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What Do Darwinism and ‘Climate Change’ Have in Common?

Original Article

Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times reports on budding initiatives in state legislatures and boards of education to encourage or require balance in classroom discussions of global warming. The point of the piece, though, is to connect the teaching of evolution to the climate change debate:

Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.

Now when I read anything on the environment in the New York Times, I try to keep a couple of deconstructionist qualifiers running in the back of my head: “This is what the New York Times wants me to believe about the issue” and “What are they trying to accomplish with this piece?” I know it’s cynical, but when it comes to environmental stories, I just don’t trust New York Times reporters to keep it straight.

Some things they want to accomplish with this piece:

  1. Divide and conquer skeptics of global warming orthodoxy and Darwinism, by painting the latter as ignorant religious zealots, in hopes of starting a fight among conservatives. No doubt they’re hoping that, say, Richard Lindzen will have to explain why he agrees with those nefarious creationists on the global warming issue, and that he’ll have to spend his time issuing statements of agreement with evolution.
  2. Make it harder for official bodies to encourage critical thinking on global warming, since attempts to do the same with regard to evolution have, in recent years, met with fierce resistance and only modest success.

This becomes clear by reading the story in its entirety. Kaufman is careful to describe the whole thing as a plot by evangelicals and fundamentalists that, in the words of Lawrence Krauss, is designed to cast “doubt on the veracity of science—to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism.”

Then, to prevent alienating all religious readers, Kaufman explains: “Not all evangelical Christians reject the notion of climate change, of course.” So we get the usual quote from an evangelical who thinks the Bible agrees with the New York Times. Enter Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network as an example of how to be a good evangelical.

There’s so much to say about this piece, but let’s me pursue just one question: Is the debate over “evolution” the same as the debate over “climate change”?

Well, I think they’re both alike and different. First, the similarities, which I think are mostly sociological:

  • Both issues suffer from “semantic creep,” which tends to prevent rational discussion.

So a vague word like “evolution” can range in meaning from the trivial and tautological—change over time and survival of the fittest—to the uncontroversial—certain organisms share common ancestors and natural selection explains some things—to the questionable and ideological—everything is the result of a purely impersonal process, we don’t exist for a purpose, we’re just carriers for selfish genes, natural selection and random genetic mutations explain everything interesting, and so forth. If you doubt the latter, you get lumped in with doubting the former.

Similarly, instead of debating specifics about global warming—Are humans the main cause of the recent warming trend in global temperatures? Would the Kyoto Protocol make any difference?—skeptics of all stripes are called deniers of “climate change,” as if anyone other than non-existent disciples of Parmenides would deny that the climate changes.

  • With both issues, dissenters, especially in science, are severely punished, and if possible, ostracized and denied tenure.
  • Both issues have broad metaphysical implications, which are recognized, if not quite admitted, on all sides.
  • Skeptics of both issues are customarily accused of bad faith, bias, religious bigotry, and the like.
  • With both issues, the chaff of ideological assumptions has a way of contaminating the wheat of empirical evidence, and in the process, damaging public trust in science.
  • If you doubt either idea, you’re accused, not of doubting that one idea, but of doubting science itself.
  • With both issues, we hear a lot about consensus.
  • Both have a way of surviving at the theoretical level even when individual pieces of evidence bite the dust.
  • They’re both deeply embedded in the worldview of what David Brooks, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, has called the “educated class.”

Now some dissimilarities:

  • They’re about different subjects. It’s possible to believe in one and doubt the other.
  • The metaphysical implications of strictly materialistic, Neo-Darwinian evolution are more obvious and acute than the metaphysical implications of global warming.
  • The way in which the two ideas are tested is quite different.

Evolutionary theory, Neo-Darwinian or otherwise, attempts to reconstruct the past in very broad terms, and so can’t make detailed predictions about the future. Orthodox global warming theory does try to predict the future. So it’s much easier to qualify or decisively refute than is Neo-Darwinism.

  • Skepticism about Neo-Darwinism (to use a more precise term does than the New York Times) is more controversial than skepticism about global warming orthodoxy.
  • At the same time, though both touch on public policy in some way, global warming has much more immediate public policy implications that Darwinian evolution.

Darwinism has inspired various political ideologies, to be sure, but at the moment, only one of these issues is being used to justify a Left-leaning takeover of the worldwide economy. So it’s no surprise that environmental reporters at the New York Times are starting to have metaphysical panic and pulling out all the stops.