Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evolution and Creationism

(The following was published in the March 22nd edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times.)

Evolution versus Intelligent Design continues to be another either/or issue. But the problem is that people are arguing about two different things. Science focuses on how we got to where we are as human beings. The Spiritual focuses on why we are here at all. Science focuses on the mechanics of how we look like we do and how our motor parts enable us to function. The Spiritual focuses on why human beings were created in the first place, assuming that some “One” intended for it to happen in a purposeful way for an intended outcome (e.g. everlasting life in heaven). Science is consumed with that which is visible, thereby “provable and knowable”; the Spiritual assumes a greater force that invisible to the eye, thereby “improvable yet knowable.”

I do not know how one can sit on a beach and watch the waves continually roll in from as far out as one can see, or sit on a mountain and watch a brilliantly colorful sunset, without knowing that this is all well beyond man’s capabilities. I do not know how a scientist, peering through the highest powered lens at cellular images, cannot but be continually amazed at the intricate design conceived in order to make our incredibly sophisticated life form work.

Creationism is about the Design of earthly existence. Evolution is about the Mechanics for how the Design is fulfilled. New buildings are constructed using everything we have learned about physical laws, materials composition and the art of color and angles. Modern day computers can solve problems, create images and transmit information over thousands of miles in a near-instant using logic, mathematics, and electrical principles. An automobile can move us in style, safety and comfort based upon principles of combustion, inertia and mechanics. Behind each of these was an architect, a computer programmer, or an engineer with a Visionary Design and Great Idea who knew what needed to come together to make it happen.

The birth of a human being is a spectacular convergence of component parts and intangible thoughts. To look at mind, thought and body and their interactions at the detail level of their complexity is as spectacular as that overwhelming view from the mountaintop. But the human being also first needed a Design, followed by the Mechanics necessary to carry out that design.

It is very clear that part of the Mechanic is for human beings to evolve into their form. Gradual, step-by-step growth to becoming fully formed is the rule in all life forms. A human being does not emanate from the womb as a whole and completed adult. An infant began at a cellular level in a union of sperm and egg. That simple cell evolved over time in shape, color, substance and volume to ultimately become the baby we see. We then evolve over the course of our lifetime, gradually changing, almost imperceptibly, from birth to adulthood to old age, one moment and one day at a time. Given what we see in our own individual lives, is it not safe to assume that the whole of humanity would have evolved in some manner over the full history of our ancestors? Evolution serving as the tool by which Intelligent Design is made to happen?

How do we reconcile the poetry of creation stories with the science? Easy. For example, I could describe on multiple levels the fried chicken dinner my Mother used to make. I could describe how she took pieces of chicken and fried them within a detailed recipe of flour coating; boiled potatoes, mashed them with added milk, covered them with gravy; opened a can of peas and heated them on the stove. Or I could describe the entire “farm-to-plate” production chain that brings the chicken’s egg to its ultimate place on my plate. Finally, I could detail how the molecular structure of a chicken changes in hot oil in a skillet. Each version of my dinner’s creation story is correct and compatible, yet told from different vantage points.

We may argue over who truly knows the Great Designer that created the human plan. We may argue over how much science remains to be discovered before really knowing how our human thing works. We can never fully know that which we call God. Science will always have one more level to discover. In the end, both God and Science are needed to create all that we see. And both remain unknowable mysteries in our human lifetime.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welfare and Socialism for Whom?

Soon, the debate over the future delivery of healthcare to Americans will move into full swing. It will be a long and contentious discussion. Hopefully access to good health care as part of American citizenship will be an accepted baseline in the coming discussion. There will be many good differing opinions about the role of governments in a future healthcare structure. Unfortunately, we can also count on hearing some screams about government-provided healthcare being “socialized medicine,” or how such would create new “welfare entitlements.” I suggest that whenever we hear these words, we are listening to nothing of value in this most critical discussion. When one has no real understanding of the very real human needs or has no intellectual understanding of the difficulties and complexities yet opportunities involved in this arena, then we will see this jump to empty codewords. Codewords intended to scare working people into believing that they will lose control over their own lives (socialism). Or that lesser-deserving people will get what they have not paid for and thereby do not deserve (welfare). Except virtually everyone has now become prisoner to a healthcare system that is out of control, and is not getting access to the healthcare that they need in a financially responsible manner.

If the argument is that government provided services are socialism, and underwriting services for those who cannot afford them is welfare, then what are we to do with all of the socialism and welfare that is already in place that we all enjoy and take for granted? The Constitution charged the federal government to provide for the common defense, so it maintains a military to protect us. The US government has provided a postal service since Ben Franklin started it. They do a remarkable job taking my scrawled handwriting on a paper envelope and delivering it 2-3 days later to someone’s mailbox nailed to their house out in the countryside thousands of miles away. All for 42 cents. The FAA keeps track of thousands of airlines and millions of passengers in the air everyday. In spite of how badly run the corporate US airlines have become, we have a minimal occurrence of accidents and deaths from that congested travel. The federal government already extensively and successfully provides direct healthcare to millions of military personnel and their families, to veterans, and to Congressmen/women – care not available to most of us. It provides health insurance to millions of senior citizens. It provides additional health care and/or insurance to other millions of disabled people and children. So let us please stop talking about government-sponsored health care as if it is some brand-new invention the devil.

It is a long list of services the US government provides every day. Sometimes bungled by obscure bureaucrats buried in the bowels of the organizational charts, out of touch with the diverse realities of small-town America. But what have been your experiences of late trying to navigate customer services in free-enterprise corporate America? Hello, India! Both government and private enterprise have their successes and failures.

If “welfare entitlement” is supposedly about something for nothing, then what about all of the corporate and personal welfare we all take advantage of every day. Our tax code is filled with special treatment for selected businesses and classes of individuals, which is why Warren Buffet and his peers pay less percentage income tax than his secretary. The Department of Agriculture pays subsidies, “not to grow” programs, and price supports for farmers, most of which goes to big agri-business growers and passive investors (David Letterman a farmer?), not the family farmer of our mythic dreams. Who among us is willing to give up our mortgage interest deduction, originally written for the home construction industry to stimulate home ownership. A deduction none of the millions of renters enjoys. And, of course, our employer-provided health insurance which is free and non-taxable, even though it is worth thousands of dollars in additional compensation. Explain that supposed fairness to the millions of Americans unemployed or employed-without-benefits.

And, of course, there are all the civilian jobs created by the Pentagon for procurements and defense bases across the country that even the military says are not needed. Or the biggest of all socialistic actions by our government – the first governmental commitment in the world, honored to this day, that all citizen children will receive a basic education regardless of their family’s ability to pay, underwritten by all adult citizens who thereby give back to others the gift they received, even while private enterprise schools also successfully coexist side-by-side for those parents who wish to pay over and above.

The list goes on endlessly. One person’s socialism is another person’s entitlement. So if some critic wants to stand up and yell “socialism” or “welfare,” then the only logical response should be, “So what government entitlements you now get are you willing to give up?” There can emerge many different ways to tame this healthcare beast. Let us allow for both private industry and government roles where each is best positioned. Let individual initiative do what it does so marvelously, while common social fabric needs are being concurrently met. But speak to me of substance, of ideas that lead to outcomes, without labels. Let us all drink from a cup of humility, commit to intellectual honesty, and level the playing field equally for everyone before we stand on the dishonest stage of the rhetorical demagoguery of codewords.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Regional Diversity

Over the past four months I had the good fortune to spend this year’s winter in Southern California instead of my home in Western North Carolina. Given all of the extended nightmarish weather experienced across the country this winter, going without snow for the first time in 40 years was a welcomed change. To get to Southern California from North Carolina, there are only two options: on I-40 across middle Tennessee / Arkansas / Oklahoma and northern Texas / New Mexico / Arizona, or the deep south route on I-10 through southern Mississippi / Alabama / Louisiana / Texas / New Mexico / Arizona. Either route over the 2500 miles will display a vast array of images, vegetation, distances of view, and varying weather conditions, often dramatic and sometimes bordering on the extreme. From such a visual contrast mile by mile, one is reminded of the extraordinary differences in this country’s landscape, yet its unifying beauty.

I have often said that to truly understand a people, you have to go to their place: stand on their land; feel the wind, the cold and the heat of the place; walk the flatness or the rises; eat the native food God made available on that land. Then, as you listen to them talk about their history – of migration, of wars, or desperate struggles for survival, of periods of alternating power & prosperity and then weakness & desperation – their stories, values, opinions, politics and cultural way of life begins to come alive within a context. Without that critical understanding and appreciation of their context, you hear their story only through your own lens, thereby not really understanding it at all.

Unlike most except the biggest of countries, the U.S. does not have one topography that molds a common context for us, such as Japan’s experience for example. Surviving the land means something far different to the New Englander than to the New Mexican. Shelter requires something very different for the Floridian than for the North Dakotan. The commute to work is a different regimen to the office worker in Huntington Beach, California than to the farmer in Van Wert, Ohio. The dusty heat of El Paso, Texas summers calls for a different rhythm and tolerance than the deep snows of winters in Buffalo, New York around the Great Lakes region. And the 90% humidity of Fort Smith, Arkansas creates a different form of heat than the extreme 15% dryness of Tucson, Arizona, regardless of the thermometer reading.

Basic values of patriotism, faith and religious observances, compassion towards others, charity to those in need, and respect for law and democratic process can be shared universally. Yet how those values are expressed and fulfilled cannot, and should not, be the same, given our incredible diversity of situations. Nevertheless, I continue to be amazed at the ongoing efforts of some people to try to enforce an ill-fitting homogeneity at a detailed level across this land. Be it a faceless bureaucrat dictating educational standards and teaching methodologies; a building code based upon big-city realities pushed out to rural communities; a religious denominational belief and practice attempted to be made a secular standard; architected homes completely mis-fitted in style to the land they sit on and the historical culture they embody; or the mandated allocation of governmental budgets applied to specific local action programs – all of these reflect a supposed knowing of “what is best locally” without any real understanding of what local really means.

Tip O’Neil’s famous observation was that “all politics is local.” Over the past years we have dangerously tried to turn that on its head. The idea was not to tell the locals what to do, but to listen to the locals and then give them a wide swath and meaningful support to pursue their individual directions. Allow people to respond as best appropriate to local conditions and priorities. We should remember that our view is our own, but other views are not necessarily a disagreement with us. They may rather reflect a life that is often outside of our own field of vision, and thereby outside of our real understanding.