Recall Darwin by accepting diversity

Outside of academia, the mood is less festive, as many Georgians still resist the idea that evolution explains human life. Rather than celebrate Darwin, the push among doubters is to diminish his influence with policies mandating that biblically inspired alternatives to evolution (creationism, intelligent design) be taught in public school biology classes.

That people do not accept widely held scientific conclusions is troubling. More troubling still, however, is that so many seem so unclear on what science even is. With this thought in mind — and in the spirit of the month — perhaps it’s time for supporters of Darwin to take the offensive with a different sort of public policy, one inspired by the Cobb County school district.

What if the state mandated that stickers with the following disclaimer be affixed to Bibles distributed by any tax-exempt Christian organization? “The existence of God is just one theory among many about the origin and purpose of the universe.” Or better yet: “There is no scientific evidence for the existence of God.” Both statements are, after all, accurate. There are many theories about the origin of the universe, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the existence of any deity, Christian or otherwise.

So what do we think? Good idea? Well, perhaps not. These stickers ignore boundaries that exist between two quite distinct ways of knowing the world, the religious and the scientific.

How are they distinct? Well, for starters, religion is concerned with something science isn’t: meaning. Religion, like philosophy, aims to explain the moral universe — how we should act. Science can’t provide us with much insight into that — evolutionary theory has absolutely no moral component to it — and for that reason we might say that science doesn’t belong here.

Of course, religion discusses the natural world as well — offering health and diet tips for example — but when it does, it claims either to speak only in metaphor, or, if it claims to speak the literal truth, it neither asks for nor requires anything akin to scientific evidence.

It doesn’t because it doesn’t need to. Religion has a more powerful card up its sleeve, something that frees those who possess it from the constant doubts that beset science. I’m speaking, of course, of faith. People with faith need no evidence; armed with faith alone, they can know things every bit as confidently as scientists can know what they know.

And here’s the rub for my stickers. To sully religious faith with concerns that have no bearing on it shows a profound lack of understanding and respect for the integrity of the religious experience.

Now if that all sounds good, then let’s pause and think about science.

To know something in a scientific sense is not to have faith in it. It’s to look at what we think we know and do our level best to disprove it. In a sense, the security of scientific knowledge rests, somewhat paradoxically, on the ultimate insecurity of its claims.

While this means there can be no complete certainty, it certainly does not rule out high degrees of it. The more a claim conforms to the way we understand the world, and the more that our repeated and persistent attempts to refute it fail, the greater our certainty about it. Such is the case with scientific conclusions about the shape of our planet, the laws of thermodynamics and, gulp, evolution.

On this last claim we need to be quite clear: It is simply not the case that evolution is disputed in the scientific community. There is debate within evolutionary theory — about the rate at which species arise, about the precise mechanisms of natural selection, about the validity of evolutionary psychology, about the role of contingent events — but on the general claim that species evolve through natural selection there is no scientific disagreement.

(Neither, by the way, is it true that evolution is unobservable. Bacteria mutate quite rapidly. Ask anyone who has had to go through multiple antibiotic treatments about evolution — they’ll tell you.)

All of this is not to say that people have to accept scientific findings. People are free to accept whatever they wish to accept. Schools, though, have an obligation to teach science, and to do so free from religious overtones.

In light of that fact, perhaps this month should be a time for each side to proclaim, “We’ll keep our stickers out of your books if you keep yours out of ours.” Only by accepting the diversity of human understanding can we preserve the integrity not just of science, but of all those ways of knowing the world without which science would be of little consequence.

Peter Lindsay is an associate professor of political science and philosophy at Georgia State.

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