Saturday, July 11, 2009


Novel Religion

Sometimes I think David Klinghoffer is more un-self-conciously honest than the other Discovery Institute drones because he is more literary and, therefore, cannot help but reveal himself through the stories he uses as tropes. The latest, and perhaps the funniest, is his "argument" against Simon Conway Morris' claim, adopted as well by Ken Miller, that the well-known cases of convergence in evolution (multiple evolutionary origins of eyes and wings, for example) suggest that an intelligent creature was bound to arise somewhere in the universe through evolution.

The argument goes that our own example -- going from an obscure and highly localized primate on the edge of extinction to world-spanning, environment manipulating and resource dominating super-organism, in a few tens or hundreds of thousands years -- is a testament to the selectionist power of intelligence. The importance of this, theologically, to Conway Morris and Miller is that it suggests that there may be at least some sort of directionality to evolution which, in turn, would make it more "suitable" for use by a provident god as a means of creating creatures "in his image."

Needless to say, there are many objections to this notion. Atheists such as Jerry Coyne are against it as much as conservative theists are, and for much the same reason: neither want evolution to be seen as compatible with religion. There is certainly something appealing about the notion that, once we "hit" upon intelligence (actually, a combination of intelligence, social organization, ability to manipulate the environment, particularly through fire, and who knows what other traits), we were destined to be an evolutionary success. The problem is that there is no way to settle the argument as long as life on Earth is our only example. Determining whether we are a fluke or inevitable based on a single instance of developing life is like trying to determine if a coin is fair or rigged on a single toss.

But Klinghoffer's attempt to answer the question is, shall we say, telling:

Picture a majestic T. rex receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments in its undersized forelimbs, or an elegant octopus crucified on an old rugged cross with four crossbars instead of one.

Such images are what Kenneth Miller presumably has in mind with his comforting Darwinist thought that intelligent creatures were guaranteed to pop up even in the course of an evolutionary process of purely unguided, purposeless churning. ...

He and others (such as Obama's favorite geneticist, Francis Collins) invite us to imagine God being delighted with such creatures, noble and impressive in their way, as the culmination of the evolutionary process that He chose not to guide. But what if the intelligent creature that resulted from all the purposeless churning, and that was intended to reflect God's own image, had been something really horrible. [Emphasis in original]

And what example does Klinghoffer choose to illustrate that possibility? Why, the deliciously frightful fiction of H.P. Lovecraft:

Sure, they're just stories -- and often kind of silly ones at that, though wickedly entertaining. Yet after reading him, you can't comfortably go back to the naïve Ken Miller way of thinking that Darwinian evolutionary was somehow certain to provide God with children over whom He would approve with the Biblical formulation, "And behold it was very good."

But what is the Bible but just stories -- often silly ones at that -- that only the naïve could take, given the genocide, casual cruelty, hateful bigotry, murder, et al., it details, as representing the "very good"? As one commenter, "JPL," pointed out:

Of course, to us Cthulhu, with his tentacles and such, would appear grotesque and abhorrent. However, to such a being, WE would doubtless prove to appear the same.

Obviously there is no particular cosmic standard of beauty between squid and man, snake and bird, dolphin and planaria. Even within traditional theology, beauty remains a subjective concept in the eye of the beholder, at least at the physical level.

As for the non-physical, of course Cthulhu would seem abhorrent to us...he is opposed to our very existence. (Although honestly, he's simply indifferent to matters not to the Great Old Ones, just as ants matter little to man.) Of course, you can rest assured that to animals in factory farms, or deer on the run from hunters, we too seem terrifying and abhorrent. This is nothing more than a matter of perspective.

Perhaps there is room for discussion and debate concerning evolution, intelligent design, et. al. But the idea that the specific physical form of man as a bipedal hominid somehow reflects perfect beauty, and the likeness of God, requires the most facile and thoughtless reading of Scripture imaginable.

And, of course, a nuanced reading of Lovecraft is that he was holding a mirror up to our own internal ugliness -- our soul, if you must. What Klinghoffer and other creationists object to about evolution is that it makes it harder to maintain the fiction that we are something noble and impressive in our own right, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and that we need not work -- very hard indeed -- to aspire to even approach our pleasant poetry about ourselves.

Klinghoffer would rather read some cheap, mindless, bubble-gum of a novel that makes him comfortable than face the heart of darkness.


Update: That unreconstructed cephalopodist, PZ Megahertz, has taken a hand ... er ... tentacle, as has John Lynch.

"Novel Religion", eh?

Very droll.
Thank you for noticing. ;-)
I've occasionally wondered if the gods of pre-cinematic people were really just superheroes, invented for entertainment purposes. What if Jesus was really just Doctor Manhattan? Or something.

Then after the authors died, people started taking them seriously, the way Trekkies did after the original Star Trek went out of syndication.
Well, there's reason to think heros were elevated to god status -- Hercules and other Greek heros became (probably after-the-fact) demi-gods.

We are a story-telling species and stories that are old and familiar can best hold the audience's attention if something new is added. There has to be a tendency among the tellers of tales to "improve" the stories in the competition in the marketplace of entertaining lies.
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