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Jun112009

Plush accommodations

Debate is bouncing around the evolution blogs. The extreme poles in the evolution-creationism debate agree on one thing; namely that one can not be a Christian and accept the modern scientific consensus on biological evolution. However, in recent years several prominent scientists of faith including Ken Miller and Francis Collins have spoken out about their own personal experience in reconciling science and religious convictions. Even agnostic participants in the debate, like Florida State University philosopher of science Michael Ruse, have taken a position against the polarizing view that evolution necessarily equals atheism. Science and science education organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) have gone to great lengths to counter the creationist claim that evolution is somehow antichristian by frequently emphasizing the views of religious scientists like Collins and Miller, philosophers like Ruse sympathetic to the idea that both faith and science can coexist and religious leaders like Pope John Paul II who see no fundamental conflict between evolution and the central tenets of the Christian faith. These organizations do this for one key reason; to counter the claim by creationists that evolution necessarily leads to atheism.

University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has called this approach accommodation and popularizers of evolution like Richard Dawkins and evolution bloggers such as PZ Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have rallied behind Coyne's critique. Coyne initiated the recent debate on the accommodationist approach on his blog with a lecture to the NAS, NCSE and the theistic-minded of his colleagues on the effect of accommodation in disenfranchising atheistic evolutionary biologists like himself. In Coyne's view organizations like the NCSE should be entirely neutral on matters of faith, or the lack thereof, giving no more, but certainly no less, attention to atheist views on evolution-creationism as theistic views.

Coyne's criticism is nothing new. In 2005 he wrote a rebuttal (Nature 435, 275; cosigned by many prominent thinkers in evolution, physics, genetics and philosophy like Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin, James Watson, Steven Weinberg) to an editorial in Nature titled "Dealing with design" (Nature 434, 1053). The Nature editorial called for science educators to take the time to understand the religious concerns of their students. In this rebuttal Coyne and the letter's coauthors rejected any call to discuss the perceived conflicts between faith and evolution. To them if the science classroom was a place where religious faith "crumbled" then so be it. I don't see the science classroom as a place were faith "crumbles" and view an understanding of the broader implications of a scientific theory as valid, even if those implications are due to a false perception (see my response to the Coyne et al. letter in Nature 435, 1160). Would a science classroom free of any mention of perceived religious conflicts be a better situation? Of course. But, in the case of evolution, an entirely pure science classroom comes at the expense of science education and the turning away of countless talented students to careers in scientific inquiry.

It would seem that Coyne prefers the creationist view of incompatibility between evolution and faith (maybe this view therefore shouldn't be the exclusive property of creationists) and prefers to avoid any dialogue on the concerns (justified or not) the faithful have regarding evolution. Coyne, Dawkins, William Provine and many other atheist promoters of evolution see evolutionary biology both as a source of scientific understanding for biological diversity and as a tool to promote atheism (which comes first in their minds is, to me, often a mystery).

This too is nothing new. Indeed it goes back to the very beginning of our modern notions of biological evolution. Michael Ruse in his book Darwinism and its Discontents described some of the difficulty facing Darwin's natural selection as a widely accepted mechanism for evolutionary change.

"...people did not want to use evolution as (certainly not primarily as) a straight scientific theory. They were far more interested in exploiting its potential as a kind of alternative to religion - what one might even go so far as to call a secular religion. They wanted to have something that they could use to combat the dominant Christianity of the day - a Christianity that was (properly) seen as in league with the conservative forces and institutions in Victorian Britain (and similarly in other countries), and that would be challenged by the new progressive scientific attitudes and theories and technological implications." pgs. 18-19

Coyne and many of his fellow atheists in science and philosophy seem to be reliving this early period in evolution's Darwinian past. Just as young-earth creationists believe science is on their side so Coyne enlists science as a rationale to reject any divine presence. Contrary to most philosophers of science Coyne says, "supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science" and that the evidence and simple reason run contrary to any conventional faith, save for the most generalized forms of spirituality (pantheism or a generalized Buddhism, why so many liberal academics embrace Buddhism but belittle Christianity is a mystery to me but maybe the subject of another blog). Many atheistic promoters of evolution (only a few of which are actual evolutionary biologists) use evolution as a cudgel with which they beat Christian faith and if they aren't wishing organizations like the NCSE would do they same they at least wish for these organizations to ignore religious faith.

Coyne and many others maybe misunderstand the emphasis on the views of theistic evolutionary biologists by the NSCE and NAS. These are specific counterpoints to creationists arguments. It is the creationists who have long championed the argument that being an evolutionist necessarily precludes one from being a Christian. Why one would prohibit the NCSE from addressing this creationist critique of evolution in the interest of neutrality is a puzzle. To be entirely neutral on this issue would leave a major creationist argument unaddressed. It would appear that there are those who don't want the NCSE or NAS to address this creationist argument simply because they agree with it. This is short sighted. Coyne is clearly aware that Miller and Collins are not the first theistic biologists. Indeed some of the founding fathers of our modern ideas about evolution like Ronald Fisher or Theodosius Dobzhansky were themselves followers of conventional Christian denominations. The question is did the faith of a Fisher or does the faith of a Collins bar them from doing as good a science as Jerry Coyne? I don't think so and it's a good thing for science education that the leadership of the NCSE and NAS don't think so either.

Coyne began his post with a quote from the Harvard evolutionary biologist, and personal hero of mine, the late Stephen J. Gould.

"For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost."

It would seem that, in the context of Coyne's blog post, that Gould is talking about about the dangers of evolutionists uniting around religious faith to make the idea more palatable to a religious public. He is not. The quote comes from one of Gould's many excellent essays on evolutionary biology and natural history titled "Evolution as Fact and Theory" (later reprinted in the book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes). Gould, a critic of much of the application of Darwin's ideas, was actually referring to a united front forming around Darwinian natural selection and the misuse of his ideas about punctuated equilibrium by creationists as an erroneous example of broad disagreement among evolutionary biologists. Ironically it was Gould who coined the term non-overlapping magisteria, popularly known by the acronym NOMA, to describe science and faith as two different tools for very different jobs.

Contrary to creationists and many atheistic evolutionists, science is flexible enough to accommodate a broad diversity of participants in terms of ethnicity, gender, political ideology and religion, or lack thereof. At least, I certainly hope it is. So, if being an accommodationist means listening to and respecting a diversity of religious beliefs then count me in. I will conceed however that some theistic evolutionary scientists, including sometimes Collins, Miller and Peter Dodson, do go a little too far in "reconciling" science and faith, but, I certainly don't see religious faith as a deal breaker for a career in science and it is this point that should be emphasized at every opportunity. While I don't try to exactly "reconcile" one with the other an understanding of science is useful in pruning one's faith to its essential core, a core often populated by answers to questions that science fails to answer.

-END

Reader Comments (1)

Well Said, as always.

We miss your level-headed and insightful comments on a certain forum. ;^)

fusilier
James 2:24

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfusilier

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