Thursday, February 17, 2005

Darwin Day

My apologies to my avid following. The night after my previous post, I attended the Darwin Celebration with the intent of producing some intrepid reporting. The facts of life happened. Imagine I’m reporting for your favorite weekly as opposed to daily.

I walked into a lecture hall of about 200, packed with students and faculty. At the door I was handed a pamphlet crammed with 10pt font, and the greeting: “This isn’t part of the official syllabus, but make sure you take a look at this.”

“The Battle for the Future Will Be Fought From Here Forward: you think you know … but you have no idea … just what Bush has in store for … you .. us … the world … our future!” The first paragraph: “Straight up – Bush and his people aren’t just ordinary Republicans. And they’re not ordinary Christians either. They are Christian fascists—dangerous fanatics who aim to make the U.S. a religious dictatorship and to force this upon the world. If they get their way—and they are very far along the road to getting it—society will be plunged into a high-tech dark ages.” I won’t dwell on this, but it concluded with a call for revolution under Chairman Bob Avakian.

I will not describe all the participants – their names are accessible at the link on my previous post and you can google them if you’re curious. Suffice it to say that this was not a gathering of extreme views: these were real live marketeable scientists and recognized promoters of Darwinism.

Eric Meikle gave structure to the evening both beginning and ending the presentations, and so his comments were intended to provide context for the remarks from the scientists. It is on these ideas that I will dwell. If you are interested in what Jameson, Dumbacher or Gillespie (I didn’t have time to stay for Mishler) had to say, I can pass on some notes.

Meikle’s talk was a sort of state of the union address. The goal of his parent organization (National Center for Science Education) is to “support and defend evolution in schools today.” He began by showing graphics of states where anti-evolution bills have been proposed in legislatures, and states where “problems” have been reported. Putting the two graphics on top of one another revealed that nearly all states in the US in the last three years have had a “problem.” This warned the Darwinists to beware of the Bible belt myth [“For example, Pennsylvania is the worst state in the country”].

“Problem” was a key word for Meikle. This was the term consistently applied to any challenge (formal, such as ID or informal, such as a parent asking that evolution be taught as a theory) to evolution. Thus, challengers to evolution are not intelligent people, they are not highly trained philosophers and scientists with legitimate querries, they are problems.

Next a strategy tip: Setting the argument up as God vs. Darwin/Science does not work well for the Darwinists. Rather, Darwinists need to realize that the opposition has “almost nothing to do with science. It is really a fight within religions … really a philosophical and metaphysical conflict.” The debate is “never going to be settled with science … not about scientific procedures.”

To help orient his audience, Meikle provided a continuum of origins orientation: (couldn't paste my reproduction, here's the jist)

"Flat Earthers" -----> "Geocentrists"----->Young Earth----->Old Earth----->Theistic Evolution----->Materialistic Evolution

Young and Old Earthers were grouped together into Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). He then went on a rant that involved political cartoons and quotes from some old school Biblical literalits and concluded, “I’m making fun of them, but sometimes they deserve it.”

IDT was characterized as a modern variant of an old idea (Wm. Paley – early 19th c. was cited as an example): the modern equivalents are Michael Behe and Wm. Dembski. At this point it came out that the main charge against ID theorists is that they refuse to explain their alternative. They coyly offer that the world could have been created by an intelligent being: ranging in possiblities from the Christian God to aliens. “Are you going to teach in 10th grade science class that time-travelling space aliens created DNA?”

His conclusion involved a study of The Wedge organization, Center for Science and Culture, and the evolution of their name and banner since the 90’s. They have noticeably “gotten away from being so religious.” But based on their roots, they are really a “religious movement to promote theism over materialism … replacing science with theism.” The Wedge strategy is to conflate methodological materialism with philosophical materialism, and in debate their goal is “to confuse these two always, always, always. Thank you.”

Perhaps the most interesting Q & A exchange was this (I summarize—no detailed notes):

Q: Why is this [people refusing to accept evolution] specifically a problem in the U.S. as opposed to Europe, where there does not seem to be much resistance?

A: First, America has to deal with the strong contingent of Evangelical Fundamentalist Protestants. This is a problem because in American education is still predominately locally controlled rather than government controlled.

Some thoughts:
First, ignorance. Secondly, I like IDT. Third, why the politics, kids?

The use of a graph that allocated IDT as simply one step above Geocentrism was incredible. However, that is just rhetoric. Meikle clearly had read his ID books. However, the audience reaction was what clued me in to people just not knowing. No one in the room knew anyone who did not believe in Evolution. They were able to laugh about such people without any idea that Phil Johnson’s ideas mean something more to their world than those of Pope Urban VII. One of the main goals of the talk clearly was to convince the audience that people (like me) were real.

Secondly, IDT, which I think is the most exciting philosophical movement of our time, is accomplishing its goal. IDT precisely wants to show that methodoligical materialism has been unequivocably wedded to philosophical materialism since Darwin. Darwin’s theory carries with it metaphysical implications, and these implications have been transmitted part and parcel with the principles of scientific inquiry. Meikle (at least) seemed to understand this challenge, though he publicly gave it little credence.

Last, in a classic eat your own words move, Meikle, immediately after accusing IDT of failing to make distinctions between philosophy and method and denying that the one necessitated the other, implied that if we only had big federal government we could solve the “problems.” That combined with the friendly handout I received from the front desk guys made me seriously question the forthrightness of his denial.

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