October 28, 2009

Getting The Science Wrong

The international news reporting firm Al-Jazeera ought to be ashamed of itself.  No, my conservative friends, I don't take Al-Jazeera to task today for painting America in a bad light, although I dislike that they do that, too -- Al-Jazeera is allowed to have its own editorial slant on politics, the same way Fox News is allowed to have its own editorial slant.

But having an editorial slant does not mean that a news agency is behaving within acceptable boundaries when it just plain gets the facts it reports wrong.

So Al-Jazeera should be ashamed of itself for letting one of its reporters write about something he or she doesn't understand and thereby disseminating ignorance and objectively incorrect conclusions:

“Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory,” Al Jazeera announced, in an Oct. 3 article not available on the English version of the website. “American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong,” the article opened. “The team announced yesterday that Ardi’s discovery proves that humans did not evolve from ancestors that resemble chimpanzees, which refutes the longstanding assumption that humans evolved from monkeys.”
Creationism!  Thy face is now Muslim.

Let's get this out of the way first.  The errors built in to Al-Jazeera's story include:
  1. Darwin did not theorize that humans evolved from monkeys. He theorized that humans and monkeys had a common ancestor. Ardipithecus is not that ancestor; its living descendants are homo sapiens and no other species, not even our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees.
  2. Ardipithecus does not refute the theory of evolution. No credible scientist would make such a claim, because the opposite is true. Ardipithecus is strong evidence of the fact of human evolution. That would be akin to claiming that the use of a compass refutes the theory of magnetism.
  3. Ardipithecus is not exactly a brand-new discovery -- fossilized Ardipithecus bones were found as early as 1992 in Ethiopia, and they were classified as such in 1994.  What is relatively new is the discovery of a nearly-complete Ardipithecus skeleton, tellingly, including its skull. Al-Jazeera, however, gives the impression that less than a few months ago there was no knowledge of this hominid form.
    But then again, why should the phenomenon of denial of evolution motivated by religious fundamentalism be particularly surprising to anyone here in the West?  Even though fundamentalism's diverse adherents may regard one another as dangerously different and violent, susceptible of wearing funny clothes, using the wrong name for God, and worst of all praying in the wrong way and with the wrong language, they really have more in common with one another in the things that are really important than they have differences. Most significantly, they all labor mightily to preserve an anachronistic cultural and social structure, one modeled after the one that existed in the Fertile Crescent during the Bronze Age, when their holy books were written.

    Why should the fact that it is a different religion -- one that worships the same deity, the god of Abraham, albeit as "Allah" rather than "Jehovah" -- motivating the ignorance and denial of science be at all remarkable? I see a strong identity between the Islamic and Christian versions of a mindset that encourages its adherents to turn the dials of time back to an earlier age when the teachings, controls, and power of religion were greater than they are today; to adhere to a literal interpretation of an ancient holy book written in a time when science and rationalism were not part of the cultural dialogue; and to conflate the cultural norms of that time with the moral imperatives of a religion.  This, I tell you, is the dominantly apparent characteristic of fundamentalism as opposed to mere religion; non-fundamentalist religionists are able to separate morality from culture and find ways to apply their religions' moral teachings to the realities of contemporary life.  Fundamentalists, however, cannot reconcile the two and elect to dispense with the unpleasant incidences of modern society rather than their literalist religious teachings.

    As an inevitable result of this choice, all monotheistic fundamentalists -- Christian, Jewish, and Muslim -- are right to fear evolution as an existential threat to their ultimately depressingly similar creeds.  Because they insist that their holy books are literally correct and refuse to concede the idea that even their creation myths should be understood in an allegorical sense, they must construct elaborate fantasies and apologia, ultimately resting on deception and denial of objective reality, to address the overwhelming accumulation of scientific evidence that their creation myths are not literally true. The study of evolution really does lead to skepticism of religion, at least of religion that makes ridiculous and easily-disproved claims like the idea that women have one more rib than men.  Fundamentalists fear science and knowledge because they take away the ability of people to put their faith in their simplistic versions of religion.

    That is not to say that religion and science cannot co-exist.  My claim is more modest than that: fundamentalist religion and science will ultimately clash.  Those of us who eschew theistic thinking entirely, of course, find no discomfort with science whatsoever.  But I readily see that those theists who are willing to set aside the literal truth of their holy books to search for deeper and more sophisticated Truths therein might find a comfortable accommodation between their faith and the evidence that modern science provides.

    In the meantime, we should hardly be surprised that fundamentalist thinkers intent on preserving a Bronze Age mindset in modern times should be distressed at the overwhelming accumulation of evidence that their foundational holy text is -- at least when read literally -- a risible collection of fairy tales.  What we should be surprised at, and alarmed by, is the pervasiveness of this way of thinking and the willingness of so many people around the world to prefer its demonstrable falsities to the facts which science offers us.  Al-Jazeera's propagation of that kind of willful ignorance is at once a vivid portrayal of the extent to which this kind of willful ignorance exists, spreading like a vile and slippery fungus across our cultural landscape -- and an example of that spread in action.

    Hat tip to Tiny Frog.

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