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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Further Discourse on Demonizing Darwin

In my most recent Scientist Appreciation post on Friedrich Wöhler, I pointed out that Darwin, in my opinion, receives a disproportionate amount of discussion and demonizing by the religious right compared to other historical scientists. Regan responded to this by saying:
The biggest reason that Darwin is such a huge target is because the work he did and inspired totally invalidates the story of genesis.

Wohler's challenge to vitalism is different in the sense that there is nothing in the bible that says "And lo god created vitalism, and it was pretty neat", so it was easier to rationalize that concept into the theological worldview. The work that Darwin did and inspired can't be crammed into the bible no matter how hard you try. The bible says X happened, and the study of the processes of natural selection and evolution says Y happened. There is no possible way to reconcile the two.

I think the stranger scientist to be demonized by religion is Galileo. The bible doesn't even explicitly say the sun travels around the earth, and they still put him under house arrest until he died.
Since Regan's statements do not satisfy the quandary I meant to be presenting but are nevertheless factual and reasonable, I thought it worth writing another post on the matter to hopefully elucidate my original intent more clearly. As with most of my posts on subjects outside the realm of computational neuroscience, I have not made exhaustive study of the topics I cover here, so it is reasonably possible I am basing my discourse on incorrect information (of course, that is still possible when I am talking about computational neuroscience, just I tend to think it less likely). If you disagree with what I write, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email.

The thing is, revealed religious truths are awfully dependent on the ephemeral whims of people. Organized religions also tend to have a couple driving forces to deal with - there is both the scripture itself as well as clerical dogma. Before widespread printing of the Bible, these two forces in the Christian world were largely one and the same - Christianity was governed by one of a few theocratic hierarchies (the Catholic church in the west, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east). My historical knowledge of eastern Europe is weaker than my knowledge of western Europe before the 1900s, so I will primarily concentrate on the west. This merging of clerical dogma and scripture under the closed purview of the Catholic hierarchy meant that, for the most part, there was one accepted version of Christianity and alternative interpretations of the scripture (which could possibly lead to new dogmas) were not widespread (since few had access to scriptural learning) and, when they did occur, suppressed through threats of excommunication and the charge of apostasy. This situation could help explain the reaction to Galileo, as the view of Earth as the centre of the universe, while not explicitly scriptural truth, was heavily part of the clerical dogma. Given the philosophical stance of the Christian faith that humans are the favoured creation of an all-powerful god, Earth as the centre actually fits better. Combined with scriptural references like Joshua making the sun stand still, the conclusion that Earth was not the centre of the universe and rather revolved around the sun contradicted current dogmatic law based on the currently favoured interpretation of scripture. Galileo's conclusion, therefore, was, in some interpretations, contradictory to scripture, but, more importantly, was subversive to the power of the religious hierarchy. As time progressed and Galileo's view of the solar system became more and more undeniable, the religious dogma gradually shifted to accommodate. The story of Joshua was recast either to 'metaphor' or interpreted as the miracle of the Earth halting its rotation and orbit rather than the sun halting its motion, and the clerical dogma avoided comment on the issue before finally apologizing for Galileo's treatment a couple decades ago when someone must have realised they were still remiss in that regard. Of course, one reason the Catholic church is usually so slow to apologize or admit wrongdoing for anything is because, technically, their head guy is supposed to be divinely inspired by an omnipotent and timeless all-powerful being. As their god's agent on Earth, the pope should infallible (at least once he becomes pope). Admitting mistaken persecution of a brilliant scientist because his claims were deemed wrong makes the infallibility of a divinely inspired leader a little harder to argue.

Moving past Galileo and back to the time period of Darwin and Wöhler, however, schisms within the world of Christianity had been amplified by the translation of the Bible into many languages as well as widespread availability of printed material and an increase in literacy. Although there was still a certain amount of power concentrated in clerical hierarchies, there happened to be more of them now that the Church of England existed along with other Protestant branches like Lutheranism, and that division weakened their overall power. As was pointed out by Andrew, Darwin did not operate in a vacuum. Geology and paleontology were being developed by pioneering scientists like Georges Cuvier and James Sutton. Darwin was not the scientist who first developed the idea that extinct species had once lived on Earth without any evidence of mankind in a period of time far further in the past than one could feasibly trace the Biblical story. What he did was develop a theory that elegantly explained the appearane of the biological rule based on these observations as well as zoological observations in his current day. I would argue that it was the scientists who developed the fields of paleontology and geology who more directly contradicted the Biblical story of genesis.

Thus, the manner in which Darwin's work contradicts Biblical creationism must be seen more as a philosophical contradiction rather than a direct one, in which evolution can be seen as a naturalistic mechanism to explain the distribution and form of extant species. This explanation weakens the need for a divine explanation for the form of modern life, although it says nothing about the origin of life. Before vitalism had been demonstrated incorrect and we were able to generate organic substances from inorganic subtrates, an avenue for theological retreat remained widely open. By recasting genesis as a metaphor and enfolding evolution into "god's plan", the divine origin of life was much more easily defensible when there was no known natural mechanism for going from inorganic to organic. Without the abandonment of vitalism, theistic evolution is a much more viable outlook (although I would contend that one still has to answer how a benevolent and all-powerful god would deign to rely on such a largely unforgiving and unpleasant mechanism).

Evolution, it would seem, largely attacked the dogmatic idea of immutable forms, while the disproof of vitalism greatly weakens the idea of a divine origin for life. Both are aspects of the Biblical creation story, which is why I thought Wöhler's work also undermined religious dogma in a similar manner to Darwin's.