Thursday, January 17, 2008

I believe in God; everybody else pays cash. Reflections on Evolution.

Bobvis withdraws support for Ron Paul over the latters skepticism regarding evolution:

I still find his anti-evolutionary stance disturbing. People who are against evolution typically fail to meet Yudkowsky's virtue of evenness. They will accept plate tectonics and even quantum physics without evidence, but once they hear something about evolution they become these pretend critical thinkers who want to examine all the evidence before they get too hasty in believing something.

Bobvis, and Yudkowsky, make an important point about how confirmation bias shapes are approach to this question and others like it. But the thing is, though, nobody ever asked me if I "believe" in plate tectonics. Come to think of it, I can't recall anybody speaking about any scientific theory in terms of belief and acceptance. People only talk this way when they discuss religion . . . and evolution!

Which brings me to the heart of what I find so irritating about the framing of this issue. Bobvis here appears to credit those professing evolution with scientific thinking. But as he concedes, very, very few people think scientifically about anything in the way Bobvis defines it, and for a very good reason: evolutionarily speaking, scientific thinking only recently emerged. We aren't much evolved to think scientifically.

However, we are evolved to think in terms of religious/philosophical commitments as expressions of ingroup solidarity. When the average adherent says, "I believe in evolution," he is not saying that he has studied all the empirical evidence and found evolution to best account for it and yield the most fruitful direction for future investigation. He is expressing solidarity with:

(1) philosophical materialism, because he wants a world unencumbered by transcendent ethics; or

(2) "science", because that's what right-thinking people do.

In Bobvis' words:

For many people (most?), their "belief" in evolution is intellectually indistinguishable from religious belief. "Evolution" is just a password that does not have any real meaning behind it. They might as well be saying the word "magic". Or "oorf". It isn't that much more virtuous to blindingly accept the authority of scientists than it is to blindingly accept the authority of religious texts.

Not all those professing evolution would agree with what's bolded above. John Derbyshire and Lee Harris, to name two, with no pretense of encouraging scientific thinking, have explicitly advocating "catechizing" school children in evolution (the password approach to learning), in deference to scientific authority. (Lee Harris, it should be noted, is a Christian.)

If we don't all think scientifically (and I see no near-term prospect of this happening), what role should authority play? In their competing claims to deference, science takes credit for a lot of really cool stuff:

  • Penicillin;
  • Space travel;
  • H-bombs;
  • X-box.

Christianity gives us:

  • the organizing principle of Western Civilization*;
  • a trancendent moral order;
  • the best paintings ever;
  • the birth of science.

It occurs to me that neither of these lists have anything to do with evolution. They don't have much to do with each other at all actually, which is as it should be: I don't want my clergymen making pronouncements about heliocentrism, nor my scientists holding forth on effectual calling.

But we are still left with two competing creation myths. In the beginning . . .

  • God created the heavens and the earth . . .
  • there was a soupy sea of amino acids . . .

I do not anticipate resolving this conflict to anyone's satisfaction, even my own. But I do want to address the question of whether any of this matters in a president.

Understand first that none of this has anything to do with anyone's ability to apprehend empirical evidence. It has everything to do with group solidarity in our cultural war, and to which authority we defer in propagating our creation myth.

I speculate the following:

  1. that the universal approbation of evolution among Democratic candidates is an expression of fealty to a materialist worldview and its policy goals;
  2. that the similiar approbation of several Republican candidates is an expression of deference to science on what they see as a narrow scientific question; and
  3. that the rejection of evolution of the balance of Republican candidates is an expression of deference to the Christian Bible on what they see as a religious question and fealty to the policy goals of a Christian worldview.

What the policy implications? Groups 1 and 3, above, are taking sides in the culture war, with all that this entails. Hypothetically, I would concede an advantage to either group 1 and 2 if their understanding of evolution leads them, as it leads me, to turn a cold eye to our policy of allowing peoples evolved to alien physical and social conditions to take up residence among peoples evolved to the conditions of northern Europe; sadly, none of these candidates mean it that way.

*With due regard to the Greeks and Romans.

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