Book Review: Andrew Petto and Laurie Godfrey, eds., Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism (Norton 2007). 304 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

When anti-intellectualism passes easily for anti-elitism, when opposition to education masquerades as politically charged populism, both science and the societies is serves are in deep trouble.  In America, fundamentalist religion and evolution have fought hard, especially over the precious minds of young public schoolchildren.  Science has prevailed for the most part, at least on paper.  But even as creationists persist in spreading their infection, scientists continue to misdiagnose the disease.

Empirico-rationalists of all inclinations and callings might do better to acquaint themselves with anthropologist J. Michael Plavcan’s updated theory of “cognitive dissonance”, for example.  When a particularly crucial religious belief is flattened by frequent and heavy loads of disconfirming evidence, the devotee—rather than simply changing her mind—might attempt instead to reduce the dissonance between the evidence and the conviction, on a subconscious level, by buttressing the latter with seemingly endless rationalizations and pleas for group reinforcement, and, on a conscious level, by actually intensifying her evangelical gusto.  Good for her, perhaps, but not so good for her community or for any suggestible children she might manipulate along the way.

But the incorrigible biblical literalist might not renounce empiricism completely.  During a bizarre series of cognitive contortions, she might actually embrace science—or at least her peer group’s perverted rendering of it.  In fact, self-professed “creation scientists” have managed to anoint themselves as the disciples of Newton and pejoratively tagged “evolutionists” as his apostates.  In their minds, up has indeed become down, due simply to the desperate and terrible power of minds united in both muddled thought and psychic self-defense.

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In reality, the fundamental distinction between science and creationism has scarcely changed over the past century.  As Plavcan observes, true science is inherently self-correcting while creationism, mired in perceived absolute truths, is wholly incapable of rehabilitation.  The two are obviously incompatible in the context of science education.  But let’s be frank.  The contestants are reciprocally threatening as well, in as much as creationism undermines both truth and academic freedom, and insofar as science, along with other rational disciplines, exposes the absurdity of biblical literalism.

Given the acrimony, given the incalculable dissonance and the religious ideologue’s typical response to it, no one should expect the controversy to simply resolve itself.  Nor should we be surprised that young earth creationism continues to thrive, despite its ridiculous claim that the universe was divinely created only 6000 years ago, along with every species ever to have inhabited it.  With due respect to the late, great Stephen Jay Gould, the struggle is and has always been unavoidable.  As science historian Ronald L. Numbers admits in his essay outlining the extravagant saga of American creationism, “As long as the Bible remains the most trusted and widely read text in America and scientists maintain their considerable cultural authority, consensus seems unlikely, even if desirable.”

Understandably, the battle’s front lines are frequently drawn in public school classrooms.  But, as editors Petto and Godfrey emphasize, K-12 teachers can and should try to do only so much.  In truth, the dispute between creationism and evolution is purely cultural.  Creationist indoctrination, however, instructs a scientific controversy as well, creating popular confusion that—once again, as a product of grossly perverted logic—springs from legitimate and indeed fortunate scientific disagreements over the relative significance of various evolutionary mechanisms.  Although there exists no scientific dispute over the fact of evolution, creationists routinely attempt to insinuate one from these genuine and often highly charged intra-disciplinary feuds.

Some scientific debates are better understood and more readily generalized and relatable than others, of course, including the now classic clashes between Richard Dawkins and Gould pitting gradualism versus punctuated equilibria and comparing the proportionate consequences of natural selection and various other evolutionary media.  So too with Lynn Margulis’s model of endosymbiosis, which accounts for the origin of cellular organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts and explains the emergence of eukaryotes from their prokaryotic forebears.  These are among the issues that can be suitably summarized in typical high school biology texts.

But some evolutionary models are far too complex for secondary school environments, including those relating to neutral mutation, transposable genes, and developmental evolution.  Others are yet scientifically unsettled as well and, therefore, particularly vulnerable to creationist hyperbole and subterfuge.  Carl Woese’s theory of horizontal gene transfer, for instance, postulates an evolutionary—though non-Darwinian—explanation for the emergence of the first nucleated cells.  Although it suggests limitations to the traditional Darwinian model, horizontal gene transfer arguably applies only to Bacteria and Archaea and most certainly does not solicit, as creationist hit men have claimed, a repudiation of evolutionary theory.  Such discussions, though certainly fascinating for many laypeople, including myself, and crucial in more advanced contexts, are clearly inappropriate for high school settings where teachers are trained simply to provide practical, well-rounded survey courses.

Which leaves concerned citizens in a familiar predicament.  What fate for society when it abandons education at the schoolhouse door?  What fortune for the species when the larger community finds no qualified advocates for science?  The American popular media, surely, has demonstrated little or no interest in their readers’ broader sensibilities, much less in the larger society or ecology.

In the book’s introduction, life scientist Massimo Pigliucci proposes a partial solution.  Those most qualified must both take the lead and continue to carry the major burden, at least for now.  University professors and researchers receive their generous salaries and grants from the public.  So do sanitation workers, one might argue, but nobody asks them to engage the community’s sense of outrage at people who, for example, refuse to cap their garbage cans.  But the stakes are considerably higher in the context of evolutionary science, where everything from disease control and prevention to species conservation and environmental protection are directly implicated.  And if not professional scientists, then who?  For the best and brightest intellectuals in every community, public outreach is “not merely an option,” Pigliucci demands, it is a “moral obligation”.

Seventeen experts in the fields of anthropology, biology, genetics, geology, physics, and science history have apparently agreed, and, in Scientists Confront, they join Pigliucci’s effort to contest creationism in all of its major manifestations.  Antonio Lazcano describes a variety of naturalistic means by which Earthly life might have first emerged.  Kevin Padian and Kenneth Angielczyk reveal the fossil record’s abundance and explain why we should think in terms of “transitional features” rather than “transitional forms”.  Robert Dorit shows us how complex causes, outcomes, structures, and organizations are completely predictable without resort to a supernatural architect of the gaps, and Victor Stenger demonstrates why humanity is “fine-tuned” for the universe and not the other way around.

But serious non-fiction, alas, is useless to seriously committed non-readers.  That’s where the rest of us come in.  Along with those who collect book royalties, those who receive authors’ data and ideas are equally obligated to confront the foes of candor and knowledge wherever they appear.  For every despairing appeal to seek answers in Genesis, there must be an apt citation to emergent complexity, Lucy and Toumai, or the molecular clock.  For every glorification of God’s alleged goodness, a theory of adaptive altruism.  For every  Halleluiah!, a Eureka!, and for every needy, self-deceiving evangelical, a rational and informed freethinker with the confidence and courage to tell it like it is.

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