A Simple Truth

I put this post together in response to a conversation I got involved in dealing with science, pseudoscience, and religion.  Here it is in it’s unpolished, angry, and raw form:

What’s so terrifying about evolution?

While evolution is generally accepted among scientists, the public perception of evolutionary theory is mixed.  Many people perceive the existence of a “controversy” between advocates and opponents of evolution.  Some view evolution as an atheistic godless project that seeks to destroy all that is sacred to them.  Others sincerely believe that the science behind evolution is truly lacking, that competing ideas such as Intelligent Design or Creation Science (which are pseudoscientific in nature) are actually valid alternative ideas. 

Lost in the wings of most public engagements of evolution lies the following line of inquiry:

“What if evolution is real? What does this imply for our destiny?”

Let’s consider the question for a moment.  The question in question cuts directly to the root of the human identity.  If evolutionary theory is even partially correct, then it has profound implications for our species.  Daniel Dennett (1995) describes the theoretical framework in question as a “universal acid” that intrinsically alters all that it touches.  Evolution is indeed such an acid.  When looking at ourselves as a species, what do we see? Are we somehow “above” nature, and immune to it’s carnal struggles, or are we a part of nature, subject to the rules that govern the natural world?

The most cutting aspect of evolutionary theory is also perhaps the most overlooked.   Let’s step away from transitional features, hox genes, phylogenies, radiometric dating techniques, and the plethora of other scientific lines of inquiry contributing to the study of evolution and deep time.  We’re looking for something much simpler, yet also much deeper.

This Simple Truth is stunningly obvious when considered.  If humans are the product of evolution, then our fate is intrinsically linked to that of our planet.  You may be preparing to question the validity of this statement, perhaps noting a possible re-definition with religious terms (perhaps a “Young-Earth-Creationist-friendly” re-statement of it).  However, at least to the depth necessary for this inquiry (although I am not an expert on theology or comparative religions), I feel that my statement holds true.  The God of the Young-Earth Creationists is one that can and does intervene often throughout Earth’s history, creating a global flood responsible for the fossil record and also able to remove the waters necessary for this flood (note that I am not in support of Flood Geology, a concept first developed by George McCready Price and later championed  by Whitcomb and Morris in The Genesis Flood; the scientific validity of Flood Geology is notably lacking).  This God could easily intervene if the human race leads itself towards the brink of extinction through nuclear proliferation, environmental destruction, global warming, or some other threat. On a slightly different note, Intelligent Design, with its strikingly anonymous designer, could present a similar situation.  Does the Magical Mystery Man (my preferred name for the Intelligent Designer, since we are given no name) intervene at the gaps in the fossil record, or after extinction events?  When does intelligent design take place?  And is the Magical Mystery Man able to intervene in other aspects of the universe?  We may never know.

However, if one accepts the validity of evolution, then we are on our own here.  I’m not claiming that evolution leads to atheism or agnosticism.  There are many theistic evolutionists, such as Roman Catholic scientist Kenneth Miller.  Miller’s 1999 book “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution” suggests that religious belief and an acceptance of evolution are not mutually exclusive.  Setting aside a discussion of whether evolution leads to atheism or not (as demonstrated, it need not), let us return to our discussion.  Evolutionary theory places us as a part of nature.  Our fate and the fate of the world around us is inextricably linked.  If we destroy the world in which we live, we can likely expect no divine intervention, no saving grace from above.  From a Christian perspective, God gave us free will, and is allowing us to exercise it (but expects us to face the consequences of our actions).  From an atheistic one, there is no God, and  besides, why would a non-existent entity intervene to save us from ourselves?

The heritage of our evolutionary history is visible on a global scale.  Like all organisms, everything we do impacts the world around us.  How can we be so naïve to think that we are invincible?  We have destroyed countless species in our own lust for growth, development, and opulence.  Judging from the fossil record, it is likely that our actions will catch up with us eventually.  Life is a precious thing, and the fossil record shows us that it can easily be extinguished (such as during the mass extinctions at the end of the Permian, Ordovician, and Devonian Periods, among others).  Are we on the path towards our own extinction? 

If evolution happens, then what about other “controversial” ideas such as climate change?  Are humans really able to alter global temperatures on a noticeable scale?  After all, there are lists of scientists who seem reputable that oppose climate change.  However, these lists are often relatively disreputable.  For example, a recent one lists a “Hughen Falconer” among its signees (as noted on Chris Colose’s blog.  Click here).  This “Hughen Falconer” appears to be none other than Hugh Falconer, the Victorian paleontologist.  Of course, nobody was talking about global warming in Falconer’s day!  The general scientific consensus tends to be a “positive” one: humans have had a noticeable impact on climate change.  This makes sense.  If one looks at the amount of energy used by people on a global scale per day, it is absolutely astounding.  Our mining ventures can easily destroy entire mountains and replace them with lakes (see LeCain 2009 [for more on this book, see here] for more on open pit mining); the human hunger for metals such as copper for industrialization has had huge environmental costs.  Why doubt the impact of other human activities?  Lowly stromatolites (Cyanobacteria, or “algae) were able to forever alter Earth’s early atmosphere.  Why wouldn’t humans be capable of causing alterations of a similar scale.  According to most reputable climatologists, the verdict is in.  Humans have accelerated global warming.

If the implications of evolution and climate change are so profound, then why do so many people question the validity of these ideas?  I have implied that both evolution and climate change are well established scientific concepts. But if scientists accept them, then why does the general public often perceive them to be controversial ideas? Why evolution and climate change instead of quantum physics and advanced calculus?  Do the scientists have something to hide?

Luckily for scientists, it appears that they aren’t hiding anything.  Deniers of global warming or evolution often use out-dated or false arguments to further their point.  For example, in his book “Evolution: The Fossils Say No!”, Young Earth Creationist Duane T. Gish states that if we had “five or six” transitional forms from the evolutionary transition between fish and amphibians, it would be sufficient to prove evolution (52).  However, Gish was apparently not familiar with Icthyostega, Acanthostega, Tiktaalik, Panderichthys, Eusthenopteron, or other “transitional forms” (I will use the old term, which can be translated loosely to an organism that showcases lots of transitional features).  Even if he was, it he would likely make the same argument.  Scientific credibility is often not important to these people. 

What is important is public perception.  Raise objections that the average person, with little background in the subject in question, would see as reasonable.  Appeal to his sense of reason and fairness.   Show a list of scientists who doubt climate change or evolution, and claim that that list represents a sizeable portion of reputable scientists.  It’s ok if they are people with PhDs in Business and no scientific credentials, or have been dead for 200 years, or have little or no credibility within their own field of study.  You have their name on a list of people that deny climate change or evolution.  You can claim that they’re being oppressed for their views. Remind your reader that this is a democratic society, and that this oppression is unfair and un-American.  Heck, you can even appeal to your reader’s sense of patriotism if you want! Show your reader surveys of the American public that illustrate public doubts about evolution or climate change against surveys of scientists who overwhelmingly accept evolution or climate change, and then ask “why should the minority govern the majority?”

But most important of all, don’t worry about the facts.  Forget the fact that science is not a democracy.  Forget that science is governed by cold, hard data and not feelings, sympathy, and fairness.  Forget  (or rather exploit the fact) that the general public knows little about science, and do not attempt to educate the public.  Rather, use this lack of knowledge as a weapon to further your own goals.  Forget to try to publish your ideas in reputable journals, and focus on winning public opinion rather than scientific credibility.

But judging from the implications of evolution and climate change, should we let you succeed?  I say NO.  We should strive to educate the public about the nature of science, how it is done, the real meaning of the word “theory” in science (hint: it doesn’t mean “an unsupported guess”!!).  Point out the unscientific nature of religious attacks on evolution, but remain respectful of religion. Critically examine lists of “scientists who accept Creationism”, or “scientists who doubt climate change”, or “scientists who have doubts about Darwin”.  But most importantly, we must strive to expose pseudoscience and misinformation campaigns for what they are:

Bullshit.

The cards are on the table, and the stakes are high.  We can embrace our place within nature and fight the threats to our existence, or we can deny it, and blindly hope for the Magic Mystery Man (our old friend the “intelligent designer) to ride in and save us.  What’s it going to be?

Works Cited:
Dennett, D.  Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 1995
Gish, DT.  Evolution: The Fossils Say No!. Creation-Life Publishers, San Diego, 1979.
LeCain, T.  Mass Destruction: The Men and giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet.  Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2009.
Miller, K.  Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. HarpersCollins Publishers, New York, 1999

Also, thanks to everyone involved in organizing The Giants Shoulders, a monthy collection of posts focusing on history of science.  My Hugh Falconer post has been included in this month’s edition.  For this month’s edition, click here.

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4 Comments on “A Simple Truth”

  1. darwinsbulldog Says:

    Thanks for the link!

    And about Gish, just a few days ago at the Salvation Army thrift store here in Bozeman, I found his “Dinosaurs by Design” kid’s book from 1992. Too good to pass up for a quarter!

  2. darwinaia Says:

    Thank you, and nice find! It’s tough to find Gish’s stuff sometimes; I had to turn to ebay for Evolution: The Fossils Say No!. Stuff like that kind of gives you hope that the outdated “Flood Geology”-fossil record arguments are at least losing some steam.

  3. chriscolose Says:

    Very nice commentary.

    Another example which serves to illustrate the “list of scientists” idea is within the HIV-AIDS controversy where you have links such as http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/controversy.htm which aim to quote various scientists and highlighting their credentials. This “phone book” method is a very useful tool in public relations since it gives the illusion of controversy, even if the people on these lists are not real, not qualified, or are strong outliers in their respective field. Having this mix of credentials behind you is a good starting off point for spreading disinformation about a particular scientific topic– something seen very clearly in climate change or evolutionary biology forums.

    Perhaps the most prominent example of a “list of opposing scientists” is the Oregon Petition which purports to host 31,000 scientists who disagree with the mainstream community regarding the human influence of global warming. I’m not aware of any petition of this magnitude for other subjects like evolution, and it has been used to illustrate the “lack of consensus” in serious arenas such as congress and throughout the internet. A closer analysis (e.g., http://chriscolose.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/one-more-petition-still-a-consensus/ ) as well as other ones (including a smaller sample by Scientific American) reveals the stunning lack of credentials, people you cannot find with google searches, deceased people, etc amongst the signatories. In fact, the National Academies of Sciences even had to issue a statement concerning this petition.

    • darwinaia Says:

      Nice points. This is actually the 1st time I’ve seen anything on HIV-AIDS listing to create an illusion of controversy. It’s not surprising though, really. But if you’re relegated to listing to try to get public support for your ideas because you can’t get scientific credibility, your thesis has some problems. If you need to list supposed advocates of your position to support your point, it’s likely that your actual science isn’t that good, because if it was, you’d just list your data. Nice link on climate change petitioning too by the way.


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