Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Though forces of unimaginable strength were constantly pushing them along, the movement of the continents was never suspected until the 20th century. Earthquakes and volcanoes that resulted from this ever moving bumper-cars dance of tectonic plates were the nightmares of every ancient mind and personified in the old religions. Some religions can't even deal with the necessary time scales without which discussions of plate tectonics make no sense: earthquakes really are "acts of god" to some minds.

Once in a great while we wake up and notice things have been shifting and we had not noticed because the gradual change was below our threshold of detection. But more often notice comes to us in the form of a rupture, a point where what needs to move on can no longer remain fixed to what cannot move. Another way we can notice is by time travel, where telescoped time pushes the rate of change above our threshold.

Last Saturday, I attended a bar mitzvah. The family is very observant, more or less in the range conventionally labeled as "conservative". They used an old traditional prayer book for the service. I read the preface while others read the prayers. At great length and with a tender finesse the rabbis who compiled the siddur excused and apologized for minor changes they felt brought the prayers up to date for a "modern" [1944] sensibility. The changes were as little as amending the tense of a verb to indicate a sacrifice used to be performed. The sentence that stopped everything for me was the rabbinical deference to a "modern" wish for the "reconstruction of Palestine". Yes, "Palestine". I wondered if anyone ran out and rewrote the prayers in 1948 or 49 or if the language, like the conflicts there crept to its present state of schism with Israel and Palestine used depending on who is speaking.

Another lurch through the decades came when I studied Yiddish songs written by victims of the holocaust who perished in the Warsaw ghetto. The words spoke of the German guards, the German ghetto and the German extermination camps. My teacher had been a small boy being shuttled between Slovakia and Hungary when these songs were written. He said the transformation of the language into the present day descriptions that only speak of these things as the Nazi guards, the Nazi death camps and so on was gradual and was deliberately done so that Germans of present day Germany could distance themselves at least verbally from the monstrosity of those times and policies.

There is minor tremor along a fault line among the conservatives. Patricia Cohen reported back on May 6th a split in their ranks over if and how to treat Darwinism. This is PZ's territory but I give a damn about this topic and I can't believe deference the Times gives to the anachronistic thought and cracked language of the conservatives on this topic. I want to analyze the vocabulary to make clear how much thought in reasonably educated western minds has drifted away from the poor literalists. In Republican circles, it is still 1880 and these are hot questions to put to potential candidates.
But the argument also exposes tensions within the Republicans “big tent,” as could be seen Thursday night when the party’s 10 candidates for president were asked during their first debate whether they believed in evolution. Three — Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas; Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas; and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — indicated they did not.

"...believed in evolution"? has the NY times no other language in which to describe this situation or is the usage simply reportorial accuracy capturing the intellectual shackles in which the republicans are preparing to run their race? Evolution is not a matter of faith, much as religious opponents insist on framing it that way. But I suppose it would have been more embarrassing if the candidates had been asked if the understood evolution. Its a theory with a lot more proof than genesis has ever had. That Brownback was a throwback I already knew. My condolences to supporters of the other two.

Two paragraphs later, Cohen reports that a few geniuses among conservatives don't toe the fundie line and indeed worry that the rest of the world will think them backward. [Gee!, do ya think so?]
Yet it is that very embrace of intelligent design — not to mention creationism, which takes a literal view of the Bible’s Book of Genesis — that has led conservative opponents to speak out for fear their ideology will be branded as out of touch and anti-science.

Some of these thinkers have gone one step further, arguing that Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.

OK, Cohen calls them "thinkers". At this point I expected to stumble upon their reinvention of social Darwinism. But they just can't call it that because even they seem to recall that particular category of misapplied an misunderstood Darwinism was thoroughly discredited early in the 20th century.

I am always going on about the difference between knowing something and believing it. The difference is not insignificant: knowledge only grows when counter examples are found, belief denys facts when they are contradictory and so actually shrinks the world of the believer. The patch of water we now call the Atlantic ocean was once not even a crack in the ground. Examine a globe and see how well the west coast of Africa would fit to the east coast of South America like two mating puzzle pieces. At some point no distance existed between belief and knowledge. That is the point where the fundamentalists insist on stopping. The drifting can go on peacefully or, if resisted, some wrenching slip will eventually happen.

Naturally, any facts contrary to articles of faith are disputed by believers. To those of us who keep piling on the theories and the facts, the world is an amazing place full of diverse categories of wonder. But to the believers, there is no diversity of findings but instead a finding of one monolithic conspiracy:
The reference to stem cells suggests just how wide the split is. “The current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism,” Mr. West, the author of “Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest” (2006), said at Thursday’s conference. “Nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics.”
The technocrats, he charged, wanted to grab control from “ordinary citizens and their elected representatives” so that they alone could make decisions over “controversial issues such as sex education, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and global warming.”
No wonder the non-fundie conservatives want a little daylight between themselves and the believers. It will be interesting to watch and see if that separation widens into a gulf. But conservatives have political articles of faith even if they aren't burdened with religious mythology. That is why many of them will never get more out of the science of evolution than a sprayed on sheen of intellectual respectability and a new word to use for their usual agenda. At the AEI conference where Mr. West spoke for old time religion as the true biology, Larry Arnhart said in effect "no its not a bad word, we can use it like its a good word:
“I do indeed believe conservatives need Charles Darwin,” said Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, who has spearheaded the cause. “The intellectual vitality of conservatism in the 21st century will depend on the success of conservatives in appealing to advances in the biology of human nature as confirming conservative thought.”
But the unfortunate Mr Arnhart should actually learn the subject before he writes books in which evolution is a sloppy metaphor and a pliable label.

The Cohen article is not long and I suggest you read it if you want to get an idea of where the conservatives heads are at on Darwin. There seem to be many like Mr West who just reject it as unbiblical. There seems to few like Mr Arnhart who hopefully misuse the ideas. There are a few who wisely suggest to other conservatives that biology is orthogonal to politics:
Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard and Carson Holloway in his 2006 book, “The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy,” for example, have written that jumping from evolutionary science to moral conclusions and policy proposals is absurd.
The big conclusion was that conservatives of all stripes need to engage on the topic and that sounds like the smartest thing any of them said. They are badly stuck and talking among themselves might help. As it stands, their pronouncements of moral depravity lurking in Darwinism only hurt them. It may be "only a theory" But Perhaps Arnhart will drift over to the liberal camp when he notices what he has been saying:...
Mr. Arnhart said that having been so badly burned by social Darwinism, many conservatives today did not want “to get involved in these moral and political debates, and I think that’s evasive.”

... or maybe not
While Darwinism does not resolve specific policy debates, Mr. Arnhart said in an interview on Thursday, it can provide overarching guidelines. Policies that are in tune with human nature, for example, like a male military or traditional social and sex roles, he said, are more likely to succeed. He added that “moral sympathy for the suffering of fellow human beings” allows for aid to the poor, weak and ill.

Cohen mentioned briefly one liberal author on the topic of evolution as applied to politics and I think it is interesting that right in the title of his book, this author shows an understanding of the complimentary rolls of competitiveness and cooperation in defining fitness. Conservatives seem mostly to grasp only the competitiveness as the mainspring of evolution. But I knew that.

I believe things I know could turn out need correction. One of my few beliefs. The Titanic was operated with the belief that it could not sink. The icebergs just drift.
Only by knowing you could be wrong do you enable yourself to ever be right.

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