Thursday, February 21, 2013

Believing in Darwin

The following comments were prepard for my school's first Darwin Day symposium,  February 21, 2013. I was asked to revise them, but declined to do so. I run the piece here largely as written.

            As far as I can tell, all human beings have to grapple with two internal struggles. The first is a struggle to understand the world as it is. The second is a struggle to make sense of the gap between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. People in different times and places have dealt with that second struggle in varying ways. Sometimes, it’s been a matter of trying to accommodate with the world as it is – which often involves a belief that if we actually understand the world better, we will be able to come to terms with it more effectively. Other times, it’s been a matter of trying to change the world and bringing it closer to the ideals we imagine. This notion of changing the world is the one we pledge allegiance to here at Fieldston. It is literally our mission.
            But 21st century Fieldstonites aren’t the only people who have had this mission. Actually, the world in which Charles Darwin came of age – the world of 19th century Great Britain – was also a time when people believed they could change the world, a time when people spoke confidently of “progress” with a capital P. The reasons for this confidence were obvious: the railroad and telegraph were conquering time and space; factories were mass-producing goods in ways that promised to abolish scarcity (and, with it, slavery, something Britain did decades before the United States). The source of this technological mastery was modern science, which unlocked the secrets of steam, and electricity, and iron, allowing human beings to manipulate them toward desired ends.
This was the context in which The Origin of Species was published in 1859, a world in which Darwin was a product of knowledge as much as he was a producer of knowledge. In constructing a fact-based story about rocks and birds with great explanatory power, Darwin has helped a great many people understand the world as it is.
            But in offering an explanation of the world as it is, Darwin created manifold problems for those trying to understand the gap between this world and the one we wish it to be. As many of us know, Darwin himself was deeply troubled by the religious implications of his work, so much so that he sat on his findings for many years until it became clear the world was going to learn what he had discovered anyway. But I am here to tell you that Darwin’s work remains a problem for a great many more people than those who happen to believe the world was created by God in seven 24-hour days. In the late 19th century, some people took Darwin’s ideas – over Darwin’s own objections – and used them to explain the fate of the poor and weak as a function of their own inferiority, a concept that has come to be known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists argued that phenomena like poverty were explained by maladaptive genes that made some people unable to function, much less compete, in modern society. Some of the people who are today regarded as heroes of the modern contraception movement sincerely believed that we’d better off if people of some races and ethnicities were never born.
            We know better. Or, I should say, we “know” better. Today the tales we tell based on Darwin’s facts are harnessed for the use of liberal rather than conservative ends. Instead of focusing on the grim determinism of genetic inheritance, we prefer to dwell on the sunny side of environmental adaptation. We speak of “plasticity” and “learned behavior.” We like to think there’s an affinity between the sustainability language ecological diversity of and the progressive education language of multicultural diversity. We tend not to dwell on the random components of evolution, because we want to believe that that we are agents, if not masters, of our own futures. So we speak of our identities as chosen, and refuse to accept the proposition that biology is destiny.
            I’m not saying any of this is wrong. I am saying that the very logic of the Darwinian evolution specifically, and the scientific enterprise generally, rests on the interpretation of evidence that is always contingent. As I understand it, the paradigmatic scientific proposition goes like this: “We used to think x; now we know y.” The facts don’t necessarily change – new ones may appear – but what we interpret those facts to mean is subject to ongoing revision. Newtonian of laws of gravity were fixed, until Einstein came along and they weren’t. Evolution tells us that things change gradually – until, as the fossil record shows, something cataclysmic happens and they don’t. What you, know is really a matter of what you believe at any given time.
            Let me tell you some of the things I believe at this time:
  •     I believe, based on an ample historical of sea and air travel, that the earth is, for all practical purposes, round.
  •     I believe, based on written authority I trust and what Paul Church has told me, that this earth is billions and billions of years old. 
  •       I believe, based on first-hand evidence, that there is no direct correlation between gender and intellectual capacity.
  •       I believe, largely because I want to and because I can’t keep the studies straight, that coffee and chocolate won’t kill me.
  •       I believe, at least in part because I’m her father, that my daughter is adorable.
  •       I believe, because I’m not aware of any conclusive evidence to the contrary, that there really is an intelligent design that can explain evolution and all the rest, and that Jesus Christ has something to do with it.
I myself have not tested any of these beliefs scientifically. I happen to spend my time chasing other truths. But I’m not aware that any of these assertions are demonstrably scientifically false.  (Of course they’re not scientifically true, either, because they they don’t rest on positivistic, falsifiable propositions.) I invite you to share my beliefs. But I don’t take for granted that you will embrace all of them. Actually, I’m a little awed by how much I don’t know.
            So that’s what I believe. What do you believe? And how strong is your faith?