The Great Evolution Smackdown

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 7, 2007 3:47 pm

brownieReverend Brownback
is not amused.

On May 31, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his views on evolution; basically, he don’t buy it, especially where it conflicts with his particular, very zealous Catholicism. His op-ed has, predictably, drawn tons of flak, including an interesting and outspoken response from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on

Coyne rightfully takes Brownback to the woodhouse for a few very weak points:

– Brownback botches his argument on “punk eek.”

– The senator accepts microevolution—”small changes over time within a species”—but seems too emotionally blinded to realize that a bunch of small changes can, lo and behold, make a big change. You wouldn’t want to be his retirement adviser.

– Brownback is downright spooky when he says that elements of evolutionary theory that don’t agree with religious “truth” should just be chucked out. This subordination of empiricism to philosophical diktats has a long and horrible history, from Galileo to Darwin to Lysenko.

Coyne also does a good job making a subtle point that scientists don’t emphasize nearly enough: “While mutations occur by chance, natural selection, which builds complex bodies by saving the most adaptive mutations, emphatically does not. Like all species, man is a product of both chance and lawfulness.” The randomness involved in evolution is one of the most radical and scary things about it, and he’s right to point out that there is an underlying structure to the way it all plays out.

But Coyne also makes some mistakes in his essay, falling into the some of the familiar excesses of the pro-evolution side.

– Coyne says Brownback “rejects evolution if ‘it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence.’ Using that criterion he’d have to reject all of science, including physics and chemistry!” This overlooks the fact that Darwin’s idea really does pose a different kind of challenge to an orthodox religious perspective, first of all because of its content (the origin of people) and second of all because of its radical and amazing nature (random mutations as Creator). If you don’t believe that Darwin’s idea is particularly shocking, check out the many books by devoted evolutionists that say exactly this. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett calls evolution a “universal acid” that is so powerful that it “eats through virtually every traditional concept.” No wonder the creationists over at Answers in Genesis are in a tizzy.

– Several times in the essay, Coyne seems to take particular delight in deriding the ability of religion or spirituality to do anything good. “It’s doubtful whether any ‘truth’ (in the sense of something that conforms to fact) can be gained through spirituality alone.” But isn’t it possible that there truths that are not just facts? The words here are literally true, but the philosophical implication is that religious truths are suspect even if they don’t conflict with scientific fact. Here Coyne is overstepping the role of scientist. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong—his philosophy is credible as anyone else’s—but his defense of science shouldn’t include philosophy.

– Coyne continues on in a similar vein: “But what is ‘spiritual truth’? It is simply what someone believes to be true, without any need for evidence. One man’s spiritual truth is another man’s spiritual lie.” When I read this the first thing that came to mind was the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson was famously empirical and irreligious but still refers back to truths “without any need for evidence,” to use Coyne’s wording. Would Coyne want us to just scrap our bedrock values, like the the rights to life and liberty, and have a completely rational debate about what our values should be? It might work out fine, but myself, I’ll take the safe bet and stick with “self-evident” universal human rights.

I agree with Coyne on the critical points in this piece—rah, rah, evolution—but even as a fellow partisan I do feel that he comes off as a little bit superior, which is one of the longtime gripes about evolution’s heavies. He snipes, for example, that Brownback’s phrase “atheistic theology” is an oxymoron. I think we should give Brownback enough credit to accept that he knew that. It seems clear that he was intentionally using the paradox to point out that evolution was sometimes advanced with almost religious fervor—a point that Coyne’s piece will do little to dispel.


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