February 24, 2005

Natural selection and moral decay

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so upsetting. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God's image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant in trying to have evolution not taught in schools or its teaching to be undermined by inserting fake cautions about its credibility. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.

I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don't try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.

So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be a non-scientist.

It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Others won't. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in that?

But my conversations with the ID people revealed that they have a much darker view of the consequences of teaching evolution. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.

Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. And they see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools.

They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards results in the slippery slope of moral relativism and situational ethics, where there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context.

They pin the blame for this shift in morals directly on evolutionary theory. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God's special creation. This leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.

So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen by them as a fight for America's very soul and this explains the passion which is expended by them on what, to the rest of us, might seem just another aspect of the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce ID as merely an 'alternative theory' is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.

While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels (and I will do so in a later posting), I was impressed with the sincerity of many of the people at the ID meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the ID movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader argument and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if ID was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (I will discuss this so-called 'wedge strategy' later.)

This is why ID advocates feel they cannot allow the teaching of evolution. For them it is not just a scientific theory they have problems with. They see this as a battle for the soul of America, and the world.


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