Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Evolution versus Intelligent Design?

Evolution has been an essential concept in my academic work, especially in understanding the impact in the spread of plants and animals, including humans, around the world over the past 40,000 years. How could geographers account for ferocious aggressiveness of kudzu in the U.S. South, the Zebra mussel in the great lakes, and several hundred other exotic species? How could we explain the similarities of tree species in the forests of North America and Europe and the startling differences between North America and Australia? What are (and were) all these huge flightless birds doing in those regions of the world where large grazing animals were absent? And, if it would be tough for geographers to explain the distributions of plants and animals, how much more difficult would it be for biologists to account for the characteristics of plants and animals? Isn’t it fortunate that buffalo grass occurs in those areas where buffalo were? How wonderful for the squirrels that they live in places where there are nut producing trees! Sure lucky those animals that live in the arctic have heavy fur coats, and have short stocky frames to conserve heat; and how about their white coats? How did the snowshoe rabbits manage those snowshoe paws and white coats. How long would snowshoe rabbits survive and reproduce if they did not have those features? And, how many kills would a polar bear make if it did not have the proper camouflage? How long could an animal such as a spider monkey live in a cold climate with that huge ratio of surface area to weight that is designed to radiate heat from the body?

Consider the piebald deer. Piebald deer are not albinos; rather they have their colors reversed—white with brown spots rather than the other way about. They supposedly occur (I have read) only one in ten thousand, but I have seen two in southern Ohio, so I think they are somewhat more common (at least in that region). For hundreds of thousands of years the predators that maintained the deer population in check were wolves and big cats, and more recently American Indian hunters. Given that those predators hunt year round the best camouflage for a deer in all but the coldest parts of North America is brown with perhaps some spotting in white. The “one in ten thousand” that got the colors reversed wouldn’t last long with those predators, and wouldn’t be likely to reproduce—keeping that piebald deer very rare. But quite suddenly, the wolves and big cats are gone, and instead of Indian hunters, who hunt all year long and know what they are doing, we have city folk going out once a year with a shotgun or rifle during the late fall hunting season. The hunter tromps over dry leaves going into the woods, and the deer run out the other side. Most hunters could no more track a deer over dry ground than they could track their wives around the supermarket. Unless, of course, it snows on the first day of hunting season; even I can track a deer in the snow! So quite suddenly the brown camouflage isn’t worth squat, but white is magic. Give us another several hundred years and then check to see how many piebald deer there are in the woods. Now if that is not evolution big time, what shall we call it?

Of course we don’t have to look at piebald deer to see evolution working quick-time. I’ve never met a farmer that didn’t know he can change the characteristics of animals with selective breeding. In fact Darwin devoted the first chapter of his book to human control over the evolution of domestic plants and animals. We have bred dogs to the point of producing Chihuahuas and Great Danes from the same species—so different from each other that they are physically incapable of interbreeding; in time they will become separate species.

It bothers me a great deal when someone asks me if I “believe in” evolution. No; all the evidence tells me evolution is a fact, so I don’t need to “believe in” it; that is, I do not need to accept or reject the idea of evolution as a principle of faith. Those things that I accept on the basis of faith—that is, those things I “believe in”—are those for which evidence and facts are absent. I believe in God without the slightest bit of evidence, because that belief makes my life more meaningful. I “believe in” a purposeful universe not because I have evidence, but because it just makes more sense to think that way. And, I believe in intelligent design because the alternative—a mechanical universe—seems to me to be an absurd notion. But, I don’t pretend to be able to prove any of those things.

Since I accept the concept of evolution as fact, and I “believe in” intelligent design, it bugs the hell out of me when someone presents these two ideas as alternatives, or somehow contradictory. As if God were not able to use the process of evolution to assure plants and animals would be suited to the environments where they occur, and to provide a possibility to adopt new characteristics when their environments change! And, as if God put all this evidence supporting the evolutionary process out here to trick us! It seems to me that if God didn’t want people to use their brains he wouldn’t have given them one.

And, who is it that keeps telling us that the concepts of evolution and intelligent design are contradictory? Well, it turns out that there are two sorts. There is one sort that I have no problem with. These are the people who oppose the concept of evolution because they believe it does not conform to their religious values. I’ve known many such persons, including some in my own family, and I don’t see how their views have made their lives any less happy or productive. Such persons could not be biologists or geographers; but then it isn’t necessary for everyone to be biologists or geographers. I have an older brother who was a damned good pilot, and I don’t see how acceptance of the concept of evolution could have improved his flying skills. On the other hand, he has never made it his business to try to convince people in the life sciences that his view on the creation is correct and theirs is incorrect, so I have no problem with whatever he prefers to believe on this issue. And, there are people who reject the notion of intelligent design on the basis of faith. That is, they have no information at all to support their mechanical universe theory, but prefer to believe it anyway. I have no problem with that. [Although, why someone would reject the concept of God on the basis of faith is a mystery that I have never understood: Imagine telling your dying spouse or child “No need to worry honey; the lights will go out soon and it will be as if you never existed.” Some comfort!]

On the other hand, there are other sorts of persons who reject the concept of evolution or accept the notion of a mechanical universe that I do have a problem with. These include the television preachers and their followers who purport to have evidence to prove their theory of creation, and people who suggest that they have scientific evidence to support the non-existence of God. It is hard for me to understand how a person who claims to have devoted his or her life to spiritual matters can have time to argue issues related to science—which they know absolutely nothing about. Perhaps they have already exhausted all spiritual issues, and have nothing better to do. And, it is just as hard to understand how someone can argue that the mechanical universe theory is supported by scientific evidence. What evidence? Could this be something other than a desire to share their misery with other people?

I read recently of a philosopher from Cambridge who, having spent his entire life teaching atheism and the mechanical universe theory, has at age 84 determined that there must be some intelligent design behind this universe we live in. I don’t recall his name (and don’t care to), but his conversion came when he examined the complexity of DNA and decided it could not have evolved without some purposeful design. Good Lord, did he never observe a flower or a butterfly? Did he never look up at the stars and wonder about our Milky Way? Did he never see the smile on a little girl’s face? Did he find DNA to be complex? Did he ever notice that of the 6 billion people on this earth he can recognize the face of the single one he loves?

Do I object to teaching intelligent design in public schools? Not if the subject is philosophy (although, I would object to the waste of attempting to teach philosophy to children who are incapable of understanding those issues). If, on the other hand, the teacher is pretending to teach science and presenting issues related to God and Creation as if we had some facts to support that issue, I do have a problem with it. Likewise, if a teacher uses the concept of evolution to slander religion by suggesting that it somehow suggests the non-existence of a Creator, I also have a problem with it. Our young students are not capable of understanding and absorbing philosophical concepts, and are not prepared to deal with the prejudicial views of teachers on religious issues. I also have a problem with the fact that our teachers are not doing an adequate job teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, which we all agree we want our children to learn. For precisely the same reason I oppose teaching evolution in the public schools. Will the teacher actually know something about the concept of evolution? Are public school students capable of learning something meaningful about evolution? If we simply postpone teaching evolution until all students can calculate a 15 percent tip on a six-dollar breakfast, that issue will quietly evolve out of sight by natural selection.

The issue of whether we should teach evolution and/or creationism in the public schools is nothing more than political correctness on the part of both sides. It has nothing whatever to do with education.

The concept of evolution is complex; it cannot be taught to kids and certainly not be taught by the typical teacher in the public schools. I have known many “scholars” at the university level who have little notion of what evolution means. Of course, they would all say they “believe in” evolution—which is to say they accept the concept of evolution as an article of faith. But, we do not accept science by faith! We accept scientific facts and theories because the weight of evidence suggests that they are true! People who have no notion of what evolution means have no business purporting to accept or reject it.

Consider the more easily understood case of prayer in school—which will enlist the same groups on each side of the fence. When I was in the fourth grade President Eisenhower mandated a two minute period of silent prayer in all public schools. Our teacher was a guy I admired very much—he had been a soldier in the war and he seemed to me to be the strongest, bravest, and finest man I had ever known. But, he obviously didn’t agree with prayer in school, and he wanted all of us to know that. He told us he was required to have us observe two minutes of silent prayer, and then held his arm up to count off the seconds on his watch. That was the first time I had ever known that there was a person who did not believe in prayer or realize that it would be possible to be other than a Christian! People who really do subscribe to a religious faith oppose prayer and any other effort to teach religion by teachers in public schools. I challenge you to find a REAL Southern Baptist that would be willing to allow a public school teacher to have some influence on their child’s religious training! And what if the teacher happened to be a Catholic who crossed himself after the prayer? And much worse, what if the teacher is an atheist or agnostic who uses the occasion to belittle prayer and belief in God (as my teacher did)? The prayer-in-school argument is between television preachers and confirmed atheists! Why do we allow them to define our views on that subject?

Why don’t we tell the public school teachers that after they have taught our kids reading, writing, and arithmetic, they can start praying and teaching evolution, intelligent design, religion, and sex. I don’t think we will need to concern ourselves about that any further.