Saturday, July 21, 2007


"Family Guy" and Evolutionary Theory

Time now for our recommended reading segment. Recently, I bought a subscription to First Things magazine, and if you've never read it before, let me urge you to give it a go. The magazine bills itself as "published by Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." As magazines go, it is both thoroughly readable and enjoyable, as well as one of the most thought-provoking publications on the market. For the August/September 2006 issue, there's an excellent article from Wheaton College English Professor Alan Jacobs titled "The Code Breakers," which takes apart the various arguments made by those who see all sorts of "hidden" symbolism in popular literature, such as the claims by some that the Harry Potter books secretly herald "an alchemy-based paganism, a model of magical power deeply hostile to Christianity"--and contrasts these with the claims from others that the Potter books are "really" a covert retelling of the Christian narrative, because the phoenix Fawkes can be viewed as a symbol for the resurrection of Jesus.

Jacobs makes reference to a passage from Tolstoy's War and Peace, in which one character, Pierre Bezukhov, discovers that if you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet, the words L'Emereur Napoleon add up to 666. Sacre blue! thinks Pierre. Ze 666, she is the same number as ze Antichrist! Because Pierre imagines himself as Napoleon's great antagonist, he tries to see if the letters of his own name add up to 666 as well. They do, but only after altering his name's spelling and taking a few liberties with French grammar: L'russe Besuhof. "This discovery excited him," Tolstoy writes. "How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt the connection for a moment."

Jacobs then adds this delicious comment: "If you begin by supposing something to be true that there is simply no reason even to suspect is true and then look for any evidence that might be construed as supportive of that supposal while resolutely ignoring any evidence that might be construed as refuting that supposal--well, then you're quite likely to find yourself in the position of Pierre Bezukhov, amazed by how a scarily intricate story holds together."

Funny, I've often said the same thing about modern evolutionary theory. Hyuk!

Speaking of evolutionary theory, I was watching Fox network's animated series "Family Guy" the other day, which made a vague reference to the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover decision. I don't know if you ever watch "Family Guy," (I don't recommend it if you're easily offended), but in this particular episode, the central "Dad" character, Peter Griffin, your archetypical fat guy with a double chin, is busy recounting stories from the Griffin family history when he decides to restart his narrative "at the beginning." The scene then suddenly flashes to some warm pre-historical pond, where a green-skinned fish bearing a double chin just like Peter's pokes its head out of the water; the fish morphs into a slightly larger,double-chinned, green-skinned amphibian and crawls out onto dry land; the double-chinned amphibian takes a few steps and turns into an even larger, double-chinned, green-skinned reptile; a few steps later, the double-chinned reptile turns into a gigantic, double-chinned green-skinned dinosaur. Before the story can proceed to show the enormous dinosaur morphing into an itty-bitty hairy brown primate, the scene then freezes, at which point Peter gibes, "For those of you living in Kansas, I'm required to present the following alternative explanation," and the scene does a high-speed rewind and begins again. Only this time, instead of a fish poking its head out of the water, a genie emerges (a la Barbara Eden from "I Dream of Jeannie") and, as Sidney Sheldon's happy little theme plays merrily away, begins blinking various creatures into existence--a rabbit, a turtle, a camel, a guy driving a Cadillac, etc.

Now, far be it from me to take an animated comedy series so seriously as to forget that it's just a bunch of writers trying to be funny, but I think the scene fairly accurately encapsulates current attitudes within the evolution/shmevolution debate, particularly for those who argue in terms of naturalistic Darwinian evolution. As Phillip Johnson points out in Darwin on Trial, the debate hinges upon how we define evolution. If we define it to mean merely "change over time," then there's no problem, because no one--not even creationists--ever argues that things don't change over time. After all, even if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, that means you believe that all people on earth--red, yellow, black, or white--and all the cultures and societies that developed after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, are descended from just those two people, whatever color they may have been. Or colors, if you believe Adam and Eve were interracial.

But, of course, the NDE crowd doesn't define evolution as merely change over time--though usually they at least wait until the creationists have left the room before saying what they really think. For NDE, the type of change actually envisioned is blind, undirected, fully naturalistic evolution. For this type of evolution there is but one and only one mechanism: natural selection, operating in tandem with random genetic mutation, the kind of thing that takes place all on its own and--and here's the telling point--with no help from outside. Nature is thus a closed system, and any kind of explanation that is not naturalistic in essence is therefore superfluous. To this sort of thinking, science HAS to be defined as naturalistic, and any kind of explanation that's not naturalistic is therefore not scientific. It's only when the NDE crowd thinks the creationists are listening that they claim that this type of evolution doesn't necessarily exclude "nonscientific" notions like God. This doesn't mean we don't believe in God or that God doesn't exist, so they say, it just means that for the sake of this discussion he isn't relevant.

And that's just a dodge. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for presupposing that science has to be naturalistic in order to be science. There's no philosophical argument that can make any rational compulsion for such a claim; and there's no scientific principle underlying it that requires it at the outset of any sort of scientific investigation. In fact, at its root, such a presupposition is a mere tautology, a fancy way of saying the same thing twice. The only reason for maintaining that science has to be naturalistic is that otherwise you can't exclude notions that are supernatural. In other words, if we can't exclude notions like God at the outset of any discussion, we can't exclude notions like God at the outset of any discussion.

So if you want to argue that evolution means blind, undirected, fully naturalistic change over time, there's no way to win the argument against those who say that evolution means merely that things change, whether directed or undirected. No, the only way to win the argument is to silence your opposition, which is what the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision was all about. The school board in Dover didn't try to outlaw the teaching of evolutionary theory. It simply mandated that Intelligent Design theory be taught at well. And despite whatever the writers for "Family Guy" know or understand about ID theory (or, far more likely, what they don't know or understand about it), it ISN'T about scantily-clad genies blinking things into existence. (It also isn't about offering an alternative to evolutionary theory, which is the mistake that Dover made.)

But note the attitude displayed by "Family Guy." If a fish pokes its head out of the water, turns into an amphibian, then turns into a reptile, and then a dinosaur, this is your scientifically plausible explanation. This is the kind of explanation that all educated people need reference to if they are to be considered educated. In contrast, the "alternative" explanation is just plain nutty. I mean--a genie just blinking stuff into being? Nothing scientific about that.

The central focus of such an attitude is to aver that science and religion are mutually exclusive, that while science is based on logic and reason, religion is a matter of faith. In this arena, the writers of "Family Guy" are hardly alone. People who fervently believe that Man is a creation of God often make the same claim. A few months before he became press secretary for the Bush Administration, Tony Snow made that very assertion in one of his syndicated columns.

But if our only options are to believe that turtles and rabbits and camels exist either because a) a fish turned into an amphibian which turned into a reptile which turned into a dinosaur, or b) they magically popped into existence, then we are being told to choose one sort of nuttiness over another. Sure, I don't believe in genies, but that doesn't mean I believe that fish magically turn into amphibians, either.

"Aha!" the NDE crowd will surely interject at this point. "But evolutionary theory doesn't say that fish magically turn into amphibians. It says that fish have offspring, and at some point many, many years later, the offspring of the offspring's offspring's offspring will emerge as amphibians." To which I reply, but what is "scientific" about that? Fish do indeed have offspring (which, again, is something that no one disputes, not even creationists), but, as far as I have ever been able to observe, those offspring are invariably more fish. The only time you ever get an amphibian is when other amphibians have offspring. All that really means is that the fish magically changes into an amphibian over a long period of time rather than suddenly. It's still magic. Even if you adhere to strict Darwinian gradualism, you're talking about a series of small miraculous events culminating in to a larger miraculous event. Appealing to the sum total of a bunch of little magics to explain a bigger magic is still appealing to magic.

Besides all that, gradualism is not supported by the fossil record. If gradualism were the case, we should not only find fossils of fish or amphibians, but the fossils of creatures that are mostly fish but also partly amphibian, the fossils of creatures that are just as much fish as amphibian, and the fossils of creatures that are more amphibian than fish. But the fossil record indicates quite clearly: we have all sorts of fossils of fish and all sorts of fossils of amphibians, but very few, if any, fossils of creatures showing the transition from fish to amphibian. Ditto for any amphibian-to-reptile fossils, or any reptile-to-dinosaur fossils. So if the kind of gradualistic change the NDE folks lay claim to really takes place, you have to believe in the existence of creatures for which there's no real evidence. And the word we use to describe the belief in things not seen? Faith. So if you claim, contrary to evidence, that life on this planet evolved gradualistically, you simply have to have faith that this is so.

But faith is supposed to be the domain of religion. Logic and reason are supposed to be the domain of science. But if the NDE explanation relies on faith, doesn't that mean that NDE is a religion?

My scientific reply: yup.

Otherwise, we need to abandon this notion that says science and religion are mutually exclusive. We need to stop telling ourselves that science is based on reason and religion on faith. These sorts of "all or nothing" strategies do nothing but make dogma out of science and fairy tales of religion.

And it leads to some ugly smears perpetrated in the Name of Science: in the same episode of "Family Guy," Peter Griffin takes a moment to sneer at all Southerners, when, while regaling us with the tale of one of his pre-Civil War plantation forebears (apparently, the white-as-rice Griffin family are all descendants of African slaves), he stops to mention that "in those days, Southerners weren't at all like they are today--they didn't believe in science and judged people by the color of their skin."

So there you have it: either convert to the True Faith and admit that our existence can only be explained by blind, undirected, fully naturalistic neo-Darwinian evolution, or be ridiculed as one who doesn't "believe" in science--and get lumped together with racists, to boot.

I wouldn't mind this nonsense so much if it were just restricted to episodes of "Family Guy." What I find particularly distressing, though, is that you hear much the same thing out of people who should know better than to persecute others for their beliefs. These are people who not only call themselves scientists; they stand on the front lines of current scientific thought. When Richard Lewontin tells us that science is the only begetter of truth and then asserts that we "cannot allow a Divine foot in the door," he is asserting, indirectly, that the only people who are truly knowledgeable are atheists. When Richard Dawkins asserts that anyone who doesn't believe in evolution is either lazy, ignorant, or evil, he is issuing a blanket condemnation against anyone who doesn't think like he does. When Daniel Dennet grouses that all "creationists" should have their children taken from them, he is advocating launching a pogrom. So, if Lewontin, Dawkins, and Dennet are correct, "science" has specific philosophical, moral, and political applications, and woe to those who disagree with them. All these guys need now is brown shirts and black boots.

And if you think I'm facetiously conflating neo-Darwinism with National Socialism, I need only point out that the Nazi movement didn't come about as the misapplication of Darwinian theory, but as a DIRECT application of its principles. Such as assertion is only logical--if the overarching feature of nature is Survival of the Fittest, then we can reasonably argue that when people are shoved into ovens, they are simply displaying their lack of fitness for survival; that's precisely how the Nazis felt about it: das deutsche Volk: fit; das Judentum: not fit. Their philosophy was devoid of notions such as altruism or compassion because there is no means by which Natural Selection can account for them.

Bear that in mind the next time you're told that science and religion are mutually exclusive.

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