Tuesday, June 26, 2012

[Are We] Creating Evolution?

Scientists recently announced some interesting news concerning Paleolithic paintings inside caves at El Castillo, Spain (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310).  These paintings, which were re-discovered a few years after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark work, “On the Origin of the Species,” are now estimated to have been made up to 40,800 years ago.  This is 15,000 years earlier than the prior estimate, and it exceeds in antiquity the paintings inside the Chauvet cave, which have been dated to between 32,000 and 37,000 years ago.  Meanwhile, the world’s earliest known representational sculpture, found in Hohle Fels cave in Germany in 2008, is thought to have been carved anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/05/oldestsculpture/).

It’s exciting that scientists keep making discoveries that redefine the origins of human aesthetics, human consciousness and life itself, pushing them back farther into the past, but apparently millions of people are willfully blind to these breakthroughs.  Evidence of this mass blindness came on 1 June when the Gallup Organization reported the results of its most recent poll on American attitudes toward the theory of evolution and its alternatives, creationism and “intelligent design.”  Gallup reported that 46% of the 1,012 Americans polled believe that God created people “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  An additional 32% of those surveyed believe that humans evolved from less advanced life forms with God guiding the evolutionary process.  Just 15% of respondents opined that humans evolved over millions of years with God taking no part in the process of evolution.  These percentages have not changed meaningfully during Gallup’s 30 years of polling on this particular subject.  The poll’s latest findings and its historical results can be viewed here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx

Can you accept the notion that our earliest ancestors were all created in their present form (homo sapiens) at one fell swoop by a supernatural deity?  If you accept that idea, are you at all perturbed by the fact that scientists have found ancient artifacts that were made by humans millennia before the time at which you say humans were created by God?

To square the circle of a human creation story that took place after the earliest human artifacts were created, you either have to flatly disbelieve the archeological evidence or simply be unaware of it.  Gallup only indirectly addressed the question of why people hold creationist views, and the key explanations seem to be education and religiosity.  Specifically, just 25% of respondents with postgraduate educations are creationists, half the 52% rate of people who have only a high school diploma or less.  Meanwhile, 67% of weekly churchgoers are creationists, compared with 25% of those who seldom or never attend church.  I wish that Gallup had probed more deeply by asking creationists about their knowledge of the historical, archeological and paleontological records.  I suspect that Gallup would have found that, although many creationists are not highly educated, a surprisingly large cohort among them is at least vaguely aware that science has refuted their creationist views.  Surely the 25% of creationists holding postgraduate degrees are knowingly rejecting the scientific basis of evolution, and I would like to know how these highly educated creationists explain their own thinking.  Regardless of the explanation, however, this refusal to acknowledge the scientific basis of evolution may well ripple out to encompass the disavowal of other scientific findings such as the key role of human activity in global warming or the poor efficacy of “abstinence only” sex education.  Put another way, the tendency of a large proportion of the U.S. population to dismiss scientific evidence has huge (and to my mind, ominous) implications for our politics and our future as a country.

How is it that in a supposedly advanced nation like the United States nearly half the population can dismiss the many rigorous scientific experiments documenting natural selection, as well as the excavation and analysis of huge quantities of fossil remains showing the process of evolution as it unfolded?  To me, this is a case of faith trumping all else, just as it has for at least as long as the El Castillo paintings themselves have existed.  What is the “all else” that faith has been trumping for as long as humans have existed, whether we define human existence as having begun 5,000 or 5,000,000 years ago?  Dare we call it “truth” or “reality?”  Or is it simply one viewpoint on life – the scientific viewpoint – which, by definition, can never fully explain phenomena and feelings in the “spiritual” realm?  Matter and spirit, knowledge and belief, seem perpetually in opposition to one another.  Matter calls spirit “backwards” or “superstitious;” spirit calls matter “godless” or “soulless.”  Spirit views knowledge with suspicion and fear; knowledge is condescending and dismissive of spirit.  Are these hollow cliches, or do they actually describe the emotional interplay at work here?  When we see that science and religion approach their search for truth from completely different perspectives, using completely different methods, their mutual antagonism becomes quite understandable.  This antagonism ripples through all of our society and creates (no pun intended) very real political problems.

Don’t we need to be rational as a society to solve problems like mass unemployment, the budget deficit, global warming and what has come to be known as “terrorism?”  In this context, “being rational” equates to looking at facts that have been scientifically tested and confirmed to a high standard of confidence, and using those facts to shape an informed course of action.  Our inability to make progress on any of the biggest issues in our society may well stem from the fact that half of the population simply refuses to operate in this way.  But I would ask the most devout creationist:  Even if you believe wholeheartedly in God, have you noticed that He doesn’t seem too interested in ending teenage pregnancy or preserving the Amazon rain forest?  If God won’t solve those problems, then shouldn't we humans take care of them ourselves?  And to take care of these complex problems, don't we need to rely upon good (read:  scientific) information combined with much more social and political cohesion than we’ve had for a long, long time?

We often see the tension between belief and so-called objective reality play out on a very modest scale in everyday life.  For example, we can experience this tension when we walk into an office building and prepare to take an elevator to a higher floor.  We approach the elevator and see people already waiting for it.  We automatically believe that one of those people pushed the elevator call button before we arrived on the scene.  But our belief has no basis in reality – we weren’t there to see someone push the call button.  We just assume someone acted on our behalf, but occasionally it turns out that no one has pushed the button, or it was pushed carelessly without the elevator actually being called.  In this scenario, a large group of people will stand around for quite a while waiting for an elevator that is not coming because it has, in fact, not been called.  Everyone is trapped by belief, with no one willing to take the apparently risky step of performing an action they firmly believe was already performed.

When the stakes are low like waiting a few extra minutes for an elevator, the conflict between belief and "objective reality" is merely an inconvenience.  But when you’re running a society that seems frozen in place by these two seemingly opposing forces, that conflict becomes a much more serious matter.

I am what William Jennings Bryan derisively called an “evolutionist” during his testimony at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of July 1925.  I was taught the theory of evolution in my youth, and I believed it to be conclusively proven then as I believe it to be now.  For reasons that I don’t quite understand, it drives me up a wall that huge numbers of people who are permitted to own firearms and vote dismiss evolution as a “hoax” or worse.  And that is precisely where I fall down, really, by getting caught up in my emotional mechanism and raving about what I take to be the lunacy of others.  When I realize that my viewpoint on the lunacy of “others” is merely my own lunacy, then things begin to change a bit.  Rather than merely pointing my finger at creationists who refuse to acknowledge science, I can also look at myself and tend to my own evolution.  I can make sure that that button is pressed or I’ll just stand around like a sheep, stuck in the lobby of my own building.

On the one hand, I stand very much with Clarence Darrow when he says to William Jennings Bryan that creationism “insult[s] every man of science and learning in the world…” and when he further states that “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States…” It is surprising to me that Darrow ever had to say those words, and even more astonishing that Darrow’s words are as relevant today as they were in Tennessee nearly 90 years ago.  But then I look at my own astonishment and understand quite readily how people can hold on to outmoded attitudes across decades and despite constant social, political and technological change.  I can recognize my intimate connection with nearly half of the United States by connecting my brand of insanity to theirs.  The name I give to this insanity, which creationists and evolutionists share, is the need to be "right."

Insanity is rather like breakfast cereal:  Advertising can point out the virtues of this or that brand but all brands of cereal are kept in the same aisle of the supermarket, and all cereal winds up in exactly the same foul-smelling form when we’re done with it.  Yet cereal companies spend about $375 million each year advertising the leading brands of cereal.  Have you ever seen a cereal commercial that showed a toilet?  If cereal commercials were required by law to show cereal in its ultimate form, and in its ultimate destination, the differences between cereal brands would seem much less important and we would see much less cereal advertising on television.  To extend this unfortunate metaphor a bit further, I see evolution as the toilet that creationism doesn’t want to see.  We might not like the idea of toilets but one thing is certain:  There is nothing phony or trumped up about a toilet.  Why do so many people feel this urgent need to dress up the story of where humankind came from, regardless of the evidence?

The perennial argument about evolution goes back to an inescapable chink in the armor of evolution itself:  We call evolution a theory because none of us were there to directly observe the “rise” of humankind to its present state, a state in which people completely disregard their own scientific discoveries.  The tenacity of creationist dogma perpetuates the so-called “controversy” that President Bush alluded to in August 2005 when he advocated the teaching of intelligent design and/or creationism alongside evolution in public schools.  President Bush argued that the “controversy” should be taught, but science says there is no more a legitimate controversy about the basic origin of humankind than there is a legitimate controversy about people being able to freely choose whether they are gay or straight.

It isn’t by chance that I’m drawing a connection between antipathy to the theory of evolution and antipathy toward gay people.  After all, in May 2012 Tennessee’s state legislature very nearly passed a law forbidding public schools from providing “any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”  Apparently the thinking behind the bill was that to discuss something controversial gives the controversial thing (in this case, gayness) legitimacy.  Or perhaps the thinking was that, since being gay is supposedly a choice one can freely make, teaching about homosexuality would lead school-aged children to choose the “homosexual lifestyle.”  Whatever the rationale behind the “don’t say gay” legislation, it reveals quite plainly that in Tennessee “teaching the controversy” about evolution is okay but “teaching the controversy” about human sexuality is not okay.  Why are some controversies more equal than others?

None of us was physically present when an ape-like thing called Australopithecus afarensis became the first hominid to spend the majority of its time walking upright on two legs around 3.2 million years ago. But there is a world of difference between acknowledging that we cannot be absolutely certain about something because we did not witness it ourselves, and denying absolutely that it happened.

If we compare this situation to criminal jurisprudence, a creationist attitude would cause our court system to grind to a halt.  In other words, if ironclad eyewitness testimony were mandatory to obtain a conviction in every criminal case, then our prisons would be largely empty (which might not be as bad as it sounds).  In criminal judicial procedure, we have a standard of reasonable doubt that guides juries in their deliberations.  Why, when the stakes in a trial might be as high as life and death itself, is the burden of proof lower than it apparently is for creationists vis-à-vis the theory of evolution?  Why can someone be sent to the electric chair on the basis of proof insufficient to lay creationism to its long-overdue rest?

On a personal level, I can recognize what is false for me individually without going farther and pretending to define what is true collectively.  At the same time, however, I live in a larger context in which some version of collective truth will determine the practical details of everything from parking rules to industrial regulation to space exploration.  Our future as a society will be intimately shaped by the awkward mingling not just of personal beliefs but beliefs about the role of personal beliefs in public life.  Someone has to be deemed "right" by the majority of voters in order for our government to function effectively.  Yet with so many people prepared to ignore facts they deem personally troublesome no matter the larger cost to society, I’m not especially optimistic about our ability to skillfully navigate the faith versus "objective reality" conundrum.  For empirical evidence to support my personal pessimism, I present without additional comment Exhibit A:  the financial crisis and our government’s response to it.

I believe spiritual and social evolution begin and end with the recognition that each of us knows very little about, or for, ourselves.  It follows quite naturally that each of us knows even less for, or about, other people.  If these simple yet unpopular notions figured prominently in our public life, we might have an easier time solving our collective problems.  Even so, a coherent view has to prevail for public policy to be formulated, for laws to be promulgated and for our educational and criminal justice systems to function properly.  We must act in the public realm, and we must act under a "reasonable doubt" standard -- our government and society cannot be guided by faith that ignores facts, nor can we be paralyzed by an insistence on certain proof when there is nearly nothing that is certain in this world.  But faith without facts is dangerously close to dominating our public life, and that scares the bejeesus out of me.  Which tendency will ultimately prevail, the imperfection of knowledge or the perfection of faith?  While we dither over this critical question, our whole system seems to be going down that metaphorical toilet so many among us refuse to see.