Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Putting the "Devo" in "Evo-Devo" 

We have been meaning for a couple of days now to comment on the latest creationist shenanigans in the Jayhawk state; unfortunately, we did quite a lot of meaning and very little doing, and as a result our BARBaric colleague Generik has pre-emptively pre-empted us by linking to damned near every item we had planned to link to, and a few others besides. But we have a message to deliver, and neither rain nor snow nor the prospect of utter redundancy shall stay us from our appointed rounds:

Creationist mouth-breathers have once again seized control of the Kansas State Board of Education, which will open hearings tomorrow on whether high-school science teachers should be required to teach various "alternatives to evolution," all of which draw heavily on the supernatural. Meanwhile, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute has been staging an educational guerrilla action of sorts by distributing a list of (purportedly) tough questions about evolution with which Kreationist Kids are encouraged to pester their teachers whenever the subject comes up.

Oddly, although you may find those ten tough qustions in the sidebar to an article about the Kansas controversy on the Sci/Tech page of CBSNews.com, the ten easy answers are nowhere to be seen; for that, you will have to pay a visit to Pharyngula, where our learned colleague P.Z. Myers quite properly excoriates the CBS reporter for his shameful lack of initiative:
[The list of questions is] ripped straight from the pages of [Jonathan] Wells' terrible, incompetently-written book, Icons of Evolution, and it's presented as if these are serious questions that are troubling biologists.

They aren't.

They are nothing but tired old innuendo from creationists. Did the reporter ever think to, say, call up a biologist and ask her if there were answers to these questions? How about the
National Center for Science Education? These are exactly the sort of things that the NCSE is geared up to address . . . they even have a resource prepared with short, media-friendly answers to each one of Wells' ten questions. Or, if the telephone is too terrifying, try googling talk.origins—they have a longer, more thorough demolition of Wells' case.

What is particularly ironic is that one of the points that the writer is making is that teachers face the difficulty of "learning to handle well-organized efforts to raise doubts about Darwin's theory". I think reporters need to learn the same thing.
Most Zemblans are already familiar with our long-held position that creationism should be taught in the schools; teachers should devote at least three days' worth of class time, perhaps even five, to the ruthless bulldozing of specific claims by creationists (young-earth and old-earth alike), adducing evidence from the related fields of genetics, geology, paleontology, astronomy, etc., to illustrate the difference between the scientific method and wish-fulfillment fantasy. If any students bring up "intelligent design," the conveniently untestable hypothesis that some conveniently unnamed "higher intelligence" must have devised humankind to order because, well, that's just the way it must have been, take an extra day to screen 2001: A Space Odyssey for the class, and ask the troublemakers Is this what you mean? On Day 7, have a well-earned rest.

Myers is also quite good on the subject of atheist accomodationists -- commentators like Dylan Evans and Michael Ruse, who argue that the only way to promote evolution in America is "to avoid antagonizing the decent, moderate Christians":
Is the "reasonable portion" of the public antagonized by the existence of atheists, or at the idea that we might speak up? Do we have to die or emigrate, or is it sufficient if we're just very, very quiet about our upsetting beliefs? Should we keep mum about any other ideas we might have that might possibly irritate the prejudices of the lay public? . . . . Such people aren't moderate, or reasonable, and we shouldn't be catering to their bigotry . . . .

Let's also promote common sense. Science is an atheistical endeavor; we don't invoke gods or pray for specific results in our work, and that's the way it should be. Many of us also take that attitude into our private lives away from the lab, and that's also reasonable, as is the fact that others are willing to set aside scientific thinking in other parts of their life. I think it's just as much a sensible matter that scientists don't use religion in their work as it is for other occupations. Who wants to hire a carpenter who relies on prayer to keep his constructions standing? Or a plumber who trusts in faith when he's knocking holes in your walls? How about an electrician who believes God will keep his work from shorting out and burning your house down? In the same vein, I don't trust a scientist who tries to solve problems by invoking invisible, intangible, omnipotent beings who hide in the blank spaces of our knowledge.
If you are hankering for a taste of the hard stuff, hop over to Salon and read last week's interview with the great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and, most recently, The Ancestor's Tale. Dawkins is at present working on a British television series about the role of religion in modern history, to be titled The Root of All Evil:
Q: Still, so many people resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?

DAWKINS: It comes, I'm sorry to say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States.

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don't despair, these things pass.

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