The Intersection

The latest attempt to create sparks over science and religion came on Sunday in the New York Times book review. There, Judith Shulevitz wrote a subtle but ultimately very troubling piece that largely points the finger at scientists themselves for spurring on the evolution conflict. John Rennie goes to town on the article here, and he does a more extensive job than I plan on doing. Still, I was bothered by certain aspects of Shulevitz’s article, and I’d like to explain further why.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Shulevitz is writing in what I like to call “counterintuitive mode.” This is where journalists, who are trying to find something novel or clever or surprising to say, try to turn conventional wisdom on its head, or to attack their own presumed allies. Essentially, it’s what the sophists in ancient Athens were so good at (and, often, so disliked for).

In this case, Shulevitz’s counterintuitivity prompts her to charge scientists with fanning the anti-evolutionist flames through their ignorance of what kind of beast it is that they’re actually dealing with:

Could something as trivial as scientists’ lack of self-awareness help explain why, nearly 150 years after Darwin, creationism in its various forms has become the most popular critique of science? Well, consider how scientists tend to respond to the attack on evolution. Rather than trying to understand creationism as a culturally meaningful phenomenon – as, say, a peculiarly American objection to the way elites talk about evolution – they generally approach it as a set of ludicrous claims easily dismantled by science.

Creationism is a set of ludicrous claims easily dismantled by science, and scientists are uniquely equipped to perform said dismantling. Creationism is also a uniquely American social movement, and historians like Edward Larson and Ronald Numbers have done a great job of explaining where it comes from. It’s a nice division of labor, no? The scientists are well equipped to debunk the scientific claims (and do so), the historians and sociologists and political scientists are well equipped to explain the social and religious movement (and do so). What exactly is wrong with this?

More generally, the notion that scientists ought to be blamed for not being adequately philosophical–rather than that creationists ought to be blamed for prosecuting a decades-long war on American scientific education–is ridiculous. Sillier still is the notion that if scientists were better sociologists and more self-reflective, creationists would go away. Granted, and as I’ll discuss, Shulevitz is right that there are some tactical shortcomings on the scientist side, but let’s not forget which side we’re on. The creationists are the bad guys here.

In any case, all of this might be forgiveable. But Shulevitz then proceeds to criticize scientists even further, and, I think, even more unfairly. Scientists are smuggling a religio-philosophical agenda, she contends, known as “evolutionism.” Think of it as evolution-plus-atheism. Drawing upon Michael Ruse, Shulevitz writes:

In other words, evolutionism – the conviction that evolution explains life’s meaning and tells us how to deal with the future – remains as powerful a cultural force as ever. But what should we do about it? Ruse calls for “a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues,” a suggestion that’s commendable but won’t do much to tone down those people convinced that evolution has large social and theological (or anti-theological) implications. Besides, those people may well be right. I’d suggest something else: Teach evolution in biology class and evolutionism in religion class, along with creationism, deism and all the other cosmologies that float unexamined through our lives. Religion class is just the place for a fight about religion.

Teaching something called “evolutionism” in religion class is a woefully bad idea, and one that’s sure to backfire. Atheism and agnosticism ought to be taught in religion class–definitely. But “evolutionism” seems to yoke together atheism with evolution, which isn’t defensible at all (though the conjunction certainly would please the anti-evolutionists).

Sure, many atheists are evolutionists, and vice-versa. But–and we’ve been through this before–there is nothing inherent to the theory of evolution that necessarily entails atheism. Some Christians are evolutionists too. So are some Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.

Evolution isn’t inherently a religious doctrine. It’s a widely accepted scientific theory that explains a vast array of observations, and that is accordingly accepted by people of many varying faiths, as well as by many of no faith at all. So evolution certainly shouldn’t be yoked to any particular faith doctrine (or anti-faith doctrine) in the context of a religion class. That’s would simply heighten our science-religion tensions even further.

If there’s a kernel of truth to Shulevitz’s piece, it lies in the fact that scientists have not always been the best strategists when it comes to defending evolution. First, too many have ignored the battle as if it would somehow go away, rather than fighting back or trying to explain what they know to the public. That’s been a tragic miscalculation. Second, too many scientists themselves confuse “evolutionism” with evolution–promoting atheism and evolution at the same time. This lends credence to the incorrect notion that the two are necessarily linked–they’re not–and lends ammunition to the creationists at the same time.

But this doesn’t mean that scientists are themselves the source of the conflict, or that science itself is peddling atheism to the public disguised as evolution. At worst, scientists are politically naive, lacking in strategy, far too disengaged, and gulity of taking actions that backfire. But they’re not the bad guys here. Let’s keep a sense of perspective, huh?

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 23, 2006

    The more I see of these battles, the more it becomes clear to me that the anti-evolution side doesn’t have a problem with what the science says so much as it has a problem with science. That there’s any plausible way for people to build knowledge of their world and themselves that isn’t carefully filtered through the proper theological channels scares the anti-evolution side silly.

    The sad thing is, there needn’t be a forced choice between science and religion. Many (if not most) of the scientists I know don’t see science as a “nothing but” philosophy (i.e., the only stuff that exists and/or is the stuff we can grapple with empirically and make sense of with our scientific theories). But when you’re told you have to make a choice, a lot of people will kiss religion — not science — goodbye.

    Which, I suppose, is my way of saying i think the anti-evolution strategy sucks more than any strategy I’ve seen the scientists deploy.

  2. #2 Aerik
    January 23, 2006

    I can’t help but be reminded some what of a tangent with Holocaust denial, in an article we read for Composition II by Stanley Fish (see the Free Speech Follies)

    Every so often an opinion page in a college, city, or regional newspaper will brandish a letter that implicitely or explicitely states that Jews’ behavior is to blame for some, if not a lot, of American and European anti-Semetism. In almost every case, there are many anti-semetic sentiments and cliche arguments used to bolster the person’s claim, making it obvious that it is obviously not the Jews’ fault, and that the causes of anti-semetism lie in very nature of the communities in which it prospers. Every time it happens the newspaper suffers a backlash of public outrage and shamefully distorts the First Amendment, as if it had no choice to publish the filth.


    I can’t help but notice the similarities in the media recently when it comes to Intelligent Design and anti-evolution sentiments.  Of course, there are serious differences between anti-evolutionists and anti-semites.  One attacks a perceived threat to his/her religion, the other attacks a people he/she can’t distinguish between their race or religion.

    In either case, the underlying causes are uncannily similar, as they are to many other types of hate, be it as simple as a squabble between neighbors that lasts for years, high school / sibling rivalry, or anything else.  Andrew Sullivan might say that some namable causes are Hysteria, Obsession, and Narcicissm, at leas so far as inspired by psychotherapist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

    More than anything else, I’d be willing to blame the media.  No, I’m not blaming “the Liberal media” (imagine a hick, southern/redneck dialect here).  If anything, I’d say the proponderance of black criminals, fear-mongering pieces about school shootings, poisons (“what you don’t know may kill you) and whatnot points to an obviously hyper-conservative media.  And whadyaknow, it seems to be hyperconservatives, the religious right that are pushing this anti-evolution crap!

  3. #3 noself
    January 23, 2006

    I agree. Dig deep enough and it’s the entire nature of Science that they are uncomfortable with i.e. when they conflate methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalims. And of course the whole notion of philosophical naturalism is diametrically opposed to the existance of the supernatural.

    Of course as to why this does not apply to areas where they attempt to demonstrate why Science ‘proves’ or at least ‘demonstrates’ their version of God should probably be explained by way of double think.

  4. #4 Inoculated Mind
    January 23, 2006

    Ugh, it was hard to get through that article. Right at the beginning, the debate is framed as evolution = atheism. Scott’s book is the least inflammatory, implying that evolution by its nature is inflammatory. And scientists spitting gaskets like short circuiting robots? Come on. I would like to see this person write book reviews on the anti-evolutionists, and see if they use the same (and more apt) language to describe the tiresome ways that they hem and haw, complain, and spit ad hominems instead of produce science.

    The article was being inordinately kind to the anti-evolutionists, who act entirely based upon the perceived consequences of accepting evolution. I find it amazing that they say that evolution requires them to no longer believe in gOD. I know they hope that this will make believers reject evolution, but on the other hand it makes evolution, by their own admission, a strong argument against religion. By putting gOD in a test tube, they are only going to give people reasons to reject their faith.

    I disagree with the author that scientists are somehow less self-aware than everyone else, it seems like the author is playing off of a Dr. Frankenstein-type myth that scientists proceed ahead heedless of the implications. Quite the contrary. Darwin himself knew the implications of evolution by natural selection, and he kept from publishing it for nine years because of that.

    “This is like a judge assuring us that it is ‘utterly false’ that Judaism is inconsistent with eating pork,”

    Actually, some jewish people looooove pork!

  5. #5 Metalmaven
    January 24, 2006

    This is my first post here, so if I don’t do something I should, maybe the moderators will be kind.

    IMHO: The problem I see with the IDers, is that they want to sit back and claim this “really neat idea” of irreducible complexity (or whatever buzzy/jargon word they come up with) and then charge real scientists to go out and confirm it for them with the right experiments and mathmatics. The mathmatics Behe comes up with for his statistical analysis are just absurd. He doesn’t seem to have even an undergraduates knowledge of statistics above what he copies out of textbooks. They have no concept how experiments are conducted (blind studies, calibration of methods, etc.) yet they scream that the elitist scientists are ignoring their noble idea because it’s just too great for us to understand and they think we’re jealous, and that’s why we ignore them. We ignore them because their idea has NO scientific validity and doesn’t explain one iota of the overwhelming fossil and chemical evidence. They have been able to win over the very soft minds of the uneducated, but I have to wonder about the state of education in this country if these people are left all alone in their own minds without any adult supervision. I think it’s way too easy for people to just say that they are not very good at science and then they close the door. Nope…don’t need that logic, can’t use any facts..but hey…we still want to know: how did we get here?

    It would be laughable, if they weren’t so serious.

    Thanks for letting me dump this here. The IDers, DIers, whatever incarnation they return as…drive me batty.

    maven

  6. #6 Jon Winsor
    January 24, 2006

    I think Shulevitz’s piece is more provocative than “troubling”. Her essential point is that scientists aren’t above having their own metaphysical assumptions. And these assumptions are often promulgated along with the science (in some cases overtly, as in the case of Richard Dawkins). And there are consequences to this, because science has prestige and currency.

    I think Michael Ruse is right to clarify that “Dover is not our fault” that the science community didn’t bring on the ID’ers. But he also points to Dawkins saying “openly that [evolution] is a myth to replace traditional Christianity.” Some people find this kind of talk on the part of Dawkins troubling.

    I came across an essay a couple years ago by novelist Marilynne Robinson (who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Robinson doesn’t reject evolution, but argues that modern evolutionist thinking is freighted with all sorts of deleterious metaphysical assumptions. She attacks Richard Dawkins directly: “Certainly finding selfishness in a gene is an act of mind which rather resembles finding wrath in thunder.”

    I wonder if Shulevitz read this essay. About half of it is available on the New York Times website here. Robinson’s prose style doesn’t come across as well online as it does in a book. It’s a bit high toned and literary and probably not to everyone’s taste. But there are some substantial things to respond to in there.

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    January 24, 2006

    Correction: I just read Michael Ruse’s comment a little more closely. Looks like it was someone else who said that “[evolution] is a myth to replace traditional Christianity,” not Dawkins. But Ruse is saying that the person he quoted is actually “warmer to Christians than someone like Dawkins.”

    And I also just read a section of Robinson’s essay again after not looking at it for a few years. Wow, I forgot how heavy it was. But after all, she’s writing about a heavy subject…

  8. #8 Simon
    January 24, 2006

    This all seems to be missing Shulevitz’s point. She didn’t go anywhere near suggesting ID was valid as a science, or that there is anything in it that is valid. What she was in effect saying is that Evolutionism is all too often a philosophical belief unconsciously added to the science of evolution. Science makes no comments on the existence of god, yet there are many that use evolution as some kind of evidence that there is no god. At this stage they are using evolution as a religion (“evolutionism”), and its root in science becomes irrelevant.

    This central point of her article is just blindly missed in both these rebuttals – eg;

    Sure, many atheists are evolutionists, and vice-versa. But–and we’ve been through this before–there is nothing inherent to the theory of evolution that necessarily entails atheism. Some Christians are evolutionists too. So are some Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.

    Evolution isn’t inherently a religious doctrine. It’s a widely accepted scientific theory that explains a vast array of observations, and that is accordingly accepted by people of many varying faiths, as well as by many of no faith at all. So evolution certainly shouldn’t be yoked to any particular faith doctrine (or anti-faith doctrine) in the context of a religion class. That’s would simply heighten our science-religion tensions even further.

    etc etc etc

    Its very unlikely ID would have become the beast it is now in the US if it weren’t for so many people claiming to adhere purely to the science of evolution, when what they are really doing is basing their beliefs in evolutionism (Dawkins may be an extreme example but he is by no means isolated in his opinions). There is nothing wrong with that, anyone is free to have their own religious/spiritual/philosophical beliefs within certain social/moral boundaries. But Shulevitz is 100% correct IMO that the distinction needs to be made clearly between the two, and that its ignorance of the distinction that feeds the fires of the ID nonsense;

    In other words, evolutionism – the conviction that evolution explains life’s meaning and tells us how to deal with the future – remains as powerful a cultural force as ever. But what should we do about it? Ruse calls for “a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues,” a suggestion that’s commendable but won’t do much to tone down those people convinced that evolution has large social and theological (or anti-theological) implications. Besides, those people may well be right. I’d suggest something else: Teach evolution in biology class and evolutionism in religion class, along with creationism, deism and all the other cosmologies that float unexamined through our lives. Religion class is just the place for a fight about religion.

    How about we go back to the 1930s ?

    At the core of the friendship of Tokien and Lewis was their shared antipathy to the modern world. They were not opposed to dentists, buses, draft beer, and other feautures of the twentieth century, but what they viewed as the underlying mentality of modernism. They were not against science or scientists, but the cult of science, found in modernism, and its tendancy to monopolise knowledge, denying alternative approaches to knowledge through the arts, religion, and ordinary human wisdom. Tolkien and Lewis felt that this mentality was a malaise that posed a serious threat to humanity…

    p103, J.R.R. Tolien and C.S. Lewis – Colin Duriez

    Here we have two Oxford dons, around the early 1930s, having no problem at all with science and yet both concerned about the “cult of science”. The way things are broken down into their tiniest constituents and then an assumption made that a partial understanding of the smaller parts, when added together, equal a good understanding of the whole. This is a blatantly false assumption, yet it subconsciously underpins the whole of what modern scientism has become.

    If Lewis and Tolkien were concerned about this, and its now become a runaway train ever gaining momentum in the ever growing ‘educated’ middle class, why on earth is it surprising that a portion of people who feel that the train cannot be checked use ever more bizarre and twisted ways to try and impose checks on its advance ?

    Its all too easy to blame, in fact judge these people, be they the extremes of New Age, alternative history or religious fundamentalists for ignoring ‘good solid evidence’ altogether. To come out with the kind of statements Paul referenced above and describe the initial article as “illogic”. In fact Shulevitz’s points were not “illogic”, the problem was that she was suggesting that there is a difference between science and scientism. The runaway train is travelling at such speed now that the difference between the two seems like mere symantics to those on board.

    Its ironic that fictional creations such as Orwells “1984″ or Pink Floyds “The Wall”, perhaps describe our modern times better than any modern sociology. All forms of understanding are splintering and shattering into so many fragments that its pretty much impossible to retain an honest Weltanschauung. This is partly because of the runaway train of empirical scientism, but is also added to by by the cult of individualism. After Freuds relation moved to the US and started using his theory to sell things, long before the general population was aware of such things (are they now ?), it was inevitable that the need to express individuality would be amplified in a materialistic way. We are a species with such a pronounced herd instinct that the dynamics seem hidden from mind. The fact almost everyone has some form of ‘ting ting ting’ coming from the headphones of their MP3 player is not relevant, the fact they have chosen a sect that all dress the same and listen to and appreciate (as the best) the same music, is whats really important.

    In such a society, why is it a surprise that people make simple ‘lifestyle’ choices between, say, science and religion ? If anyone would like to come up with an argument why scientism (in its many and various guises – evolutionism, modernism, psychologism, naturalised epistemology etc) is NOT in a significant way responsible for philosophies that chose a personal idealised (group/herd) version of reality above a sincere desire for the truth, I’d love to hear it.

    Simon

  9. #9 Chewbonus
    January 24, 2006

    If anyone would like to come up with an argument why heretics (in their many and various guises) are NOT in a significant way responsible for the inquisition, I’d love to hear it.

    Chewbonus

  10. #10 MYOB
    January 24, 2006

    I don’t know if it’s already been said above but it’s been clear for quite some time now that the war against evolution as it has been for the last 20+ years is about countering the culture that developes around people who are better educated and who question authority. This is about church leaders, televangelists, etc, wanting to tell you want to do and what to think and you doing what you’re told or else risk damnation. Bill Kristol, son of prominant arch-neoconservative Irving Kristol was heard to remark that the system or organized religion and the tenets that keep it safe must be preserved or else risk society falling into chaos. He was said to have been questioned about this remark and those of other Trotskyists who held similar beliefs.
    The truth of evolution is something that the plutocratic oligarchy of Trotskyists and other neoconservatives fear because it takes away their control. Religion and the ability to mold religion to the will of those in power is in their opinion needed because when it comes right down to it democracy doesn’t work.
    As Irving Kristol himself is most quoted for:
    “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”

    And yet they perscribe to the opposite of this by allowing the fallacy of religion to continue because it is a weapon they use to control the people who cannot handle all the truths.

    Really the whole anti-evolution debate and the people who support it from the background should be written up in an episode of the X-Files. It’s that kind of creepy but already this sort of conspiracy theory nonsense is sneaking into the debates cause of the people who are pushing it and the people who support them in return.

    MYOB’
    .

  11. #11 Aerik
    January 24, 2006

    Hey, I re-wrote my comment up there for my infrequent (this will change!) blog, at http://thescienceethicist.blogspot.com/

  12. #12 Anonymous
    January 26, 2006

    ‘If anyone would like to come up with an argument why heretics (in their many and various guises) are NOT in a significant way responsible for the inquisition, I’d love to hear it.’

    How about dissenting opinion did not resulting in the death of any in the hierarchy. To blame heretics for the inquisition is like blaming the murdered for the murder or the raped for the rape.

  13. #13 Paul Richard Strange, Sr.
    December 28, 2008

    Sorry, I’m a few years later than every other poster on this subject!

    Almost every defense of evolution seems to reveal that there is more than one “evolution” discussed by everybody, whether evolutionist, non-evolutionist, anti-evolutionist, or Richardawkonian!

    There truly seems to be a “philosophy of evolution”, which works much like a political party.

    On the other hand, there are many new voices explaining the biological and genetic principles associated with the prehistoric development of organisms who are doing an increasingly good job of divorcing science from “evolutionism” as in the art of alienation in the name of science.

    God bless

    Paul Richard Strange, SR.
    Waxahachie Texas

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