A counterattack for evolution

June 15, 2008|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[special to the sun]

ONLY A THEORY

Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul

SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION

A Scientific Defense of Faith

By George E. Vaillant

Broadway Books / 238 pages / $24.95

In 1794, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, became a casualty of the French Revolution. Arrested and sentenced to death, he pleaded for time to complete his research. "The Republic has no need of scientists," the judge replied. Lavoisier was beheaded, his body thrown into a mass grave.

Although scientists fared much better in the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of people remain uneasy with or hostile to them. With its emphasis on chance and change (through mutation and natural selection), they believe, modern science undermines faith in an orderly world in which everything has been foreseen and foreordained. By God.

With support from the Bush administration, anti-evolutionists have gained the initiative in the struggle for America's "scientific soul." But the issue has been joined. The books under review are three among many in which scientists defend the persuasive power and practical utility of scientific reason in terms accessible to lay audiences. Without the consent of informed citizens, the authors remind us, American preeminence in science cannot endure.

The Drunkard's Walk is an informative, irreverent and iconoclastic investigation of the role of randomness in daily life. Drawing on studies in psychology, probability and statistics, Leonard Mlodinow, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, demonstrates that by failing to give pride of place to unforeseeable or fluctuating forces, most of us make faulty assumptions about causes and effects.

At times, Mlodinow grants too much power to randomness. Sometimes success is the residue of industry, intelligence and good judgment. Nonetheless, by illuminating "illusions of patterns and patterns of illusions," The Drunkard's Walk provides a humbling reminder that we should not judge others - or ourselves - solely by the results that are "achieved."

While Mlodinow seems indifferent to the implications of randomness for the existence of God, George Vaillant, a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist at Harvard, believes that spirituality has a neurobiological basis. Composed of "positive emotions" - love, joy, hope, forgiveness, compassion and awe - spirituality, he claims, is as common to human beings as breathing.

Spiritual Evolution gives neither aid nor comfort to religious traditionalists. Where spirituality is hard-wired into the limbic brain, religion is an artifact of culture, cognitive rather than emotional. Spirituality enhances empathy and trust. Religion promotes mistrust and division.

The "mere mention of spirituality," Vaillant acknowledges, leads some of his colleagues "to roll their eyes with disbelief." Spiritual Evolution is unlikely to convert the skeptics. "Positive emotions" may reflect an advance in cultural evolution. But it takes, well, a leap of faith to use the positive emotions as proof that life has "meaning" - or to bridge the gap between science and religion.

That gap is growing, according to Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University. Creationists, "now re-branded as proponents of Intelligent Design," have had considerable success in shaping the public debate about evolution. No longer relying explicitly on the Bible, I.D. advocates insist that "irreducibly complex systems" in nature require a designer. And that Darwinian descriptions of the origins of life are just theories, not facts. A solid majority of Americans agrees with them.

In Only A Theory, Miller, the lead witness for the prosecution in the landmark evolution case in Dover, Pa., in 2005, demolishes the assertions of advocates of Intelligent Design. Given the vast number of extinct species, he writes, their designer seems persistent but not very skillful. Citing an avalanche of evidence, Miller demonstrates that systems identified by I.D. as "irreducibly complex" aren't. Though I.D. trumpets its connections to information theory, biochemistry and molecular biology, Miller concludes, as did Judge John Jones in Kitzmiller v. Dover, it rests, ultimately, on ignorance. Extending an olive branch to religious Americans, Miller suggests that evolution and faith aren't really in conflict because all of nature is part of God's providential plan. In this sense, he believes, the conviction that "the universe had us in mind from the very beginning" is a "perfectly valid metaphor."

Intelligent Design ideologues are no more satisfied with a metaphor than evangelicals were at the Scopes trial. And so the "evolution wars" rage on, and "bad science" continues to permeate public policy.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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