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Evolving the debate toward humanness

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A guest column by Richard Nelson

Executive Director of the Commonwealth Policy Center

The spirit of John Scopes recently descended upon our beloved Bluegrass in the form of debate between Creation Museum Founder Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nothing like a good debate to rouse the troops comfortably entrenched in their intellectual foxholes (2/3rds of Americans identify more or less as evolutionists and 1/3rd as creationists according to a recent Pew survey). Verbal barbs between camps have been traded since the famous "Monkey Trial" sparked by Scopes—a native Kentuckian by the way.

Nye’s participation interestingly drew the ire of evolutionary scientists who likened it to intellectual condescension on par with debating Cro-Magnon. Nye raised several objections to the creationist model, but when he implicated creationists for dragging the nation behind in science and holding up progress, he failed to give a reason why the country should go ahead with science.  Perhaps we’ve reached our evolutionary zenith and it’s time for another nation to rise to the top. Perish the thought.

“What keeps the United States ahead, what makes the United States a world leader, is our technology,” Nye said. “If we continue to eschew science, and try to divide science between observational science and ‘historical science,’ we are not going to move forward, we will not embrace natural laws, we will not make discoveries, we will not invent.”  In other words, Nye contends  that adherence to evolution is integral if not foundational to good science. Never mind that the Biblical worldview held by Pasteur, Pascal, Copernicus and Newton, didn’t impede their scientific pursuits. Nor did it inhibit modern scientist Raymond Damadian from discovering magnetic resonance imaging as Ham pointed out.

Undermining Nye’s certainty is that scientific understanding does indeed change as new information is gathered. For example, spontaneous generation, a widely held view in scientific circles until the 19th century, posited that living things come from nonliving things: maggots from rotting meat, mold from stale bread, etc. Merely questioning this idea by Sir Thomas Brown in the mid-17th century drew the ire of his contemporary, Alexander Ross, who wrote “to question this [spontaneous generation] is to question reason, sense and experience. If he doubts of this let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants.”

Application to this current debate? Beware all ye evolution doubters, lest you end up in the cesspool of ignorance that shall relegate your intellect and future to the Pleistocene Era.  Before you can say “I’m over that,” realize that Albert Einstein’s long-respected theory of relativity recently underwent intense scrutiny and  appeared to be on the brink of revision in 2011 when neutrinos were thought to be faster than the speed of light.

There is no doubt in Nye’s mind that  the universe is really old and began with a Big Bang, yet he couldn’t answer where the consciousness that allows him to think that thought comes from in the first place.  To exalt science as the arbiter of all truth and reality is to coronate scientific man as more powerful than he really is.

Scientists are people. People are finite. By definition, a finite creature is limited in his knowing. Even his observations are limited by the constraints of the human condition and subject to change with the gathering of new information. This is not an excuse to be ignorant. It is instead a challenge to temper humanity with a good dose of humility—the kind on par needed by the afflicted Job when indignant with God over his suffering.  God responded, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5a)

The Biblical worldview doesn’t eschew science as Nye contends. Instead, it embraces it as a tool to carry out what is known as the dominion mandate—God’s direction to mankind to govern and subdue the natural world. However, since Darwin published His Origins of Species, science has evolved into a worldview called scientism with evolution being a sacred tenet. If fully embraced, this view threatens to rob man of his humanity. It was Darwin after all who argued for superiority of some races over others. It was Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor, who dedicated his life to fighting that idea.

Evolution has yet to explain where matter and energy come from and how living things spring from non-living matter. It has not answered where intelligence or morality come from. And it is completely silent in explaining how “survival of the fittest” comports with compassion and care for the sick and dying— of total strangers. These conundrums are evolving the debate and raise questions of who and what makes us human anyway.

Science has helped us greatly understand our physical world. Coupled with technology, it has helped to make life better and more livable. It has fought disease and hunger and eliminated many toilsome burdens. It can measure the chemical makeup of our bodies but it cannot tell us what comprises the soul. Science is good but it is not God.

Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy group. He resides in Trigg County with his wife and children.