Shannon’s “Left & Evolution” Revisited

Shannon’s earlier observations, “The Left & Evolution”, come to mind reading discussions at Volokh & Left2Right. Arguing about evolution seems a bit, well 19th century, but it is pretty easy to see that a certain pugnacious, literal, and irritating fundamentalism is matched by minds equally pugnacious and literal. The level of conversation at Volokh is pleasant. This also echoes Himmelfarb’s criticism of the French Enlightenment, where Reason replaces God, while the Brits & Americans see reason as a path to civic duty and liberty. While we should revere the “scientific method” and “scientific inquiry,” we may well suspect sentences that begin “Science says” and then judge the complexities of human motivation. Volokh quotes (none of the links work as far as I can see):

In March of 2001 the Gallup News Service reported the results of their survey that found 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

Well, I’m willing to agree that 45% is a pretty ridiculous (sad) percentage and does not bode well for America’s future in a world where broad science ability is important in terms of economics & defense. However, any one in that 12% who considers himself a beleaguered and martyred proponent of the truth must have an oversupply of chutzpah.

As long as polemicists insist that acceptance of science & evolution is bound up with acceptance of such a certainty, that 45% is not likely to become educated.

11 thoughts on “Shannon’s “Left & Evolution” Revisited”

  1. How many people among that 45% truly have thought about the issue, though? I would hesitate to say that most have. I would think, and I’ve known very smart, science-accepting people who happened to be religious, who had never looked into the evolution issue and figured, sure, last 10,000 years.
    When they read about the Neanderthals and all that type of “more than 10,000 years old” stuff, though, (really eloquent prose, I know) then they came around and said, well, OK, makes sense. I hadn’t ever thought about it much.

    Should they have thought about it? Perhaps, but if they are just working a 9-5 and perhaps raising a family, how vital is it?
    On the other hand, I’d think that a lot of that 12% have thought about this issue very seriously, for no other reason than it usually takes more musing to reject God than to accept some version of Him. Necessarily bad? No. But if indeed that 12% consider themselves to be beleaguered and martyred proponent[s] of the truth,” then their louder and more certain voices will carry past the 45%.
    So I guess, and sorry if I’ve been rambling on, it’s up to the 37% to be the loud, insistent, certain ones. Not in a condemning way, but in the eye-opening way to the 45% and trying to ignore, as much as possible, the 12%. Not an easy task, but that’s what makes it worth pursuing, in my mind.

  2. A fair number of those in the 12% do everything in their power to alienate the 45%. Therein lies one of the major problems — nobody likes to listen to people who don’t treat them with respect, and a lot of the strongest voices in support of evolution are also complete and total jerks about it.

    Take, for example, my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home with parents who prayed and took us to church a lot. My parents never particularly cared much about evolution, and as far as I could tell, neither did my church. I had seen the “Big Daddy” Chick tract and thought it made some good points, and I argued some with my teachers in high school because I thought they were brushing a lot of stuff under the rug when they taught about evolution. But I really didn’t care all that much — I thought the theory had problems, but I didn’t care much about it. It really became a big deal to me when I got online and people basically talked about evolution as an anti-religious thing. It was online where I started to run into the secular fundamentalists who knew nothing about evolution except that it somehow “disproved God”. Therein lies another problem — most people, on either side, don’t actually know what they’re talking about, because high school biology teaches basically nothing worthwhile. Unfortunately, a lot of people get really emotionally attached to what they learned in either Sunday School or 9th grade biology, even though what they “know” has very little to do with what either the Bible or evolutionary theory actually say.

    After many years of online debate that mostly consisted of people calling each other names and quoting webpages that contradicted other webpages, I finally decided to go study the subject for myself. I was in grad school, working toward my PhD in mathematical biology, and I had the opportunity to take some classes from Joe Felsenstein. Because evolution fundamentally is a question of what DNA does over time (and not, as some would argue, about structure or function or fossil records — these are secondary) I specifically focused on classes about evolutionary genetics and phylogenetics. It really only took one course for me to understand evolution on a fundamental level, and one more for me to see enough real DNA sequences to be moderately convinced. Honestly, just about anyone who can make it through college should have the capability of taking a decent course on evolution and they should have a lot better undrestanding of it than what you see flung around in your average online debate, but people just simply aren’t interested in really understanding the theory — they’re mostly interested in using it to justify other things they already believe. Were it not for the fact that I both really cared AND had access to a world-class scholar, I never would’ve left the 45% camp. Most of the people trying to convince me to leave were total jerks who didn’t understand the theory in the first place, so I had no reason to listen to them.

    (switching gears slightly) —

    For the vast majority of people, even in the sciences, evolution (in the historical sense) doesn’t really matter. Most people in most sciences (outside of a small subset of Biology) could live their lives just fine and do their work just fine without ever caring about evolution, were it not for the fact that so many people want to spend so much time arguing about it. That’s not to say it’s not a good theory or that it’s not true — just, belief or disbelief in evolution won’t particularly interfere with most people’s everyday lives, and most people would have no reason to care if the theory wasn’t being used by the anti-religious for their own purposes. There are certainly those who have to understand it (including many in computer science), but very few will actually run into non-social difficulty based on their belief or disbelief in evolution.

    So, when it comes down to it, I don’t really think the 37% needs to get louder and drown out the mean part of the 12%. What I think needs to happen is the 37% needs to show respect to the 45%, and let them know that we can still interact as civil human beings. Forget trying to convince them. Just be nice to them, and answer their questions if they care, and let the facts speak for themselves. Of that 45% group, almost none of them really understand evolution. But then, almost none of the 37% or the 12% understand it, either — so why put so much effort into trying to convince the 45% about it?

    My wife made a good suggestion which applies to most controversial subjects, and especially this one. Here’s how it should be taught in schools: tell people it’s OK if, at the end of class, they don’t believe it. But tell them they better learn it and understand it, because they need to know what others around them believe in order to be able to work with them and understand them in the future. Then just teach it, and don’t worry that people don’t believe it — just worry about whether or not they comprehend it. Because the truly frightening statistic isn’t that 45% of people believe in young-earth creationism — the truly frightening statistic is that 99.9% of people don’t understand evolution well enough to even know what “genetic drift” is, yet almost every one of those people has an opinion as to whether or not evolution is true.

    Think about that for a moment. 99.9% of people don’t know the basics of evolutionary theory, yet almost every one of them has an opinion about it. It doesn’t really matter that 45% fall on one side and 12% fall on the other and 37% are in the middle — what matters is that 99.9% don’t understand evolution well enough to be able to intelligently decide which side to be on, yet almost all of them pick a side based on other (usually religious) considerations.

  3. The best article on Intelligent Design ever

    “To evolutionists I say, “I am perfectly willing to believe what you can actually establish. Reproducibly create life in a test tube, and I will accept that it can be done. Do it under conditions that reasonably may have existed long ago, and I will accept as likely the proposition that such conditions existed and gave rise to life. I bear no animus against the theory, and champion no competing creed. But don’t expect me to accept fluid speculation, sloppy logic, and secular theology.”

  4. Lotharbot:
    1. I agree that the vast majority of people do not understand evolution in detail, certainly not in the way you understand it. It does not follow however that they “do not understand the basics of evolutionary theory”. I am uncertain that is true; rather, I suspect most adults can give a serviceable one or two sentence description of the theory. Such polls as cited here have numerous problems, and drawing useful conclusions from them is difficult. In truth, we simply don’t know.

    2. Instead, non-scientific positions on evolution may be better explained as a simple market problem (as explicated by others much more knowledgeable than I). Given that, for most adults, the cost for holding an opinion on a subject about which they know very little (here, evolution) approaches zero. Therefore, one may believe in creation science with virtualy no risk at all. It simply has no impact on one’s daily life whether you do or do not hold to the science and the theory. Except, of course, if one wishes to ascend as a scientist or science teacher, in which case the cost of holding such an opinion is enormously prohibitive.

    As a result, arguing about its validity is bound to be fruitless. We might as well be debating whether the color of the frum-frum flower on planet Dweeb is green or blue. We can both hold firm positions on the matter, whether we know the facts or not. Since our opinions are free and without risk, why not?

  5. Susie provides a sterling example of the phenomenon Kevin Fleming illustrates.  She conflates abiogenesis with evolution (ironically buying into sloppy logic), which she can get away with because it doesn’t matter to her.

    To biologists, population geneticists, agronomists and millions of other people out there, such distinctions are crucial and the cost of getting them wrong is that one’s work is worthless.

  6. Kevin:

    1. In my experience, the vast majority of people don’t really even understand the basics of the theory. Remember that I consider DNA changes to be the “basics” and structural changes to be incidental. I interact with a number of fairly intelligent groups (grad school, some of the people on, etc.) and I’d say the average person in those groups understands evolution about as well as the average first-grade child of agnostics understands Christianity (you can replace this with any other common religion in your area.) They know some of the terminology and a few of the main ideas, but they don’t really have a clear picture of the most important concepts or how they fit together. This and biology seminar are the only two places where I’ve had an intelligent conversation about evolution without spending most of my time correcting elementary misconceptions by people on both sides.

    I think a big reason for that is that high school biology doesn’t teach evolutionary theory — it teaches evolutionary apologetics. It tries to give people the main “evidences” for the theory, mostly from the direction of outward appearances. It basically tries to prove evolution through comparative anatomy, and that gives people the misconception that evolution is an anatomical phenomenon rather than a genetic phenomenon.

    2. I mostly agree with your market idea, but I want to bring something out a little more. For most people, the direct cost or benefit of believing or disbelieving evolution is very small. Unless they’re actually doing lab biology, it doesn’t really matter much. But the indirect costs — mostly in terms of social pressure — are much larger. The poll may as well have asked “are you evangelical, atheist or strong agnostic, or other?” because that’s the major source of cost for people.

    This makes it even more fruitless to debate the validity of the theory, and I think makes it clear why so many hold such differing views. There’s no benefit to changing belief, but for most people, there’s a large social cost. As long as evolution is thought of as an atheist belief, evangelicals won’t touch it. And as long as evolution is thought of as a hammer to assault evangelicals, those of us who care about the theory for its own sake have very little incentive to try to teach it to the 45% — it’s a lot of work, it’s not worth a lot to them, they’re likely to get angry, and even if you convinced them they’d risk becoming social outcasts, so why bother?

    3. Can you find a copy of that article that isn’t in MS Word format?

  7. Looks like these are all word docs!

    I agree, in some settings (i.e. outside academia)there is a large negative social cost to expressing support for evolution as fact. I like the ‘rational irrationality’ economics point of view in this regard, because it explains the curious effect that costs have on opinions.

    It helps explain why ‘taxing the rich’ receives widespread support, even if people know it is counterproductive, because they do not sense their own costs in doing so. Do you supose there might be a cost against scientific advance by rejecting evolution? What about those who maintain evolution occurs by intelligent design? That opinion would, if closely held, affect no one, I would think. That is, science colleagues might find you freakish, but if you still follow and teach the correct precepts, it’s a low-risk belief.

  8. Engineer-poet complains the poster confuses abiogenisis with evolution. Fair enough. But how many biology texts go out of their way to say science has no idea how life got started, whether by chance or design, or even whether the distinction is meaningful. (Is the chance of throwing snake-eyes a function of chance alone, or chance combined with the design and careful manufacture of the dice?) As for those “millions” Engineer-poet alludes to whose work would be “worthless” if they did not understand and accept evolution, I believe his figure is off by several orders of magnitude.

  9. We actually do have some ideas of the origins of life; the Miller-Urey experiment proved that biochemicals arise through normal chemistry, and the environment around hydrothermal vents (of which there would have been a lot on a young, hot earth) appears ideal for making the chemistry happen and supplying the energy needs of life afterward; there are ecosystems living on the energy of hydrothermal vents to this day.

    And I’m afraid that Luke overstates his case too.  A hundred years ago, almost no one needed to understand evolution to do their job.  Forty years ago, it was biologists and teachers.  Today, it includes everyone who works in medicine (you have to know how to use drugs and antibacterial measures to avoid creating resistance, which means understanding evolution), people who use genetic algorithms to create or optimize designs, and so forth.  This is a much larger and growing group.

    Yes, you can go through the motions of these things without paying attention to evolution, but you’re very likely to screw up because you have no idea why you’re supposed to be doing them and thus when to do them, and when not to.

  10. I can analyze tone but know nothing about biology; thanks to all for the thread, I’m slowly learning. And, especially, thanks to Lotherbot for what is a really nice tribute to his teacher & his discipline. My high school genetics teacher was probably the best teacher in my high school and I still remember his enthusiasm for genetics–what little I understand is thanks to him. (And he coached a winning football team, too!)

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