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Apples and Oranges?

June 28, 2011

The question about evolution posed to contestants at the recent Miss USA Pageant has generated a lot of discussion on the internet.  Much of this has, of course, focused  on the sad state of scientific education in schools, but perhaps more noticeably on the apparent ongoing clash between science and religion.

Yesterday, my friend Julius Csotonyi posted a link to  an article about whether an acceptance of evolution should be described as “believing in evolution.” Julius stated eloquently that,

“there is a popular misconception that the thumbs-up that all serious scientists give the theory of evolution depends on a measure of blind faith in the same way that religious views depend on faith. It does not. If one were to examine the mountain of evidence that supports evolution …, I contend that they would find it impossible to conclude that there is any weakness in the theory as a whole, even though there is some disagreement over some of the fine details (as is the case with any healthily and actively researched field of science). Therefore, similar to how this article points out, I avoid the use of the ‘believe’ when talking about verifiable scientific theories such as evolution.”

As a scientist working in this field, I have also long thought that we should avoid using “belief” when talking about evolution, since it is far too easy to muddy the differences between two things that are, in fact, quite distinct. Science endeavours to understand the natural world through research and experiment, while a religion involves a set of beliefs which, at their core, provide a value system by which people should live. Given the lack of overlap in critical components, evolution and religion do not really speak the same language, so we should choose our words carefully, avoiding the temptation to uncritically transfer terms from one field to another.

We should not try to to compare religion and science as though they are apples and oranges. They are really about as alike as pineapples and hand grenades: the gross and general similarities break down the minute you put your glasses on, as the underlying structures and purposes are so entirely different. Unfortunately, many people have been myopic about this basic distinction, or in some cases they have chosen to promote some sort of anti-objective glaucoma. 

There is often personal advantage in choosing to lob explosives in a random manner, and society as a whole should recognize this behaviour for what it is: self-interest (I am speaking about individuals on both sides of the “debate” here). The hand grenade approach results only in “often explosive animosity”.* I would propose that we instead embrace the pineapple, encouraging calm conversation while sipping delicious tropical beverages.

*This was Julius’ term for it. To see his superb artistic work, check out csotonyi.com

© Graham Young, 2011

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham Rudkin permalink
    June 28, 2011 9:54 am

    Seconded!

  2. lyle permalink
    June 28, 2011 12:24 pm

    But as with every logic system there are postulates at the basis of science, Lyell’s uniformitarian principal that the process we see operating in the world today operated in the past, or perhaps put in a more negative sense there are no supernatural interventions in the world. Of course the first question this raises is what is the time frame. But if you believe there are supernatural interventions in the world, then all bets are off to start with. One may invent a scenario, but I can always then have a different kind of intervention and have things be different. This principle is an article of faith in science, since it can not be proven, and we have already elongated the time frame of the observation of the processes since the Missoula floods, and metor impacts have been recognized.
    One should just state that the principle applies to ones logic, and ask that one consider the results in the light of the principle. Just like which of the 3 options on the number of lines parallel to a given line thru a point exist 0,1, or many.

    • June 29, 2011 10:17 am

      Interesting point. True, it is difficult to distinguish between a uniform past and one that has been altered supernaturally to look that way, but the underlying principle in science regarding assumptions is to keep them as few as possible, and to seek the most parsimonious explanation for a process. So, scientists do not need “faith” in the idea that there was no supernatural intervention in the past because it is already an inherent component of scientific thinking that science looks for the simplest possible explanation. We do need to keep an open mind, but we discard alternative explanations for which no support is presented, unless such supporting evidence is ultimately presented. Building on your mathematical analogy of lines and points: if we have two points on a plane, then given all possible lines that intersect them, the statistical analytical methods employed by mathematicians (and biologists) require them to demonstrate that there is a quantifiably compelling enough reason to invoke a more complex explanation (a curved or squiggly line passing through the points) than a simpler one (a straight line). That’s part of what makes science a rigorous investigative tool.

  3. July 5, 2011 7:06 pm

    I would add to the comments about scientists ‘believing’ in evolution the word ‘design’. As a paleontologist (like Graham) and someone who teaches evolution at a university, I cringe every time I hear commentary on some TV or other commentary on the diversity of life that some organism or other has ‘superb design’ for its habitat or its life style. No. Its lineage adapted through time due to evolutionary processes. Journalists and scientists who feature in these shows have told me (or been reported to say) that the use of the word ‘design’ is not meant to infer a ‘designer’, but that they use the word in the sense of ‘A basic scheme or pattern that affects and controls function or development’ (defn. from the Free Online Dictionary). I say ‘bollocks!’. Ask the average viewer and they will reel off the popular definition (again, courtesy of the FOLD) ‘The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details’ … in other words, the product of a designer. Again … no.

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