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Why US Progessives have a Stake in the War on Evolution

The Hairless Apes of Kansas vs. the Reality-Based Community

by JUSTIN E.H. SMITH

I would like to explain why I think the war on evolution in the United States is one about which all progressives should be concerned.

Compared with the campaigns against abortion and homosexuality, the other two members of that trifecta of Godlessness, evolution may seem unimportant. The first two concern judgments about what is right and wrong, whereas with the latter it is only a matter of truth and falsehood. But it is precisely in debates about what is right and wrong that people should be taking up sides based on preference. When it comes to true-or-false questions, the traditional assumption has been that it does not matter what you prefer; all that matters is what the evidence imposes.

What is most troubling about creationism is how easily its defenders elide it with moral issues that invite us to take up positions based on things like principles. A society that outlaws abortion is just mean-spirited, but not for that reason delusional about the nature of reality; one that supresses a good scientific theory and replaces it with a fairy tale is simply retarded. And I mean this in the very literal sense that it is stunted, held back, left at the intellectual and emotional level of a three- year-old. Creationists would have all Americans frozen at that innocent stage where kitsch coloring books with scenes of smiling hippos on Noah’s ark, available at Christian supply stores (did Christ, by the way, need ‘supplies’?) throughout the country, seem to provide an adequate account of origins.

The advance of creationism, in short, is among the surest signs that in the US truth is increasingly something that is decided upon by preference-based convention, rather than something that is imposed, like it or not, by reality. And what is preferred in this case is infantile submission to the authority of the men who control church, school, and state.

I won’t attempt to survey the arguments creationists have thrown together and proclaimed a ‘science’. These are easy to find on the web; a helpful clearing house for their doctrine is at www.creationism.org. The basic tenets are that dinosaurs and humans co-existed in recent history, that the great lizards were wiped out by cataclysm and their remains were ‘flash- fossilized’, that scriptural references to dragons actually concern Tyranosaurus Rex, and so on. Recently, creation science museums have started to crop up throughout the Bible Belt. The one I went to a few years back featured a mural, in the classical natural-history style of paleontology exhibitions of the early 20th century, depicting men in togas running in terror from beasts that resembled Godzilla.

The details aren’t important. In total ignorance of them, one could still conclude that this is a wholly fraudulent endeavor for the simple reason that it starts out from an a priori conviction that something must be the case, just because it is better so, and then sets about looking for ways to convince people that it is. It is thus a complete waste of time to argue with creationists about issues of substance. Increasingly, members of the reality-based community are realizing as much: a recent article in the New York Times ("Opting out in the Debate on Evolution", June 21, 2005) reports that scientists are now declining to offer their expert input in the proceedings in Kansas that will determine whether creation, or its more presentable cousin, intelligent-design theory, will be taught alongside evolution as equally legitimate, competing accounts of how we got here. As Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, explained: "We on the science side of things [avoided] the Kansas hearings because we realized this was not a scientific exchange, it was a political show trial. We are never going to solve it by throwing science at it."

I myself was once naive enough to attempt to teach a philosophy course called "Purpose or Chance in the Universe" at an isolated university in Ohio where the Campus Crusade for Christ was by far the largest student organization. Never has dialogue seemed so futile. It was shortly after this experience that I determined the only thing to be done was to get the hell out of there and surround myself with people who already see things my way.

In any case, any religious faith that hinges on the carbon dating of a dinosaur bone could not be a very compelling one. The reason relics had the power they did, back in the old days, is that no one thought to test their historical authenticity. To do so would have been to misunderstand the register of the truth they embodied, a truth that, in its profundity, was indifferent to historical fact. Once believers start appealing to evidence like carbon dating, whether of fossils or of shrouds, they are already on the playing field of the scientists, that is, of the people who care about facts, and it is on this field that their team performs at its weakest. The compelling religious conviction, in contrast, is the one that says: facts be damned, I know what’s true. And this is why creation science is, as they say, a non-starter: even if it were convincing, it would still be undignified; the God whose reign it would bolster would not be worth worshipping.

Granted that this is a preference masquerading as a belief imposed by evidence, we still must ask why supernatural and instantaneous creation of species, with men occupying a special place among creatures in virtue of their possession of immortal souls, is preferable to a universe that has the remarkable capacity to organize itself over time into complex units possessing self-consciousness and concern for others. There have been other elements of church dogma that have been forever displaced by new evidence, to no one’s great sorrow. There was a time, for example, when the church found the suggestion that the sun has spots to be heretical in the extreme, since, as we all know, the celestial bodies are made of aether, as opposed to the four earthly elements, and thus must be uniform throughout. But within a few decades of Galileo’s condemnation, sunspots had been unproblematically incorporated into the religious world view, to the extent that no one today could even imagine worrying about their theological implications.

And yet, after more than 200 years of steady evidential consilience in favor of the theory of evolution, the supernaturalists still prefer to hold their ground, rather than seriously consider the theory in the light alone of which so much about the way the world is now starts to make sense. Why? What really hangs on this?

I personally can think of few things I enjoy less than camping, and indeed I stray as seldom as possible from the scattered urban centers I think of as home. So it is not from what might be ridiculed as a ‘granola’ standpoint when I complain that creationism, in its roots, is motivated by a hatred of nature, a desire to not be part of it, to have some special link to a transcendent order in virtue of which this earthly sojourn may be downplayed as a mere detour on the soul’s path.

This hatred is responsible for no small amount of suffering. Animals suffer, since, as mere earthly bundles of drives and aversions, lacking savable souls, they embody everything we resent about our current predicament. It is no surprise that we take our resentment out on them, and so no surprise that the so-called culture of life, which takes human beings as sacred in virtue of their unique supernatural liaison, is nonetheless happy to tolerate the atrocity of factory farming. And people suffer, for as long as thisworldly experience is dismissed as irrelevant to the sort of creatures we really are, thisworldly virtues like justice remain that much easier to neglect.

The irony, of course, is that it would be difficult to find more convincing evidence that men are in fact apes than in the fang-baring and chest- pounding territorial battles being played out in school districts throughout America, in which rational argument serves only as a ritualized ornamentation of what is transparently just another instance of the survival of the fittest already familiar to us in countless examples from the animal kingdom. Fitness here is measured in abstractions the other species of apes have not yet managed to comprehend, like the superior performance of one’s view in a Zogby poll of Kansan parents, but this in no way diminishes the usefulness of thinking about the struggle in Darwinian terms.

The lost pre-Darwinian conception of man that we should really be mourning is not as image of God, but, in the old nomenclature of the Aristotelians, as rational animal. The pagan Greeks could acknowledge our kinship with the animals while still making maximum use of the specific differentium of humanity, namely, reason. The currently prevailing strain of Christianity in the US, in contrast, seeks to remove us from the animal kingdom altogether, but in the process has gone a long way towards removing us from the kingdom of rational beings as well.

JUSTIN E.H. SMITH teaches philosophy in Canada. He can be reached at:justismi@alcor.concordia.ca