Wednesday, June 29, 2005

One Team, Two Team(s), Red Team, Blue Team

Once upon a time, I wrote:
I have to admit, I don't think the evolution v. creationism debate is worth having. There is simply no version of creationism, from young-earth creationism to intelligent design theory, that has the scientific merits to warrant a scientific debate. Still, if people must have such a debate, can't they at least try to do so civilly? All of the evidence speaks to the contrary.
The latest blog war over comments by Mark Kleiman about the tone of the evolution-creationism debate have proved that I was even more right than I thought I was. It turns out that those of us on the side of science can't even be civil to each other.

I'm not really sure why Kleiman's remarks have created such a stir. To be sure, the "red team" and "blue team" labels are not only inaccurate, but silly, but for the most part the post seems to me to be fairly innocuous, even where it's wrong, but since most of the people who comment on his post adopt those labels, that can't be the source of the blog controversy. Kleiman starts out with an undeniably true assertion, namely that the debate over evolution is not about science, but about culture. For many on Kleiman's "red team," or more accurately, for many conservative Christians, evolution is a symbol of what they see as secular moral, social, and cultural trends, ranging from more open-minded sexual attitudes to the removal of the Ten Commandments from courtrooms in Kentucky and Alabama. These people aren't anti-science across the board; they're just as likely to jump on the science bandwagon when it means receiving medical treatment, logging onto a computer to post a scathing anti-evolution blog post, or otherwise serves their interests or ideology, as are those on the "blue team," which is to say, those who are not Biblical literalists or ultra-conservative evangelicals (there are plenty on the "red team," as usually conceived, who don't fall within those categories, which is why Kleiman's labels are so silly). Since the issue is a moral/cultural one, that's where we should be addressing it.

Kleiman goes from there to argue that we who are the side of evolution should be more civil when talking with those on the side of creationism or Intelligent Design, because we have to respect their cultural and moral world-view. Once again, Kleiman is right. We do have to be more respectful. However, he does seem to have the reasons for this respect wrong, and this seems to be where people like Dr. Myers and someday-Dr. Beyerstein start to find Kleiman's post offensive. As Lindsay notes in her second post, "They deserve the same courtesy as anyone who is advancing a view in a public debate, but they don't deserve any special deference from us because their beliefs are well-intentioned and/or faith-based." I might also add that they deserve the same respect from us liberals as we would give any other culture. In particular, we should respect their right to hold a world-view different from ours. None of this, however, as both Lindsay and Kleiman note, means we should tolerate the bad behaviors that arise from that world-view, which include trying to sneak their religion into the classroom.

It's important to note that even in this discussion, some of us "blue teamers" haven't really been doing this. Dr. Myers (several others have picked on him, and he's handled it well, so I will use him as an example) is quick to point out that he doesn't mean all Christians when he attacks creationists and IDers, but because his rhetoric is often very harshly worded and, at times, a bit overly general or at least without argumentation, as for example when he writes: "…so how can he then turn around and say that Genesis is "providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior"? It clearly isn't. It is a historical, empirical, ongoing failure as a moral force for good," or frames the debate as one between "reason" and "superstition", it's easy to understand why some might not see it that way. Again, I don't think that Dr. Myers' is attempting to disparage all religion, or even all Christianity, but I can certainly see how someone might interpret him as doing so, and in reality, plenty do, including some on the "blue team." If Kleiman is arguing that we have to be careful to be respectful of the world-views, even if we disapprove, and openly express our disapproval, of some of the world-view-induced behaviors, then we have to watch our tone, and the scope of our language.

Everyone seems to agree on this, even if they don't always practice it to the same degree, and Kleiman's someone convoluted arguments for this position, about Genesis, faith, and the like, can't possibly be the reason for the starting of a blog war. There are other candidates, though. For instance, Dr. Myers rightly takes exception to this little nugget from Kleiman:
Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?
What Kleiman should have concluded from this is that education, which is a form of respect, is what is needed. If the "red teamers" believe that evolution implies "middle-school Darwinism," then science educators have failed, and need to get off their collective ass and start giving people a more accurate representation of evolution and modern biology. This is also where we can begin to bring the discussion around to the cultural/moral issues that have made it so contemptuous. We can point out to creationists that evolution implies that we are all related to each other, that we are brothers or sisters to each and every human being, and thus that from a world-view that includes evolution we can derive the moral views of Christianity, from thou shalt not kill to the golden rule, just as readily as we can scripture and faith. We also have to do a better job of pointing out that belief in evolution does not preclude belief in scripture, and a moral world-view derived from faith. In short, what Kleiman should have said is that the fact that people on the "red team" accept the "middle-school Darwinism" version of evolution is where all of the problems begin, and the greatest respect we can show them is to disabuse them of this misconception. Perhaps it is because Kleiman nowhere makes this point that so many have criticized his entire post.

Even so, I hope that most of us agree with Kleiman's larger point about the evolution-creationism debate, or at least the part that he gets right, which is that it is a debate over a cultural issue, and if we're going to participate in the debate, we should debate it on cultural terms. No amount of scientific reasoning will convince people who fear evolution for cultural reasons. I also think that most of us agree with what I take to be Kleaiman's point at the end of the post, namely that we should point out, again and again, to the "red team" that their justifications of torture, extreme nationalism (in the form of "America first"), and their support for a war of choice, go against their stated moral world-view, whether it is derived exclusively from scripture or not.

In the end, then, I hope that the people on the "blue team" who have been criticizing Kleiman at least recognize what he gets right, and notice where they too are failing, through their observation of what Kleiman leaves out.

20 comments:

Andy said...

You are very correct in that many creationists have little idea of what evolution really is. They think that to accept evolution is to accept a bundle of positions from the Big Bang to atheism, and that that bundle cannot be broken down. We must start from the very most basics to explain what evolution is and is NOT before we can even begin trying to convince people to accept evolution.

When a creationist from the general public rails against evolution, remember that they probably couldn't explain what evolution actually is to save their life. As one person told me, "Everyone knows that evolution includes the whole bag: Big Bang, no God, the whole thing."

another orphan said...

Surely at some point the statement "If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it?" should be added to the list of disqualifiers (along with "Evolution is only a theory."). The user marks himself as so lax in rigor and so fond of reflexive emotional appeal that it is very hard to imagine him contributing to a productive argument. Time is short; we'll all die too soon. Why waste words on the disqualified?

Heather said...

it is a debate over a cultural issue, and if we're going to participate in the debate, we should debate it on cultural terms.

right, but to have that debate don't you need to first convince christians that it's a cultural issue? how would you do this? isn't it a truth issue to them?

also, i find that saying, "it's culture" makes the topic seem abstract, aseptic, academic...it seems likely that many ID advocates find the evolution issue more palpable...they must perceive themselves as threatened and are very engaged emotionally.

plus telling them that you respect their culture, but you don't want to debate non-science with them might sound a little condescending on the other end. "oh, that's nice, you have a little culture there. and you're trying to do science, that's cute. why don't you just leave science to us educated liberals?"

i'm not saying it's not a cultural debate because it is...just saying that actually having this debate is messy.

btw, i just saw your blog for the first time this morning. i really like it.

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