John Howard vs Charles Darwin?

The left used to portray John Howard as hostile to multiculturalism. But as Michael Gawenda points out in today’s Age, while Howard wasn’t so keen on multiculturalism of the subsidies for Bolivian folk dancing variety, he was quite happy with the implicit multiculturalism of religious schools. And conversely (though Gawenda does not say this), while the left liked the multiculturalism of ethnic differences, it was (and is) often quite hostile to religious belief, particularly when reinforced by religious schools.

And few religious beliefs get people more upset than creationism or intelligent design. Gawenda comments that:

Given that some faith-based schools in Australia — unlike schools in the US — teach creationism and the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design as legitimate alternatives to evolutionary theory, how many will mark the Darwin anniversaries [of Charles Darwin’s birth and publication of his evolutionary theory], let alone celebrate them?

In all probability, a significant number won’t. For that John Howard can take some credit. What an irony, given that this was a PM determined to roll back multiculturalism.

But how much does it really matter what ordinary people think about where humans came from? Even most of us who would say we subscribe to Darwin’s theories would not be able to correctly answer even quite basic questions about the evolutionary sequence and how many years ago the the various stages of evolution occurred. I wandered through an exhibition on Darwin only a few weeks ago in Toronto, but I have forgotten already most of what I learnt there.

I don’t need to remember, because no practical decisions in my life turn on knowing this level of detail. It’s not like being misinformed about how disease is spread, or the dangers of playing with matches near flammable chemicals, or other scientific facts that that if known could spare me harm or gain me benefits.

Evolution is more like whether life exists on Mars or not, a matter of curiosity rather than practical concern.

Yes, knowledge is better than falsehood. Creationists are legitimate targets of scientific scorn and ridicule. But among the many wrong things people believe, that man was created by God does not seem to be exceptionally harmful.

——
What do Australians think about evolution? Over a number of years the International Social Science Survey put this proposition to its respondents:

Mankind evolved by natural selection from lower animals, as Darwin’s theory suggests.

The results were:

Definitely true: 16%
Probably true: 36%
Mixed feelings, not sure: 27%
Probably not true: 12%
Definitely not true: 10%.

In the US, where almost everyone goes to public schools, only about a quarter hold Darwinian views.

23 thoughts on “John Howard vs Charles Darwin?

  1. Andrew, to play Devil’s advocate, whether Left or Right, aren’t some people justifiably concerned, not so much with the fact that people believe Creationism itself, but with the way that some children seem to be brainwashed with it, together with other religious beliefs and practices, from a young age as a means of control over them. If effective, this control could feasibly extend into adulthood and the person would thereby find it very difficult to ever consider the matter in a meaningful way. If this is a problem, what to do about it would be difficult to determine. I am reminded of that Liberal Archepelaego book, if that is the right name.

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  2. This was the bit of Gawenda’s piece that stood out for me (emphasis added).

    The notion that a secular liberal democracy is underpinned by a free and universal secular education for all children — with the implicit values of such a system — is now well and truly dead in Australia.

    I’ve been reading Oakeshott’s essay ‘The masses in representative democracy’. Gawnda’s argument, and that of the public school lobby, struck me as being ‘anti-individual’. There is nothing wrong with secular education, but whose secular education are we going to get? Oakeshott tells us “the morality of the ‘anti-individual’ should be radical equalitarian”. The whole essay is a gem.

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  3. What if we had a public education system where all the pupils could read and write effectively by the time they reached high school?
    Never mind about free, it is not free, it is very expensive.
    And as for secular, what is wrong with the kind of religion that teaches the importance of good works, personal responsibility and community service?
    Getting hold of the idea that your actions have consequences which are your responsibility would trump any amount of knowledge about the origins of the species if you are trying to educate for citizenship.

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  4. James – I think we should resist the idea that kids just passively believe everything they are told. The process of secularisation in most countries, the significant switching between religions, and clear evidence that people don’t follow their church’s line (eg current Catholic birth rates, support for gay marriage among adherents of religions officially opposed to it) all suggest that people are capable of thinking for themselves.

    And to the extent that kids do just believe, what is the better situation – all being told what the state wants them to believe, or having some diversity in what is taught?

    Sinclair – This was a badly written op-ed and I was not always sure what Gawenda was trying to say. But accidentally I think that passage makes an important point: a secular liberal democracy does *not* require a universal secular education.

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  5. I think the last survey question shows the author’s ignorance and relates to your observation that people don’t understand a whole lot about evolution (or philosophy of science for that matter). Surely the adjectives should have been completely, mostly etc. With the current set, you are forced to accept all of the theory with some probability. It would have been better to use a question that allows you to accept some parts of the theory and reject others.

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  6. It could matter what people in the street think about evolution and biology when it affects decisions about GM crops or about medicine.

    You could potentially have a disaster like Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, causing some of the worst totalitarian induced deaths of the 20th century during the Holodomor and associated starvation.

    However, oddly enough it appears that those who believe in the nonsense of creationism in the US, appear more relaxed about allowing scientists to alter ‘God’s unchanging’ creations than Europeans who tend to have more trust in evolution but oppose GM crops.

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  7. Pedro – If you think that your body is God’s creation then perhaps you might oppose genetic engineering, though I don’t know of creationism being linked to opposition to other forms of medicine. But to enlarge on your third paragraph, the US manages to combine low levels of belief in Darwinism with great strength in the scientific fields that might supposedly be threatened by these opinions. Australia is a far more secular country than the US despite having a much higher proportion of its population educated in religious schools. The real-world evidence on these things just doesn’t support any great concern.

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  8. “But how much does it really matter what ordinary people think about where humans came from? ”

    In Australia, very little, if at all, as long as they they don’t impose their thoughts onto others, which is usually the case. In the United States, where a small number of fanatics manage to elect people like themselves to school boards, who then ban the teaching of evolution, or insist on creationism being taught in the science curriculum, it matters a lot.

    These creationists and their apologists are pure anti-enlightenment. How they can be defended even implicitly by people who worship at the altar of Adam Smith and David Hume – that means you, Rafe Champion – is incomprehensible.

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  9. And the creationists are tolerant? They are the most closed minded, illiberal, intolerant group in the Western world, and a good deal of the non-Western world as well.

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  10. As a child, I used to think that Darwin was next to Uluru. Didn’t do me any harm.

    As a Darwinite who worked in the tourism industry for a few years, I can tell that a lot of adults around the world hold pretty much the same idea.

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  11. “The notion that a secular liberal democracy is underpinned by a free and universal secular education for all children — with the implicit values of such a system — is now well and truly dead in Australia.”

    I’ve never before heard of such a notion. It sounds like Gawenda is just making it up and claiming an established history for it, in order to add weight to his argument.

    Then again I’m a product of the catholic system, so maybe this precious information was purposely withheld from me! But then again, my very self and the life that I live is proof that the notion is rubbish.

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  12. Jacques, in that case, you may be the perfect person to answer the question that’s been troubling me: are the people who live after the city named after him more likely to believe his work?

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  13. “are the people who live after the city named after him more likely to believe his work?”

    What about the people who work in Darwin’s risibly named Charles Darwin University?

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  14. Charles Darwin Uni, that is just great, if only we had a Huxley College, like in the Marx Brothers film where Darwin and Huxley college played a football game. Was it “Horsefeathers”?

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  15. Andrew: Sure, overall Christianity and religious beliefs don’t impact health and medicine, but they do on occasion. The opposition of Christian Scientists in going to doctors is one example, the Jehovah’s witnesses opposition to blood donation another and the way the Falun Gong believe all illnesses are due to bad Chi or whatever is yet another and Scientology’s opposition to Psychiatry another.

    Some Christian Sect could quickly arise in the US that reached what is surely a more consistent position and did oppose medicine and GM crops.

    It’s no great concern, as you say, but something to be alert for.

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  16. Pedro – I was brought up a Christian Scientist, and attended a school run by Christian Scientists, so I am well aware of that particular issue. On the other hand, this seemed to be compartmentalised craziness. Insofar as I can recall it, we had a pretty conventional science education at school with no hint that it was inconsistent with religion. We were neither brainwashed nor dupes – I certainly wasn’t alone in my religious scepticism.

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  17. Science or fairy tales? If we are going for fairy tales lets go for witches and goblins and things. These God botherers take there fairy tales way to seriously.

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  18. “But among the many wrong things people believe, that man was created by God does not seem to be exceptionally harmful.”

    Plenty of people accept Darwinism and also believe the universe and all in it were created by God. In this view Darwinism can be one of the many mechanisms of how we got to be like this.

    Creationists just have one limited literal view of how God “created”. Others would not pretend to know the details of HOW that creation happened.

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  19. “Plenty of people accept Darwinism and also believe the universe and all in it were created by God. In this view Darwinism can be one of the many mechanisms of how we got to be like this.”

    At the end of the Toronto exhibition on Darwinism, there was a video presentation in which various scientists explained how they reconciled their religious beliefs with their scientific profession. I gave it only a few minutes, but interesting that the museum thought it was necessary.

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  20. Even most of us who would say we subscribe to Einstein’s theories would not be able to correctly answer even quite basic questions about Riemann geometry and the functional form of the tensor equations.
    It’s the mechanism and its implications, not the details of implementation, that matter here, Andrew.

    Of course historically the reason Darwin was timid about putting forth natural selection was because it left no room for “intelligent design”, a point immediately grasped by both his critics and supporters. That, not the notion that the bible was not to be taken literally (which no educated person then believed – my how we have regressed), was what caused the furore.

    For my part, I’m very much of the school that natural selection renders God an unnecessary hypothesis. This, combined with Hume and Kant’s demolitions of the purported logical proofs of the old fogy’s existence, means that the only motives for believing in him are sentimentality, self-deception and and conformism.

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  21. “Mankind evolved by natural selection from lower animals, as Darwin’s theory suggests.”

    Hmmm – what distinguishes a “lower animal” from a “higher animal”?

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