Thursday, January 20, 2005

In theory . . .


Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

H. G. Wells had it all backwards. Evolution, that is. Read The Island of Dr. Moreau and find out for yourself. “Are we not Men?” was not a rhetorical question.

The tug-of-war between evolutionists and creationists has been ramping up, with plans for a Creation Museum going full steam ahead and high profile cases about what can or should be taught in the schools popping up around the country. To be honest, it’s all sort of bored me until I read about a recent case in Georgia. Disappointed by the ruling of a federal judge, the Cobb County school board has decided to appeal to a higher authority. A higher human authority, I should add. The school district has already placed stickers in science texts being used, stickers that label evolution as “a theory, not a fact.” What U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper decided is that this is an endorsement of religion, which is unconstitutional. The board disagrees, and so do I, but probably for a different reason.

I actually believe in both evolution and creation. For me the former is a theory while the latter is a lovely idea. I think both are just as likely to be wrong as to be right. BorderNobody really knows. None of us were present at the beginning of time, or if we were, we don’t remember or are locked up in some sort of asylum and being force fed heavy meds. I also think the schools are a place where everything should be taught and people left to sort things out on their own. This is another lovely idea, but I’m realistic enough to know that this penchant for loveliness doesn’t get one too far in our culture. So setting the rose-colored glasses aside, I disagree with the Honorable Judge Cooper because the declaration that “evolution is a theory” is an endorsement not of religion but of science.

Evolution is a theory. Unlike the temperature of water at its boiling point, evolution is not undisputable. We tend to say that water boils at 212°F (100°C, 373°K) , though truthfully the actual temperature at which water boils is dependent on the barometric pressure. Basically, however, these are fixed points and well known as facts. Theories, on the other hand, tend to get a bad rep; in general usage, they’re viewed as being sort of nebulous, or ill-defined, or not too trustworthy. We are skeptical and wary of them, finding them lovely but not necessarily dependable because they seem too much like speculation. At least that's my theory, but within the realm of science, there’s a lot more to the science of theories. There’s a “scientific method,” that involves a series of steps leading from observation to the development of theory. Speaking theoretically, the method is dependent upon evidence, not belief or faith or desire. Fossils, for example, comprise a large part of the evidence supporting the theory of evolution. That's a fact.

In point of fact, facts are related to truth. Not like the “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” kind of truth, because that kind of truth is often subjective: it was a red pill, no it was a blue pill. . . . You can go back and forth on that kind of truth. In fact, it is the word “fact” that should earn the kind of reputation that “theory” has in the popular vernacular. As evidence I present the first definition of “fact” in The American Heritage Dictionary:


1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences: an
account based on fact; a blur of fact and fancy.
Besides oddly using the term being defined to define itself, the entry goes further to note that “fact” has “a long history of usage in the sense of ‘allegation of fact,’ as in ‘This tract was distributed to thousands of American teachers, but the facts and reasoning are wrong.’ (Albert Shanker).” I’m not sure what tract Shanker was up in arms about, but I’m sure the problem could have been solved with a few stickers. Nonetheless, what we’re really talking about here is scientific fact, an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true, although that truth might never be 100 percent validated. The day that hell freezes over, the boiling point of water is bound to change.

Ironically, a definition of fact that I really liked comes from Laurence Macon, who writes that “facts are the world’s data. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them.” What makes it ironic for me is that the quotation comes from a nice essay he posted on the Usenet group Talk.Origins. called “Evolution Is a Fact and a Theory.” When I came across it, I have to admit that I was irritated. Who knows this Macon guy from Adam? But I put my rose-colored specs back on and decided that even if he’s right, (notice how I don’t say “and I’m wrong”) I’m still right: calling evolution a theory is calling it a spade. The stickers should stay.



20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the short version of what I have to say: the stickers are unconstitutional and do represent YET ANOTHER egregious violation of the separation between church and state that is the modus operandi of the Bush administration. The Creation Museum (reportedly) displays adam and eve walking with dinosaurs, a scientific inaccuracy. While I am the first to cherish alternatives theories and spiritual interpretations of how we came to be and why, and I am so keenly aware that human beings are the only species stupid enough to poison our own drinking water -- on purpose, for profit...offering evidence that we have not really evolved in the Darwinian sense, only perhaps, in the Machiavellian sense... or in the tradition of Cain... kill or be killed...out of insecurity. Let's just get real: this country was supposedly founded (more later on alternative founding of America) because the pilgrims suffered religious persecution and wanted to live in a place where one was free to believe what one wanted to believe. But of course, that is a fallacy. The pilgrims just wanted to take over a place rich in natural resources where they could set up shop and believe what they believe... which is obvious by the time of the Salem witch trials (not the only witch trials on this tierra, by the way)...[the salem witches were actually tripping on LSD, by the way...due to a spore that infected the grain supply] short cut short cut... in fact the puritain pilgrims were such zealots and so crushing of any alternative viewpoint that we now live in a contemporary puritain society where the only acceptable viewpoint is a christian one. Protestant, evangelical, no less. So far from encouraging scientific or religious inquiry, those stickers really represent a silencing of the debate, of any possible dialogue. (I only have to point to the Bush reord on bio-ethics: cut off funding for scientific inquiry as another neat and tidy example.)

Now Mpho, do you think those stickers invite us to wonder what the Maya believe about creation? The Hopi? Jews? Buddhists? Um... I think not.

Now don't get me started about how the "creation" story erases the female as the creator and life source, and is just basically, an envy story, all around.

And, yes, Darwin's theories have some flaws. (Notice I use the plural here.) Like how do you explain that human beings are so stupid that we actually used our smartest beings to create weapons that threaten, every day, to completely annihilate us.

Maybe we will go the way of the dinosaurs and then we'll have to transform the Creation Museum's co-display of Adam and Eve and T-Rex to a display that says: they thought they were evolved.

###

12:02 PM  
Blogger mpho said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:04 PM  
Blogger mpho said...

Anon, I appreciate you taking the time to share your opinions and would like to respond in kind. If one accepts my argument about evolution being a theory, then, as I said, the stickers serve to endorse science. The endorsement of science coincides directly with the separation between church and state. Now admitedly, if you don't accept evolution as a theory, then my whole argument goes out the door.

Where I agree with you is this: yes, the Bush administration has made violation of the separation of church and state an art form. I also agree that "we have not really evolved in the Darwinian sense, only perhaps, in the Machiavellian sense...." That's a poignant way of expressing it, and I am 100 percent with you on it.

I'm slightly less with you when you say, "the pilgrims just wanted to take over a place rich in natural resources where they could set up shop and believe what they believe." This is not my area of expertise, whereas I sense it might be yours. The only suggestion I might make is that perhaps--PERHAPS--the pilgrims came with the good intentions of escaping religous persecution, and then found they had lucked out in descending upon a geography abundant in natural resources and then human nature, if we may call it that, took over, and they became the zealots you describe. This is maybe a minor point of the “which came first, the chicken or the egg” type, and it's a digression we don't really need to get into because ultimately I again side with you in that "we now live in a contemporary puritain society where the only acceptable viewpoint is a christian one."

So far, we're pretty much in unison. I think where we differ is within the framework of semantics, and I think that's what this blob is becoming--a place where these kind of descrepancies can be dismantled a bit.

Do the stickers symbolically represent a silencing of the debate? I don't know that I buy that. I mean, you're right. In the sticker’s statement, there is no invitation to wonder about other creation beliefs--but THERE NEVER HAS BEEN. That's been the whole fight of cultural literacy and the feminist and multiculturalist and other alternative/revisionist movements. Sure, yah, the Biblical version of creation erases the female as the creator and life source. Yes, it does. BUT, I think that's where I misspoke. In an effort to be kind of cheeky, I wrote that "creation is a lovely idea." To be more specific, I should have said creation is a *belief.*

Then, in coming back to your response, yup, Darwin's theories (plural) have some flaws. All theories do. And I haven't, as of yet, come across a good theory that explains why we're so hell bent on self-destruction. You can slap the "you call this evolution?" sticker on my back any time.

I just really think that our language, which is an imprecise one to begin with, is increasingly used so much more imprecisely as to render it useless for the purpose of communicating. It's all white noise. Saying that evolution is a theory should imply nothing more than that it's one among many theories. And if our school system was truly meant to educate rather than indoctrinate, than a tendency toward natural critical inquiry would lead to "and here are some of the many other theories and *beliefs*...." It may not be a realistic outcome, but you know, you've gotta start somewhere.

If you go back to my earlier post Make Love, Not War, you'll note that the religious right loves to play with language, and they do it by accusing their detractors of speaking in code. "Intolerance" is a code word for “homosexual.” Well, "homosexual" is their code word for "sinner" and "sinner" itself is a code word, too.

The separation of church and state should be fairly simple and clear cut. It should be easy to maintain. Yesterday's innaugaration was of a secular man (or beast as some might prefer), not an ordained person of the pulpit. In God We Trust. What do we do with that? We pledge allegiance to the flag, "under God." The creep of church into state didn't start yesterday. But because we're now a country of who knows how many religious and spiritual beliefs *and* because we're in the midst of a self-ignited jihad, the Fundamentalists are riled up enough, organized enough, and united enough to seize the day. And that is terrifying to me. You think Rwanda was bad? Those people were fighting over sticks and stones. We fat Americans own us some shit, and you better believe that they'll be more than a cat fight when this whole red state, blue state thing goes to then next level. Debating the difference between fact and theory will be the least of our problems.

Lastly, I have also heard reported that the Creation Museum displays people (are they Adam and Eve?) being neighborly with dinosaurs along with other scientifically inaccurate exhibits. Just keep in mind that I didn't say that I agree with, desire, or in anyway support the museum or it's purported mission which is "upholding the authority of the Bible from the very first verse." I learned the gospel of the Jesus from a stolen motel Bible, so I'm not exactly a model Christian. Creation stories enthrall me, but I’m also impressed by the body of work known as science.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Alienboy said...

posted by alienboy on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 04:51 AM:
Apologies for being frank, but it is a fact that I can't stand this kind of pseudo clever trash.

Frankly, I don't if this is meant to be a review or some kind of comedy routine.

Either way, if this kind of commentary is what passes for intelligence these days, we are in worse shape than I imagined.

Is it not the case that ultimately all facts are provisional, but many of them are so reliable as to be taken as literally true?

And that Creationism is a charming little theory that has no evidence to support it, as opposed to evolution having literally, mountains of evidence everywhere we look.

The USA is a great country, I've been there more times than any other foreign country and love so much stuff about it.

The landscape and the people, the space, the modernity of it all; your technologic developments, your films and music and a zillion other things: all these make people love America.

But there seems to be a tendency within the USA to consider this as some kind of open and unlimited approval of everything that happens there. This is a huge mistake.

Your political and legal systems are hugely discredited.

For example, your current President seems intent on bringing freedom and democracy to the world. Would it not be more appropriate to introduce democracy into the usa? This electoral college system you operate is a scandalous abuse of the process.

And your legal system is a joke. Punishments are totally unrelated to the crimes are hugely out of proportion.

And people like mpho waste our time with irrelevant and uneducated drivel like this.

Grrrr, where is that 2nd cup of coffee?

11:54 PM  
Blogger mpho said...

posted by mpho on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 05:42 AM:
Frank, thanks for being blunt. To clear up your confusion, I was not striving for a review per se. Comedy? Maybe. I gather from your comments that you don’t live here, so you may not realize what’s going on here in these United States. That holy war we’re fighting abroad isn’t the only war we’ve got going; there’s one going on here at home.

As for your opinion that “if this kind of commentary is what passes for intelligence these days, we are in worse shape than I imagined”—well, look who “the people” have accepted as their leader. I didn’t vote for him. I’ll stick to my brand of psuedo intelligence; at least I don’t have blood on my hands.

You ask, “Is it not the case that ultimately all facts are provisional, but many of them are so reliable as to be taken as literally true?” I agree with that—-boiling point of water—-but though I do believe in evolution, I don’t accept it as fact. I’ll say it again. Evolution is a theory. Evolution is one of several of Darwin’s theories. Creation, I would counter, is not a theory. It has, like you say, no evidence to support it. Theories, by definition, are based on evidence.

I’m glad that you love so much stuff about the US of A. There’s a lot to love. We also need to improve a ton of things. Some things make people love America; some things make them hate us. I am not one of those who believes in some kind of unconditional love from the rest of the world. That would actually worry me and would indeed be a huge mistake.

You need to be more specific, though when you say that our “political and legal systems are hugely discredited.” (If you’re interested, see my post “Boxing Wit Da Black Folk:” at cowbells.blogspot.com. You’ll find that I agree with you wholeheartedly about what Bush has and is perpetrating upon the world--and upon his own citizenry--in the name of democracy. I, too, agree that the Electoral College is a liability.)
While oftentimes punishments and crimes are out of sync, I don’t know if I’d call the entire legal system into question. Rather, it’s one of the many areas in which we need significant change.

See, the problem is you’ve gotten hepped up over what you call “irrelevant and uneducated drivel,” but you didn’t really stay on point. You might not have liked the way I presented my argument but the only point I really made—and perhaps poorly—is that in my mind, evolution IS a theory, and we should call a spade a spade. Creation is a belief, just like you can believe in Santa Claus if you want. I’ll even go so far as to say that evolution is a great theory.

But the rest of what you wrote, though much of it is true, has nothing to do with what I wrote. Incidentally, on my blog site, someone else was equally bothered by my post. S/he had different arguments than yours, many of which were salient but went far beyond the scope of the discussion I wrote. Like you, s/he (the poster was anonymous) also made a lot of assumptions about my views and tried to read between nonexistent lines. S/he had a wealth of fantastic viewpoints, but in my response at my blog site I explained that there actually was a method to my madness, which was meant to expose the issue of semantics and language use, a sort of dialectics if you will. I’m not sure if I was successful or not, but I think maybe I was because you seem like an intelligent fellow yet I feel you got thrown off the horse. Get back on it and yell at me again if you want. I’m curious as to where you’re from. I’d also be curious to know—if you’re willing to share—where you side in the evolution vs. creation argument.

For the record, let me state again that I actually do accept evolution, and I do believe that it should and must be taught in the schools. But I think there’s room for other discussions. (Again, see comments about revisionism at my blog site). Believe me, when I read the piece on Georgia, I did not go into it expecting to side with the school board. The increasing dissolution of the separation of church and state in this country worries me deeply. But I don’t think we can fight it by getting bullheaded. Let’s call these concepts what they are, not what they’re not.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Alienboy said...

posted by alienboy on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 07:01 AM:
Hi mpho,

glad to see you are not a drooling troglodyte incapable of reason! I get worried sometimes as there are so many rigid dogma types around here...

I didn't go into detail as I wasn't sure who or, possibly more importantly, what kind of person you were.

Arguing over minute details is one of the ways that reactionaries hold back progress (though that's not to say the details aren't important, obviously).

The point about theories is that they are all provisional.

A keen intelligence would essentially wake up every day believing in absolutely nothing as any theory or fact, like any dogma, can not EVER be always true; (the universe is too big and wonderful a place for us ever to have it completely nailed down) though in practice nobody would ever do that.

would they?

sorry for straying off your topic - but as we started with "The Island of Dr Moreau", I'm not alone in that, lol.

In response to your Qs, i'm originally from England but live in Andalucía, Southern Spain - there is more room to breathe (literally and metaphorically) here.

As for Creationism, let's just say that one attractive aspect of all religions is that they are usually incomplete, outdated and inaccurate attempts to understand the world at the time of the religion's formation.

That's why so many of them have dietary or social advice folded into an essentially "spiritual" programme.

But like all human theories, no dogma can have the universal applicability that would surely be a touchstone of a true religion? Even Einstein made mistakes.

Quick Sidebar:- If there is a god, and most religions seem to agree that there is only one, what kind of creature is it? Is it a unique, one-of-a-kind, never to be repeated special being, a kind of "singularity"?

Or are there more of them? Ours is just one of a whole other species that exist in some other dimension or string of reality?

Is there a study of god as opposed to a study of religion?

11:56 PM  
Anonymous The Theory said...

posted by The Theory on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 09:53 AM:
Q: "Are We Not Men?"
A: "We Are DEVO"

11:57 PM  
Anonymous JR said...

posted by JR on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 10:58 AM:
What are we talking about when we talk about evolution? The process of selection and changes in phenotype over generations? Or the specific ancestry of hmuans? Because while we have no witnesses to the latter, plenty of grad students stuck in labs with fruitflies have observed the former. The process of evolution has been observed, whether or not it is completely and correctly understood.

And what makes the boiling point of water any different? We think we know what it will be at a given pressure, but that is based on a mathematical relation that is every bit as much a theory as Darwinian selection. After all, nobody has stood there with a thermometer every time water has ever boiled. Maybe there are exceptions not accounted for in our current theory.

As for teaching "everything" in schools, should it all be taught in biology? After we set aside a week for teaching creationism, do we then give our would-be biology students a week of ethnomusicology?

11:58 PM  
Anonymous The Theory said...

posted by The Theory on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 11:43 AM:
When we say "evolution" most people mean everything starting as one cell and blooming into the population we know today.

microevolution has been observed: one species adapting to the enviroment around it. macroevolution, one species becoming a completely different species, has not.

it personally seems to me to be that the whole process of trying to figure out our beginings has been butchered pretty bad. a lot of hypothesis and speculation on little to no evidence.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Steve S. said...

posted by Steve S on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 12:22 PM:
I personally think that the stages a fetus goes through is proof of evolution.

A fetus at some point or another has a tail, has gills, etc. Also, sometimes people are born with a tail stub or webbed feet, etc.

Further proof to me, that within the History of All Life, there is something that connects us all biologically.

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Eric Olsen said...

posted by Eric Olsen on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 01:30 PM:
ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny

12:01 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

posted by JR on blogcritics.com January 22, 2005 02:51 PM:
Not really.

12:02 AM  
Blogger mpho said...

posted by mpho on blogcritics.com on January 22, 2005 07:47 PM:
I’ll do my best to take you all on at once. First Alienboy.

1. Alienboy says that “arguing minute details is one of the ways that reactionaries hold back progress”—yes, and what are we doing now?

2. Alienboy also says that “the point about theories is that they are all provisional…. But like all human theories, no dogma can have the universal applicability that would surely be a touchstone of a true religion? Even Einstein made mistakes.” Exactly, so back to my original point: shouldn’t evolution be presented as a theory?
3. JR asks which aspect of evolution are we talking about. Valid question. I agree with The Theory’s explication: “When we say "evolution" most people mean everything starting as one cell and blooming into the population we know today. ‘Microevolution’ has been observed: one species [I would also add the process of growth of an individual, from single cell to embryo to adult—The Theory do you agree?] adapting to the environment around it. ‘Macroevolution,’ one species becoming a completely different species, has not.” So to JR I say that the observed process of what The Theory has coined for the sake of discussion as “Microevolution,” is fact. “Macroevolution,” which is what I believe is the type of evolution pitted against creationism, is a theory.


4. JR: I don’t understand your question about teaching “everything” in biology followed by a week of creationism followed by a week of ethnomusicology, etc. Within what we call the school year, there should be plenty of room to touch upon lots of topics about what is known about the world, what questions have been raised and answered and what questions have been raised but not yet answered, whether this things are taught as biology or literature or whatever. But I don’t want to debate pedagogy.

5. Steve S: See above comments about micro/macroevolution. Thanks for adding your comment about the mishaps that occur during fetal growth. There’s a Museum of Human Oddities (not sure if that’s the official name) in Washington, D.C. (I believe there’s a similar one in Philly). The bulk of their collection is comprised of the specimens that doctors carried around with them in the 1800s. Among other things was a section that contained jar after jar after jar of deformed human fetuses, including those with gills, webbed feet, lobster-like claws, a Cyclops, etc. As with you, this was further proof *to me,* that within the History of All Life, there is something that connects us all biologically. I esp. appreciate your emphasis of “to me.” Like I said, present all the theories, beliefs, etc. and let people make up their own minds. I think it’s wrong to tell children that evolution—macroevolution—is a fact. It’s not. As much as I buy it, it’s not an established fact in the way that microevolution is.

Part of the problem is the dumbing down of scientific education in this country. Most of us are force fed the obligatory science classes K-12 and then for those of us who don’t go into science professions, we may take a few classes here or there at the higher ed level, but then that’s it. Most of us don’t keep up with science in our adulthood so it’s no wonder that this sort of dispute even takes place—theory vs. fact. That’s basic science 101. I’m not disparaging anyone who has commented and let me go on the record as stating that I’m not a scientist, and I’m very guilty of not keeping up with scientific discovery. Thus, when Eric reminds us that “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” my first thought was, “wow, what a blast from the past! I remember that!” But I didn’t really remember because I had to go look up it’s actually meaning. In my search I came across this very interesting web page:
http://mcraeclan.com/Graeme/Language/OntogenyRecapitulatesPhylogeny.htm

Seems like there’s been a lot of confusion over that as well.

So now what? How do we rationally discuss scientific things like cloning, stem-cell research, global warming etc. when we don’t have any basic foundation for understanding these sort of concepts?

To Alienboy: On the original post I started out quoting The Island of Dr. Moreau because the whole book is quite a to-do about evolution.

12:03 AM  
Anonymous RJ said...

posted by RJ blogcritis.com on January 23, 2005 12:00 AM:
I don't see the big problem here.

Evolution is being taught in GA. But it is being presented as a theory, which is exactly what it is.

So...what's the big fuss all about?

12:04 AM  
Anonymous DrPat said...

posted by DrPat on blogcritics.com on January 23, 2005 02:17 AM:
When presented by Darwin and Wallace, this was a theory, as in: "we don't have anough evidence to be 100% sure, but here's what we think might be the case."

In the 300 or so years since, we've collected plenty of evidence to move the pointer from "maybe" to "probably" on this theory.

In that sense, today the "theory" of evolution is like the "theory" of Brownian motion. We don't have a camera to photograph the random motions of atoms; we don't have a way to go back in time to sample DNA.

But both answer the questions involved in their disciplines equally well. Brownian motion accords with the observed facts of temperature and pressure, better than prior theories of atomic motion. Evolution accords with the fossil record and other observations of now-living organizisms, better than prior theories did.

Now shall we paste stickers in our astronomy textbooks to let children know that the Big Bang, red-shift and life cycle of stars are to be considered equal in science to the first verses of Genesis?

12:06 AM  
Anonymous RJ said...

posted by RJ on blogcritics.com January 23, 2005 02:27 AM:
The "Big Bang" is a theory as well.

If some astronomy text says so, I wouldn't be offended. Who could?

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Andy Marsh said...

posted by andy marsh on blogcritics.com on January 23, 2005 06:58 AM:
Hey - I watched Catwoman the other night on DVD. If you look at Halle Berry in that movie with all that leather on and that whip and don't believe in intelligent design, I don't know what to say. Something had to be responsible for making someone that HOT!

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Mojo said...

posted by Mojo on blogcritics.com on January 23, 2005 11:10 AM:
mpho--

how unfortunate for you that your blob is a jackass magnet.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

posted by JR on blogcritics.com on January 23, 2005 11:21 AM:
Hey - I watched Catwoman the other night on DVD. If you look at Halle Berry in that movie with all that leather on and that whip and don't believe in intelligent design, I don't know what to say. Something had to be responsible for making someone that HOT!

Plastic surgeons, pharmacists, make-up artists, cinamatographers, etc. I've seen pictures, her original "design" was nowhere near that hot.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

posted by JR on blogcritics.com on January 23, 2005 11:26 AM:
microevolution has been observed: one species adapting to the enviroment around it. macroevolution, one species becoming a completely different species, has not.

But we have observed speciation in various intermediate stages. One obvious example would be horses and donkeys - are they one species or two?

12:11 AM  

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