An Evolution of Dumb Ideas

An Evolution of Dumb Ideas

I just finished reading "Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe" by Simon Singh and I was struck by how good writers on astronomy and cosmology who really love the topic almost never fail to impart that sense of awe and wonder to the reader. There is such sheer joy and burning curiosity among scientists that you can’t help but feel caught up in the race to unlock the secrets of the universe.

It was then I figured out why anti-evolutionists are the way they are: they lack imagination. They are deprived of a sense of grandeur outside of the world of religion that it amounts to a rejection of the world. Unable to comprehend the larger mystery of why things are the way they are, closed-minded religious fundamentalists want to stop knowledge and inquiry altogether. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I read several years ago: “God said it. I believe it.” End of story indeed.

It always alarms me when I read reports in the newspaper about anti-evolutions making it their mission in life to obliterate the name of Charles Darwin and any trace of the theory of evolution from a school curriculum. I followed the stories in Kansas and Pennsylvania with interest, but also with a growing sense of unease: religious intolerance for ideas is making a comeback, just when everyone thought fundamental debates about evolution and the age of the universe had been settled long ago. But of course, what’s old is new, and everywhere it seems like bad old-time religion is becoming the preferred method of spiritual practice.

In reading Singh’s book, he makes it very clear just how long, complicated and detailed the scientific process can be. He explains how theories are not iron-clad laws, but rather the starting point for proving an idea or observation. This is a point long lost on the religious fundamentalists, though, who have no patience for devising a theory much less testing one. Yet we are supposed to take the crackpot and asinine concepts of “intelligent design” as if they were serious contenders for replacing the long march of scientific progress. Even that rapier wit George W. Bush piped up that perhaps students should learn “both sides” of the debate when it came to evolution and creationism, proving once again that no one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

But in the embarrassing follow-up to the court challenges about whether “creation science” was really science (no, it isn’t), I kept wondering why the creationists were so fixated on biology. Why anti-evolutionists continue to frame their talking points around the origin of the species and the age of the Earth. If this crowd, like their presidential sympathizer, wants to promote an “alternative” theory for the origins and development of life on Earth, where is their follow-up alternatives for astronomy? Cosmology? A detailed, precise and systematic theory for the origin of the universe?

In other words, if they believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old, does that mean the universe is the same age? If so, why are galaxies receding away from us at mathematically proportionate speeds to their distance? Or, to borrow a page from the sloppy and childish attempts to reconcile the fossil record with their preferred age of the Earth, are all the objects in the sky merely placed there with the appearance of age? If so, what possible reason does the Creator have for making his creation live with an illusion? Sounds like a cosmic fiend who delights in lies and deception, rather than a compassionate father who is concerned with the welfare of his children. The philosophical and theological implications of such chicanery do not concern the minds of those trying to put their bogus ideas on par with established scientific practice and fact.

If we are to introduce alternate theories of evolution and the age of the world, then I except there to be alternate theories of astronomy as well. I except, no, I demand an answer as to why we’ve determined that celestial objects are receding away from us based on concepts like redshift (an increase of wavelength of emitted light from an object’s recessional velocity.) To put it simply, as scientific understanding has grown, so did the interdependency of previously unrelated disciplines, like physics, chemistry and biology. Anti-evolutionists want to disassemble all that hard-wrought progress and insist that none really has anything to do with the other because there is no need to investigate, and no need for inquiry.

I pity the children of these folks, for their parents will stifle any creativity of theirs for the sake of merely saying that the world is the way it is because God made it so. There is no beauty, no philosophy, no poetry to the dazzling possibilities of what the universe offers. Instead, the anti-evolutionists expend their time, effort and money by banning the teaching of evolution, the mere mention of evolution, and of building museums that show humans and dinosaurs once co-existed. Their sad lives are spent waging war against Darwin and his ideas to prove the omnipotence of their God by insisting that the fossil record is an optical illusion. Thus if their children wants an answer that goes beyond “because God made it so,” well, perhaps they will carry out the sentence of Deuteronomy 21.18-22 and kill their wayward offspring.
The anti-evolutionist doesn’t understand the scientific process because he chooses not to. There is very little anyone can do about that, except the problem arises when these folks attempt to make political decisions for the rest of us based on their disdain for science and learning. Moreover, they are also trying to make a theological statement that everyone else has to abide by, which is antithetical to the freedom to interpret religion according to one’s conscience. Then again, this little by-product of the Reformation is a nasty reminder to them: people have choice and can read scriptures in their own tongue and see it through their own eyes. But for the anti-evolutionists, this is anathema: we must see the universe through their eyes and their dogma.

The paradoxical approach of religion to science has always troubled me as well. In the scientific method, there is, broadly speaking, hypothesis, observation, logical reasoning and conclusion. Nowadays, there must also be testing, verification and possible modification of the theory (or its outright rejection if empirical analysis fails). What comes out as a general scientific fact can often be altered, which for the anti-science crowd is proof of how wrong the entire enterprise is. In their thinking, if something is not absolute, it can never be true. In a limited respect, they expect of scientists the same as they expect of their priests: a statement of fact that can never be altered.

Yet science has never worked that way, and for the anti-evolutionists, this is the Achilles’ heel. And therein lies the irony: anti-evolutionists expect more proof from scientists than they do from their clergy. They hold scientists to a higher standard but do not approach their own religious claims with the same rigorous criteria. I believe the technical description for this is having your cake and eating it, too.

However, one does not have to agree with scientists on everything: in fact, scientists do not always agree with their peers at all. There is a strong conservative streak among scientists when it comes to altering or abandoning a theory in light of newly verified evidence: witness how long it took for the Steady State model of the universe(1) to yield the floor to the Big Bang theory, and even then, there are adherents who refuse to let it go. But at the core of the scientific process is the mystery of why things are the way they are, and the determined, systematic approach of presenting an idea to back up a supposition. We all know that science can be wrong, dead wrong: the Earth is not the center of the solar system much less the universe; there is no such thing as ether(2), and Newtonian physics do not work on a grand scale. Nonetheless, science evolves like the universe around it: older ideas that no longer work are discarded in favor of new theories that can be tested. It’s a painful process but one that’s generally worked in probing the awesome environment where we live.

Not so with the anti-evolution crowd that seeks to strip mankind of his own choices to investigate his surroundings. Anti-science is not concerned with knowledge or wonderment, merely fear. Fear of a wrathful God who will punish them for asking too many of the wrong questions, and fear of ideas that goes against their world view. As I said, anyone can choose to believe in the scientific process for themselves: that the Earth is a mere speck of dust compared to the grandeur of the cosmos, or the pinnacle of all creation held in place by an infinitely high stack of invisible turtles. They can choose to believe that angels push the planets rather than gravitational forces. I don’t care.

But I do care what they insist I have to teach my children that, and that they want to take away my political and religious choices that don’t jibe with theirs. I do care about the systematic attempt to create a generation of ill-informed maladroit youth who won’t be able to compete on the world stage because they believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

So in the meantime, I eagerly await the “creation scientist’s” new mathematics, physics and astronomy that explains what science has already concluded for us. You can’t just leave it at biology anymore: the universe is too big for that.

Required Reading
Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, Simon Singh, Harper Perennial, 2005.

Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, David Grinspoon, Ecco, 2004.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Theory of Everything, Brian Greene, Vintage, 2000.

(1) A now discredited model that states new matter is created in the gaps between galaxies. The model allows the universe to keep its density at all times, and shows that it’s existed forever and has no point of origin as in the Big Bang model.
(2) Though it’s interesting to note how the problem of dark matter resembles the old question of whether light traveled through a mysterious, unseen property that filled the universe.