Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 04, 2007


NYT critic Edward Rothstein uses the hook of an exhibition on mythical creatures at the American Museum of Natural History, the opening of the Creation Museum, and the Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind to give us a fair and balanced discussion of evolution vs. creationism. Rothstein doesn't seem to have any opinion about who is correct. He just wants us all to get along:

The questioning of biblical truth, the museum suggests, leads to social and intellectual dissolution. The entire enterprise is fragile, vulnerable to skeptical pressure. That is because it is a faith, not a science.

Unfortunately some Darwinian theorists leave a similar impression about their own enterprise when they bristle at dissent or doubt. But the challenge made by faith to science should actually help science be less like faith, more prepared to scrutinize its own assumptions.

How then can these realms continue to coexist, as the world keeps showing us they will and must? It isn’t always easy to tell when bones are being put together properly and when are we forcing them in place to fit our visions of what the world should or could be.

There are no simple answers, which is why, despite its own simple answers, I liked going to the Creation Museum, if only to try to understand the nature of mythic creatures, even when they still walk the earth.

Sigh. Rothstein, like the majority of people who have been writing about this subject lately, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science. It is the essence of science that it scrutinizes its own assumptions. Science does not need the ostensible "challenge" from faith to start doing that. Darwinian scientists do not bristle at dissent or doubt, but many of them do bristle at idiocy. The Creation Museum and so-called creation science do not constitute dissent, because they operate entirely outside the framework of reason, and they most certainly do not constitute doubt, because they have none.

Rothstein advocates what is supposed to be the sensible, serious position, that faith and reason will always have to coexist, there is no way to choose between them,it all just depends on which explanatory framework you prefer -- "It isn’t always easy to tell when bones are being put together properly and when are we forcing them in place to fit our visions of what the world should or could be."

Scientists do not force fossil bones in place in order to fit a preconceived vision of what the world ought to be. That is precisely the sort of thing that creationists say, and it is nothing but a slander. Scientists have in fact made mistakes in assembling fossils, and put the wrong heads on dinosaur bodies and so on. But they have corrected these mistakes when better evidence came along.

The reason scientists believe in the antiquity of the earth and the broad outline of evolutionary succession is not because they started out with that story and fit the fossils into it, but because the story revealed itself in the careful fitting together of evidence from many different sources: geologic layering and the distribution of fossils within it, ice cores, radioactive decay, the distribution of species on archipelagoes (among the most compelling kinds of evidence for evolution, by the way, and therefore entirely ignored by creationists), the observation of evolution in historic time, even astronomical observations that place the origin and evolution of the earth in the universal context.

Along the voyage of discovery, we have frequently been surprised, even shocked, by new findings. Old ideas have been overturned. Now we are pretty sure that the dinosaurs are not extinct after all, they are sitting in the trees and singing. That's a whole lot more wonderful than Noah's flood -- but maybe, just maybe, it isn't true after all. And it's okay either way.

No comments: