Monday, September 26, 2005

Homo neanderthalensis

Where is H.L. Mencken when we need him? Here baby--Somewhere in Loudin Park, a cemetery in Baltimore, the ghost of H.L. Mencken is writhing in agony, trying desperately to get out of the grave, get his hands on a typewriter and get to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Mencken, the “bard” of this fair city, is famous for his coverage of the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. Scopes II, as it is not quite accurately described, begins there today in Harrisburg.

Last year, the school board in nearby Dover ordered that intelligent design be taught in biology classes. The students were given a brief, four-paragraph statement relating that there is a competing theory to evolution (usually read by an administrator because the science teachers refused), that evolution is a theory not a fact, and that any students interested can find copies of the intelligent design text book, Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins in the school library. The vote was 6-3 and the three who voted against the measure resigned in protest.

The nefarious part of the intelligent design argument is that it is disingenuous. It never mentions God or anything supernatural. It merely lays out the argument that biological development is too complicated to have happened on its own. The student is then invited to take the next, unspoken step. Well, if it didn't happen on its own, where would the help come from? Let me see.…. Having failed to get creationism into schools, thanks to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, they devised this nifty end run.

That religion is behind all of this pops up despite the advocates’ best efforts. “Nearly 2,000 years ago,” one board member, William Buckingham said, “someone died on a cross for us. Shouldn’t we have the courage to stand up for him?” He has since denied having said that but he did and the major flaw in the argument is that nothing in evolution denies the possibility of the supernatural. Intelligent design is religion, not science.

Which brings us to H.L. Mencken. Mencken’s role in the Scopes trial was so prominent his character made it into the play and film Inherent the Wind as the smart-assed reporter. Mencken’s columns, syndicated from the late and lamented Baltimore Evening Sun are cruel, hilarious and spot-on. No one has either the sharp knife nor the guts to use it in Harrisburg, so I thought you’d like to see some of it.

Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge....

The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders -- that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous -- by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law....

The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex -- because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged -- and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple -- and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

H.L., baby, you gotta get over this shyness and say what you mean. Don’t hold back. Here's more on the trial from the NYT, LAT, and the York (PA) Daily Record.

We'll have more Mencken as the trial develops.

There are holes in that evolution theory folk. There is just one fewer than there was last week—While all this is going on, scientists scored another for dear Charles Dawin. As Rick Weiss and David Brown reported in today’s Washington Post, the unravelling of the genetic code of chimpanzees, has lent more proof to the theory of evolution. Last month, scientists were able to sequence chimps and found that their genome and ours is 96% identical. If Darwin was correct, the scientists noted, they should be able to use a mathematical formula that could predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species’ DNA and the two species’ population size. Evolutionary biology predicted that number, and when the researchers at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard pumped in the numbers, the prediction came out on the money. As Weiss and Brown point out, that little piece of experiment is just one of many performed in the last few years nailing down the accuracy and importance of Darwinian theory. To tell a child otherwise is criminal, or as Mencken would put it, an act of the boobosity.

The best source for background, information and links in this debate remains Panda’s Thumb.

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