It Does Matter What People Think About How the World Works

By Sean Carroll | June 4, 2007 12:51 pm

It was an embarrassing moment in the first Republican presidential debate when the participants were asked, “Does anyone not believe in evolution?”, and three candidates — Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Mike Huckabee — raised their hands. Embarrassing for those three, obviously, but also for the Republican party, in which they are far from unrepresentative, and for the United States, that anyone would even think to ask such a question of serious candidates for the highest office in the land.

One of the candidates, Sam Brownback, felt the need to amplify his position in a New York Times op-ed piece. He appeals to many favorite creationist weasel words, invoking the distinction between “microevolution” and “macroevolution,” but tries not to come off as completely anti-science. Nevertheless, the heart of his argument is stated clearly at the end of the piece:

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.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

In our scientific understanding of the universe, man does not reflect an image and likeness unique in the created order. Humanity arose by the same process of natural selection as all the other species. Calling it “atheistic theology” doesn’t change the fact that it’s how the world works, according to science.

Eugene Volokh asks whether it really matters what a presidential candidate thinks about human evolution. He tentatively argues that yes, it does matter, but I think it’s a lot more cut and dried (but still interesting) than he makes it out to be. There are really two issues: first, has science established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved purely through natural selection, and second, if it has, does it matter whether a presidential candidate rejects that particular scientific understanding? Yes, and yes. But the intriguing follow-up is: what about other untrue beliefs that candidates might have?

In case you haven’t heard: yes, science has established beyond reasonable doubt that humans evolved via natural selection. Volokh confuses the issue by asking whether Brownback’s beliefs are “provably false,” and (correctly) concluding that they are not. But scientific propositions are never provably true or false; that’s not how science works. We accumulate more and more evidence in favor of one theory and against all competitors, until we reach a point where the only people left who refuse to accept the theory are cranks. Natural selection is firmly in that category; there is no scientific controversy about its truth. To draw a somewhat subtle distinction: I personally do not think that belief in an ineffable touchy-feely Aristotelian Unmoved Mover kind of God is in the crank domain. I think it’s wrong, and based on a set of deep philosophical and scientific mistakes, but not crackpottery in the same way that attributing crucial aspects of human evolution to a meddlesome anthropomorphic Designer would be.

Which brings us to the second and more interesting question, of whether this particular kind of mistaken belief should bear on one’s fitness as a presidential candidate. I think it does, for a reason that our experience with the Bush administration has made especially relevant. Denial of the standard scientific explanation for the origin of human beings is a particularly dangerous kind of mistake: one based on a decision to put aside evidence and deduction in favor of wishful thinking, and an insistence on a picture of the universe that flatters ourselves. The kind of reasoning that leads one to conclude that we can’t explain human evolution without invoking a meddlesome God is the same kind of reasoning that makes people think that cutting taxes will decrease the federal deficit, or that the people of Iraq would throw candy and greet us as liberators. (I’m sure that liberals are just as susceptible to such a fallacy, but it’s the conservative versions that are currently getting us in such a mess.) It’s a refusal to take reality at face value, in favor of a picture that conforms to what we want to be true.

The interesting part of Volokh’s question is, what about the Virgin Birth? By ordinary scientific standards, belief that Jesus had a mother but not a father is at least as unlikely as belief in a divine role in human evolution. Should we hold such a belief against presidential candidates?

That’s actually a realy tough question, and I’m going to weasel out of it a bit myself. On the one hand, everything I just said about human origins applies just as well to the Virgin Birth — belief in it is dramatically non-scientific, and prompted largely by exactly the kind of mythological self-flattery that leads to skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection. In other words, belief in the Virgin Birth is exactly as “wrong” as belief in creationism. So I can certainly appreciate the argument for holding such beliefs against presidential candidates.

On the other hand, I think the status of these two questions are different, in at least two important ways. First is the role of each question as a foundational part of modern science. Evolution is a crucial ingredient in how we understand Nature and our place in it; to deny it is to deny a bedrock principle of science. The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, is a localized miracle that nominally happened a long time ago. If someone wants to believe in that particular isolated violation of the laws of nature, I won’t go along with them, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as denying natural selection as the correct explanation for the origin of human beings.

Second, the status of evolution has taken on a unique political role in our culture. Evolution is the particular part of science which has come under the most concerted attack by the forces of irrationality, who have attempted to undermine science by calling into question the teaching of evolution in public schools. This is now a political and cultural question, not just a scientific one; it’s no accident that debates over creationism and intelligent design are essentially confined to the United States (although sadly spreading). For a presidential candidate to take a public stance against evolution by raising his hand at a televised debate is a profoundly political act, allying that candidate with the forces of superstition against the forces of science. The question of the Virgin Birth just doesn’t have that status.

Happily, I was not really hesistating over whether to throw my support to Brownback, Huckabee, or Tancredo, so the question is somewhat academic for me. But I do believe, in the face of all the contrary evidence provided by the current Administration and its die-hard supporters, in the existence of intelligent and principled conservatives who might be in favor of limited government and perhaps an aggressive foreign policy, but would like to try to base their decisions on evidence and reason. Those people are going to have to make some tough choices; the modern Republican party has chosen to ally itself with people who don’t believe in the real world, and that choice is going to have consequences.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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