Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Contempt from America

Harold Evans, the man whom the BBC has tapped to replace Alistair Cooke’s “Letter From America” with his own musings on the US, weighed in yesterday on the whole Intelligent Design debate. In doing so, Evans, just like his colleague Jonathon Beale previously, finds it necessary to misrepresent President Bush’s role in the controversy, albeit with a bit more literary flair, claiming that Bush has “sawed into a leafy, living branch of science - Darwinian evolution.”
He did it with his usual nonchalance, in an off-the-cuff response to a reporter, by coming out on the side of religious activists who are campaigning for public schools to retreat from Darwin and teach something called "intelligent design" or ID.
Anyone familiar with the actual exchange might be wondering just when and how Bush came out on the side of “retreat(ing) from Darwin”, but don’t fret. Our wizened BBC pundit is there to read between the lines for those of us who might have gotten taken in by, well, what was actually said.

Bush didn't saw through the Darwinian branch entirely. He said that ID should be taught alongside evolution "because part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought".

That may sound harmless enough - free speech and all that - but coming from a president already known for his disdain for scientific research, notably on global warming and stem cells, it has further dismayed the scientific community and many others.

Forget that Bush's problem is not with the science underlying claims of global warming, but rather the lack of it underlying the claim that man is its cause. Forget also that his opposition to (er, federal funding of) stem cell research is based on his consideration of ethics, not science, and that he’s even called for annual funding for that allegedly disdained scientific research into the use of umbilical placenta, adult, and animal stem cells in order to avoid the ethical dilemmas he sees with embryonic stem cells. But that is neither here nor there. As they say, never allow the facts to get in the way of a good story, and for the purposes of this story, you are supposed to simply accept that, as Evans concludes his commentary, “science altogether is in trouble with the Bush administration.”

As for that dismayed but amorphous “scientific community”, I suppose the 100 scientists who publicly proclaim themselves to be “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life,” and who think that “Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged” just don’t figure in. Perhaps they’ve been excommunicated. The obediantly faithful do tend to do that to heretics.

Of course, no disposition on the teaching of evolution in the US would be complete without a recap of the famous “Monkey Trial” of John Scopes in 1925, and Evans doesn’t disappoint. Eager to rhetorically discredit ID, he briefly describes the trial and presents ID as merely a “sophisticated” evolution of the type of fundamentalist creationism that was ridiculed so successfully at the Scopes trial. (Get it? Evolution? Evans is nothing if not clever.) Actual ID proponents may claim, of course, that it has nothing to do with the Bible, but Evans apparently knows better.

Tthe real significance of the Scopes trial, however, goes right past Evans. Back in 1925, creationists were using the law to prohibit the introduction of a competing theory on the origins of man. Today, the evolutionists, having won the legal battle against creationism, are now doing precisely the same thing to ID. The irony is palpable. Yet it is an irony totally lost on Evans.

Presumably that's because Evans is a true man of faith when it comes to evolution. He says:
[A]s Charles Darwin demonstrated in his book Origin of Species in 1859, we weren't designed by any hidden hand in a single brilliant moment, but have all evolved from lower orders - ape to man - over hundreds of millions of years.
Demonstrated? One wonders, then, why Darwin called it then, and it remains characterized today, as, um, a theory. Has anyone ever “demonstrated” evolution in a replicable experiment? Evolution may be convincing, but it hasn't been "demonstrated". But again, don’t mention such things to the ever faithful Evans. You wouldn’t want to get excommunicated from the realm of “thinking Americans” who, we are told, are rather more concerned with where we are going to than with where we came from. Which, Evans promises, will be the subject of his report next week.

I just can’t wait.

Addendum: Do not confuse the above with a brief for intelligent design. My own personal views on the existence of a supreme being would tend to rule out the possibility of ID. But there are enough very smart people who disagree with me to make me significantly less disdainful of their views than Evans apparently is.


Blogger Stephen said...

Yeah, well, can't rely on the newspapers to get science right, I'm afraid. Remember when an editorial took Robert Goddard to task for his theory that rocket propulsion could land a man on the moon? Accused of lacking the basic scientific knowledge ladled out daily in the high schools of America by the brilliant editor, poor dumb Goddard didn't even know that rockets can't work in a vacuum because there's nothing for them to push against.

I believe the newspaper apologised after the first moon landing.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous JohnM said...

Nor did Darwin theorise that we evolved from lower orders - ape to man. His thesis was that man and ape had a common ancestor.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You spoil an otherwise excellent blog with a small but important scientific misunderstanding. In science a theory is something that has been demonstrated. It has to fit the facts and make predictions that have to then be shown to be true. This was therefore the correct word to use, although you are right that we descended from a common ancestor of modern primates.

100 scientists, from all disciplines, is an insignificant proportion. You will never get complete concensus for anything that is not immediately tangible, but the vast proportion of people who know anything about zoology and palaeontology would say that Darwin was correct as far as he went, and subsequent research has only refined his theory.

ID on the other hand can never even be a theory, as it makes no testable predictions and it does nothing to explain observation. In fact it answers no questions that are not answered by the theory of evolution, and only poses a question: what is the origin of the intelligence behind the design? What intelligence designed that? What intelligence in turn designed that? etc.

Occam's Razor suggests we accept the idea that explains the observed facts with the fewest assumptions. That is the theory of evolution.

9:46 AM  

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