Abusing Evolution

I am myself an agnostic and a rabid evolutionist. I believe that Darwinism operates not only in the genes of living organisms but anywhere there is information. Darwinism controls the immune system, the growth of neurons, and cognition itself. I believe that human cultures evolve just like living organisms. I am a free-market advocate and a Chicagoboy because I believe the free market is a Darwinian process that reaches better solutions quicker and less selfishly than political systems. In short, an evolutionary viewpoint forms the foundation of my entire world view.

Having said that, I could absolutely strangle many public proponents of evolution.

Michael Shermer (via Eugene Volokh via Ginny’s post) who has done great work in his role as the publisher of Skeptic magazine just totally crams his foot in it in this post by saying:

“The primary reason we are experiencing this peculiarly American phenomenon of evolution denial (the doppelganger of Holocaust denial), is that a small but vocal minority of religious fundamentalists misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions”

That’s right, the refusal to believe in a complex scientific theory which itself has evolved (no puns intended) significantly over the last 200 years and which requires a specialist education to truly understand, is the same as denying a massive event that occurred in living memory and which had literally millions of witnesses and left huge amounts of physical evidence. (Never mind the odorous moral comparisons.)

The unremitting snotty arrogance of this pronouncement is absolutely breathtaking. It is really no wonder that so many religious people are so deeply suspicious of the intentions and the integrity of evolution proponents.

The poll that sent Shermer on his rant isn’t even a poll about people’s assessment of the scientific evidence for evolution, but rather about people’s beliefs about the origins of humanity.

Shermer summarizes the findings as:

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.”

It is perfectly reasonable for somebody to believe as a matter of religious faith that the world is less than 10,000 years old. That is much different than claiming that contemporary scientific evidence supports that view. The opposite minority-view that “God had no part in this process” is just as much a leap a faith as the religious view is. It would be just as wrong to claim that contemporary scientific evidence says God wasn’t involved in the existence of humanity. Science is agnostic.

Shermer falls into the common fallacy of believing that if science can offer a naturalistic explanation for a particular phenomenon, that proves God wasn’t involved/doesn’t exist. (Creationists fall for the photonegative fallacy of believing that the inability of science to offer a naturalistic explanation proves God was involved/does exist.) He believes that the existence of a naturalistic explanation requires the atheistic leap of faith. It doesn’t. It is easy to imagine many scenarios wherein the divine intervenes in the material universe but does so in ways invisible to science. Once you postulate a being who defines the very laws of nature itself, you have postulated a being about which science can say nothing.

A big part of the cultural and political problem associated with evolution is that people like Shermer keep trying to use science’s considerable explanatory power to shove atheism down people’s throats and to enshrine it as the de facto state religion. Shermer holds out the atheist as the beleaguered rationalist surrounded by a mob of holocaust denying religious fanatics. What crap. He neglects that atheism requires just as much a leap of faith as does any theism. At best what we have here are dueling fanatics.

I think that evolution is one of the most powerful and important ideas of the modern world. It has practical applications in everything from disease management to robots. I weep with rage when I see this kind of behavior that undermines the public’s willingness to accept evolutionary theory.

13 thoughts on “Abusing Evolution”

  1. “A big part of the cultural and political problem associated with evolution is that people like Shermer keep trying to use science’s considerable explanatory power to shove atheism down peoples throat and to enshrine it as the de facto state religion.”

    *standing ovation*

    “I think that evolution is one of the most powerful and important ideas of the modern world.”

    The building blocks of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis — things like selection, mutation, drift, gene flow, etc. — are definitely huge ideas, key to many sciences. But it’s relatively unimportant what someone thinks about the HISTORICAL question of whether or not evolution actually occurred in life history. I think that’s where people get really stuck — they get so damn busy trying to tell people “you must believe this theory” (when, for most people, it really shouldn’t matter) that they never bother to teach them the important concepts associated with it.

  2. Nice comment. I basically agree. But you should try making this argument with Jason Malloy over an gnxp.com. Be ready to be abused!

    Another point: the scientific community as almost no appreciation of the importance of the Hebraic concept of God in Western intellectual history, and influence which the widespread belief in such an entity has had upon such things as the rise of science itself (see Rodney Stark), the rise of capitalism (see Max Weber), and the idea of democracty and human equality (see The Declaration of Independence and the private diaries, letters, and memoirs of all the leading founding fathers, from Franklin to Hamilton). Talk about wilful ignorance and civic irresponsibility.

  3. Excellent post! I’m a soft atheist (to paraphrase something I read once in an issue of “The Incredible Hulk”, I see no evidence that God exists, but it sure would be nice if he did), and studied genetics during my undergrad years, so this particularly hits home for me. Also, politically, I’ve always been trapped in by “fire and brimstone” evangelistic types and the snooty, elitist, intellectual types, but in my adult life have come greatly to appreciate the contributions of religion and faith to the growth and understanding of the human spirit. Well done!

  4. I’ll toss in two cents. As an orthodox Roman Catholic, I find myself frequently experiencing a type of irritation similar, I think, to what Shannon expresses here. The Catholic understanding of the Bible does not require the degree of literalism that is characteristic of our Protestant friends, who adhere to the doctrine of sola scriptura. To the contrary, we adhere to the idea which was promulgated by St. Thomas, and others, that “truth is seamless”, and that revealed truth is to be understood within the framework of reason and vice versa. So, the more we know about the fossil record and the age of the Earth, etc., the better, and this increase in knowledge is no particular threat to Catholic faith, which is fully consistent with whatever scientific facts are demonstrated to be true. If God Almighty chose to take some number of billions of years to allow our corporeal bodies to develop, well praise be to Him for doing so. We Catholics are able to understand the Genesis accounts as truthful, though symbolic, representations of our human relationship to God, without needing to quibble about whether God made the Earth in literally six days, etc. It is simply not a big deal. I was looking at an older book in a Catholic bookstore the other day, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott. I looked up the section which referred to evolution, and it was, I thought, very reasonable.

    Unfortunately, many Catholics have (1) received no intellectual formation in their own religion, and (2) found themselves to be the friends and allies of many Evangelicals and others for one reason or another, and hence think they need to fight against the teaching of evolution. This is erroneous. Such people need to study and properly understand their own religion, something the last 40 years of liberal “reform” has prevented for most people. The degree of intellectual devastation which Catholicism has suffered in the last 40 or so years is not appreciated by most non-Catholics. It is a civilization-wide catastrophe, and entirely self-inflicted.

    Science has its own area of competence, and its own “dignity” and it is capable of discovering truth within its own area — the best recent statement of this Catholic position is John Paul II’s encyclical letter entitled Faith and Reason.

    The fact that certain scientists, most in my observation, think their work has “disproven” religion is an error of an other order which I will leave for another day. One brilliant friend of mine, a physicist at a major university, captured the spirit well. After a couple of drinks he said: “I am a hardcore athiest. Physics is my religion. Most people don’t get to be in it.” On the other hand, my father, a brilliant mathemitician and physicist (by training) has never had any trouble reconciling scientific method and knowledge with his Catholic faith. But he was educated before the general dumbing down of recent decades. I’ll stick with my Dad on this one.

  5. Origins is a such an inflammatory topic because it is so important to so many people. Because history tells people who they are and where they come from, origins has implications for the purpose and meaning of life. Say what you will about its logical independence from religion, you cannot get away from that. The history of America is logically compatible with the history of the church, but it still informs who I am. Origins is like that, too. Even if you do away with every explicit connection or conflict with religion, it’s still history. It still tells people who they are. You can’t get away from that.

    That’s one thing that makes it difficult to study. And then there’s the fact that it’s just a difficult subject. Even if you have no religious commitments to worry about, the science alone is tremendous; it isn’t one subject, it’s more like ten. Algorithms, microbiology, genetics, fossils, embryos–and God help you if you care about the cosmology, too. Add the myriad theological views on the topic to the mix and the question might well be too big to explore in one lifetime. Could a professional scholar–let alone a layman–truly learn enough to make a fully informed decision?

    These two things are a bad combination. Here we have a subject that is emotionally and meaningfully dear to nearly everyone, on which it’s very difficult (nay, near-impossible!) to become an expert. And there’s a third difficulty to add to the mix: the fact that the study of history is much harder than the study of laws in the present. There’s much more room for interpretation, much less ability to freely divise experiments. Proof is harder to come by, so rational and sober judgement is more important (and in shorter supply) than in most scientific pursuits.

    This means that we are talking about something that everyone cares about, nobody knows a lot about, and which has lots of room for interpretation and disagreement. Should it surprise anyone that battling fundamentalists emerge? That happens whenever people care about something far, far out of proportion with what they know. Subjects like that generate a whole host of well-meaning fools who spend all their time screaming at imagined enimies. And that only makes the field muddier for those rare people with the strength of character to think rationally and fairly about such an emotional topic and the scholarship to be able to understand pieces of it. Truth-seekers are rare–and expert truth-seekers on technically deep and emotionally involved subjects are practically nonexistent. Forming a community of them on a shrill topic is downright impossible. The seas are hopelessly rough, even for those with the strength and courage to navigate them.

    There are a number of topics which have these same characteristics–people care about them out of proportion with what they know, there is a lot of room for interpretation, and technical expertise is hard to come by. Religion is often that way. Politics is that way for a lot of people. Just like origins, these topics are full of division and anger. It’s slow going for truth-seekers and slower going still for truth teachers, so in the end truth suffers.

    All of that is to say that I believe the problem of battling fundamentalists is an essential part of the problem of origins–that is, the structure of the problem means it’s guaranteed. That means truth is ill-served. I wish it wasn’t that way. And I don’t think it’ll be an easy problem to fix, if indeed it’s even possible to fix.

    But a change in attitude would be a good start. A return from accusations and anger to simple evidence-based reasoning would be a huge stride forward, and might win people over. A return to science as a method rather than a magic word, and tolerent, critical discourse as a way of life rather than an invokation–these are what is needed to change things. Without culture changes along those lines, nobody has a prayer of convincing anyone else or the larger culture. There are few things that make people lose faith in a theory faster than to ask for evidence and receive back polemics.

  6. Lex, perhaps it would amuse you to recall that Einstein, himself a well-respected scientist, never disavowed religion. And he once denied that obsessive reductionism could satisfy all of life. He commented that he could describe a Beethoven symphony to you in mathematical terms — but where would the beauty be in that?

  7. Bruce, good anecdotes. Einstein seems to have had an appealing intellectual humility in the face of the vastness of what he did not know, despite pretty much always being the smartest guy in the room. We could all benefit from meditating on this attitude — especially those of us who are only very rarely the smartest guy in the room.

  8. Just as an aside:
    According to Richard Feynman, at the occasion of the first presentation he gave at Princeton, the very first words Albert Einstein ever said to him were: “So where are the doughnuts? If you’re giving a speech, you’re supposed to bring doughnuts.”

  9. Like ya’ll, I see no inherent conflict between religion and science. In fact, the more I learn about the intersection of physics, biology, economics, political science and evolution, the more I realize that scientists are simply re-describing “God.”

    Before we could actually see the stars, Man manufactured his best explanation for them. The same goes for “God.” Prior to the development of modern science, we lacked alternate refracting organs to dissect the metaphysical phenomena we all experience. So we had no choice but to lean on a blurry “deductive religion” to describe that which we knew existed, but just could not see.

    Archaic religion, in particular Christianity, did succeed in blurrily delineating these phenomena. Importantly, this fuzzy elucidation was sufficiently correct, given what was universally known at the time, to empower its adherent societies to create the mechanisms to navigate the real moral manifestations of these phenomena. Now modern science offers a pair of bifocals for our blurry “eyes.”

    Rhetoric like Shermer’s bothers me because it sabotages the reconciliation of the eye with this lens. The same goes for the progenitors of radical Creationist rhetoric. Both camps want the eye to reject the lens. What they don’t understand is science is an enhancer, not a prosthesis. It is an ameliorative, not a substitute. It is merely an advanced version of “deductive religion,” but one with more tools in its toolbox. The rhetoric that denies this cooperation sounds like factional propaganda, not reasoned analysis.

  10. I quit reading the Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer a few years back for the very reason Shannon points out. They both repeatedly published tiresome screeds against organized religion, and treated skeptics of these pieces with comtempt.

    Despite their protestations, science offers nothing to say about God. (The usual arguments go: “There is no proof of God, so there is no God”, or “It doesn’t matter if there is a God or not, so there is no God”) In the end however, they are merely circular discussions.

    They refused to acknowledge any degree of skepticism about their own certitude, which ought to have been a warning to them that they had veered into dogma and not science. Their failure to express the least bit of humility in this regard made me question their judgement even about things I was in agreement with, wondering how bias might have distorted their discussions. I also began to question their agenda in so relentlessly pursuing religion and making it yet another foe for science to battle.

    So I thought, “Great Shermer, you disproved God’s existence for yet another issue. Can we get back to debunking alien abductions or talking to the dead or false memories or Bigfoot or something fun now?” Methinks he doth protest too much.

  11. I think it matters if there is a God, because there is no rational reason to believe that human life has any inherent value and that there is right and wrong.

    As for the book of Genesis and evolution and the big bang, I have this picture of God telling early man about how he created the universe, and early man looking very perplexed as he tries to comprehend what he is being told and asking all sorts of questions. God, realizing that man can’t comprehend it yet, shrugs his shoulders and gives man the very abbreviated version..

  12. Having been an ‘ol school chum of Shannons, I can vouch for all the arguments of evolutionary chatter. It’s good to see you still at it old friend!

  13. One big problem in the whole debate is that scientists seem to have no interest in educating or even talking to sceptics on evolution. The few evolution apologies I have seen have been very poorly written, obvious throw-away gestures.

    Many traditional religious believers have no trouble with evolution as one part of the story of creation. And I am not even Catholic, just another protestant, one of those benighted beings.

Comments are closed.