Thursday, January 8, 2009

Darwin's Upcoming 200th

Am I doing anything for Darwin's 200th? Of course not! It's not a holiday! Since I'm American, I do have off work on Martin Luther King Day. I might go skiing. It's been cooooold and the snow up at Tahoe will probably be good.

In his Evolving Thoughts blog, John Wilkins provides a list of articles that he thinks unwisely beatify Saint Chuck of the Cambrian order. Many of us have noticed this tendency, unfortunate for several reasons; in unreasonable claims that Darwin anticipated areas of inquiry that appeared only decades after his death; in an over-focus on his life; and in the overfocus of evangelical atheists on Darwinism. You don't need to know about descent with modification to know that snakes can't talk, just cause somebody wrote down that they could.

However, I disagree with Wilkins on his evaluation of Bunting's article. I think most of the piece is spot-on, and she identifies several problems with Darwin-myopia in science. I would add a few more problems with Darwin-myopia in atheism. Not all of the following are in her article but they're all worth keeping in mind.

1) Focusing on evolution instead of overall secularism and rationalism means that, strangely, biologists become the spokespeople for a movement that's about how to live better. I love Dawkins, but he's not the guy to convince a middle-aged lady in Kansas that it's okay if she stops going to church, and her daughter won't suddenly become pregnant and her son won't suddenly start doing meth and drop out of school.

2) Deversion becomes more difficult when you start with a theory that frankly doesn't have that much impact on most of our daily lives. Essentially the claim goes "You have to believe evolution, and then once you do, you won't be able to believe in your family's faith any more!" Amazingly, people don't jump at the chance to take this offer. I do happen to agree with creationists that evolution is corrosive to faith (like Dennett's Universal Acid), because it's corrosive to belief in Scripture. Stepwise deversion can follow from an acceptance of evolution, but you don't have to tell them that up front!

3) Overfocus on Darwin by the scientific and scientifically-literate community has led creationists to think that by attacking Darwin, they can attack the theory. Lyell dispensed with a young-Earth decades before Origin, and let's not forget Mendel and Wallace. I had a bit of a Wallace revival myself this past summer when I realized in Central America I might be looking at some of the literal exact trees that he described during his field work there. When you oppose evolution, you're not just opposing one wicked man and his army of conspiring zealots. You're opposing a theory that has been contributed to from all quarters of the world, even before they had ever heard of Charles Darwin - including Gregor Mendel, a monk - without whom the synthesis of evolution and genetics in the 1920s could not have happened. Young Earth creationists with a Darwin obsession should in particular be reminded that their first and worst problem is Lyell.

So, when you hear the old "Darwin was a communist/Zionist/etc." ad hominem attack on the theory, try this one: if we found out Copernicus was a child-molester, it might make you sad, but would it make you think that the sun revolves around the Earth?

I've recently been trying to write posts about how atheist rhetoric should move away from Darwinism, and ended up talking about Darwin, Mendel, and Lyell. See, I'm just as stuck in the "Darwinism = atheism" cycle as everyone else. That's why I'm challenging us all to move away from it.

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