Joined: Oct. 2005
|When Cosmologies Collide|
By JUDITH SHULEVITZ
Published: January 22, 2006
In the merely controversial part of his decision last month banning "intelligent design" from biology classes in Dover, Pa., Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design, a theory that attributes the complexity of life to supernatural causes, amounts to religion, not science. In the part that really drove some of the theory's supporters crazy, he pronounced it "utterly false" to think that evolution is incompatible with faith in God. An editorialist on the Web site of the Discovery Institute, a research group that promotes intelligent design, declared that the judge had no right to tell him what to believe. "This is like a judge assuring us that it is 'utterly false' that Judaism is inconsistent with eating pork," he wrote.
The judge was echoing a position taken by scientific expert witnesses, who had testified that science is a method, not a creed - a way of finding things out about the natural world, not a refutation of anything beyond that world. On the enduring mysteries of divinity and transcendence, science remains officially agnostic. But people rarely hew to official doctrine. That science and religion belong to separate realms (they're "non-overlapping magisteria," as Stephen Jay Gould grandly put it) is a good line to stick to if you're going to argue that the creationists play unfair, but it's wishful to think that scientists always live by it.
Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect that they would. Given what it takes to train for a career in science, you have to ask why a person would persist if naturalism didn't strike him as the best way of explaining the world. It's no accident that you find a far greater proportion of nonbelievers among American scientists - upward of 60 percent - than among Americans in general. Those who deny that they discount nonmaterialist accounts of reality may have conducted a cold-eyed scrutiny of their own assumptions, but it's equally possible that they haven't. "Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard objective triumphs of science," the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written. "But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."
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.
Eugenie C. Scott's EVOLUTION VS. CREATIONISM: (University of California, $19.95) represents this strategy at its best, and least inflammatory. Scott, a physical anthropologist, runs the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in high schools. (She advised the parents fighting the Dover school board.) Scott could be said to be the one really doing God's work as she patiently rebuts people who make most other scientists spit gaskets like short-circuiting robots. Her book is both a straightforward history of the debate and an anthology of essays written by partisans on each side. Its main virtue is to explain the scientific method, which many invoke but few describe vividly. Scott also manages to lay out the astronomical, chemical, geological and biological bases of evolutionary theory in unusually plain English.
Anyone who wants to defend evolution at his next church picnic should arm himself with this book. What's flood geology? It's the creationist thesis that a vast canopy of hot vapor once surrounded the earth, cooled down in the time of Noah, and turned into a flood; an atmospheric scientist explains why that's impossible. Why don't evolutionary biologists worry about the Cambrian Explosion, when invertebrates showed up on earth as if out of nowhere? Because paleontologists don't need to see a fossil of every species that ever existed to infer the links between species, for one thing. Scott also walks us through the legal history of American creationism - the court rulings that forced anti-evolutionists to adapt to their increasingly secular environment by adopting scientific jargon.
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