One hundred and fifty years ago today the world changed. One of the greatest blessings and gifts to the human world occurred when On Origin of Species was published. It laid out a framework that would unify and allow progress in biology in ways that could have hardly been imaginable to our forbearers. Look around you at our modern medicine and agriculture and decide if you would like to give them up. They are gifts from the Darwinian legacy.
But it’s a bit of a discouraging time to be a scientist. Gone are the days when someone could write a book (like Widtsoe did) called, Joseph Smith as Scientist, and that that title be taken as a compliment. Now popular public figures can say, “That’s only the opinion of scientists,” and they mean something that allows people to discount that opinion. There is a definite lack of trust that belies the progress that science continues to make. People like simplicity, and science takes on complex things that take real expertise, complex data, years of study, and careful examination to parse and integrate. However, people (in America anyway) see conspiracy and secret agendas. Those without any understanding of that complexity, shout out that they see anomalies and problems and it is sadly clear they barely understand the data, the models or the arguments. And they don’t really even care to try. So much easier to let blogs, radio and media do our thinking. As I said, it’s a sad time to be a scientist and watch science get picked apart like the libraries of the ancient world before the Mongol invaders.
An apt metaphor, actually. In the late Middle Ages, Islam held the lead in science of every stripe: Astronomy, algebra, medicine, ancient languages, maintaining the learning of the ancients (we’d have lost Aristotle without them, for example), you name it, Islam led the way as the Latin West descended into superstation and ignorance.
But for complex reasons, like the attack by Christians in the Crusades, Mongol Invaders sacking the library of Babylon, and economic troubles, certain segments of society decided that reason and faith were at odds. Fundamentalism, with its scriptural literalism began to dominate. Islam never recovered. The golden age of Islam in which both reason and faith were seen as vital to our understanding of the world became a factional war. As is true of most wars, everyone lost.
Karen Armstrong writes that fundamentalism always arises out of fear. We live in scary times. My fear is we are repeating history as America descends into the same kind of irrationality where faith and science are seen as enemies. Where the value of an argument is assessed by its loudness and its quality by its digestibility into a sound byte or a blog.
I fear we Mormons are following suit. Are we? Only 22% of us believe in evolution. (And from my perspective, if you don’t believe in evolution you pretty much don’t believe in nor understand science. Strong words but I stand by them.)
It seems we stand where Islam did in the 13th century. What are we going to do?