If someone in 2012 wants to criticize Henry Ford because he didn't know everything about automobiles a century ago, it's a little silly. He knew what he knew given the science and the technology of his day - he revolutionized his field. Freud got a lot wrong about psychology but he created the only unified theory of psychology recognized by people today. Criticizing him is as quaint and pointless and irrelevant as someone criticizing a 19th century analysis of Coleridge - any researcher doing it is likely to get a "someone paid for them to write this?" response.
In 2012, though, people are still trying to bash Darwin and their main argument is he didn't know everything. To biologists, he had perhaps the greatest idea anyone ever had, descent with modification, and that was that. His books are okay, he was not a great writer, you are really only reading them for historical context, but a 'culture war' exists over him that never happened about Einstein or Arthur Holmes.
Wait, Holmes? Who? Right, he is a nobody to most people in science. But Arthur Holmes pioneered a way to show the actual age of rocks, which led to the theory of continental drift. As a result, what Thomas Huxley meant when he said, ‘Biology takes its time from Geology’ became literally true. Quantifying geologic time did far more to harm the beliefs of Biblical literalists than evolution or relativity ever did. And yet only the kookiest of people today deny continental drift, just like only the kookiest people deny evolution. But it is made to seem like it is some huge number denying science and polls back that up. Far more than in most countries.
Why do we hear so much about a war between science and religion in America now? When I was in high school, it seemed like 'creationism' did not exist the way it does today. Sure, there were religious people but the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial had established that evolution was science and should be taught in science classes five decades earlier. I grew up in a
conservative, all-white, rural Pennsylvania town
with one stop sign, five churches and no bars yet I never once heard that Darwin was wrong. A few years after I graduated there was a rather silly effort to give religion some equal time in a school district in another state. As Dr. Eugenie Scott of the NCSE (they lead the fight to keep religion out of science classes) said of her experience working to keep science and religion separate then, on the side of science in that conflict were...religious people. They did not want have to spend their Saturdays and Sundays undoing one sectarian viewpoint that might be taught in schools during the week.
Today, religious people are terrific allies for science when not being attacked just as they historically have always been; there would be no science without religion, religion kept knowledge for society when governments wanted knowledge gone. Even in Darwin's time, religious people were still doing great science. Mendel was not an atheist, progressive, government-funded biologist, yet he won a race biologists didn't even know they were in until after he won it. The list of philosophical and scientific achievements by liturgical people is long.
I was surprised, after Science 2.0 became a formal project almost six years ago, that while physicists wanted to talk about physics and psychologists wanted to talk about psychology, biologists mostly wanted to talk about religion. I assumed that was because Prof. P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, best known as Pharyngula on Scienceblogs.com (and also once again on his own site), was popular. Bashing Republicans and religion was the It thing in blogging in 2006 and the bulk of Scienceblogs writers started doing the same thing because that was why their audience came. It was all about who to ridicule rather than science. Obviously they are a much different group now but some biologists jumped on that bandwagon. And maybe, I thought, religious people have it coming for being anti-science. So many in science claimed it, it must be true, right?
Yet I can't actually find many of these religious anti-science people, despite the fact that California is kook central. Any crazy cause you want to find, you can find it in California, including religious kinds. They exist, there just aren't as many people as is claimed when someone needs to generate pageviews. The Sacramento Bee had a pretty good article on the topic of science and religion this weekend- yes, science pieces written by local reporters still get printed - but Jennifer Garza had to do what journalists do, show balance, even if it is false balance.
The article is called "Area pastors keep faith in science", which is a terrific title (the print version anyway. The online link above uses a different title. No idea why), and profiles how during Darwin Day (recognition of his birthday, which someone has now decided should be an entire Evolution Weekend) some area churches are taking the chance to talk about science. But it does that setting up The Myth of the Oppressed Underdog thing journalists love to do. In this case, that a pastor is bucking Big Religion by accepting science.
"Darwinism - the theory that all life descended from a common ancestor - is a controversial issue in some faith groups, and many religious leaders reject (Rev. Betsy) Monnot's views." Really? 'some' groups but 'many' leaders? Where is the documentation for that? 30% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans don't accept evolution - but a whole lot of them are not not necessarily anti-science when they answer a question that they don't accept evolution, they are instead anti-scientist-who-ridicules-their-beliefs and don't believe some aspect of evolution because, let's face it, evolution is hard. Biology teachers get a lot wrong so it's no surprise most people do also. And then there is the condescension again. The more that scientists allow activists in a culture war to represent them as being against religion, the more people will rebel against science for reasons that have nothing to do with science, even if it looks that way on polls. Science literacy is not magically achieved because someone claims to accept evolution. If you ask 99% of people who claim to accept evolution about adaptive radiation, they are stumped. They simply choose to believe it. To the credit of Americans, they cop to acknowledging what they don't know and not claiming to believe in it more than most Europeans, who will claim to be more scientific about evolution while they insist eating feces on organic food is safer than eating a genetically modified potato.
Looks simple enough, right? Well, so does chess, and there are a lot more Grandmasters in chess than biology. See my article on The Evolution of Evolution if you want to see how the term itself 'evolved' - it was part of our 30 Days of Evolution Blogging for Darwin's 200th birthday
"The loudest Christians do not represent all Christians," Monnot said, and it is unfortunate we don't hear more of that same sentiment from the science community about its loud people. There are benefits of a liturgical society - as I have said before, when unpopular disasters that don't make the pages of the New York Times occur, how many atheist science groups put boots on the ground? Lots of religious groups do just that, without publicity and without thanks. Sorry, scientists, you are not saving the world writing tirades about religion on your blogs.
Science is a common language, no different than math. It is for all of us. For every goofy Young Earth Creationist like Ken Ham out there, there are a million religious people who love science and just want the essential mystery of the spark of life left to wonder. So stop talking about all religious people like they are Ken Ham. If you feel the need to tell religious people their God is causing abortions and murders and poverty, you aren't making the world better for science, you are just being an asshole.
A culture war against religion does not help science, especially not science that is increasingly controlled by politicians. Not every religious person should be sneered at as a 'creationist', which is a wink-wink assertion that anyone religious must believe the planet is only 6,000 years old and dinosaur bones are some sort of head fake test of faith. If you don't like being called 'immoral' for not going to church you shouldn't refer to religious people as 'intellectually immature' because they believe in one more God than you do.
Obviously, religious people do not escape blame for a culture war. Ken Ham and others like him are doing religion no favors by being irrational and nonsensical in claiming evolution says we evolved from monkeys. But in science media, articles criticizing Republicans and religious people are still the norm, and not being part of that echo chamber is more fun, so I will argue we can stop worrying about cranks in religion and let scientists blog about science.
My title 'Why Are We Still Talking About Darwin?' can be read two ways, depending on how you want to read it. One can be 'why are we talking about Darwin at all? and one can be 'why is Darwin still relevant today?' He's relevant where Freud is not because he was right. He's relevant where Newton is not because his simple concept still holds a lot of mysteries.
It's time to stop defending him. He doesn't need defending. He was right, just like Archimedes was right about sitting in a bathtub and just like Holmes was right with continental drift. We don't bother to defend them. If someone says evolution did not happen, walk away, just like you should walk away if someone says astrology works or the Moon is made of cheese.
It's no great victory to debunk those people but lumping in 85% of the world as being the same as those people is not really the way to increase science acceptance.
Why Are We Still Talking About Darwin?