Alex Miller

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August 11, 2006
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Tackling evolution

VAIL - One could argue that the topic of evolution is even more controversial than abortion or same-sex marriage. After all, people on either side of the debate rarely budge a micron in their belief, and the question of how it fits into a child's public education makes it all the more polarizing.But that doesn't daunt Vail resident Dr. Gene Bammel, a retired philosophy professor who says he's been embroiled in the evolution wars for some time. Lately, Bammel has been sparring in the commentary pages of this paper with local preacher and occasional columnist Bob Branden, whose fundamentalist views on evolution have generated scores of letters and comments.Bammel will be the featured speaker at Monday night's Vail Symposium "Hot Topics" series with a talk labeled "Darwin in the 21st Century: the Intelligent Design Debate."Despite the intractability of Biblical creationists who see Darwin as the devil, Bammel thinks there's still room for intelligent discussion with those who hold less-extreme views."There's a range from zero to 100, with people at 1 and 99 who represent hopelessly irreconcilable opposites, and they don't hesitate to use information that's not accurate to bolster their statements," Bammel said. "For most in the middle, there's an aggregate of scientists who say they're in the business to produce evidence, and who say, as scientists, that they're limited by natural and physical explanations of how the world operates."What's surprising, Bammel said, is that many scientists successfully compartmentalize what they know about the natural world from how they feel about their own personal beliefs. While saying he's tried to be an arbiter between the evolutionists on one side and fundamentalists on the other, Bammel said he's still perplexed by the hard-core creationist view.

"I respect believers, but with literalists like the head of the Kansas school board who says humans were created in their present form 6,500 years ago ... I don't understand that," Bammel said.

Monday's program seems to come at a good time for the Vail Valley. In the wake of Branden's "Worldviews" columns, the evolution question has generated many heated responses, mostly on the side of those who don't question evolution. Bammel said he has a cordial relationship with Branden even given their widely disparate views.As a historian of philosophical thought, Bammel said he's intrigued by how the question of evolution has risen once again after the notoriety it achieved in the 1920s during the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Also fascinating to him is the implied conflict within members of the scientific community who identify themselves as believers in god."At science conferences, more than 90 percent of these people are evolutionists, and more than half of them are religious believers," he said. "They don't see it as an impossible conflict."The kind of hard-right thinking found in conservative pundit Ann Coulter's book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" amazes Bammel, he said. "It drives me up the wall. Evidence is being produced almost day by day in favor of evolution. That to me says it's factual, the way thing happened. How anyone can come along and deny it, it just numbs my mind." The talk Bammel will give Monday is a distillation of material he used in a course he taught at West Virginia University about the conflicts between science and religion. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. He said he doesn't necessarily expect to change minds, but he does want to present some facts."There's a lot of intelligent people in the Vail Valley, really well-read people," he said. "There are so many good books put out on this topic in the past 10 years, and part of my purpose is to just people to get back to these and examine the evidence out there."Two books Bammel recommends are "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement" edited by John Brockman and "By Design: Science and the Search for God" by Larry Witham.Facts aside, Bammel said there are some studies pointing to neurobiological reasons why people develop certain, basic intuitions."There's this funny thing about the brain, where people seem to have some built-in convictions," he said. "But others get exposed to a way of thinking and ask why they're going to church on Sundays."

Alex Miller can be reached at 748-2931, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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The VailDaily Updated Aug 12, 2006 01:53PM Published Aug 11, 2006 12:00AM Copyright 2006 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.