Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Evolution and its Discontents

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden VIIr
As nearly everyone should know by now, The Prez made remarks the other day to the effect that "intelligent design" and evolution ought to be taught side by side in public schools, like two yaks ascending the Ark. Breaking sharply from the methodology of his own administration, Bush offered a unique defense of free inquiry, suggesting that people should be exposed to all sides of a debate. (Insert WMD, ANWR, Medicare and Social Security jokes here).

"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about," he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

As with any discussion of ID-Creationism and evolution, it's difficult to know where to begin with this (though as far as science blogs go, Pharyngula is a good place to start). Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with teaching students that intellectual disciplines are fractured, even divided in irresolvable ways over particular questions. Writing about the discipline of literary studies, Gerald Graff urged scholars years ago to "teach the conflicts" — to expose students to the significant disputes that have produced the various schools of interpretation that have defined the critical reception of literature. Similarly, any introductory methods course in, say, history or anthropology, economics or sociology will describe the pattern of the field in ways that alert students to its underlying plurality.

The anti-science coalition knows this much, and its proponents have learned quite well how to coast the surface of an enlightened discourse whose deeper implications they ultimately reject; they speak of "free inquiry," rational "argument," proper "debate," and the underlying agency of the autonomous individual to reach conclusions for herself as to the Truth of weighty matters. Turning history upon its head, they pose as contemporary Galileos standing before the entrenched might of the Church of Evolution.

"We interpret this as the president using his bully pulpit to support freedom of inquiry and free speech about the issue of biological origins," said Stephen Meyer, the director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture. "It's extremely timely and welcome because so many scientists are experiencing recriminations for breaking with Darwinist orthodoxy."

At the same time, however, the so-called "debate" has been utterly fallacious, deriving not from the routine course of scientific practice but from a concerted political campaign that mocks the very possibility of reasoned public conversation (e.g., by conducting stacked school board hearings, by slapping judicious stickers on high school text books, by appearing on CNN with Lou Dobbs, etc.). Proponents of ID-Creationism use the language of intellectual pluralism to great (and nihilistic) effect by blurring the question of what exactly they're asking us to consider. This is an encounter that is taking place not between two varieties of scientific thought but instead between biology and something else. (The flat-earth analogies don't go far enough here. These people are asking for the sort of curricular revisions that would result in the teaching of Pliny the Elder as an "alternative" to anthropology, or St. Augustine's "City of God/City of Man" dichotomy as an adequate method comparable to modern historicism. For that matter, we might as well revive the study the phlogiston theory in Chem 101) In effect, the calls for pluralism amount to incoherent yodeling. What these folks seek to gain in the realm of "free inquiry," they at once subtract by eroding the public's understanding of what science (and disciplinary knowledge more generally) is all about.

When I teach the 1920s in my history survey course, the Scopes Trial usually makes an appearance. At that point, I sometimes ask whether they it matters that we live in a nation whose president doesn't understand the concept of evolution. For the most part, my students don't seem to have a problem with that. As the saying goes, "mission accomplished."