Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Evolution and ID in the Kansan

A recent op/ed piece in the KU student newspaper lambasted the "intelligent design" theory as proof that the US is controlled by "Christian conservatives". What follows is a challenge to Abramovitz's assertions and the broader question of why we should stop neutering Darwin's Origin of Species.

Abramovitz begins by positing that the transgressions of high-profile conservatives have largely gone unchallenged, evidentially revealing how the US is in their collective clutches:

"Was there a violent cry for redress last June when Vice President Dick Cheney publicly accosted Congressman Leahy on the Senate floor with the 'F' word? Or when Pat Roberts, a prominent conservative television evangelist, demanded the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his television show, 'The 700 Club?' Or when President Bush, at the Middle East Peace Summit in 2003, made an even more outrageous claim: Justifying military action in Afghanistan and Iraq as a direct divination from God?"

Cheney was roundly excoriated for his boorish word choice, as was Robertson, who made the comment in response to Chavez's insistence that the US is actively trying to take him out. Clearly these actions do not find widespread support and are dismissed--just as they are on the other end of the spectrum (see DNC chairman Howard Dean's comments about most Republicans not making an honest living or black Professor and activist Kamau Kambon's vitriolic rhetoric concluding that the extermination of white people is the only way for blacks to save themselves). This sort of dopey confabulation is red meat for partisan volleying, but largely boring and irrelevant outside the realm of committed party rah rahs.

Abramovitz's last assertion, that Bush said God told him to invade Iraq and Afghanistan is tendentious at best and journalistically unethical at worst. That unsubstantiated allegation was made by Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator highly critical of US support for Israel, and was fervently denied by the White House as blatantly untrue. The typically credulous and anti-Bush BBC ran it without verification anyway and from there it became "fact" on the left side of the blogosphere.

Abramovitz continues:

"No actions taken for these incidents match the ones in response to Dr. Paul Mirecki’s divulged e-mails. To cut to the chase, the United States is controlled
and dominated by the Christian conservative right and is why critics have lambasted Dr. Mirecki so fiercely."
He's referring to the religious studies professor who planned to teach a course highly critical of the intelligent design theory and its supporters but subsequently cancelled it after correspondence was leaked that the presumably objective academic study of ID and the issues surrounding it were actually going to be a biased attack aimed at debunking and discrediting the theory.

The primary reason, of course, that Mirecki was lambasted stems from the clandestine nature of what he was trying to do. Imagine if I, now a credentialled professor, offered a course entitled "Survey of Feminism" and sold it as a broad overview of the lives and philosophies of women from Emily Dickinson to Maureen Dowd. But in the classroom I only talked about sky-rocketing divorce and out-of-wedlock marriage rates, the poverty of single mother households, the drastic decline in Western birth rates below the replenishment level, physiological and psychometric data revealing the broad differences between the sexes, and showed pictures of partially-birthed aborted fetuses. Would there be an outcry? I sure hope so.

ID is hardly owned by conservatives. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans favor by a margin of almost 2-1 that creationism be taught alongside evolution. Even those identified as liberals were split evenly on the issue.

Abramovitz goes on:

"It is disgusting to see the ways in which politicians have interfered with the operations of an institution such as the University."
KU is a public university, receiving its funding from federal and state coffers (the politicians) and Kansas residents (who elect the politicians in part for their views and actions regarding public education). No institution will get away with disregarding (or biting) the hand that feeds it for long. This should especially be the case when that hand is the American taxpayer.

Continues Abramovitz:
"All of this amounts to conservative censorship of what is viewed as liberal propaganda."
No doubt there is some of that sentiment out there--possibly radicalized to the point of the horrific and unjustifiable physical assault on Mirecki by two unidentified assailants (although the actual motive for the alleged attack is not yet confirmed). But the underlying theme in the op/ed that fundamentalist Christians somehow control the country seems risible in light of the virtual disappearance of references to Christmas in retail advertising and sales floor displays even though a full 84% of the country considers itself to be Christian (1.3% professed Judaism and less than 1% claimed to be Muslim) and 96% celebrate the federal holiday.

Speaking of censorship, I've long wondered why the liberal intelligentsia are in such a fuss over the perennial calls of parents in local school districts to have certain objectionable books removed from the curriculum on grounds that children need exposure to reading material pertinent to contemporary culture (like extremely graphic descriptions of children and animals being sexually abused, apparently) yet vociferously demand the Bible not be made required reading. If anyone can give me a piece of literature more crucial to the development and understanding of the Occident, if not the entire world, than the Bible (specifically the Gospels), my ears are burning.

Writes Abramovitz:
"Don’t students at a secular university have the right to take a class that is skeptical of religion?"
Yes, of course. This likely strikes anyone who has ever taken an REL class at a public university as ludicrous. The humanities are overwhelmingly liberal and secular, even by academic standards--if a student actually finds an instructor who is pious it's a rarity. In any case, if the course presents subject matter in an acutely skeptical light, that should be made known to prospective students before they enroll.

Perspicaciously Abramovitz states:
"One of the first subjects discussed in the Introduction to Evolutionary Biology class this semester is how the implications of intelligent design do not fit inside the paradigm of empirical, scientific inquiry. Under the scientific method, the supernatural cannot be used to explain the natural and vice versa."
Indeed. That is why ID belongs in the philosophy department, alongside other cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments/theories that seek to explain the origins of the universe and the meaning of human experience. Empirical science is to be based on things that are replicable. However, there are exceptions. The most notable is the Big Bang theory, which, while indefatigably scrutinized, still holds up as the most sensible explanation to the universe's beginning, incidentally causing a lot of angst amongst atheists. Fancifully now dictator of all freshman biology classes, I would introduce ID as a ten minute vignette to the unit on evolution, quickly covering its probabilistic argument and noting that Darwin's theory is just that--a theory (although one incredibly grounded in historical evidence).

And since the theory of evolution has been in the limelite for awhile, it is time we start applying it to a host of human social concerns (remembering that the full title of Darwin's work that gave structure to the previously inchoate theory of evolution: The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life). Instead of limiting its discussion to the point we wiped out (and bred out) Neanderthals, students should be introduced to its implications to modernity. It is not only pertinent in the field of medicine, but also in the immigration and affirmative action debates, the sports world, the criminal justice system, the definition of the modern woman, ad infinitum. Certainly Darwin would agree, as this terse excerpt from Descent of Man shows:
"There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and
measured, differ much from each other,- as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference."

Legal and spiritual equality are hallmarks of Western society, and there is no reason that should change. But the idea of a blank slate and all the spurious free-market libertarian and "it's all culture" (read racism) liberal nostrums that come with it are unempirical, dogmatic, and fraught with peril.

By taking a hard look at how evolution has shaped and continues to shape humanity, we can better understand the inherent difficulties multicultural, multiracial societies face. The HapMap project is humming along and promises to provide needed edification on human genomics--this knowledge should not be relegated to the esoteric halls of the hard sciences. Instead of fallaciously believing that Jeffersonian democracy can be equally successful irrespective of where it is attempted, we can make sense of why people tend so frequently to show an affinity for those like themselves (culturally and otherwise). Like the maternal instinct naturally propels a mother to protect her son, so does the solidarity of racially similar groups (race is best described as an extended family subject to some level of inbreeding) have an anchor in biology.

Obviously its tough to come to grips with the fact that people, and by extension groups of people, are more endowed in certain areas than others. No one likes the idea of someone else being sharper or more athletic than they are. Yet we all acknowledge it, at least subconsciously, through daily interactions with others. Even within our own families we realize that we're smarter than our younger brother, but he's a better athlete. College and military admissions are based on these known differences, and for good reason--Harvard wouldn't have it's stellar academic reputation if its average student didn't score a 32 on the ACT and the military would be more mistake-prone if it had a glut of nimrods in the field. While facing the facts can be difficult, ultimately the truth will set us free (and shed some light on the never-ending cultural battles over who is screwing whom in the process).

(Human biodiversity)

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