Saturday, June 21, 2008

Look What I Just Stepped In...

So apparently I hate myself. However, bad rhetoric seems to work for me exactly the same way the word "chicken" works for Marty McFly (except in the third movie, when it was "yellow"). Anyway, one of the things that's in vogue with the Ken Hamites these days...wait. That might require a bit of explanation... Ken Ham is the creative force behind Answers in Genesis and the Creation Science Museum. I've mentioned him before. He's one of the central focii of the entire anti-evolutionary movement and I tend to use him as my shorthand description for such people. If I refer to Ken Hamites, then, it's not necessarily people who are actual followers of the man, but to people who think like he does. So, as I said, one of the popular defenses of Creation Science employed by the Ken Hamites these days is to attack Social Darwinism as the end result of evolution. We may or may not have seen a recent example of that somewhere nearby. The argument basically goes like this: Evolution inevitably leads to Social Darwinism. Therefore, evolution is invalid. Now this argument sounds good to people who don't understand what evolution actually is, which, ironically enough, includes the Social Darwinists. However, it's all fluff with no substance and, at its core, is a horrible rhetorical device on two levels. At least two levels that I can think of. First, let's do what I do and start with a story. I walk up to you in the street and say, "Man, isn't it great that the Bulls won the NBA Championship?" You scratch your head, take a look at my Creative Zen Vision:M mp3 player and Nokia 6555 cell phone and conclude that, no, I didn't just fall through a wormhole from 1998. So you respond, "No, the Celtics beat the Lakers in six. The Bulls didn't even make the playoffs. Hell, they won first pick in the draft lottery." I tell you you're wrong. So you grab a passerby and ask him. He confirms that the Celtics did, indeed win. I still don't believe you. You take me to the library and show me YouTube clips of KG's crazy Game 6 put-in and Pierce's return and Kobe's strip and dunk and the trophy ceremony. Then you show me the final standings on ESPN and the Beasley v. Rose debates for the Bulls' pick. I still don't believe you. Finally you ask why. I say, "Because I don't like those results." Not liking something isn't a good enough reason say it didn't happen. Social Darwinism happened, it wasn't cool. That no more invalidates evolutionary science than my dislike of a non-Bulls championship invalidates the record of the '07-'08 NBA season. Second, let's say I develop the ability to travel back in time. I decide to go back to the discovery of radiation because that way I can make sure no one ever even conceives of creating an atomic bomb. I get back to my own time and find out that there was never an atomic bomb. I also discover that scientific knowledge hasn't really advanced much on a theoretical level for the last hundred years or so, that there are no nuclear power plants, and that millions of people have died of untreated cancer because they were unable to receive radiation therapy. Picking only the worst result of something and decrying it in the name of that single thing is demagoguery. Social Darwinism is far from the only outcome of evolutionary theory (oh, and to head this one off: "theory" in science means that it can't be 100% confirmed in the lab within controlled experimental conditions. It does not mean, "Hey, we're just guessing over here." Charles Darwin's original predictions, especially as they've been refined over the years, have been remarkably predictive in terms of what we find at what point in the fossil record). The advances we've been able to make in our scientific knowledge since Darwin are immense. And I'm talking about things like medicine and mapping the human genome here, not just theoretical stuff. Social Darwinism, meanwhile, was a pseudo-social scientific outgrowth of evolutionary theory from the end of the 19th Century. It basically posited that, in evolutionary terms, there was one master race that could be perfected and before which all other races would either bow or be eradicated. The races were separated in to four categories: caucasoid (white), negroid (black), mongoloid (Asian), and, um, one other. Or maybe there were only three. (Edit: there were three. For some reason I keep wanting to add a fourth for either the Americas or the Indian subcontinent, but I think the Americas fell under mongoloid and the subcontinent was considered caucasoid.) Side note: In some of the older literature from Ken Ham's organization (and by "older," I mean, like the late '80s or even mid '90s), they actually put out the old caucasoid, negroid, mongoloid distinctions, which were out of favor in scientific circles by then. The reason they were in there is because it was part of an argument for a god-ordained speciation of the human race. More on that in a moment... The prime selling technique of the Social Darwinists was religious. God had ordained the superior white race to take the light of knowledge both scientific and spiritual to the little brown savages. The "White Man's Burden," and "Manifest Destiny" were all the rage in those days, and no one could stand before the inevitability of the god-ordained mission of the great white race (by the way, since I'm still plowing through it and love it, I'd like to take this point to again plug John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The History of Global Empire Since 1405. He does an excellent job of taking apart the whole inevitability argument and making it obvious that there was a massively complex collection of factors). Now, I forget what stories the caucasoids told about the mongoloids, but I know exactly what story they told to explain about why the negroids were inferior. See, after Noah's Flood, Noah started growing grapes to make wine. One day he got drunk and passed out in the buff. His son Ham saw him (I'm guessing by accident) and told his brothers. The brothers covered him by walking backwards carrying a blanket. Ol' Noah cursed his poor son Ham for the crime of seeing drunken, passed out, naked dad and told him his descendants were to be the servants of his brother's descendants. The Bible didn't go any further than that. However, a tradition grew up much, much later that Ham was given an external curse. His skin was made black. This was the basis on which church support of the black slave trade was made and, later, why the highly religious Afrikaners in South Africa supported apartheid and the white church in the South supported segregation. It's also why an archaic term for black Africans is "Hamite" and why I call Ken Ham-types "Ken Hamites" in a bit of wicked irony. Anyway, Social Darwinism is based on a faulty premise that evolution opponents will also gleefully use to make their points: namely that evolution has some sort of pre-determined process and it is working towards some sort of intended end point. See, you have to believe that there is some sort of evolutionarily intended master race in order to call yourself the master race. Or, I suppose, you could do what the religiously inclined Social Darwinists did and simply use evolution as yet another tool in your arsenal to explain why god has already made you the master race. But, even though it might not seem like it, I'm not actually here to pick on religion. I'm actually here to explain why religion is wrong to pick on evolution in this case. Primarily, Social Darwinism wouldn't have existed in the form we got it were it not for religious demagoguery working hand in hand with Bad Science (*cough* Creation Science *cough*). The big, splashy Social Darwinism moment didn't come until the mid-20th Century, anyway, with the Nazi attempts to eradicate Jews, homosexuals, gypsys, and the disabled while at the same time create the Master Race. While there was a religious framework built in to the Nazi state and much of the clergy was on Hitler's side for a lot of the Nazi period, it would be sheer sophistry to attempt to argue that religion played a key or even particularly large role in the horrors of the Holocaust. All of the horrors of the modern state and the possible excesses of unchecked science were exhibited in the charnel houses of the Holocaust. I would not attempt to defend Hitler, nor would I attempt to dismiss it. I am, after all, a historian (on nights and weekends, by days I do data management and analysis) and have had the famous maxim of Santayana drilled in to my skull. The twin shocks of the World Wars set off an intellectual backlash that has given root and verve to the postmodern movement. Where we once said that our science and technology would eventually make anything we desired possible, we now try to stop to ask if we should do it just because we can. It's also given rise to the celebration of cultural diversity and the attempts to create an ethnically diverse understanding of the world. For while we may fear the mysterious and wish to destroy the unknown, we are far less likely to try that when we can put a face to the group we're so ready to decry. This, by the way, is why I actually hope that I am correct that our morals contain an evolutionary component. Yes, evolution might have given rise to Hitler, but the great thing about evolution, whether from a biological or societal standpoint, is that nothing stays the same way it's been. We can change. That's how the United States started out as a place that allowed slavery, then added an Amendment freeing the slaves and giving them the vote and a hundred years later added the Civil Rights Amendment. We evolved in our thinking and offered to share something that had once been reserved only for white folks. In a moral law situation, however, the law is rooted in the morality of the lawgiver. If the lawgiver doesn't change, the law doesn't change. That's why I can say that the Bible is sexist. See, even if the books of Ruth or Esther illustrate strong women, the ends of both stories can still be reduced to this line: "So she dressed up all sexy and used her feminine wiles to get a man to solve her problems for her." That's pretty far from women's lib. Oh, and then there's this promise to Joshua on the eve of the Israelite assault on the Promised land: "I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates -- all the Hittite country -- to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life."(Josh. 1:3-4) Now, there were people living in those lands to begin with. This area was the homeland to dozens or hundreds of small tribes and larger city-states (Jericho, for instance, is the longest continually populated place on the planet. It's been around for nine thousand years). These were people who had been there for a while. And here they are, about to get invaded by an external force whose god would repeatedly command the eradication of towns to the man, woman, child, and in special cases, livestock. What does this sound like? I don't know about anyone else, but I'd call it genocide. Seriously, go to biblegateway, call up a NIV translation and do a word search of the book of Joshua for the term "totally destroyed." It comes up in almost every verse in the middle chapters. (Oh, and let it be known: god never lived up to his promises. The Israelites never got anywhere close to the Euphrates or Hittite territory, which was primarily focused up around Anatolia, also known as Turkey. Well, okay, they did get close to the Hittites. When the Hittites came south.) This is the danger of claiming allegiance to an unchanging god and saying that all morality comes from the fellow. When most Christians claim the moral high ground on issues, they're thinking of it from the Jesus side of the thing. But if god hasn't changed, than they've got all the baggage of the god who didn't allow anyone but a small group of collaborators to survive the fall of Jericho. And with the demographics of pre-modern societies, most of those bodies that had to be run through with a bronze blade were under the age of 13. Edit: In case you're wondering, don't "Social Darwinism" me. Martin Buber is one of my favorite philosophers and the transition from the Modern to the Postmodern has been one of my key bits of historical fascination for the last couple of years. If you don't look at Social Darwinism while dealing with that subject, you might as well look at World War II without studying the rise of the Nazi Party or the bizarro world Bushido revival in Japan. The people who toss around Social Darwinism to attack evolution are just as ignorant of the former as they are of the latter and are simply using the terms because they're emotionally loaded, complex, and things that lots of people -- especially the choir that is their primary audience -- do not understand and will probably never study on their own. I have seen with my own eyes Ken Ham explain that we have all the different species of dogs that we do because of dominant and recessive genes. I have also heard a wonderful anecdote of Michael Behe's shocked reaction when his concept of irreducible complexity was theatrically debunked in a Dover courtroom by a lawyer placing forty or so books and papers that showed why there is no such thing on the witness stand. These are people playing at science and calling it real. They do the same exact thing with history. The lesson, as always: don't trust a demagogue.


Fiat Lex said...

I actually saw Ken Ham in person once myself, also in the early Nineties. (Making me close to ten years old.) At the time his business-casual wardrobe and thick Australian accent were very impressive, as were his constant repetitions: "You dig in the ground, and what do you find? You find billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water--all over the earth!" This in defense of a Flood which was literally worldwide--I didn't hear or remember much of the other stuff.

What bugs me about the Creationist rhetoric I was raised with is that people seem to equate "evolution is true" with "God doesn't exist." As though the hardcore, 7-day creationists had received a memo from God, written on stone tablets in letters of fire, that says


It's the difference between a top-down and a bottom-up perspective on the universe. A theologically based worldview is always top-down. "God created the world, so we know the big picture, but He left the details to us to discover." The perspective of science is necessarily bottom-up, building a perspective gradually from an assemblage of facts. "We can't say for sure, but based on the following pile of things we've observed, such-and-such is the assumption we're going to go with for practical purposes."

Of course the gatekeepers of science have as crappy a track record as their religious counterparts when it comes to ignoring real facts. Not to mention twisting small discoveries in limited fields into an excuse for broad, sweeping social changes which benefit very few except the powerful people spearheading them. Such as Social Darwinism. Or the Inquisition.

Evolution as such is not threatening to God as such any more than heliocentrism or elliptical orbits or germs. But it is unpopular for the same reason. Animals changing slowly into other animals seems to threaten the Biblical story of Adam giving names to all the animals, or the story of Noah rescuing all the animals to reproduce "after their kinds." But then there are Biblical passages which describe the sun as going around the earth. And if germs are actually little animals, how did Noah manage to collect all different kinds of them? Furthermore, how do you explain the continual and extremely rapid evolution of bacteria and viruses which accounts for there being a new "common cold" and a new flu every season?

Progressively more convoluted rationalizations! Ad hominem dismissals of opposing viewpoints, couched often as not in condescending expressions of pity for the unenlightened! You can find the breed in the classroom and the lab as easily as the pulpit and the call-in prayer show.

The internet seems even more infested with them than it is with porn. And much like porn, they are part of a genre that never seems to evolve.

Geds said...

It's actually possible to refute Ken Ham's, "the Flood did it," explanation with a simple experiment using common household items. Take a colander, put some things in it and put it in a bowl. Fill the colander with water, then remove it from the bowl. As the water comes out, it becomes pretty obvious that things don't settle in anything closely approximating order.

Looking at pictures of post-Katrina New Orleans or Cedar Rapids, IA from the last week or so will pretty much do the same thing...

Your thing about the gatekeepers is a good point. For every articulate, witty spokesman of science like Ken Miller or Stephen Jay Gould there are a bunch of guys like, well, the guys The Big Bang Theory makes fun of.

It how we end up with situations like the one last year where science discovered that there is, indeed, some genetic variance among the races and white supremacist science guy was the first to break the news. The rest of the scientific community simply lacked the PR sense to say, "Hey, this doesn't mean anything in terms of who's better." Some genetic variation is normal and would be expected with millennia of somewhat isolated breeding populations dealing with wildly different environmental conditions.

But that's kind of a nuanced concept and without someone to explain it the crazies tend to get the floor.