Scientific Orthodoxy: John Durant – Authorized Belief

Image by C.F. Payne via The Weekly Standard

By John Durant

On February 4, 2014, a much discussed live exchange took place between Bill Nye, a science educator and comedian best known for his long-running TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, the President/Founder of the leading Young-Earth-Creationist (YEC) organization Answers in Genesis (AIG), in Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. As of 12 Noon on April 5, 2014, the 2 hour 45 minute YouTube video of the debate – around the question “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” – had been accessed 2,717,985 times. The debate took place as a result of an invitation issued to Bill Nye by Ken Ham, in response to an interview Nye gave about creationism in August 2012, in which he argued for the importance of not allowing the nation’s children to be indoctrinated with creationist ideas. From the moment that the Creation Museum announced it, this was a high profile, highly polarizing event. The evangelical Christian News heralded what they called “The Debate of the Decade”: “The highly-anticipated debate next month…has generated so much interest that tickets for the event sold out in two minutes.”

In his opening remarks, Ham projected the following statement onto the big screen in the debate chamber: “the word SCIENCE has been hijacked by secularists in teaching evolution to force the religion of naturalism on generations of kids.” Here, then, we see the creationist side of the house employing rhetorical tropes drawn from the history of religious conflict in order to characterize their opponents’ position. And this, by the way, is not at all unusual. To take just one example, back in 2008 Ken Ham pledged AIG’s support to Ben Stein, the host of the highly inflammatory documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. According to a review by AIG staff member Mark Looy, “Ben does a masterful job of exposing the ruthlessness of evolutionists who will go after anyone who challenges or merely questions Darwinian orthodoxy [emphasis added].”

To call those with whom one agrees or disagrees “heretics” or “apostates,” or alternatively, to designate them as “orthodox” or “unorthodox” is to assimilate them to some greater and presumptively more significant dispute; more than this, it is to exercise a form of implicit moral and even political judgment upon them. Orthodoxy isn’t merely, as the dictionaries have it, “right belief;” it’s belief that is religiously, socially, or politically authorized. “Darwinian orthodoxy” and similar phrases have a long history of usage by anti-evolutionists over the course of more than a century of cultural conflict around scientific theories of origins, from late-Victorian opposition to “Darwinism” to the internationalization of YEC after 2000. Throughout these anti-Darwinian efforts, one theme recurs like a drumbeat: evolution in general, and Darwinism in particular, are what the Victoria Institute in London, as far back as the 1860s, termed “Science falsely so-called;” that is to say, they are a kind of sectarian “anti-religion” seeking to pass itself off as regular science.

Secular evolutionary biologists find themselves repeatedly accused of cloaking what are ultimately religious (or at any rate, metaphysical) commitments in the guise of pure science. In this context, framing the debate in terms of (un)authorized belief is often linked with criticisms of evolutionary biology as somehow falling short of the standards of true science; inductivist and anti-theoretical tendencies frequently inform critiques of mainstream evolutionary biology. In his debate with Bill Nye, for example, Ken Ham made much of the supposed distinction between “observational science” and “historical science” to argue that evolutionary biology is necessarily and unavoidably mired in secularist (anti-)religious assumptions, and therefore its true character is (anti-)religious rather than scientific.

There are many reasons why the charge that evolution is a form of covert religion is attractive to the contemporary YEC community. Briefly, among other things, this charge enables YEC advocates:

(i) to allege (philosophical/religious) bias among evolutionists in their assessment of evidence regarding origins

(ii) to assert the existence of various kinds of embedded prejudice against alternative (“heretical”) views within the scientific community

(iii) to avoid apparently fatal empirical objections to YEC, on the grounds that philosophical presuppositions are the decisive factors in the debate

(iv) to establish some kind of epistemological and/or political equality between the (philosophical/religious) positions of evolution and YEC

(v) to contest repeated legal prohibitions on the teaching of YEC as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution in American science classes.

Clearly, any line of argument that lends itself to quite so many rhetorical purposes is likely to be perennially popular.

Mainstream evolutionary biology continues to be the object of critiques – some individual, some collective; some from within elite academic culture, some from more populist sources; some from the radical “left,” some from the radical “right” – that openly challenge the authority of “Darwinian orthodoxy.” Fundamentally, the challenge here is to the intellectual, scientific, and cultural authority of mainstream evolutionary biology to adjudicate on some of the larger questions that arise in scientific studies of organic origins: on the question, for example, of the origin of life; on the question of the origin of new adaptive complexity (“design”); on the question of the origin of consciousness; and above all, perhaps, on the question of how we are to properly understand the interrelationships between nature, human nature, and human culture. The language of (un)authorized belief, bringing with it, as it does, multiple resonances from the long history of western religious conflicts, lends itself particularly well to the purposes of such critique; and this, in the end, is why it is so regularly invoked.

These debates show no sign of getting resolved any time soon. Philosophers are no closer to consensus on the merits of scientific naturalism now than they were in mid-Victorian times; biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists continue to disagree around theories of the evolution, not only of the human species, but of consciousness, language, culture, and even religion; and in the meantime, organized skepticism about the larger claims of Darwinian enthusiasts continues to gather renewed energy from all of the above.

Watch this space.


John Durant is the MIT Museum Director and Adjunct Professor in the Science, Technology & Society Program.    

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