Thursday, 12 February 2009

LolDarwin of the day: Open post

I was just sent this Guardian story, along with the admonition:
You should write about this. It is so full of idiotic ideas, one hardly knows where to begin.
This might be the truest thing ever spoken. According to the story:
The Ulster Museum in Belfast faces a legal challenge unless it stages a creationist exhibition as a counter to its forthcoming series on Charles Darwin, a Democratic Unionist member of the Northern Ireland assembly warned today.

The chairman of the education committee at the Northern Ireland Assembly said: "I am not against the museum or anywhere else promoting Darwin's theory, but I think it would be in the public's interest to give them an alternative theory as well."
I don't want to turn this into a creationism vs. evolution battle, so I will highlight a very simple fact: we're talking about a museum. The UK Museums Association defines museums as "institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artifacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society." Charles Darwin was an important scientist who made a significant contribution to theories on the natural history of the world. He collected specimens and submitted copious written records that led us to a much greater understanding than we would have had without his efforts. Whatever you believe about the man or his theories, they both belong in a museum.

If there is a similar figure behind creationism, if there is similarly thorough and tangible evidence to support robust theory, then by all means, have a creationism exhibition. I suspect, however, that it might be a little sparse.

You know what I wish? I wish people could be discerning enough to separate their own religious passions from the governance and education of the public. But I'm not going to rage against the machine. I'm instead making this an open post so you can tell me what you think. Have at it.

1 comment:

  1. There are a few popular confusions illustrated in this article that I feel the need to address.

    First, Stormont describes creationism as an "alternative theory" to evolution, and suggests that the latter is "still only a theory". Both statements belie a misunderstanding of the word. A theory in the scientific sense is a hypothesis about the nature of a phenomenon, which makes predictions that can be contradicted through experimentation: a theory, by its very nature, must be testable and falsifiable. So the statement "Viruses cause sickness" is a theory; the statement "Demons cause sickness" is not. An important corollary is that a theory is not "provable", in the same sense that a logical conclusion might be "demonstrable"; at best, a theory may be difficult to contradict because its predictions have, so far, proven accurate. Gravity is a theory that describes how the attractive force between bodies is related to their mass and separation. It is accepted to be true in the scientific sense (that is, its predictions are consistently accurate to several orders of magnitude of precision), but not in the sense that "it could not be false".

    Now, whatever else creationism might be, since it cannot be tested and is immune to contradiction a priori, it is not a scientific theory about how modern-day species came to exist on earth. This is an important point. Religion, dressed up in creationist rhetoric, has its place in various spheres of knowledge (history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy, to name a handful), but science is not one of them. It should not be taught to children in a biology class, nor should its artefacts be paraded in any museum that purports to pay homage to scientific pioneers or their discoveries.

    And to the extent that evolution is "only" a theory, so is the theory of gravity, along with Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, Newton's laws of motion, Einstein's relativity and the laws of thermodynamics. These theories drive 21st century civilisation. They underpin the infrastructure of our buildings, the lights in our houses, the chips in our computers and the engines in our cars, and they are the foundation upon which scientific knowledge is built. The fact that they are theories does not diminish them.

    Second, the familiar argument is made that there are "others in the scientific world who question [Darwin's theory]". There are not. I throw down the gauntlet to the learned and varied readers of the Mongoose Chronicles to locate a single - one - reputable natural scientist who questions the basic tenet of Darwin's thesis: that species on earth evolved through various stages by a process of natural selection over billions of years. The evidence for this statement is truly overwhelming and among those in the biological sciences is accepted as (scientific) fact. Darwin's thesis makes predictions that have, time and again, and now 150 years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species", been borne out by reality. The continuity in the fossil record, showing the transitional states of species (including those of man, before his anatomically modern state); the vestigial organs of present-day animals that reveal their previous forms; the dinosaur teeth that scientists have recently managed to coax out of the beaks of chickens by activating a dormant gene, thereby illustrating their reptilian heritage; and the list goes on. Only those who wantonly disregard the pile of evidence are capable of disbelieving it.

    Finally, Stormont rejects as false the allegation that men came from monkeys, sure in the knowledge that "there are plenty of other people in this society who don't believe it either." I should certainly hope so, since this interpretation of Darwinian thought, while pervasive, is extremely silly. Evolutionary theory holds that the great apes (a group which includes gorillas, chimpanzees and Man, but, conspicuously, excludes monkeys) shared a common ancestor, and their respective development paths split some 7 million years ago. It does not allege that a pregnant monkey gave birth to a baby girl at some point in prehistory. There is also, not surprisingly, a mountain of support for the link between men and apes, including chromosomal similarities and fossil chronology. Again, while there is dispute about the exact evolutionary path to modern man, there is none about the basic idea that he did evolve.

    The number of people in positions of relative power who lack the basic scientific knowledge that should have been acquired in a classroom at age 14 should cause one to worry. Mr. Stormont is a prominent Northern Ireland Democratic Union Party member and former schoolteacher who presumably believes that the earth is 5000 years old, that man- and woman-kind were made from mud and ribs respectively, and that the biological cause of menstruation can be traced to an instance of serpentine trickery. If that doesn't frighten you, nothing will.


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