Posts in the Fightin' Fundies series
- Fightin’ Fundies, Part 1: Narrow My God to Thee
- Fightin’ Fundies, Part 2: Evolutionary Fundamentalists
At the conclusion of our last exciting episode, I noted that not all fundamentalism relates to deities and the dogmas surrounding them, and that I wanted to propose for membership in the Fightin’ Fundie Club a vocal group (not the Four Seasons) that claims no religious affiliation whatsoever. My nominees are (drum roll) the implacable proponents of naturalistic evolution, true believers in the fullest sense of the word. I’m not going to offer a systematic footnoted literature review here, but rather a personal meditation on the way the (non)discussion of the origin of life has been playing out recently in the mainstream media.
By way of introduction: I am a family physician focused on the daily care of people with various health issues and not an bioscience academician, but as such I have some degree of understanding of animal (though far less of plant) biology. I would submit that even the most casual study of any type of biological system – animal, plant, microbe – at any level – macro, micro, biochemical – and from any angle – structural, functional, dissected or integrated – reveals a level of complexity that is, in a word, staggering. Pick a topic – how the eye works, how blood clots, how nutrients are absorbed, how glucose enters cells, how white cells destroy microbial invaders, how viruses hijack cell nuclei to replicate themselves, how sound is converted into electrical impulses, how nerves communicate with each other, how cells divide – whatever the subject, study it in any detail: if you don’t experience awe and wonder, administer a good enema and try again. And we’re not even addressing the intricate play of astronomy, geophysics and climate that are finely tuned to allow these events to proceed.
Call me naive, but it has repeatedly struck me that the most intuitive and rational response to this information is that it seems incredibly unlikely that these systems would assemble themselves at random, no matter how much time one might give them to do so. If you make the random-assembly-over-billions-of-years assumption, there’s a whole lot of faith involved in the process, and a lot of ‘splainin’ to do in order to address how so many features of the above-noted complexity came to be. In recent years books such as Darwin’s Black Box have raised some reasonable questions about what the naturalistic evolutionists (NEs) are willing to accept on faith as they move from point A to point ZZZ despite the gaping uncertainties in between – a process that we used to call “hand waving” in math class.
Instead of responding reasonably and thoughtfully to these questions, however, I continue to hear (in the general public media, anyway) the NEs planting their flags and defending their position with startling, numbing ferocity, including routine rants about separation of church and state, political innuendo of all sorts and lots of ad hominem attacks (i.e., characterizing people who question the NE position are all Bible-wielding, IQ-impaired sub-hominids who want to take over the government and stamp out free speech). More than once in the past few weeks I have heard, with a clear rhetorical snort, references to the fact that X number of Republican presidential nominees don’t believe the naturalistic evolution gospel, as if that meant they also believe in Santa Claus and child sacrifice.
Yet what continues to leak through all of the rhetorical smoke, in my humble opinion, is that NE remains a philosophical assumption, a bottom line that was made the starting point and now has become iron-clad dogma, with no questions to be entertained, not even for a second. If the Scopes trial were held today, it would be the NEs who would be singing “Gimme that old time religion” and prosecuting the science teacher who had the temerity to ask students to think critically about NE’s assumptions. In other words, they’re acting like good old-fashioned Fightin’ Fundies.
Over the past decade some of the more nuanced and thoughtful questioning of NE has come from what is called the “Intelligent Design” camp, including authors such as Michael Behe (author of the above noted Darwin’s Black Box) and William Dembski. NE zealots routinely vilify these guys, and have seemed bent on avoiding at all cost an intelligent public dialogue about intelligent design. When I read op-ed pieces on this subject in the LA Times or even commentaries in medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, I repeatedly sense the following subtext:
Naturalistic evolutionist (NE): Life assembled itself over billions of years from primordial elements.
Inquirer (I): How do you know?
NE: It just did!!
I: But how do you explai—
NE: DON’T INJECT YOUR RELIGIOUS DOGMA INTO A SCIENTIFIC DISCUSSION!
I: But I was just wondering—
NE: “Religious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of ‘intelligent design,’ by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long.” [Robert Lee Hotz, “Laws of Nature,” LA Times Book Review, July 30, 2006.]
I: But could we just talk a little about the idea of “irreducible complexity”—
NE: Shut up! This has all been settled! Go back to your pews!
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but see if you don’t notice a little of this venom in the op-ed pages of the Times and other media outlets in the coming weeks. There will be, I’m sorry to report, a spectacular opportunity for NE pundits to vent their spleens – beginning tomorrow (May 28).
And what will be the occasion that will cause a major setback for intelligent conversation about the origin of life? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s exciting installment!
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