Thursday morning started bright and early, since the first talk was at eight. It goes against my grain to be out of bed at that hour, but sometimes in life you just have to make sacrifices.
I was at the big meeting room by 7:45. Got to schmooze with some of the big shots, like Genie Scott and Ken Miller:
Keith Miller (no relation to Ken), a geologist at Kansas State University was there. I met him a few times during my post-doc at K-State, so it was nice to see him again. My fellow Panda’s Thumbers Richard Hoppe and Art Hunt were there as well.
The morning’s session was called, “Evolution and Society” and featured six, thirty-minute talks. Mark Terry of the Northwest School, a private high school in Seattle, WA, got the ball rolling by giving some background material about the Wedge Strategy and the Discovery Institute. He also spoke a bit about the thorough grounding students at his school receive in evolutionary biology. You can get the gist of his remarks from this faculty profile.
Next up was Ken Miller, who gave a typically excellent talk bashing the ID folks. His religious views aren’t my cup of tea, but when the subject is science there is no one better. He brought up William Dembski’s ill-fated prediction:
In the next five years, molecular Darwinism–the idea that Darwinian processes can produce complex molecular structures at the subcellular level–will be dead. When that happens, evolutionary biology will experience a crisis of confidence because evolutionary biology hinges on the evolution of the right molecules.
Dembski made that prediction five years ago. It hasn’t come to pass. Surprise! Miller made the point in dramatic fashion by discussing the conference on molecular evolution he attended just prior to coming to this one.
Near the end of his talk Miller addressed the big accommodationism debate. I was gratified by his blunt statement that everyone should be speaking for evolution, not just theists and not just atheists. I think that’s exactly the right note, and is one I have expressed here many times. I’ll have more to say about this momentarily.
There were three more talks that morning. Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography interrupted an otherwise solid talk about promoting science literacy to take some pot shots at P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins, but I didn’t care enough to make an issue of it during the Q and A. By that time I was mostly in the zone, thinking about what I wanted to say during the panel.
The big panel, “Countering Creationism” started at 12:15. That, alas, did not leave time for lunch, so I countered creationism on an empty stomach. It was really more of a group discussion than a panel. Art, Dick and myself made some introductory remarks, but after that things were thrown open to a group that got ever larger as people returned from lunch. I was hoping to have a transcript of what I said, but my miserable voice recorder chose that moment to run out of space. As if more proof were needed, this shows there is no God. (Not one of love and justice, anyway). Here’s the paraphrase.
After giving a little background about how I got interested in this topic I made four main points. The first is that I think there is a useful distinction to be made between the leaders and the followers in creationism. The leaders are precisely the dishonest charlatans they are alywas made out to be. But the people in the audiences listening to this are often a different story. Many of them aren’t really fire-breathers and are genuinely interested in learning more about the subject. I’ve been thanked many times at creationist gatherings for offering a contrary view, and not just by other undercover types like me. Simply put, I usually like the people I meet at these conferences, even while hating everything they stand for.
The second point was that you shouldn’t underestimate the argument from personal incredulity. Evolution is genuinely counter-intuitive, and it is not crazy to cast a skeptical eye on the idea that complex, functional adaptations can form by a fully naturalistic process like natural selection. It is difficult to convince people even that evolution is reasonable, much less that it is true. I mentioned my experience at the Creation Museum the day before, as recounted in Part One.
Point three was that there is far more religious diversity among anti-evolutionists than you might expect. This has been brought home to me especially at ID conferences, where Biblical literalists often seem thin on the ground. On more than one occasion I have had ID proponents lament the harm Biblical literalists had done to the cause of anti-evolution advocacy. If you have this idea that it is only conservative Protestant fundamentalists who oppose evolution then you have not fully grasped the extent of the problem.
The session on theistic evolution that I described in Part One of this report took place in the afternoon after this panel. I prefaced the fourth point by saying it was a preemptive response to some of the New Atheist bashing I saw in the abstracts.
Point four was that Richard Dawkins is not the problem. He is not the reason the message of theistic evolution is such a tough sell and he is not the reason people think there is a connection between evolution and atheism. They think that because evolution genuinely poses challenges for traditional Christian faith, and these challenges should not be minimized. Evolution challenges both the inerrancy and the perspicuity of Scripture, it kills the argument from design in biology, it ratchets up the problem of evil, and it poses difficulties for notions of human specialness. Obviously many people have devised ways of overcoming these challenges, and that’s fine. But we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people do not accept these reconciliations, and people should not be derided for being theologically ignorant or unsophisticated for not going along with them.
At this point I noted that if there were any super-clever way of countering creationism we all would have done it by now. I said I didn’t have any snappy solution to offer, and endorsed the more mundane suggestions others had made before me (be aware of what is going on in local politics, that sort of thing.)
But if I didn’t know what the solution was, I was pretty sure I knew what the solution wasn’t. The solution was did not involve dividing the pro-science community by suggesting that one portion of it must be quiet for fear of offending others.
That afternoon, Howard University paleontologist Daryl Domning was giving a talk entitled, “Who Should Speak for Evolution: Atheists or Theists?” I suggested this is a question that no one should be asking, since everyone ought to be speaking for evolution. In the abstract for Domning’s talk we read, “In order to be helpful in support of science education, rather than just inflaming the controversy, atheists have to decide which they care about more: making our schools safe for evolution, or ridding the world of religion.” I suggested that I do not need to make any such choice. On Monday I can support science education, and on Tuesday I can oppose the intrusion of religion into our public affairs. On Monday I am happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ken Miller and other theistic evoltuionists, on Tuesday, regrettably, we are on opposite sides.
Promoting science is difficult enough without looking for reasons to split the pro-science side. You can reply that P. Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne are not exactly uniters, and point taken, but I don’t see them saying that one segment of the pro-science forces needs to be silent for fear of offending folks who think differently.
With that I wrapped up my remarks. During the Q and A I added that I objected to the implication of Domning’s abstract that since many people find evolution threatening at the level of morality and meaning we better go teach them about theistic evolution. The impression was given that it is only theistic evolution that can save people from the perceived moral chaos of accepting evolution. Perhaps a better approach would be to show people how to live moral and meaningful lives without God.
The ensuing discussion was lively and interesting. Daryl Domning was in the room, and when the panel was over we had a pleasant conversation. He told me that his goal was to get theists speaking out more than it was to get atheists to be quiet. I replied that I think that’s a fine goal, but that his abstract was a rather confrontational way of making that point.
As it happens, though, we didn’t dwell all that much on this, because I mentioned that I had read his book Original Selfishness. This was Domning’s attempt to revitalize the idea of Original Sin in the light of evolution. Historically, the dominant understanding of the doctrine in Christendom traced back to a literal understanding of Chapter Three of Genesis. That is, the doctrine referred to a specific sin committed by an actual human couple, a couple representing the only two humans on the planet.
Obviously, any such interpretation is out of the question in the light of evolution and other relevant sciences. The question is whether the doctrine ought to be discarded (my choice), or whether it can be meanignfully reinterpreted in the light of modern science (Domning’s choice). In condensed form, Domning’s argument is that the original insight was that humans have great capacity for evil and selfishness. Original sin was essentially a description of this aspect of human nature. An understanding of the evolutionary process provides a solid foundation for understanding why that is. For most of evolution you have selfish genes competing with one another for representation in subsequent generations. With the arrival of human-like intelligence something new enters the struggle: the capacity for moral reasoning. Original sin can then be seen as a throwback to our evolution. We have a sinful nature bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history, but we also have the capacity to overcome it. Thinking of original sin in this way is more in keeping with the earliest understanding of the doctrine than is the hardening of the idea around a literal interpretation of the Bible. So argues Domning.
During our conversation I replied that it looked like science was doing all the work, while Christianity wasn’t contributing anything. He was simply taking what science was telling us about human nature and then attaching the label “Original Sin” to it. You don’t need Christianity to tell you that people have a capacity for evil and selfishness, you learn that by simple observation. Christianity’s contribution was to link that condition to the story of an actual sin committed by actual people. With that story shown to be complete fiction, what is gained by keeping the term Original Sin?
We went around in circles on this for a while. It was all very pleasant, but for me it was more frustration. In science, when an idea is discredited it is eventually discarded. When it became clear that phlogistin or the luminiferous ether weren’t pulling their weight as scientific theories, those terms disappeared from scientific parlance. No one argued that we should simply reconceptualize phlogistin so that it was consistent with more modern theories of combustion. Old ideas gave way to newer and better ones.
That, to me, seems like the proper resopnse to antiquated pieces of Christian doctrine. Indeed, many modern Christian denominations do just fine without original sin. People like Domning, however, prefer to work very hard to prop up the notion. (Let me tell you, his book is not easy reading.) I don’t understand what propels people to undertake such projects. As much as I enjoyed my conversation with Domning, I still don’t understand it.
Well, that’s about it. I spent much of the afternoon chatting with Ken and Genie and various other people. Ken and I talked religion for a while, but we also ended up talking math and Brown University (my alma mater and his employer) and even math at Brown (Ken was a Brown undergrad.) I had a great time. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do it again some time.