Teach Both Sides of What Controversy?



Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project alerted me yesterday to a newspaper article discussing John McCain's VP pick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s, stance on the evolution/creation issue. The piece is from the Anchorage Daily News and ran during the last gubernatorial race.

I have previously written blog posts on the subject of intelligent design (ID) and young-earth creationism (YEC). The reason that well over 95% of the scientists of the world reject these approaches is because neither has offered a viable scientific theory to replace the evolutionary one. "Teach both sides of the controversy" is a rallying cry often heard in ID circles.  But among scientists. there simply is no controversy. And this is a demontrable fact (carefully look at and read the image above left. T-shirts with other humorous images on the subject of "Teach the Controversy" can be found HERE).

The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Thank God for Evolution...

Facts Are God’s Native Tongue

"Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, and all systems must bow and satisfy henceforth if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." —PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN

Flat-earth religion has its scripture, its words revealed by God. These words of God represent the standard against which believers reconcile their thinking. Believers conform to these words, they submit. Evolutionary religion’s alternative to reliance on ancient scriptures is empirical data. In a way, the data are our scriptures--and to these we submit.

What about theory? Scientific theories represent a kind of sacred commentary, a midrash, on the data. Theories are well informed, empirically based products of our reason and imagination. The data themselves are products of observation. Theories do not command the same knowledge status as do observable data. Theories must submit to the data.

To elevate a theory to the level of data would, to my mind, be a kind of idolatry. So there’s a humility that we, as honest seekers of truth, must cultivate. But an evolutionary trajectory, as well, can move theory into fact.

For example, it was once just a theory that the Earth orbited the Sun. This was the theory that Copernicus proposed, based on his new interpretation of the observed data that astronomers and mathematicians of his day and earlier had found repetitive enough to be regarded as fact (science’s form of “truth”). To propose a Sun-centric theory was a radical move in his day, and for several generations to come. Five hundred years later, that the Earth orbits the Sun is now itself a fact, as humans and our machines have actually left our planet and have seen it from the outside. As more and more reliable data (facts) are marshaled in support of a theory, and as attempts to disprove the theory fail, a theory can itself become a fact--as Earth’s movement relative to the Sun has so become.

Similarly, less than two hundred years ago, when Darwin proposed that the complexity and diversity of life on Earth were not the result of supernatural and instantaneous creation, that proposal was just a theory--an outlandish, scandalous theory at that. Today, that life on Earth came into being over a vast span of time, and that complex forms emerged from simpler forms is fact. You may or may not feel comfortable calling this biological history of life on Earth evolution. To be sure, our scientifi c understanding of the causes of biological change are still very much in the discovery phase (witness the fascinating new science of evolutionary development, or “evo-devo”). Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory that life emerged over a long history, and by means internal to natural Earth processes, has now become fact.

Nearly a half century ago, Thomas Kuhn wrote a now-famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He asked, Does science progress additively or does it lurch haphazardly by replacement of one paradigm, or understanding, with another? On the one hand, our scientific understanding has grown like a great edifice that we keep adding to. On the other hand, there have been episodes in which scientific ideas once widely held have been scrapped and replaced with very different ideas. The Copernican Revolution, the Newtonian Revolution, the Darwinian Revolution, the Einsteinian Revolution, the Information Revolution are examples of grand new theories replacing (or including and transcending) the old. From both points of view, however, facts are foundational. Thus, facts are God’s native tongue.

Facts are God’s native tongue!

If there are scriptures beyond the holy texts of Earth’s various religious traditions . . .

If God didn’t stop communicating knowledge crucial for humans centuries ago . . .

If it is possible for new understandings to arise in ways more widely available and testable than what can be channeled through the hearts and minds of lone individuals . . .

Then surely this is it: God communicates to us by publicly revealing new facts.

The discovery of facts through science is one very powerful way to encounter God directly. It is through the now-global community of scientists, working together, challenging one another’s findings, and assisted by the miracles of technology, that “God’s Word” is still being revealed. It is through this ever-expectant, yet ever-ready-to-be-humbled, stance of universal inquiry that God’s Word is discerned as more wondrous and more this-world relevant than could have possibly been comprehended in any time past. (I go into this subject in more detail in the final chapter.)

“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” —ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD

Evolution: Theory and Fact (quotes from leading scientists on the subject)

“Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarifi cation. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.” —THEODOSIUS DOBZHANSKY

"In the American vernacular, 'theory' often means 'imperfect fact'--part of a hierarchy of confi dence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can and do argue: evolution is 'only' a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confi dence can we have in it? ...

"Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other means yet to be discovered. ...

"Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory--natural selection--to explain the mechanism of evolution.” —STEPHEN JAY GOULD

"Today, nearly all biologists acknowledge that evolution is a fact. The term theory is no longer appropriate except when referring to the various models that attempt to explain how life evolves . . . it is important to understand that the current questions about how life evolves in no way implies any disagreement over the fact of evolution.” —NEIL A. CAMPBELL

"Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity." —SEAN B. CARROLL