I'm a theist who happens to also teach biology for a living, and I'm pretty enthusiastic about those parts of biology which deal with evolution. It's very cool science, and needs to be better known. Now it is true that the fact of evolution makes the old doctrine of special creation superfluous, and different believers deal with that in different ways.
Ian Barbour and other scholars in the field of science-religion studies have developed a taxonomy of these approaches: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration.
In general, partisans in the 'evo-creo wars' show a marked preference for 'conflict', and since disputes sell papers, you can often witness the curious spectacle of a local media figure or politician who is really out of his or her depth attempt to bring the smackdown against evolution. These folk will profess their neutrality for evolution as science upfront, or at least attempt to strike a neutral-sounding tone, but they eventually lose their way in a cul-de-sac of intent. These wanna-be pundits will seize upon some imagined correlation with evolution as evidence for the idea contributing to this or that social problem.
An event from last week's news, that I chronicled here, has evolved further. It seems that a Times columnist, one Linda Whitlock, finds the whole matter 'ironic'. She writes, in part:
Evolution is "a thing that I think about and I believe in it," The Times quotes Creasy as saying. It's clear from Creasy's actions that not only does he think about and believe in evolution, he's also internalized its implications.
Whatever power evolution may have to explain the diversity of life on Earth, it has no power to explain why we consider it wrong for Creasy to pass off another person's work as his own. Or, for that matter, how we arrived at the moral categories we call "right" and "wrong" in the first place.
This is the truth most true believers in evolution refuse to accept. Only a few, like Cornell biology professor William Provine, are willing to acknowledge what even teenagers like Brandon Creasy intuitively grasp.You can read her entire column here.
There are, of course, a lot of things wrong with the above passage, not the least of which is that evolutionary theory does have quite a bit to say about the (possible) natural origins of human behavior, including ethics. Altruism is not an intractable problem for theory, and it is more than a bit annoying to see people so far behind the times that they don't know this: sociobiology is increasingly mainstream, with E.O. Wilson's seminal essay On Human Nature now thirty years old. But I digress.....
Another problem is the allusion to Provine's views without explaining exactly what they are. This may be a deliberate choice on Whitlock's part, which suggests that she might be an 'intelligent design' creationist who is following the playbook of the jurist Philip Johnson, who often sparred with Provine. Johnson appears to have had a friendly relationship with Provine and vastly preferred him to foes like Ken Miller, precisely because the Cornell biologist and historian of science couches his metaphysical take on Darwin in absolutist terms.
But the ugliest part is the filthy, damnable smear on evolution itself: according to Whitlock, it's responsible, dontcha know, for the worldview of cheats like student plagiarizer Brandon Creasy! Well, that's just more than I can take lying down: the fact is, it was evolution supporters who fought for integrity, not the newspaper, and certainly not the columnist in question. Surely you would think that guys like Blake Stacey would get some credit for documenting what happened for the good of the scientific enterprise? Surely some fact-checker, somewhere might want to acknowledge that people like me (evolution supporter and theist) left notification about Creasy's plagiarism on their web site, as shown here. Apparently Ms. Whitlock didn't get the 'fair and balanced' memo.
So, keeping in mind that I'm still irritated, here's my reply, a letter to the editors of the Roanoke Times. They already printed an editorial on Monday that I strongly agree with. Let's see if they print my response to Whitlock's piece:
As reported Dec. 12th, Gereau Center Principal suppressed a student paper on evolution on grounds that it was potentially 'insensitive' to the beliefs of others. Your editorial board took the Principal to task the same day, but the waters were muddied when it became clear that the student in question had plagiarized his paper from sources available on-line. As a science teacher who cares very much about academic integrity, I left a comment on the Times blog that very evening notifying the editorial board that the student's work was plagiarized.
Now, this discovery was not made by anyone in print media, much less your columnist Linda Whitlock ("The irony of evolution", Dec. 18th). Rather, it was bloggers in the scientific community, notably those associated with the popular site 'Pharyngula', which 'smelled a rat' when they read the student's paper on-line. Imagine my consternation with Whitlock's piece, which asks us to infer that the teaching of evolutionary biology encourages unethical behavior!
Really? Would it pain Whitlock to 'fact-check' the matter a bit further? The science bloggers who reported the plagiarism, like me, are enthusiastic supporters of evolution education. At the same time, we know probably better than most how essential integrity is to all aspects of the scientific enterprise. Part of integrity is that we do not knowingly conflate different concepts. Evolution in and of itself is not a belief system, and biology texts contain biology, not metaphysics. The personal views of some as to evolution's metaphysical implications are exactly that, their personal views. But Whitlock's piece does not make this important distinction!
There are only two possibilities: either Whitlock is woefully misinformed on the topic, or else (which seems more likely) she is deliberately conflating a scientific concept with a belief system. If so, which widely-accepted pillar of modern science shall we smear in order to 'explain' her lack of ethics?