May 8, 1997, lecture by Stephen Jay Gould at the University of Alabama, Birmingham
I had never heard Stephen Jay Gould in person and was looking forward to what I hoped would be a witty and intellectually stimulating lecture. The event was scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. at the Hill Center Alumni auditorium and our party planned to arrive early in order to beat what we anticipated would be a large crowd. Our experience in trying to obtain entrance to the auditorium revealed as much about the purpose of the event as the lecture itself. At 6:30 P.M. the announcement was made that students holding a proper ID would be allowed to enter first. As expected, biology and other classes were required to attend. Meanwhile the crowd filled the lobby and spilled onto the curved walk leading to the auditorium. As 7:00 P.M. approached we started to hear murmurs of discontent from the crowd: "When will they let us in? Don't they care about the general public?" "Why did they choose such a small auditorium (320 seats)?" The auditorium door cracked opened and a small usher said, "Thirty only." Thirty ordinary people were counted and the doors closed. People again started asking: "Will there be a tape?" "Will you put a loudspeaker in the lobby?" "Will you move the lecture to a larger auditorium?" There was a silence that answered "No!" to all of these questions.
Many started to leave the lobby as we worked our way toward the auditorium door just in case. And, sure enough, the door opened and a voice said, "Ten more on the floor." We were in! By now we realized we were not wanted and that this lecture was not intended for the general public.
Gould started with a twenty-minute attack on the Bible and
Biblical literalists. "The Bible is cobbled together from
many sources and is full of internal contradictions," he
railed. He illustrated with a litany of "contradictions"
from the Old and New Testaments punctuated by mocking laughter
from the audience. He went on to say that Darwinism is perceived
as the greatest threat to Western traditions. "Right!"
he shouted. I thought this was a lecture on science. Perhaps I
had wandered into a revival.
After an "historical" review of evolution-creation court battles Gould revealed the objective of the meeting. "We won in the courts but lost in the classroom," he said. "Teachers do not have the courage to teach evolution. They must become more aggressive." On the Alabama Insert he commented: "Legally challenge this unfortunate insert and win. This is a fight!" It was clear he came to rally the troops.
Gould attempted to achieve his goal by setting up a straw-man version of "creation-science" and then demolishing it through ridicule, ad hominem arguments, and the imprecise use of terms. He started by laying down the principle that evolution is both a fact and a theory. We are confident about the fact of evolution, he said, (1) because we can observe small scale observable changes (he gives credit to the Alabama Insert for being correct about this one); (2) because larger changes can be directly observed in the fossil record; and (3) because of inferential evidence -- namely, imperfections that beg for explanations. Creationism on the other hand is an attack on all science, and is motivated by a political agenda. It violates the very rules of science by operating outside of natural laws and by not being falsifiable. Worse yet, its proponents lie and distort the views of true science. When one of their positions is falsified, the creationists refuse to abandon it. To illustrate, Gould used a diagram of the fossil record and ridiculed those who explain fossil distribution through various theories such as differential intelligence (the dumb ones are on the bottom). Indeed, creationists are religious fundamentalists in disguise and are a dangerous lot. If allowed to prosper they will cause the demise of physics, of astronomy, and in fact, of all true science. Book burning, censorship, and a return to the Middle Ages will result.
The question and answer session was a sad continuation of my on-going intellectual disillusionment. Asked about his views on the origin of consciousness, Gould replied that consciousness debates are merely about definitions. Asked about his earlier definitions of religion as being the exclusive domain of ethics and values, he retreated. His most revealing response was to the question, "Would you comment on Behe's concept of irreducible complexity?" "I don't get it," Gould replied. He went on to add: "I am no expert on cells, but my colleagues who know say that Behe's argument is no better than that for the eye. It is the oldest argument in the book." Gould's responses represent wonderful teaching opportunities squandered.
I felt the lecture was a waste of time for those required to attend. Instead of presenting science, Gould preached "religion"; instead of teaching, he indoctrinated; instead of providing students with a model of sound discourse, he adopted the same unfair techniques he accused his opponents of using. Early in his lecture, Gould stated that he would "debate any honest creationist." I wish such a creationist had replaced the mythical opponent "created" by Gould. The evening was best summarized by a comment I overheard upon leaving the auditorium: "He sure knows a lot about baseball."
Copyright © 1997 Norris Anderson. All
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