May 31, 2007

Dear Sen. Brownback: You're Better Served by Sound Bites

by PG

Republican senator and presidential hopeful Sam Brownback begins his New York Times op-ed by saying,

In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not �believe� in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.
Despite a general lack of commonality with Brownback's positions, I thought this was a great opening paragraph. I too dislike the tendency of these cattle-call, televised debates to wipe out the nuance and subtlety necessary to sound policymaking. I looked forward to Brownback's staking out a sophisticated position combining faith and reason, a la Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project. Unfortunately, that's not exactly where Brownback stands, and his concluding paragraphs just plain freaked me out as a warning sign that a Brownback administration would put a religious litmus test on scientific funding:

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man�s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose. While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man�s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
First, I haven't heard the word "unique" used so many times in so few sentences since a smalltown shopkeeper tried to sell me a handpainted doll (I assume that I shouldn't substitute "ugly" for "unique" in Brownback's statement, however). Second, the idea that "[m]an ... reflects an image and likeness" isn't even held by all people of faith. Just because Judaism and Christianity hew to the belief that we are physical mirrors of God ("And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: ... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." Genesis 1:26-27*) does not make this true for all religious traditions -- just the one to which Brownback belongs. For a Hindu, this could seem like an arrogant idea; how can a human on earth be in the image of the gods, particularly when -- unlike the Christian God, who has manifested on earth only in the form of Jesus -- the gods have such a multitude of forms?

Still, if Brownback just wanted to say what his personal preferences are, that's all fine. I might wince at his repetitive style and self-centered assertions, but they're probably the fault of a conservative staffer who thought this was what a Times op-ed should sound like. It's the point at which Brownback stops speaking about personal beliefs and starts talking in normative generalities that I get worried: "Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."

So now whether a particular part of a scientific theory is fit to be part of "human knowledge," the pursuit of which is funded by the U.S. government in a multitude of ways, will depend on whether it fits with Brownback's idea of what is true, i.e. humans that were created in God's image. Anything that doesn't fit with Brownback's idea of what is true will be rejected, no matter how good the research or logical the analysis, because it automatically must be "an atheistic theology posing as science."

I hope that Dr. Collins and other religious scientists who have benefited from government funding will speak up to protest any attempt to put a theological litmus test on what constitutes "a welcome addition to human knowledge." This seems to me not only unwise as a policy matter, but also potentially unconstitutional. The political appointees in a Brownback administration may perceive a non-Christian scientist as likely to spend any grants she receives on the pursuit of ideas that are incompatible with Brownback's truths.

Brownback munificently grants that micro-evolution within a species occurs, but his In-God's-Image stance would render impossible common ancestry for humans and other primates, unless he's saying that it wasn't until homo sapiens sapiens that the genus homo "reflect[ed] an image and likeness." Yet such basic acknowledgment of the fossil record doesn't require a belief in utterly random mutations that survived through natural selection, which is the aspect of modern evolutionary theory that honestly can be seen as a threat to belief in a conscious creation. One could think -- as some people do -- that God guided humans' and chimps' separate evolution from a Hominini ancestor, and that the traits of altruism, abstract thinking, etc. that interplay with sophisticated language and other capacities peculiar to humans were God-granted. I don't know much about paleoanthropology, but my understanding is that we still don't know much about how we came to have the common notion that a human who kills another human in order to possess the deceased's property should be punished by the remaining humans.

So, yes, Brownback is right that this is all complicated and doesn't fit well into a simple "raise your hand if you don't believe in evolution." He is wrong, however, to think that expanding on his views would reassure those of us who might have been worried by an anti-evolution president.

* I know the Roman Catholic Brownback is unlikely to be reading the KJV, but this is a post written by an English major, dammit.

May 31, 2007 12:53 AM | TrackBack
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