Home > 2008 elections, Religion, Science > What you shouldn't think about evolution

What you shouldn't think about evolution

I’ve been meaning to comment on Sam Brownback’s Op-Ed in the NY Times entitled “What I Think About Evolution,” so here goes.

IN our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

Right off the bat we get an unsupported assumption and faulty conclusion derived from that assumption. The significance of the question is simply this: if you don’t believe in evolution, you’re scientifically illiterate or are letting your biases creep into an area where they don’t belong. As we’ll see later, it’s Brownback who can’t handle the nuance required to reconcile faith and science.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

This is patently false, however. If religion dealt only with “spiritual truths” then Brownback would not have explain how he fits faith and evolution together, as he does later on. It would be like talking about how you reconcile your taste for carrots with your love of hiking. It would be pointless and nonsensical. Seeing as there’s quite a bit left in this Op-Ed, Brownback is talking nonsense here.

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

This is more “two magisteria” crap that Brownback pretty clearly doesn’t mean. Science doesn’t deal with what we should value and no one wants it to. This is more empty blather.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

What a strange paragraph. He starts to trot out the standard creationist trope about microevolution differing from macroevolution, but doesn’t finish. He starts talking about materialism. I’m fairly certain that evolution is not the choice between microevolution and materialism. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone say that it is, either.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

First, a simple factual error. “Classical Darwinism” is not a position supported by really anyone. What he means to say is punctuated equilibrium and neo-Darwinism. Secondly, evolution doesn’t raise the possibility that man is a chance product of random mutations. That’s another creationist trope that’s patently absurd to anyone who knows what they’re talking about. Evolution says man is the product of billions of years of accumulated genetic change, driven primarily by natural selection. Just like basic human biology says that human beings are created by the combination of genetic material from a male and a female. I can’t say I’ve ever seen people advocate leaving areas of developmental biology to theologians and philosophers based on the story of the virgin birth.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.

If you want divine causality to be a part of science, you’re advocating the end of science. It’s one thing to believe in divine causality, it’s another to attempt to force consideration of it into the scientific method.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

More microevolution bullshit. The sleight of hand here is not particularly subtle. Brownback wanders up to the edge of evolution and pronounces his support for microevolution. It makes him look like a supporter of science, but doesn’t offend creationists. Then he jumps basically 90% of evolutionary biology and criticizes not believing in creator, which offends very few people and doesn’t force him to support or deny evolution, disagreeing only with the non-religious. It’s cute, but not a particularly useful way of answering “what I think about evolution.”

Of course, Brownback fails to completely jump that chasm. People like Ken Miller, a Catholic evolutionary biologist and staunch opponent of ID, believe in divine purpose, but don’t include it in their scientific method. That’s because it’s a useless concept scientifically. It’s equivalent to saying something is magic. When you say something is the way it is because of divine causation, you’re giving up. There can be no evidence for such a conclusion because everything is consistent with it. It’s unfalsifiable and is therefore of no use to anyone scientifically. If you’re going to believe in it, it’s going to be on faith, not science or reason. That Brownback is incapable of making this distinction is a sign of inferior intelligence.

Brownback starts his conclusion next. I’ll only quote part of it.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

I like the first paragraph. It’s a rejection of most of astronomy and cosmology, which shows that we’re not in a unique place in the Universe. It rejects biology, which shows that we’re not that different from other living things on this planet and possibly others. It’s a rejection of physics, which shows that we’re made up of the same materials as the rest of the Universe interacting in the same way as those materials could in other places.

In the end, Brownback is rejecting anything that contradicts his religious beliefs about the world. It really doesn’t have anything to do with “atheistic theology.” His failure to stick to his statements that religion only reveals “spiritual truths” and not physical facts and his inability to separate his religious beliefs from what science is shows him to be another fundamentalist weasel, attempting to sneak his religion into areas it doesn’t belong. Furthermore, he doesn’t even answer the question he set out to. As I said above, he accepts the creationist approved part of evolution and dismisses creator-less conclusions drawn from evolution, avoiding the core conclusion of evolutionary biology: the evolution of all species from a common ancestor over billions of years by way of accumulated genetic change directed by natural selection. It’s a politician’s view of the subject, an attempt to avoid looking like an anti-science moron while not upsetting his core supporters. It also shows his faith to be frighteningly weak, as he refuses to accept basic biology because his faith can’t handle it. What does it say about a person to have a religious faith built on a tissue of lies?

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