Friday, February 20, 2009
Darwin, the Reluctant Antagonist
D. Graham Burnett and Chris Mooney recently wrote a piece on the website Science Progress, entitled “Darwin Day: A Celebration of Science, Not Conflict”. They argue that the commonly held view that science and religion are in essential conflict over evolution, and have been so from the beginning, is basically wrong. At the very least, they argue, more attention should be paid to the fact that in Darwin’s time and into the early twentieth century, Christian thinkers found it possible to reconcile the tenets of Darwinism with their religious beliefs.
I don’t believe, though, that the authors’ argument is well-supported by the historical references they cite. Certainly there is little doubt that the scientific theory of evolution is not widely accepted among people of faith, especially in the United States. Indeed, the authors themselves quote Gallup poll figures that show some 45 percent of those surveyed agreeing with the statement: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Surely no person with a modern scientific outlook could reasonably hold to such an opinion.
It was interesting to see in the several posted comments that the column engendered the sort of bimodal distribution of attitudes that we always see in these circumstances. There are those who think that anyone who holds religious beliefs that are patently inconsistent with modern scientific finding is hopelessly irrational. There is no point in even trying to discuss the topic. On the other hand there are those who find the claims of science to be entirely unconvincing: “Darwin is the best example of how an unproven hypothesis can become a “Scientific Fact” without any proof.” Comments like this are seen by scientists as prima facie proof of an irreducibly obdurate attitude toward scientific knowledge.
While it is possible for many to come to some sort of accommodation of their religious beliefs with scientific rationalism, conflicts will arise. In the end every educated person needs to decide whether to accept the epistemic authority of science or the traditional authority of an established religion. For those who have been nurtured in early life in a conservative, Christian fundamentalist environment, a break with the belief systems instilled there is bound to be painful. The same could be said for those whose formation occurred in a conservative Muslim culture, or many other established religious traditions. Historically, science has wrested epistemic authority from other societal sectors as it gained practitioners and made increasingly important contributions to day-to-day societal life and culture. Organized religion provides the most salient examples of these contests, as exemplified by the Galileo case and the subsequent growth of scientific influence during the Enlightenment. How far this process will take us remains to be seen. Certainly, in the United States, the persistent influence of evangelical Christian churches is evidence of the power of early cultural conditioning to imprint attitudes and outlooks.
There has been a good deal written of late on the notion that our evolutionary heritage has left us with an inherent propensity for holding religious beliefs. To the extent that this is true, we can’t really expect that people will fully embrace scientific naturalism as the guiding framework for their thoughts about their lives and the world they live in. One can hope that the sense of wonder, fear and awe that overtakes many as they contemplate the world and our place in it will be increasingly channeled into social activities that do not demand dogmatic belief in a creator who is some transmogrified version of ourselves. But there is the problem that rational methods of inquiry and thought are not part of intellectual and cultural formation in the lives of most children. By the time science appears in their lives they have become locked into a worldview that does not recognize authority based upon rational inquiry. I have dealt with this topic in a forthcoming book, Imperfect Oracle, due out in September.
In summary, I don’t believe that rational arguments will prevail in attempting to convince religious conservatives of the validity of evolution as a scientific theory. Those who see a naturalistic, scientific outlook as the most tenable framework for gaining new knowledge and thinking about how to use that knowledge to improve human welfare will just need to keep making the arguments for it. Some will see the light, but most will not. If it is indeed true that human society makes progress, in the sense of evolving away from tendencies and practices borne of our evolutionary development and toward naturalistic, rational habits of mind, science will eventually win out. Not because Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have changed any human hearts, but because the old will have given way to the new through the multitudinous little ways in which society changes in response to the instrumentality of science. Granted, not all such change is for the good, but change it is, and it will wear away the old as water wears away the rocks.