Monday, August 08, 2005

A Little Bit of Tolerance Can Go a Long Way

I once knew a Young Earth Creationist Christian who attempted to prove to me that the Earth was a little bit more than 6,000 years old and everything that 99.9 percent or more of scientists thought to the contrary was wrong. As there was no amount scientific evidence that could possibly change his mind, I concentrated on discrediting his sources. In so doing I found some remarkably good material critical of some aspects of the theory of evolution. While it is clear that the universe and our planet are very, very old and the fossil record clearly shows that the evolution of life forms has in fact taken place, contemporary evolutionary theory is at times weak when it comes to mechanisms.

Darwin thought that evolution would be both continuous and very gradual. The fossil record says something very different. Taxa seem to be stable for incredibly long periods of time before going through periods of rapid change. Stephen Jay Gould attempted to explain this with his theory of punctuated equilibrium. There are other good natural explanations as well. While this phenomenon is currently the subject of scientific debate there is good reason that to believe that a satisfactory natural explanation will be forthcoming.

Evolutionary theory is also very shaky when it comes to characterizing how the first single cell creatures came into being. The dilute nutrient pond plus outside energy source (lightning, cosmic rays, etc.) theory leaves much to be desired. However, recent discoveries of novel ecological systems flourishing near deep sea hydrothermal vents suggest a viable alternate scenario. The late Tom Gold proposed yet another intriguing theory proposing that life formed in the deep crust of the Earth. However, Stuart Kauffman's theory of autocatalytic networks is a viable alternative to the conventional wisdom of the last half-century and neatly disposes of the argument that life could not have originated naturally because of astronomical improbability.

So, evolutionary theory in currently accepted form is on thin ice when it comes to origins and firmer but not completely solid footing in terms of mechanisms. It is in that regard, subject to attacks by those who deny that evolution is an established fact. However, there is an important distinction between the science that tells us what happened and the science that attempts to describe how it happened. What happened -- the fossil and geological records -- is indisputable. How it happened is another matter altogether. Much work needs to be done there.

There are those who argue that, along with conventional evolutionary facts and theories, we should also present an alternative called "Intelligent Design". Our universe may, in fact, be the result of a failed laboratory experiment conducted by a student on the planet Zork in another universe. Or it may have taken place in exactly the way described in the Biblical book of Genesis. The problem with Intelligent Design theories is that they cannot provide through any scientific means that we currently accept answers to the two most fundamental questions that arise from that theory: who did it and how did he, she, it or them do it? While Intelligent Design is an interesting speculation, it is nothing more than that.

However, some Christians have an incontrovertable belief in the divine origins of life on Earth. They want students to at least be exposed to the possibility that their notion has some merit. I see little harm in reasonable accommodation between contending parties in this matter. The theory of evolution is of little interest to almost everyone other than evolutionary biologists. At best, it is nice to know for the rare person who has an interest in the matter and irrelevant to everyone else.

I would therefore propose a measure of tolerance. Let Bible Belt school districts or other local authorities who dictate curricula go about their business without interference. No measurable or significant harm will be done and we can avoid a needless war between Christian anti-evolutionists and those who despise them that doesn't have to be fought to be won. This is not a life and death matter and the fate of the Republic does not hang in the balance. Lighten up, give some slack and no harm will be done.

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