Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Evolution and Epistemology (Boy does that sound boring)

While I'm thinking about religion,  I'd like to get this other thing out there.  It has to do with evolution and the left wing confusion about what the fight against evolution is really all about.

I started reading the writings of the anti-evolution people back in the Sixties, initially by digging up a number of the books on the subject mentioned in the chapter on evolution in Martin Gardner's seminal Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and then visiting Christian bookstores to find more.  This was not too long into the rebirth of opposition to the notion of evolution, which forms a significant part of my account.

Attacks on evolution from religious people, and their associated denial of the geological evidence that the world is very old, actually predate Darwin; these people could see the direction that science was going, and almost from the time they first realized how out of joint scientific discovery was with biblical doctrine, they were attempting to refute it.  Most of their writings were, of course, composed of the same type of ignorant gibberish that characterizes the works of Creationists and Intelligent Design loons of today.  There were some clever exceptions, however, which leads me to one of my favorite arguments against the long existence of the world, to be found in a book called Omphalos, by one Philip Gosse, published before The Origin of the Species.  Briefly, Gosse argued that, when God created the world, he had to create it as a going concern.  For example, a river needed a river bed, or it would just flow out over the land and dissipate.  This river bed would give the appearance of having been created over time.  Also, when God created the world, he couldn't populate it with newborn animals, or they would all have died without adults to care for them;  he would have to create adult animals that would appear to have a history stretching back before the moment of creation.  It was always surprising to me that Gosse's argument was never highly regarded by anti-evolutionists, because it does explain a lot.  Anyway, the notion that God would deceive people in the act of creation seems to have been so appalling to religious characters that willingly swallowed so much patent Biblical nonsense, that Gosse was left by the side of the road.  Sad to say, I once had a nineteenth century copy of Gosse's book, which stood proudly alongside the works of Alfred Lawson, the most lunatic scientific nut of all, but it disappeared long ago.

So, all sorts attacks on the notion of evolution continued to be produced until about the early 1920's, around the time of the Scopes monkey trial.  It was not because of the trial that the diatribes against evolution died out- in fact rather the opposite.  Remember that Scopes was originally convicted at his trial; it was only later, in the face of almost universal public ridicule that the judgment was overturned.  This was because by that time, the evidence for evolution had become so overwhelming that it could not be denied, and so the strident religious opposition to evolution died away.

There things pretty much remained for three decades.  And then a strange thing happened.  Right wing religious organizations once again began to produce a host of anti-evolution works, and the opposition to evolution re-emerged from the grave.  Given that evidence in favor of evolution had only grown more solid in the intervening years, how could this be, and on what basis could it be challenged?

Here, we come to the heart of my story.  Having read a good deal of the literature produced during this period (roughly 1955-1970,) I noticed a strange phenomenon:  These polemics were based not on biology or geology, but on what I can only describe as epistemology.  Let me explain:  Epistemologists are accustomed to divide knowledge into two categories, a priori knowledge, that which can be derived from pure reasoning, and a posteriori or empirical knowledge, that which can be known by examining facts in the world, gathering evidence and drawing conclusions.  The religious dismiss a priori reasoning, and substitutes a third source of knowledge: divine revelation, as contained in the Bible and as conveyed to them directly from God.

There is no example of a posteriori reasoning for which there is as much evidence as evolution and the geological discoveries that go along with it.  And that, I believe is why evolution re-emerged as an object of religious contention.  In the end, right wing Christians are not interested in evolution at all.  What they are interested in, and why they work so hard to deny it, is that in the process they believe they are striking a death blow at the entire legitimacy of a posteriori reasoning itself.  That, in their impoverished epistemology, leaves only one source of real knowledge: divine revelation, or in reality, whatever they decide is true.

He who controls what is true controls everything, in the end.  This entire struggle is not about religion; it is about power.  The Christian right is trying to establish their ownership of official truth- to  cement their sole right to say what is true and false.  They thereby will (they believe) seize the right for themselves alone to make every decision about life in our country.  Their intent is no different than that of any other would-be dictator; they merely cloak it in pseudo-religious claptrap to deceive the ignorant.

15 comments:

Magpie said...

“In the end, right wing Christians are not interested in evolution at all.”

Oh I think they are.

Most advances in science did not pose a real threat to religion as a social and political influence in quite the way that evolution did/does. The bell tolled for religion when Darwin came along.

Evolution was a vastly bigger threat than cosmological challenges like the Copernican Revolution. You could have your industrial advances too, like internal combustion, electricity, steel or flight and there is not a lot in the Bible for them to be at odds with. Indeed these things enabled Bible-pushers to stamp all over the planet forcing their dogma on people.

But evolution obliterated the Biblical idea of mankind and nature at the level of a base concept. Evolution means you DO NOT owe God a god-damn thing, unless you get very lose with Biblical interpretation.

We love Darwin in Australia - we have a major city named after him – and I have wondered if the concurrency of colonialism here with Darwin’s work was an early defining reason why religion is not even a fraction as powerful a force here as it is in the United States (because that’s a little complicated to explain by other means).

Just thinking out loud – does it have to do with exceptionalism?
Right wingers in the US believe as a matter of faith that America is the greatest blah blah in the history of anything ever blah blah get fucked.
Evolution, however, says no-one is exceptional just by what they are. No-one is on a divinely ordained path.

And being Right wingers they have it coming the opposite way too: The association of Darwinism with the Nazis is pretty standard cheap argumentation for them.

the yellow fringe said...

Just a note on Darwin and the kerflufel his book caused. The Darwin family, father, uncles and so on were rich and they were spending a lot of money and their time fighting slavery and slavery transport which was a big business in England with lots of ships and crews employed in that abomination. On Darwin's voyage he stopped in Brazil and bought samples of slave restraints, including finger rings and wrist bands both with screws in them to pierce, hold or torture the wearer. The Church in England was if not invested with at least protector of slave trade companies. When Darwin's book was published their already existed an attack machine fighting the Darwin family and all the anti-slave organizations. The book to them said not so much the ape to man idea but blacks and whites were linked, were equal, part of the same species, shock, same species. The rants against Darwin we hear today erupted then from the Church and it's benefactors, an oiled propaganda machine already in motion against the Darwin clan at the time. Perhaps todays perceptions of him would have been the same without the Church's immediate and hugh attack, and maybe it wouldn't.

Anonymous said...

Wow imagine where we would be if it were Islamists who settled here first and we were living under that belief system?
Although we are making some concessions for them now.

Maybe we can be just like France soon where the religion of Peace is on full display


Anonymous said...

creationist is such a big threat or Australia Huh Magpie? When was the last time a creationist Christian took people hostage in Australia while having coffee?

Anonymous said...

creationism is such a big threat in Australia Huh Magpie? When was the last time a creationist Christian took people hostage in Australia while having coffee?
Let's not talk about that,right?

Green Eagle said...

I don't know about Australia, but let's not forget that the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing were associates of Christian Identity groups. So, the worst terrorist attack in the US was the work of Muslims, but Christians proudly hold second place.

Anonymous said...

I knew you were going to bring that up and conservatives were behind McVeigh getting the death penalty.
But it was not done in the name of Christianity it was done in retaliation against that nut David Koresh who was a self proclaimed prophet who worshipped himself,not God

Green Eagle said...

Sorry, but there was a direct connection between the Oklahomia bombing perpetrators and the Christian Identity movement. Just a single quote:

"There is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh was deeply influenced by the Christian Identity movement"

http://www.ethicsdaily.com/an-accurate-look-at-timothy-mcveighs-beliefs-cms-15532#sthash.AHqEAmyQ.dpuf

The Oklahoma City bombing replicates in detail a bombing described in the infamous "Turner Diaries," written by William Butler, one of the main forces behind the development of the Christian Identity movement in the United States.

I covered some of the history of this group in a blog post written a month ago:
http://largegreenbird.blogspot.com/2014/12/with-recent-two-incidents-involving.html

This is a subject I know something about, and I do not make casual accusations.

Magpie said...

“creationism is such a big threat in Australia Huh Magpie?”

Well… we did fart out Ken Lam, of Creation Museum infamy, but he had to go to Kentucky to get that built.

“When was the last time a creationist Christian took people hostage in Australia while having coffee? Let's not talk about that, right?”

Oh by all means. Let’s.

As late as the 1960s the Christian church operating in remote areas was primarily responsible for attempted cultural genocide and the ‘stolen generations’ wherein aboriginal children were taken by force – kidnapped, hostage in perpetuity - from their parents for religious brainwashing in what amounted to systematic and sadistic child abuse. Some of it sexual. Not our finest moment and yet ALL down to you idiot come-to-Jesus types even in your relative powerlessness here compared to the United States.

Now about the case you are alluding to:

I got the impression the guy you mean wasn’t a big fan of evolution theory. Do you know something different?

He was a religious nut. Also a wife-murdering scumbag from Iran, where he had apparently been tortured, at which point his disturbed nature appears to have started.
Tortured.
You know what torture is. Some of your ilk think it’s profoundly productive. Not so in this case.

Now then, perhaps you can explain what he has to do with evolution?

Every time Mr Eagle targets the Christian Right – which is powerful in the US – your defence is ‘well what about that OTHER bunch of religious crackpots? – who have NO power in the United States’.

Pretty pathetic defence.

And AGAIN...none of us are apologising for Islamic extremism anyway. Quite the opposite.

Zog said...

(I'll try again with posting this.)

Sorry to say this, Green Eagle, but you're completely wrong about what happened between 1925 and 1970.

"
So, all sorts attacks on the notion of evolution continued to be produced until about the early 1920's, around the time of the Scopes monkey trial. It was not because of the trial that the diatribes against evolution died out- in fact rather the opposite. Remember that Scopes was originally convicted at his trial; it was only later, in the face of almost universal public ridicule that the judgment was overturned." -- Green Eagle

That's not why the judgment was overturned. The judge at the Scopes trial fined Scopes $100 for his violation of the Butler Act, which banned the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools. However, under Tennessee law at the time, the highest fine a judge could impose was $50; all higher fines had to be imposed by a jury.

When hearing Scopes' appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared the Butler Act constitutional, and thus the state would prohibit the teaching of evolution for the next four decades. Scopes' conviction was reversed on a technicality: the trial judge had imposed a higher fine than he was legally permitted to impose.

"This was because by that time, the evidence for evolution had become so overwhelming that it could not be denied, and so the strident religious opposition to evolution died away." -- Green Eagle

Utterly and completely wrong.

By 1930, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Florida had all prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public schools. As a result, textbook publishers had two options:

(1) Publish one textbook for the states where the teaching of evolution was banned, and another one for the states where it was permitted, or

(2) Publish one textbook for the entire country, avoiding all mention of evolution whatsoever.

Option (2) was cheaper than option (1), so textbook publishers went with option (2).

The religious right did not have to campaign against evolution because, by 1930, it had successfully driven the teaching of evolution out of the public schools. The creationists had won the political battle.

"There things pretty much remained for three decades. And then a strange thing happened. Right wing religious organizations once again began to produce a host of anti-evolution works, and the opposition to evolution re-emerged from the grave. Given that evidence in favor of evolution had only grown more solid in the intervening years, how could this be, and on what basis could it be challenged?" -- Green Eagle

In 1957, the Soviets launched something called Sputnik. One response was the modernization of American science education. Specifically, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study produced textbooks that prominently featured evolution. For the first time in decades, evolution was mentioned in school textbooks and being taught in school.

Opposition to evolution was not "re-emerging from the grave," as you put it. Among the Christian right, it was never dead. It was just that nobody had tried to counter their opposition to teaching evolution in schools. The only thing returning from the dead was a movement to teach evolution in schools.

It was the re-emergence of that movement that led to the renewed production of creationist works. When evolution wasn't being taught, there was no need for the religious right to produce anti-evolution pseudoscience. When it was reintroduced, the need to produce said garbage returned.

[Continued below]

Zog said...

[Continuation of above]


"There is no example of a posteriori reasoning for which there is as much evidence as evolution and the geological discoveries that go along with it. And that, I believe is why evolution re-emerged as an object of religious contention." -- Green Eagle.

I think that's the wrong reason. It re-emerged as an object of religious contention because biologists were finally pushing back against the creationists' control of education.

You might be interested in Lenny Blank's short history of creation "science" at the TalkOrigins archive. The first two paragraphs detail how the religious right, fighting for bans on the teaching of evolution, came out as the political victor in the aftermath of the Scopes trial.

Green Eagle said...

Zog, I am most interested in what you have to say. My opinions on this subject mainly come from reading original source material produced by anti-evolution forces. I have had access to some pretty complete archives of this sort of material, and it was there that I noticed the virtual disappearance of anti-evolution materials in the period I mentioned, and the changed character of them when they re-emerged in the fifties. The earlier examples have received some degree of scholarly attention by historians of science, but it is my experience that the later body of anti-evolution works has been almost totally ignored. That is because, I think, it was produced not for any scholarly purpose, but as propaganda directed toward the largely ignorant mass of Evangelical Christians, and consequently were of little interest to scholars.

As you may have noticed, I specialize in that very sort of thing, and it is on the basis of my familiarity with it that I have drawn my conclusions. Unfortunately, much of this material is extremely ephemeral, and it would be virtually impossible to locate the books I read in the sixties and seventies, but I am very confident in my conclusion that what has gone on since the fifties is not a religious controversy, but an attempt to bully others into acknowledging Evangelicals as the only source of real knowledge in the world, and therefore the only ones who have any right to determine the course of world events.

As I said, however, I'm most interested in what you have to say. I'll have to think about it a while before being able to reply to a lot of it. Thanks for challenging my notions.

Zog said...

Green Eagle,

I have a copy of Halley's Bible Handbook from the early 1960s. It doesn't mention the pseudoscience relating to evolution vs. creationism; basically, it says that the order in which creation is given in the Bible is the order in which science said it happened.

What it lacks in pseudoscience, it more than makes up for in pseudohistory. Its arguments include the following:

*Archaeologists have found an ancient seal in Mesopotamia depicting a man and a woman being followed by a snake. This indicates the veracity of the story of the Garden of Eden.

*The Epic of Gilgamesh has been discovered, and it mentions a great flood. This story is clearly a corruption of the true flood associated with Noah.

*In fact, since cultures all over the world have flood stories, they must have all derived from a single source.

*We have found flood layers of pure clay in four cities. [There's no mention of all the cities where the evidence indicates no such flood.]

So what happens when one notes the lack of evidence outside Mesopotamia for a great flood? Well, the handbook has an answer. Since there were only ten generations between Adam and Noah, there weren't that many people, so they were all in Mesopotamia. In fact, Noah's descendants all had to be in Mesopotamia after a few centuries, because otherwise there could never have been a Tower of Babel.

[Note that there are 1600 years from Adam to Noah, and only 400 years from Noah to Abraham. However, Abraham was able to go to Canaan, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were in existence, and was able to go to Egypt during a period of famine. The handbook was disingenuous in describing time by generations instead of years.]

The types of rhetoric applied to promoting "creation science" over scholarly evolution are in abundance here. However, they are applied to promoting "true Biblical history" against the scholarly accounts of ancient Middle Eastern history.

What this pseudohistory has in common with creationism is a demand that the Bible be seen as ultimate truth. If paleontology conflicts with the Bible, then creationism demands that the paleontology be changed. If history conflicted with the Bible, then Halley's Bible Handbook simply changed history to fit the Bible.

This fits into my argument. If the authors of the handbook had felt a need to lie about evolution to advance their goals, they would have done so, as they certainly did it with history. I can only conclude that they didn't see such a need, and that's most likely because mainstream high school biology textbooks didn't mention evolution.

Green Eagle said...

Zog, perhaps those particular people, concerned as they were with their fantasy history, did not deal with evolution, but plenty more in that period did. As I say, unfortunately virtually none of the material that I read at the time is available any more (that's why they call it political ephemera) so I am reduced to asking people to just believe my claim to have read it at the time. I would hope that people would not have a low enough opinion of me to believe that I just made it all up.

Pokey said...

Perhaps the right can't believe in evolution because if you believe in evolution, you accept that things change. That means their economic entitlements could go away. They might even have to admit that they were wrong about something!