Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finally, some balance

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolutionary debate

I know Protestants are loath to hear a Catholic witness, but Augustine really did say it best:
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [the Earth, the heavens, the motion and orbit of the stars, the kinds of animals and shrubs]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation ... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

—Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis; parenthesis above supplied by Dr. Ayala to summarize the prior text; emphasis on the closing phrase in the original.
Francisco J. Ayala, a Professor of Biological Sciences at U.C. Irvine, and a well-schooled Catholic, found himself astonished by the extent of American Christians' opposition to the teaching of evolutionary biology. All during his education in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, the prevailing sentiment toward science and religion was collegial, based on Galileo's quip, "The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He has distilled his experience and understanding into a marvelous volume, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion.

How is "Darwinism" a gift to religion? Simply put, it solves the problem posed by Theodicy, the problem of evil. There are many ways to state it, but Darwin made a clear Theodicean statement when he wrote, "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." (F. Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, v2, p105)

The attitude of nonbelievers about God, considering the existence of evil, is summed up thus: Is he unable to prevent evil? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but unwilling? Then he is malevolent. Otherwise, how could there be evil? Even more so, per Darwin's statement above, why would he create so many creatures, and have the vast majority of them be parasites? (Every animal species known has at least one specific parasite species, including the parasites!) Some literalists claim all this is "corruption of the creation because of sin," and there are verses that seem to support their idea. But millions of parasitic species is really going way too far! They ought to heed Augustine.

Dr. Ayala traces the history of 20th Century anti-Darwinism; though it has roots in the controversies of the 1870s and 1880s, it is unique. Modern anti-evolutionists are primarily strict literalists, who believe that every word means literally what it says. Particularly in Genesis, they state that a day is a 24-hour day, "Let there be light" produced light three days before the Sun or Moon came into being, the flood that lofted Noah and his Ark to a mountaintop covered every trace of land on Earth and "fifteen cubits more," and so forth.

Now, having lost several legal actions designed first to keep evolution off the public school curriculum, and then to force the teaching of "creationism" or "creation science", the literalists have introduced a new term, "intelligent design." I'll abbreviate it ID, as many others do. They have had to take up hypocrisy as a result, because they know they can get nowhere if they connect ID with Biblical creation beliefs. However, the lie is easy to discern, and it is evident that they have no allies among those of other faiths (not that they would want any).

The core chapter of Darwin's Gift makes it clear that the "designer" proclaimed by ID proponents must be pretty poor at his job. Do you have all your teeth? Most people who can afford it have their wisdom teeth removed these days. I am the only person in my workplace with 32 teeth in his mouth. Why have them out? The jaw of most people is too small for 32 teeth; 28 is a better fit. One of my son's teeth never developed, so he only had to have 3 removed, but his jaw was too small to leave them in (he got that from his mother's side). Some people need 8 teeth removed, having a 24-tooth-size jaw. This makes no design sense, but it makes perfect evolutionary sense; we don't need the huge ape jaw any more.

Maybe God is a Puritan, who re-uses everything. Only that would explain that the three arm bones, a 2-for-1 elbow joint, a rather awkward shoulder, and a 5-finger hand attached to the human arm are in the same arrangement found in dogs, whales, and early fossil horses (but not modern ones, which have but one finger per foreleg and one toe per hind leg)...even rats. A truly intelligent designer would not begin with a dog foreleg and morph it into a human arm; he would produce an appendage more suited to use for carrying, manipulation of tools, and throwing things, all of which the dog leg cannot do, and the human arm does well enough, but breaks down after a while. A really well designed throwing arm could fire 150-mph fastballs well into a pitcher's 60s. But the closer you look at the "design" of living beings, the more you realize they were designed quite a bit more blindly than intelligently.

I won't take space going into how natural selection accomplishes evolutionary change. Sufficient to say, it is not the "random process" set up as a straw man. It does not make large changes quickly, but over time the changes can be very great. The changes it makes are based on what exists; the mammalian forelimb is good enough for long enough, so it has not become what an engineer might produce from scratch.

Dr. Ayala does us even more of a service in two final chapters, wherein he clearly explains what Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria". Science is one way of knowing. Some scientists say it is the only way to know anything, but science cannot explain aesthetic feelings, spirituality, or ethics. We need other ways of knowing, and faith is one of them. Most people of faith believe in God or gods; some do not (Buddhists, for example). But they all believe in a way of knowing that science cannot address. Faith does not operate upon scientific terms, so fair is fair: They do not overlap.

I once read a short article called "Non-Reproducible Phenomena". It averred that there is an activity in which nearly all people participate. Some do it more than others. Most who do so receive much pleasure, and most people react with pleasure to some, but not all, incidents of such activity. Some use various tools, some do not, to carry out this activity. One person may cause a number of others great pleasure, while another person, engaged it would seem very similarly does not do so. The article stated these things in such a way that it seemed to be discussing hypnosis or mind reading...but in the end it stated: the activity is music.

Some aspects of music are amenable to scientific study. Some are not. But the nonscientific aspects of music are what lend it all its charm. So with the things of the spirit.

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