Saturday, August 27, 2011

When Dodos Cry

The astute reader of this blog may have noticed that I rarely, if ever, get drawn into blogging about creationism, intelligent design, etc. I did do it once, I think, but that was a long time ago and I regretted it immediately. Maybe it's that, being British, I find it hard to believe that anyone actually cares about this stuff. I mean, didya happen to notice that the global economy is collapsing at the moment? But I do agree with Richard Dawkins (whoa, never thought I'd write that in a blog post!) who recently proposed that acceptance of the theory of evolution is one possible litmus test for the suitability of presidential candidates. If you fail to be convinced by the evidence for natural selection, chances are that you're going to struggle to make sense of complex economic, national security, and societal decisions as well. He then undermined my cozy state of mutual agreement by going off on a rant about why we don't use the same process to select a president as we would to, say, make a new CEO or faculty appointment. My guess is that he's a bit offended that a stupid person's vote is worth the same as his. It is worth remembering, of course, that this principal is one that people are fighting and dying for across the world even as I write. Democracy is no respector of IQ.

The Dawkins article was one of a series of op-ed pieces published by the Washington Post on the subject of religion and evolution. The latest of these, by Paula Kirby, has left me scratching my head somewhat. I've seen many people try to claim that evolution invalidates religious belief, but this is the first time I've seen someone try to argue that evolution is so nasty that no merciful god would have used it as a mechanism of creation. Or, in Kirby's words -

"Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love."

Let's stop for a moment and consider the concept of "species suffering." How, exactly, does a species suffer? Does it have a collective consciousness that is, in some way, aware that it is failing? Is there a sense of unrealized potential - "only 500,000 years? Why, oh Lord? Why?" Perhaps this is leavened by hope for the future; the expiring species takes comfort as it "sees" a closely-related sister taxon thriving and diversifying, much like an old man dying at home, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Was there, perhaps, a point where the last dodo, unable to find a mate, wept bitter tears at the thought that its species might have had an eternity of existence if only those pesky Dutchmen hadn't come along?

No, of course not. This is a silly line of argument and it illustrates why I don't waste my time writing about evolution and religion. It's a debate that is mostly characterized by ignorance. Critiques of evolution tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about evolutionary biology; critiques of religion tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about theology. Consequently the discussion never rises above the level of high school debate team. "Evolution is a 'theory' not a 'fact.'" "There can't be a god, because there are wars and bad things happen to good people." "Humans can't have evolved from apes, because apes are still alive." "If there's a god, why can't I see him?" "Flagellae and eyes are too complex to have evolved without the assistance of a designer." "I know there can't be a god, because of Occam's Razor." Call me an old stick in the mud, but if I was smart enough to be reading op-ed pieces in heavyweight papers like the Washington Post, I'd want something with a bit more academic rigor to go with my cornflakes.

Sorry for the rant, but that "species suffering" business really yanked my chain.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that "species suffering" is nonsense. However, I've got a fair amount of sympathy for the argument that the truly ghastly suffering of animals (or humans) which get eaten from the inside out by parasites, parasitoids and diseases (or conversely, the existence of parasites etc whose life cycle and existence depends on them eating others from the inside out) is a fair indication that the creator, if It’s out there, isn’t desperately concerned with the suffering of the innocent. As a non-theologist, I’d have assumed would this would be one of the main items on a loving and benevolent god’s agenda (If it isn’t concerned with that, then I’m not sure why we should be all that interested in addressing our prayers to it. We may as well petition Azathoth, Moloch or Quetzalcoatl. Judging by the pictures, at least they might appreciate the sacrifices... ). But anyway, that got me thinking – what about the species which are habitual victims of predation and parasitism? Those which have a very high chance of ending their life in agony to feed another? Or even just those who are constitutionally doomed to starving to death when their teeth wear out or they become too weak to hunt etc (hey, that’s pretty much everything, so let’s not set the bar too low...). If (let’s say) 95% of the population meets a nasty and unpleasant end, would that constitute a form of species suffering? Anyway, idle speculation....