A tangent to the Great Accommodationism Debate
fascinating debate going on in the evolution education advocacy community, over what is being undiplomatically called 'accommodationism'. A few days ago Jerry Coyne gave a link round-up
, and it's already gone further: the best way to catch up is to go to his blog
and scroll down. (Of course, if you're reading this much after June 2009, go here
Accommodationism, in this context, means emphasising the compatibility of religious faith with the truth of evolution. Few would object to merely pointing out that "Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith.
" Of course it can.
The problems arise when we read a little further in this authoritative statement
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.
The more I think about that statement, the more it seems likely to irritate scientists and philosophers as much as believers and theologians - which is one way of demonstrating compatibility, I guess.
Coyne's view is that rather than make lots and lots of (often arcane) statements
about compatibility, science advocacy organizations should stick to science and keep schtum about religion:
Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE? Not at all. I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution. If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended. Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education. Leave theology to the theologians.
Speaking for myself
, I used to be a compatibilist and accommodationist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm no more a scientist than I am a theologian. But for a heartfelt exploration of how these questions play out in real life, it's hard to top this
Years ago I was fighting the good fight of creation on the Internet. I argued that evolution was impossible, for it required that the genetic code had to be changed to make new kinds of animals. It did not seem feasible to me that evolution could do this. I argued in the CompuServe debate forum, basing my arguments on Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crises. My favorite illustration was the difference between mammals and reptiles. The differences between living mammals and reptiles are substantial. Mammals all have hair, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, and the distinct mammalian ear, with three little bones inside. These features are found in no living reptiles. I argued that this is because there is no viable intermediate between the two, that an animal could have either the reptile genetic code or the mammal code but could not be in the middle.Preach
An evolutionist disagreed with me. He told me that in the past there had been many intermediates. He said that there were animals that, for instance, had jaw and ear bones that were intermediate between reptiles and mammals. How did he know this? He gave a reference to an essay in Stephen Gould's Ten Little Piggies . I wrote back that since the local library had a large collection of children's book, I should be able to find that book. (I thought I was so funny). I borrowed the book, and found an interesting account of how bones in the reptile jaw evolved and changed through millions of years to become the mammals' ear. That sounded like such a clever tale. How could Gould believe it? Perhaps he made it up. But there was one little footnote, a footnote that would change my life. It said simply, "Allin, E. F. 1975. Evolution of the Mammalian Middle Ear. Journal of Morphology 147:403-38." That's it. That's all it said. But it was soon to have a huge impact on me. You see, I had developed this habit of looking things up, and had been making regular trips to the University of Pennsylvania library. I was getting involved in some serious discussions on the Internet, and was finding the scientific journals to be a reliable source of information. Well, I couldn't believe that a real scientific journal would take such a tale seriously, but, before I would declare victory, I needed to check it out.
On my next trip to the university, I found my way to the biomedical library and located the journal archives. I retrieved the specified journal, and started to read. I could not believe my eyes. There were detailed descriptions of many intermediate fossils. The article described in detail how the bones evolved from reptiles to mammals through a long series of mammal-like reptiles. I paged through the volume in my hand. There were hundreds of pages, all loaded with information. I looked at other journals. I found page after page describing transitional fossils. More significantly, there were all of those troublesome dates. If one arranged the fossils according to date, he could see how the bones changed with time. Each fossil species was dated at a specific time range. It all fit together. I didn't know what to think. Could all of these fossil drawings be fakes? Could all of these dates be pulled out of a hat? Did these articles consist of thousands of lies? All seemed to indicate that life evolved over many millions of years. Were all of these thousands of "facts" actually guesses? I looked around me. The room was filled with many bookshelves; each was filled with hundreds of bound journals. Were all of these journals drenched with lies? Several medical students were doing research there. Perhaps some day they would need to operate on my heart or fight some disease. Was I to believe that these medical students were in this room filled with misinformation, and that they were diligently sorting out the evolutionist lies while learning medical knowledge? How could so much error have entered this room? It made no sense.
The impact of that day in the library was truly stunning. I didn't know what to say. I could not argue against the overwhelming evidence for mammal evolution. But neither could I imagine believing it. Something had happened to me. My mind had begun to think. And it was not about to be stopped. Oh no. There is no stopping the mind set free. I went to the library and borrowed a few books on evolution and creation--diligently studying both sides of the argument. I started to read the evolutionist books with amazement. I had thought that evolutionists taught that floating cows had somehow turned into whales; that hopeful monsters had suddenly evolved without transitions; that one must have blind faith since transitional fossils did not exist; that one must simply guess at the dates for the fossils; and that one must ignore all of the evidence for young-earth creation. I was surprised to learn what these scientist[s] actually knew about the Creationist teachings of flood geology, of the proposed young-earth proofs, and of the reported problems of evolution. And I was surprised at the answers that they had for these Creationist arguments. And I was surprised to see all the clear, logical arguments for evolution. I read with enthusiasm. I learned about isochrons, intermediate fossils, the geologic column, and much more.
I would never see the world in the same light. Several weeks later I found myself staring at the fossil of a large dinosaur in a museum. I stared with amazement. I looked at the details of every bone in the back. And I wondered if a design so marvelous could really have evolved. But I knew that someone could show me another animal that had lived earlier and was a likely predecessor of this dinosaur that I was observing. And I knew that one could trace bones back through the fossil record to illustrate the path through which this creature had evolved. I stared and I pondered. And then I pondered some more.
Within days, I had lost interest in fighting evolution. I began to read more and speak less. When I did debate, I confined my arguments to the origin of life issue. But I could no longer ignore what I had learned. Several months later I first sent out an email with probing questions to a Creationist who had arrived on the scene. He never responded. I have not stopped questioning.
Labels: creationism, evolution, genomics