Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Evolution, huh! What is it good for?

This is the product of many thoughts on science and philosophy, having been brought to a head by the movie Expelled, conversations with professors, and, just today, a recent reading of a blog.


In the blog, Greta Christina gives a laundry list of reasons why it’s okay for atheists to be vitriolic towards Christians. She answers the question, from her perspective, of why atheists are so angry. She answers, “Because anger is always necessary.”

Let me first say that this is a scary statement. And, if you read it, you will see I’m not quoting out of context. At the moment, such a statement can be shrugged off. But, just like when a Muslim cries “death to the infidel,” I take the person seriously. What I want to focus on here is evolution. Christina writes in the milieu of things in the world that she just doesn’t like and wants to blame on religion (some of it justified) that she is, “angry that almost half of Americans believe in creationism. And not a broad, ‘God had a hand in evolution’ creationism, but a strict, young-earth, ‘God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years’ creationism.”

Well gee, it’s really too bad not everyone agrees with you. Maybe half of America should change their beliefs so that you will stop your temper tantrum. Now, this may come as a surprise, but I am an evolutionist. I’m not, however, the kind that resounds in jihadist-like proclamations; I am, in fact, one of those “broad, ‘God had a hand in evolution’” people.

That being said, what difference does evolution really make? One biologist I spoke to, said the movie Expelled “[would] help us take another step back to the 17th century.” Really? Wow. Ben Stein has the power to Buellerize us into a scientific coma. (My definition is the theory, or overarching paradigm, which states that all biological life stems from a single, probably procellular, lifeform, that has propagated itself via heredity, variation, in an environment that directs this process via natural selection.)I’m on board with this, but I fail to see its necessity.

Most of scientific progress is made in very specialized fields that don’t even begin to touch a theory as big as evolution. Progress is being made because people are studying muons and how calcium works in muscle contraction and so on. Scientists can spend their whole lives studying one insect, one atom, one cluster of stars. And it seems, a bit like the space program, that this theory is somewhat superfluous.

What does this theory give us, that wouldn’t have been explored, discovered or created otherwise? To my understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, it doesn’t give us cures for disease or ward off plague—medical science and microbiology does that. It doesn’t give us solar powered cars or iPods—the domain of engineering and Steve Jobs. It doesn’t appear to help us produce better, healthier crops or screen for phenylketonuria—this is what genetics can do. Organic farming, space flight, cryogenics, forensic pathology—all of these seem possible without the theory of evolution. To Darwin’s credit, evolution is, in a word, elegant. It’s a beautiful theory that seems to tie everything together. That’s probably why I like it. And, while not flawless, it seems to have a certain scientific sheen that ties up history, present and future with one big bow. But, unlike Newtonian theory, it's not predictive. It doesn't guide science or research; it only ties it together.

Imagine if somehow there were an evolution theory delete key, and we pushed it. If the De Lorean could take us back, what might that alternate parallel universe look like? There are two options that I see. Either we would continue to try to find a scientific theory, perhaps sticking with Lamarck, that would best explain biology; or, we would not focus so much on origins at all. Regardless, I can still imagine science continuing, since our curiosity would not be quenched even if we didn’t have biological origins nailed down.There is the issue of politics and education. Now, I’m not one of these people that think it’s the death of reason if a teacher brings up Creationism.

My theme is that it really doesn’t matter. Good science can thrive regardless of origin conceptions. That being said, I hold the same view as John West of the Discovery Institute. Evolution is the consensus, and we should teach the consensus. I also did not touch issues like conceptions of humanity because this is precisely where an atheist or evolutionist might need to qualify themselves. Evolution describes; it does not prescribe. It says what we are, but not how we should act. Therefore, there are very real and fair questions to hold up to the atheists’ faces: where is morality? Where is human dignity? What is beauty and humor? Evolution won’t necessarily lead us to destruction, but we have good reason to look at it’s implications with suspicion.

Lastly, what’s with the incessantness of proclaiming that if you don’t agree with evolution you are either a fool or simply uneducated? Why can’t people be allowed to disagree? Or at the very least question. Isn’t a little bit of skepticism in science a good idea? Your reply may be that to deny evolution is comparable to saying 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4. Perhaps. But isn’t that a person’s right? Perhaps a measure of indifference would be in order. I find Dan Brown’s writing hackneyed, but I don’t write international best sellers on the subject. I certainly don’t lose sleep on the subject or justify my anger because “it’s always necessary.” I find it interesting that the person who says we need to be open-minded about gay sex, smack-talking the President, fetishism, knee-jerk man-hating (she assumed that there is no male birth control pill because “the pharmaceutical industry are a bunch of sexist pigs"), godlessness and liberalism, is the same person who would bemoan any viewpoint, to the point of self-justified, unapologetic anger, that didn’t comply with her own. The only thing more close-minded than an ideology is an open-mindedness ideology.

Now I give it back to you. If you can make a compelling case, I will cede to your argumentation and admit that not only is the theory of evolution true but it is good.

Tonight's Forecast: Dark -- On George Carlin

We weep with those who make us laugh. Recently stand-up comedy lost one of its pioneers and brightest lights. George Carlin logged in close to 50 years as a comedian. According to Wikipedia, Comedy Central names him as the second greatest stand-up comedian, after Richard Pryor and before Lenny Bruce. I would agree with his place in the comedy hall of fame. Wikipedia also mentions that his employers at the radio station he got his start at referred to Carlin as an “unproductive airman.” We have at least that much in common.

I've been watching Carlin since I was a little kid. My only real complaint, and this is true of most comedians, is it seems as comedians age, they become more political. To do political humor, it seems necessary to elevate yourself and claim to be wiser and more intelligent than the politicians and those who elected them. It can really be a shame, b/c a lot of comedians begin their careers with self-effacing humor. This is especially true of Jewish humor, which is not a quality typically found in Carlin’s routines. Probably the most popular comedian who embodies this is Jon Stewart. The following link is Carlin at his apolitical best.


Carlin’s comedy can often sound like a poetry slam. He had an ear for the harmonious rhythm of language, regularly taking notes on his material immediately after leaving the stage. His routine had a distinct sound to it, sometimes spraying the audience with the marked punctuation of an Uzi. The comedy itself was just as cutting. Comedy is one of the few art forms which have virtually no censor, and Carlin was unafraid of addressing taboo subjects.“I like to piss off any group that takes itself a little too seriously.”What I took away most from Carlin is his ability to elucidate on provocative advances and views of emerging “soft” sciences and postmodern thought. For instance, he demonstrated how people think in language, and to control language is to control people. He was also a popularizer of various psychological theories, including the Freudian-influenced idea of blaming of war on insecure and compensating men.


His acts never lost the zeitgeist of the 60’s. To the end of his career he reiterated a distrust in authority (from God on down), cynicism, contempt for the polluters of the planet, the intellectual lethargy and consumerism of the American populace, government’s disenfranchisement of their people (the last person Carlin voted for was George McGovern), and a demonizing of most or all controlling agents in society.“It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”Admittedly, I miss a younger Carlin; a man who could point out the quirks of humanity, things universal and apolitical. My vote for the funniest sketch of Carlin’s goes not to “The Seven Words You Can’t Say,” a barely noticed milestone in popular American culture, but to his act telling us about “Stuff.”


George, you and I may have gone separate ways, but you will always hold a dear place in my heart for being the first to teach me the beauty of words, the necessity of laughter, and to never stop thinking for myself. The number of people who are now entertainers because of you probably reaches triple digits, maybe more. We all reach for our brow, for it is our glory and to where we must always return, and because we don’t hesitate to tip our hats.