes supernatural explanations. Indeed, most "mainstream" religious
denominations have long ago quit seeing science as an enemy, embracing
its discoveries about the grandeur and complexity of the physical
universe as an inducement to reverence and awe. Unfortunately, TV news
networks seeking conflict and melodrama to boost ratings are ill suited
to explore such ideas and emotions. Instead, they peddle simplistic
"controversies" well suited to suburbanites who have lost their way
amid the moral and intellectual confusions of contemporary life and cling to
biblical literalism like a life raft. Sure, a proper curriculum should
include lessons about how science both limits and lays claim to
knowledge about the physical world. And yes, it’s bad for democracy to
have these arguments settled by court mandate instead of reasoned
debate. But it’s also not hard to see why scientists are reluctant to
spend all their time rehashing 19th century misunderstandings on
• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.