Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Cohen on Creationism

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has a good column in today's paper decrying the resurgence of creationism:

It is odd to amble around the Galapagos and see the handiwork of evolution yet at the same time bear in mind that many Americans do not accept evolution at all. It is belittled as a mere "theory," which is a misunderstanding of the scientific term, and even in some places where it is grudgingly accepted, it is supposed to share the curriculum with creationism, as if that is an alternative theory. It is, of course, just a fancy term for the creation according to Genesis, a matter of religious belief and not scientific theory or fact. It can have its place, but not in the science curriculum.

The fight over evolution is an odd and sad one. There is nothing about Darwinian theory that cannot be ascribed to God -- Darwin himself referred to “the Creator” in his “The Origin of Species” -- and back when I was in college and studying evolution, my teacher began the semester by saying, behold the world of God or behold something else: It is entirely up to you. Yet, 19 states are considering proposals that would require schools to question evolution, which are nothing less than proposals to inject religion into the curriculum. But why stop there? Why not introduce such skepticism into astronomy and have the sun revolve around the earth or have the earth stand still? These are questions that Clarence Darrow put to William Jennings Bryan at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Amazingly, they still linger.

Well said. Still, there is one annoying instance of sloppy phrasing we ought to point out:

They do so not just because, as Darwin himself conceded, there are holes in the theory of evolution but because of an evolving political weakness in which intellectual honesty counts for less and less.

The point about intellectual honesty is well-taken and spot-on. But it's a poor choice of words to say there are “holes” in the theory of evolution. There are certainly open questions and unresolved issues. But the questions are open and the issues unresolved not because of some fundamental defect in the theory. Rather, there is simply the practical problem that in many cases we lack the data necessary to resolve between competing explanations. Using the term “holes” suggests that scientists have made certain observations that are fundamentally incompatible with current theory. That is not the case. It would be a pity if people came away with that message after a casual reading of the column.

I would also suggest that it is poor form to use Darwin as the spokesperson for modern evolutionary theory. Darwin deserves every bit of praise that he gets from scientists, but the fact remains that nearly 150 years have passed since The Origin of Species was published. Modern evolutionary theory is very different from anything Darwin had in mind.


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