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December 25, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Down, Not Out

To a certain strand of argument, the news last week from Dover, Pennsylvania, was a knockout blow. “Our conclusion today,” wrote US District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, a Republican appointed by President Bush, “is that it is unconstitutional to teach Intelligent Design an alternative to evolution in a public school classroom.”

“The overwhelming evidence is that Intelligent Design is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism and not a scientific theory,” Jones wrote in a 139-page decision. “It is an extension of the Fundamentalists’ view that one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution.”

Science, he wrote, “rejects appeal to authority in favor of empirical evidence,” whereas, “ID is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications.”

In November, Dover voters threw out eight of nine school board members who had insisted on teaching ID (the ninth was not up for reelection). The new school board will not appeal the ruling. The parents who brought suit against the old board are entitled to damages, the judge said.

As if to underscore the courtroom triumph, Science magazine rolled out its annual year-end “Breakthrough of the Year” issue.  Often the magazine’s editors single out a particular development: a molecule, a tool or an experiment. This year their theme was “Evolution in Action.”

“É[I]n the research community, it’s been a great year for understanding how evolution works,” wrote editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, “through both experiment and theory. No single discovery makes the case by itself; after all, the challenge of understanding evolution makes multiple demands:

“How can we integrate genetics with the patterns of inherited change? How do new species arise in nature?  What can the new science of comparative genomics tell us about change over time?  We have to put the pieces together, and it could not be a more important challenge.” Medical science depends on it.

And though it was no part of Kennedy’s argument, readers who are familiar with developments in economics will recognize that evolutionary explanations are being applied with increasing frequency and (slowly) growing success to explain social outcomes. So far it is only glib to equate economists’ concept of utility with biologists’ fitness. But economics, too, clearly is headed towards the elucidation of mechanisms best understood as evolutionary.

No wonder, then, that so many people think that the controversy is at an end. Science 1, Religion 0, game over.

They are, perhaps, mistaken. Religion, not game theory, continues to be the source of our deepest understanding of right and wrong, good and bad, prayer and sacrifice, fellowship and devotion, hope and consolation.  The explication of these values now takes place in realms far from their original locus, in self-help books, newspapers, films and sit-coms. But the lessons themselves had their beginnings in the teachings of religions. Naturally I don’t have in mind just Judaism and Christianity, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, but Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and a thousand spiritual traditions less well-known.

A great deal of rethinking and rearrangement is taking place today in these spiritual communities. It will not occur in isolation from the social sciences. It will, however, have sprung from very different historical roots. That is emphatically not to express the hope that a religious revival is in the offing. Surely we have had enough of that already!

But an appreciation of the value of religious institutions in everyday life, broadly defined, already may be growing. If so, it will have more to do with testimony than with data, with fellowship rather than peer-review, with justice rather than replication. Religion is down, but it is not out. The nub of the difference is that science concerns those judgments for which universal agreement can be obtained. The place to teach it is in the schools. The place to teach religion is in the churches and, even more importantly, in the home.

Economic Principals wishes readers a succession of thoughtful holy days, in December and throughout the coming year.

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