Thursday, March 22, 2007

Punching Darwin in the Face

At a "getting to know you" type of luncheon some time ago, we had a round-robin where everyone had to answer the question "If you could meet anyone, living or dead, from any time in human history, and punch them in the face, who would you choose?" Paris Hilton hadn't yet hit the international celebrity scene in a big way at that point or I assume everyone would've immediately thrown her out there. Instead, most people had fairly predictable responses, along the lines of "Hitler" or "Stalin", some of the worst specimens of evil scum the species has ever produced.

Then we got to a woman who was a recent Biology graduate of a college in Arkansas, who happened to be a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes the universe is only 6,000 years old and that the Bible is literally true and inerrant). Her answer shocked me.

"If I could punch anyone in the face," she said with an angry scowl, "it would be Charles Darwin."

We were all fairly stunned, and needless to say the topic was quickly changed to something less controversial. But I couldn't let it go. How could someone who'd studied college-level biology a) not understand the fact of evolution and b) have such a strange view of science that punching Darwin in the face would be a good thing? She clearly thought Darwin was a worse monster than Hitler, or Attila the Hun, or Pol Pot, or even Satan.

The more I thought about it, the stranger the answer was. If your beef is with anyone who might suggest that the universe is less than 6,000 years old, why single out Charles Darwin? Why not choose Copernicus, who first opened the door to the idea that the Bible was not inerrant by proving that the Earth is not, in fact, the center of the universe? Why not the first geologists who proposed the shocking concept of geologic age, showing that the universe was not thousands but rather millions (and later billions) of years old? Without that backdrop of deep time, the idea of evolution probably would never have arisen. Darwin was small potatoes compared to those gentlemen, at least as far as threat to a young earth goes.

Yet there's something about evolution that rankles these people at a deep, fundamental, visceral level. Maybe it's the "I ain't related to no monkey!" reflex. Maybe it's just that we are the fundamental subject of biology, and that's personal in a way that geology (rocks) or astronomy (space) are not.

I can understand -- not accept, but understand -- a revulsion about the ideas of Darwin, but why do they hate him, the man, so very much? They don't go around calling astronomers "Copernicans", and yet all who accept that evolution is a fact are "Darwinists". It's not enough to attack the idea, they have to demean and destroy the man.

It's personal.

They go so far as to try and make up all sorts of stories about Darwin to paint him as some kind of racist, hateful bigot, who did unspeakably horrible things. None of it's true, but that hardly matters to them. Even intelligent, educated people like William Dembski deliberately lie and distort history to tar Darwin with infamy. It's like they hate the idea that Darwin proposed so much that their only recourse is to hate the man who first proposed it. They see Darwin as the high priest of a Satanic cult whose only goal is to undermine Christianity, and thus no slur or lie is hateful enough to compare with the evil of his actual existence.

And yet even if they succeeded in tearing him down as a person, what good does that do? Would finding out that Darwin was, say, a child rapist invalidate the theory of evolution? Can they honestly believe that? Do they not understand that observations and facts exist separately from the people who propose them? Calling Einstein a philanderer is not going to invalidate the Theory of Relativity any more than accusing Darwin of being a racist is going to nullify the Theory of Evolution. The very idea is nonsensical.

At the heart of all of the high-minded protests Young Earth Creationists and ID proponents make about naturalism and "teaching the controversy" is the same basic rage and irrationality that young woman exhibited at lunch. This isn't a dry, academic, objective exploration of the world and those who inhabit it. No, this is a primal fight to the death for these people.

So the next time you're in a discussion with them, or you're doing your best to figure out how rational people can possibly believe in such arrant nonsense, keep in mind that their idea of grappling with a challenging concept is to punch the one who proposed it in the face.

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