Sunday, August 21, 2005

Missing Links

It's not surprising that some of those who provide the best evidence for evolution -- including, now, the simian missing link George W. Bush-- are those who argue for divine intervention in the creation. As if a divine intelligence were needed to come up with the likes of them. If anything, the existence of George W. Bush and his supporters provides evidence for the fallibility of God. Yes, S/He too can make mistakes.
What is most exasperating about the current techniques of the creation-theory supporters is their insistence that they are arguing in the interests of science and fair play. No serious scientist doubts the theory of Darwinian evolution. The evidence is overwhelming, in the fossil record, in genetics, in observations of nature. To give attention in science classrooms to the tenets of Judeo-Christian theology is to say that scientific observation and discovery should be muffled if they conflict with the mythology of a particular religion.
Equally exasperating is the rhetoric that holds that Darwinian evolution is an "unproven theory." The very statement betrays a profound lack of understanding of science and of scientific method. Anyone who has paid a modicum of attention in a well-taught science class (and yes, I realize that modifier will eliminate many) knows that a theory is simply the best available explanation for the observed conditions, and that everything from gravity to thermodynamics to quantum physics is theory.
Any theory can be superceded if either a better (generally simpler), more consistent theory is posited, or if conditions are observed which cannot be explained by the prevailing theory. Thus, even the notion that steam is a gaseous form of water could be replaced if a better explanation came along. All science is subject to questioning, to testing, to displacement. That is what makes it science.
Theology is not subject to the same rules. It may be probed, questioned, by those on the edges, or the outside, but it is not at all subject to replacement by the culture that holds it as a central precept without great upheaval, as in the Christianisation of Rome or the introduction of Islam in the Middle East.
Thus, to stand a belief system -- Judeo-Christian creationism -- against strong, solid science -- Darwinian evolution -- is an absurdity, an unfair battle that can never be won by either side.
Should the Judeo-Christian creation myth be taught in schools? Yes, alongside other creation myths, in classes devoted to world culture, to history, to literature, to art. It is one of the ironies of modern life that the Bible is often avoided in these classes -- where it is an essential foundation block of the disciplines and, of course, of Western culture (try understanding Milton or Shakespeare or Pound or Michaelangelo or Bernini or the Enlightenment or the settlement of North America by the Europeans without understanding the Bible!) -- and yet is inserted into any perceived chink in the armor of science.
The current argument by Bush and his ilk is that schools should "teach the controversy." That would be a sound and reasonable position if the controversy were taught in a social studies classroom. But to have the argument presented in a science classroom is a clear and simple political strategy to give a veneer of credibility to a hypothesis (not theory) that has no scientific underpinnings. This, of course, has been the overarching strategy of the Bush administration with regard to science, whether it be over evolution, greenhouse gases, or medical research: Ignore the science and regard the political debate as a scientific one. In this way, they strive to create a scientific debate where none exists, and to obfuscate the evidence which in virtually every case is the best argument against their political positions.
Back to evolution.
Many of us consider ourselves both scientists and Christians, and see no discrepancy between the two. How do we do this? We understand the Bible for what it is: A vast patchwork of metaphor, fable, history, romance, poetry, and philosophy that has been compiled, edited, translated, mistranslated, subverted, suppressed and reshaped over five millenia. It is an overwhelmingly great and enduring expression of belief. It is not literal truth, and it is not the literal word of God.
Science is the vehicle we use to better understand the greatness of God's gifts. It allows us to explore every question, to gain wisdom, and, possibly, to move toward grace.
The Bible is not a work of science and On The Origin of Species is not a work of theology.
Both should be understood and appreciated for their greatness, but the one should never be confused for the other.

P.S. I've been away from this blog for nearly a month, my attentions consumed by my job and by the creative writings I have been posting at The Practical Press. I hope to get back into the swing of things now that my company's annual conference has passed successfully. Thanks to those who noticed I was gone.