Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Review: Questioning Darwin (TV documentary)

Charles Darwin at about the age of
his voyage on The Beagle
Thinking they've answered Darwin, rather

By Morris Dean

The fact that Charles Darwin's birthday was this week (he was born on February 12, 1809) sparked HBO's airing of 73-year-old British filmmaker Antony Thomas's one-hour documentary Questioning Darwin, which adroitly gives about equal coverage (1) to scientists and biographers appreciating Darwin's discovery of biological evolution's mechanism of natural selection and (2) to folks like Ken Ham, a founder of the "Answers in Genesis Creation Museum" in Kentucky, who are questioning Darwin. Of course, the creationists aren’t just questioning Darwin; they think they have definitively answered him by opposing the established, proven science of evolution with something they like to call “creation science*.”
    While the program is informative, I fault Thomas for not pointing out that “creation science” is an oxymoron and the Biblical account of Creation (some 6,000 years ago) is just a primitive myth that bears no relation whatsoever to the evolution of higher forms of life on Earth from the simple replicators that originated some 2,000,000,000 years ago....A very poor birthday present indeed for someone to whom we owe so much for his contribution to our understanding of life on earth.
Ken Ham
    Most informative to me was to hear from the creationists, in particular Ham. He is a scary guy. I got a sickening feeling watching him and listening to his patently ridiculous pronouncements, uttered with no apparent awareness of what an obscurantist he is. But maybe Thomas understood that and was counting on his audience to see it for themselves. Anyway, Thomas likely had to agree to let Ham approve the final cut of the program in exchange for Ham and his cohorts to even agree to appear in it. Fair enough, I guess; as maddening as the program is, I'm glad I saw it.
    Reviewer Amanda Marcotte, in her review, “New Darwin Documentary Shows Creationists Aren’t Dumb. They’re Fearful,” writes accurately, I think, when she says:

By going back and forth between creationists and Darwin’s life story, the documentary crafts a compelling image of the conflict between two world views: That of curiosity and that of incuriosity/fear. I agree with The New York Times reviewer [Neil Genzlinger's “True Believers, on Both Sides: In ‘Questioning Darwin,’ No Easy Answers”] that the creationists are presented non-judgmentally, but...the creationists do all the work for you anyway [emphasis mine]. There’s a pastor explaining he would have to accept it if the Bible said “2+2=5” and people talking, over and over again, about the strategies they have to employ to shut down their minds in the event that they’re presented with an opportunity to think more broadly. The major emotion that comes off them in waves is that of fear: Fear of asking questions, fear of the “world” (which is always talked about negatively), fear of difference, fear that thinking might lead them into dark places, fear that they really aren’t special that manifests in making up a God who loves you so you never have to go a moment without that feeling, fear that they will fall into the abyss without blind obedience to authority, and, of course, fear of death.
    Genzingler, in his review, says that “Mr. Thomas gets an array of [the creationists] to speak forthrightly by treating them respectfully. Even viewers who feel these people are living their lives with blinders on might admire their conviction.” Some might; I admit that I cannot.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Dean
* From the Wikipedia article on creation science:

The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that creation science is a religious, not a scientific view, and that creation science does not qualify as science because it lacks empirical support, supplies no tentative hypotheses, and resolves to describe natural history in terms of scientifically untestable supernatural causes. Creation science has been characterized as a pseudo-scientific attempt to map the Bible into scientific facts. According to Samir Okasha [in Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (2002). Oxford University Press. p. 127.], “virtually all professional biologists regard creation science as a sham – a dishonest and misguided attempt to promote religious beliefs under the guise of science, with extremely harmful consequences.”
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  1. There you go singing that same old song. Your cousins maybe swinging through trees or locked in a zoo throwing their feces at the passerby that comes to close, but WE were made in the image of God. You can embrace a bunch of monkeys as family if you wish, but while they are created by God----they are not in his image.

    1. I think I need to meet you, then. I would like to see what God truly, truly looks like.

  2. I would just briefly want to point out that Ken Ham is only one flavor of creation scientist. The spectrum seems to run from Ken Ham to Hugh Ross as far as I can tell right now. Basically, there are those like Hugh Ross who think the earth is billions of years old and the Hebrew language of the Bible doesn't really deny these possibilities. Then there are those like Ken Ham who are "young earthers" who think the Bible's "7-day week" should be taken literally, as in the seven 24-hour days view, and thus one particular geneology line establishes the world is only about 6k years old. I have found most helpful this one particular book by my favorite Christian apologist, John Lennox (professor of Mathematics at Oxford) and it is titled Seven Days That Divide the World. It's a fantastic linguistic look into what the Genesis text actually says, and Lennox teases out all the possible interpretations that arise from the text. It's a great launching pad into the discussion.

    I think the real hot topic in all this is its implications for anthropology and axiology and teleology. I think the concern from most "fearful Christians" is this question: "If we are ultimately just a few mutations away from apes, what does that do to our sense of worth, morality, and purpose?"

    Ultimately, I think this all just boils down to the existential crisis. Perhaps more, but nothing less.

    1. Kyle, thanks much for stretching out the "creationist" landscape to include not only "young-earthers" but "old-earthers," who accept that the universe is the 14.5 billion or so years old that the cosmologists have calculated, and even accept biological evolution, as Charles Darwin discovered and biological evolutionists have demonstrated through copious scientific investigations.
          How much of a "crisis" it is to confront questions about our origins depends, I think, on the individual. It has never seemed a crisis to me, personally. And I have made the long journey from believing one origins story (the version of the Biblical I was indoctrinated in as a child) to believing another (evolution, in which story I am a co-actor with all other living creatures, human and non-human).
          A crisis does seem to exist for many who are heavily invested in the Biblical story; witness how vehemently they rail against the idea that they may have "descended from apes." But I don't see among people who accept their evolved status a similar reaction to the idea that they might have been "created in God's image." I suspect the reason is that the former already know how shaky their position is just from the difficulties they've had "keeping their faith alive."
          I personally find fascinating the concept that the authors of the Old Testament might have intuited that the "days" of creation might have been billions of years long, during which the universe expanded (as modern cosmologists now theorize) before the Earth was formed and after. I'm of course suspicious that moderns are more likely "reading into" the text than "reading out." The question which it is may not be an "existential crisis," but it certainly is an interesting one.

    2. And I just wanted to briefly note that the evolution Darwin "discovered" is different than the evolution that evolutionary biologists (mainly) discuss today. Darwin observed differences within kinds of animals, which we often refer to as adaptations or microevolution. He theorized macroevolution (changes between kinds of animals), and thus the debate today is whether or not he overextrapolated based on his observations. Darwin also didn't have genetics and the fossil record on his side in his day, and I have to confess that I still need to do more reading to get a good idea of how those fields have progressed since his time.

    3. ONE of "the debates" today might be about whether Darwin overextrapolated, but that would be a relatively unimportant, rather scholarly debate.

    4. As far as I can tell, only historians of science still bother to debate Darwin's work as such. People who are actually studying evolution have so much more information than Darwin did that there is no point. He is honored as a pioneer, not as a guru for today - a situation that applies to all pioneers in scientific fields that have progressed. Scientists don't do gurus.
      All that said, don't discount Darwin. He was a very bright guy, and worked obsessively for decades to make the best case he could with no knowledge of genes, no accurate geological calendar, and so on. Reading his work, and his correspondence, inspires awe at how thorough he was.

  3. I think the disparity in the "crisis feeling" is due to the fact that it is more difficult for one group to swallow the alternative because of the implications. The implications of "imago dei" are fantastic--mankind is encoded with the very nature of God, which I think would give us a sense of "specialness" and meaning. To be "descended from apes" by a cosmic unguided mechanism which is unavoidably anthropomorphic in our descriptions (natural selection) is to imply that we really aren't special; we're just lucky. So you see, I think the issue is still one of anthropology: one view cheapens human life, and the other exalts it.

    What I find fascinating is that Richard Dawkins thinks there is a sense of "nobility" in recognizing the existential crisis, but willing to live despite ourselves. I don't see how nobility can be anything but illusory with his materialist worldview.

    I've recently found that this difference in worldview eventually touches the objectivism/subjectivism disparity. Sam Harris doesn't seem to care about objectivity in discussions of morality; he has a sense of right and wrong, and that's good enough for him. He seems to suggest that all discussions about objectivity are for philosophers or late night talks with beers in hand. It seems that there are some people who want a good objective reason to be "good," and others simply don't care about the subject.

    1. The question, I think, so far as the truth is concerned, is whether the "specialness" some men infer from "imago dei" is warranted or is in its own way as illusory as as the "nobility" you cite.
          The reason I say that is that the concept of God I think you are recommending is the God who created the Universe and set in motion the origination of the food chain. In other words, God is responsible for all of the suffering and death on Earth, at least before man arose and consciously took over some of God's burden, performing animal sacrifice, sport hunting, industrial animal farming and slaughtering, warfare especially against ordinary citizens, etc., etc. In plain terms, how noble can man be if he was modeled on such a God? I personally am more convinced, if not of God's nonexistence then of his not deserving to be worshiped, by moral arguments than by scientific.
          I'll have to pass on your third paragraph. I need to read Harris's book, The Moral Landscape, again and am planning to start to do so soon. I frankly don't now remember from my first reading any striking characterization of objectivity (or objectivism) versus subjectivity (or subjectivism). As I DO remember, however, Harris cares passionately about the objectivity of moral decisions. In fact (it's coming back to me now, so maybe I don't need to pass on this after all), the book is mainly about putting moral judgments on a basis informed by scientific discovery. Its subtitle, by the way, is How Science Can Determine Human Values. THAT is a rather noble vision, it seems to me.