One Long Argument:
One small primate helping to defend science education against the advance of neocreationism.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Curses, you discovered my evil plan!

Huh. Always thought I went around saying that evolution is compatible with religion (if not strict biblical literalism) because I believed it. Turns out I don't, and it's all a clever ploy to hold the line until the universal acid of evolution can corrode away people's faith. ( I feel like I should let loose an evil laugh right about now . . .)

That's what Jacob Weisberg says, anyway, in a recent Slate article:
Many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is.
Granted, I'm not a biologist, or scientist of any sense, so maybe it really is all true! But on second thought, perhaps we should look a little closer. In the interests of actually getting the lawn mowed today, I'm just reposting a slightly modified version of comments made at Thoughts from Kansas.

Weisberg discusses a 1993 NORC survey, mentioning that found that 63% and 35% percent of the U.S. public believed in God and evolution respectively, while the corresponding figures for Great Britain were 24% and 77%. (The survey apparently asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement ""I know God exists and I have no doubts about it," and was combined with another survey which asked "In your opinion, how true is this? ...Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.."). It would be one thing if he simply said "You can believe in both - but not many people do" as a descriptive statement and left it at that (although what sort of thing it would be . . . . well, we'll see in a minute).

Instead, he immediately goes on to claim that it's evolution that erodes religious faith, completely skipping over any tricky questions about correlation or causation. True, I would be surprised if popular understanding of evolution had nothing at all to do with this. At the same time, if someone's an atheist or agnostic for some other reason, what explanation will they turn to for biological diversity? Could belief in evolution be one of several interacting factors? Are both actually the result of some other process(es)? These questions aren't even entertained: instead, they're sent to bed without supper and never get to join the party.

It gets worse. Several paragraphs prior to the NORC survey mention, he cites the following results from the 2004 (over a decade later) Gallup poll:

Creationists: 45%
Theistic evolutionists: 38%
Unguided evolution: 13%

So "not many people" refers to 38% of Americans. Interesting. A similar theme will appear later in the article. It also notes that " belief that evolution is well-supported by the evidence is strongest 'among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and ... Catholics.'"

(The remaining 4% "offered different or no opinion" - I wonder what they'd say?)

[Edit: Don P. over in comments at the Panda's Thumb pointed out I hadn't read closely enough to realize that Weisberg was specifically referring to the "prevailing scientific view of evolution as an unguided, random process." That's an excellent point against my argument here. But does "believ[ing] in both require a metaphysical commitment of this nature, or is it sufficient to agree that science can only understand it as an unguided process? In this case I was going by's categories, and defining the Gallup statement "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process" as theistic evolution, and considering it a valid from of "believ[ing] in both." I also felt that the "unguided" statement - "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process" - might shift people who believed in a less hands-on God over to the middle category. However, that 38% is probably also harboring some unknown percentage of IDers. Certainly, my original impression that Weisberg was just being internally inconsistent to an absurd degree is not accurate. What remains to be seen is how well it matches up with the notoriously flexible reality insides people's heads. More study is needed! - DS, 8/14/05]

Additionally, when he claims that "many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is" - with a comparison to ID rhetoric, no less - well, perhaps he's trying to say that biologists just don't understand how people think. Maybe, but it's hard to see how this might to refer to anything but a deliberate act of deception, one echoing ID claims of Darwinian conspiracies. Now, I dunno, maybe all the biologists do get together and chuckle about how clever their little scam is, but that seems a wee bit unlikely . . .
"Evolutionary theory . . .surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions"
I suppose you could make an argument for kin selection undercutting "Love your neighbor as yourself" - but that seems a little shaky. I mean, if "basic teachings and doctrines" actually translates to "explanations for natural phenomena," if your beliefs require you to read the bible as a science textbook, well, he might be right. In that case, of course, evolution is almost the least of your worries. You also have to deal with physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics . . .

One line I hadn't even noticed until I started writing:
To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians.
Geez, why not just write "so-called Christians," complete with scare quotes? I mean, I'm a Jewish atheist (is too possible!) andI can feel the burn off this one. He really is intent on painting a certain picture, whatever polling data - or people - might say.

Weisberg wants to make grand proclamations about the nature of science and religion. Ultimately, the only thing he manages to is prove is how little he understands either.

Oh yes, Weisberg also claims that evolution "destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries." Funny, I always though those wasps that lay their eggs in paralyzed caterpillars for their offspring to devour from the inside out, along with his daughter's death, had something to do with it. You know, the whole problem of reconciling belief in a merciful God with the existence of suffering and evil - but that couldn't have existed long before Darwin, right? (Shake head.) Well, for a view of Darwin's life and beliefs that's actually based on, like, evidence and stuff, read Carl Zimmer's excellent post: A Dog and the Mind of Newton.

One last thing. According to the Gallup poll, 35% said evolution wasn't well supported by evidence, and 29% said "they didn't know enough about it to reply." That's our job.

posted by Dan S. on 2:47 PM |

"As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated . . ."
Charles Darwin, "On The Origin of Species"

The debate: FAQs and facts
Science and creationism (NAS)

National Center for Science Education
Defending the teaching of evolution in public schools: with evolution/creationism news updates and many resources.
Understanding Evolution
Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science
Evolution - Education and Teaching

Grandeur in this view of life . . .
Tree of Life web project
Evolutionn Entrance (UCMP)
Evolution (PBS)
BBC Education: Evolution
Macroevolution (UTexas)

TalkOrigin's Index of Creationist Claims.
Find them all here!

The law
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1981)
More to come

Pending legislation
Ongoing attempts to mandate the teaching of neocreationism in science classes
New York State Bill 8036 (died in committee)
Pennsylvania House Bill 1007

In the schools
Dover, PA
Dover biology: Ongoing reporting from the York Daily Record
Dover C.A.R.E.S. Intelligent Design FAQ

Science/evolution-ish blogs
Transitions: The Evolution of Life
The Panda's Thumb
The Loom
Evolution Blog
Evolving Thoughts
Philosophy of Biology
Thoughts From Kansas
Red State Rabble
The Questionable Authority
Unscrewing the Inscrutable
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Deinonychus antirrhopus
Law, Evolution Science, and Junk Science

The Evolution Project: Documenting evolutionary biology being used!

Intelligent Design

The infamous Wedge Document. Read it!
Uncommon Descent
More to come!

The library (shelving in progress)
On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity, by Jennifer Ackerman
Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock
Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, by Robert T. Pennock (Ed.)
Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth R. Miller
Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Carroll Forrest and Paul R. Gross
At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea, by Carl Zimmer

Master Planned: Why intelligent Design Isn't, by H. Allen Orr, The New Yorker
Wedging Creationism into the Academy, by Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch, Academe
The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Jerry Coyne, The New Republic


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