Saturday, August 13, 2005

Inevitable Entry About Evolution

Over at second americano they've lately brought up evolution, a topic that's been much in the news the last couple of lifetimes or so. Lately our dickwad of a President has espoused that "Intelligent Design" should be taught in schools so that our children can see both sides of the issue.

The Stoat: Actually, let's just stop here for a moment and consider that statement.

Calvino: What statement? That George Bush is a dickwad? He is kind of a dickwad. And aren't I supposed to start these dialogs?

The Stoat: Whatever. And while, yes, George Bush is a dickwad, I think he's a total dickwad, whereas you think he's kind of a dickwad. Let's have a fair and balanced debate about it.

Calvino: Um...okay. Well, I'm sure the President has some slightly redeeming qualities. Also he's not literally a total dickwad.

The Stoat: Yeah, I was kidding there. Though at the same time cleverly making my point. I was talking about George W. implying that Intelligent Design was somehow the binary opposite of the theory of Evolution. Never mind your feelings about intelligent design, never mind your feelings about evolution, never mind your feelings on the Creation Myths/Metaphors of every major or minor religion on Earth, and never mind even your feelings about teaching in public school a theory the main tenet of which is, "Everything our currently accepted scientific theory about the origination of life on earth can't quite explain is due to the devine action of our god," never mind all of that: saying Intelligent Design and Evolution should be taught side by side so that children can see "both sides of the issue"(!) is still a stupid thing to say.

Calvino: You're right. I bow to your superior argument. George Bush is a total dickwad.

Binary Opposition, mind you, is an entirely useful hatchet with which to mentally hew complex concepts. Apparently our president finds it helpful when thinking about the origins of life on earth. Apparently, also, he'd like his particular hatchet (which, to be fair, many proponents of Intelligent Design seem to share) taught to the youth of America. Anyway, this is not really my point, and for all I know he's just pandering to his base and actually has an extremely complex, nuanced view of the origin of the species. Ha ha.

Let's lay out some ground rules, and if you don't accept the following, you've landed smack in the middle of the wrong discourse: over the course of billions of years, out of the primordial soup, amino acids emerged, eventually one of them happened by a stray phospholipid bi-layer and they had a little party together. One fine day such an assemblage ran into a bit of bacteria that specialized in producing ATP and soon the eukaryotes were born. If you believe the earth is 6000 years old, that man was literally created in God's image, and that dinosaurs never roamed the earth...well, if you don't believe dinosaurs roamed the earth, you probably don't surf the net reading blogs, and probably this site is blocked by your porn-filter over its repeated employment of the word, 'dickwad,' and, actually, you probably don't own a computer. Anyway, you've stumbled on the wrong argument. But on the other hand, if you think the theory of evolution has no room for some idea of god, you're also in the wrong discourse.

If you haven't read Rebecca's post about evolution that's linked at the top, go read it now. Seriously. I'll wait. Or I'll summarize: evolution is not a plan, not in the linear sense of plans having planned outcomes. It's a giant roiling experiment, in which the fittest don't really always survive. Sometimes VHS survives and Betamax fizzles out not because VHS is the better product, but because quirks in the market favor the technologically inferior product. And, then, of course, DVD comes along and tanks them both. The market, actually, is a useful metaphor: in a million years the air might be an unbreathable ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide, while dolphins will have evolved opposible thumbs, and the market conditions will make an entirely new order of animals the king of the heap, and any attempt to put life into a linear narrative would have to look rather different than it does now.

Darwin famously lost his religion over his own realizations and theorizations about that roiling experiment. If one absolutely insists on taking ones creation metaphor as literal truth, one must, faced with evidence to the contrary, reject the metaphor as truth or live with some severe cognitive dissonance on the subject. But there's more to it than that: in a market, one can introduce a new product, hoping that it will solve a problem or need in that market, and design the product thus. The product and the plan behind it might not succeed, but there was an intelligent design (word choice intended) behind it. In life there's no evidence that this is true: mutations and variations occur at random and constantly, and 99.99999% of them have no useful effect, or kill off the organism, but the ten millionth mutation is a sodium channel in the phospholipid bilayer, or a white blood cell, or opposable thumbs. A person who has sodium channels, white blood cells, and thumbs looks back at it and sees a linear narrative, because that's what we do as observers. But that's just our story as observers, and right now that story is the only context in which anyone can find a place for God/god. That's true on both sides of George W.'s imagined dichotomy, and I think the really interesting questions about life and god are being missed because of it.

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