As a routine part of my work, I have occasion to peruse the Times Higher Education Supplement. As some of you may have guessed, it is a supplement to the London Times updating those who are interested on the state of higher education in Britain. Generally, it’s one of the publications I buzz through pretty quick, as most of it for the last few months has been consumed with the lecturers’ strike at UK universities, and the subsequent settlement.
Nevertheless, as I had been away from my regular routine for a while (as some readers may have noticed), I decided to skim over it this morning. Then I had to stop and look again – there is a phenomenon gaining ground in English universities that I find troubling, mostly because I didn’t see it as an issue over there.
Creationism is gaining a foothold in British universities.
“Evolution is disastrous because if you teach people that they are animals then it is inevitable that they will behave like animals.”
– Stuart Burgess, head of Mechanical Engineering, Bristol University
Like people don’t behave like animals based on their religious faith. We’re predators. No amount of wishful thinking is going to make our animal nature untrue.
“Genesis gives us the basis for the only correct way to look at the world because God has told us how everything came to be… Evolution and long ages is completely contrary to what the Bible says.”
– Andrew McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory, Leeds University. Quoted in Creation, the quarterly magazine of Answers in Genesis.
Um…Yeah. The only correct way to look at the world. Can you conceive of how many people will disagree with you, just based on the fact that you are describing Christianity as the one, true religion? Hoo boy. If I were you, I’d buy some bulletproof… everything.
As the Supplement quite rightly points out, in terms of denying evolution and proposing intelligent design, the commonality shared by these professors, and by many others who feel the need to share their religious views with us every chance they get is that these men are commenting well outside their area of expertise. The human eye is often cited as proof of irreducible complexity – the premise that some things are so complex, and only function if all parts are present, that they must have been created as a whole by someone who planned in advance.
I consider myself an expert in certain social-scientific and philosophical concepts and methods, and have dabbled in enough of the various sciences to have a slight grasp (very slight) of the basic concepts. My friends here are all extremely intelligent, and would by any measure be considered experts in their fields as well. In addition, all of them are open-minded and curious by nature, which is at least a part of the reason we are friends in the first place. Given our collective level of experience and knowledge, I don’t think there are any of us who would pretend to know, in detail, how some biological processes, particularly those which took place in the distant past (assuming that the eye has been in its current form for at least the last few hominid iterations), and in a variety of settings, and under particular conditions that may not exist in exactly the same way as before.
We aren’t necessarily smarter than these chaps, but at least we don’t have to rely on the supernatural to explain stuff we don’t get. God, Yahweh, Allah, Ganeesh, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever: They have their place, and served their purpose in explaining the unexplainable in certain historical contexts.
But now, as we careen madly further into the 21st century, we have the capacity to at least attempt to explain phenomena, based on what we have observed, and extrapolating from those observations what the universal mechanisms are that govern such processes. Some phenomena have not been fully explained to the satisfaction of all members of a particular field, like Astrophysics, simply because it’s difficult to verify some of the suppositions. Others, however, based on an overwhelming body of evidence that cannot be manipulated or misinterpreted, are considered facts: gravity and evolution being the two that come to mind.
There are no gaps in the fossil record. Fact.
There is no evidence for a Biblical deluge. Fact. (corollary: just because other cultures share a similar ‘flood myth’ does not mean it happened – it just means that Man has recognized the importance of Water to our origins and have incorporated it into mythology)
Religion is not, nor shall it ever be, the source of rational explanations of any sort. It does not explain the origins of humanity, nor does it explain human behaviour, human sexuality, biological reproduction, the sources of crime, geography, geology, politics, death, life or why I never get what I want for Xmas. Science has not failed humanity, it has brought us war, pain, suffering, joy, relief, cures for old diseases, confusion, despair, inspiration, confidence and knowledge. Of all the routes to knowledge, it is the most reliable.
That these men still practice their professions (mechanical engineering and thermodynamics) means that they are simultaneously accepting and rejecting the scientific method. You can’t decry science’s ability to explain some things while having complete confidence in it for others – that is patently hypocritical. If you reject some of science, you reject all of it. Disagreeing with certain aspects of scientific theory, or questioning specific methods are part of science – it would not grow without the exchange of ideas this engenders – but denying that it has any merit at all to examine biological processes invalidates the scientific method for all areas of science.
Scientists can be religious, I know this. But, true scientists still accept the power of the scientific method, while keeping their faith separate. In fact, religion serves as a useful ‘moral compass’ to scientists whose work may lead to harm.
Trying to invoke the supernatural to explain natural processes that are explained thoroughly by science is cheap showmanship. To attempt to paste a moral template over Evolution, to make it look evil or misguided is wrong. Science doesn’t decide right and wrong in a moral sense, humans do. Humans impose values of right and wrong over the products of science, but it is impossible to do so with the method as a whole. X happens because of Y, and if we don’t know Y yet, it’s not because we aren’t looking, and it’s not because a supernatural entity caused it to happen.
Evolution continued without regard to what people might think of it in a million years. Evolution continues, and changes humanity as we zoom toward the future, all the while arguing about who or what started the engine.
Thank you, Matt Groening, Lisa Simpson, and Carl Sagan.