July 8, 2005


Evolutionary War (Ben Adler, 07.07.05, New Republic)

[W]e were curious: How do leading conservative thinkers and pundits feel about evolution and intelligent design? We asked them. Here's what they said.

A few notes about the interviews: All were conducted via phone except where otherwise noted. The interviews are not presented in a chronological question-and-answer format. Instead, we've grouped each person's thoughts on particular subjects into subcategories, which are identified in italics, splicing these statements together with ellipses where necessary. Those interviewed spoke only for themselves.

The most revealing part of this exercise is the three things they asked them about:

Whether he personally believes in evolution:

What he thinks of intelligent design:

How evolution should be taught in public schools:

The questions are so mushy as to virtually guarantee non-responses. Nor would it be hard to write three that would elicit meaningful answers:

(1) Do you personally believe in Darwinian evolution, that evolution functions via a purely natural, gradual, and ongoing process of variation and selection that accounts for all life forms?

(2) Do you believe that evolution, of whatever kind, is purely a random natural process or one that reflects purposeful design.

(3) Do you consider Darwinian evolution to be so clearly proven that no theory that suggests the existence of design should be taught in public schools?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 8, 2005 6:45 PM

What other theory would you suggest?

[Editor's note: Harry's idea is excellent. We're going to restrict comments in this thread to only personal beliefs reponsive to the three rewritten questions.]

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 8, 2005 6:54 PM

(1) No. Though a compelling theory when it was pronounced, we now have enough experience, observation, and experimentation that while we can never prove the negative, we can say that it appears unlikely that Darwinian evolution can do more than produce variety within kingdoms.

(2) Evolution seems to involve both randomness and design. However, Intelligent Design theory is not scientific and does not seem to explain much about that design.

(3) No. It's a philosophy, not a science, about how evolution might proceed, just as Creationism is a religious view of how it might and I.D. is some kind of hybrid of the two. For purposes of the public school classroom it should suffice to teach what is not in contention; that life on Earth developed via evolution (in stages, over a long period of time, from common materials). Then just tell kids that while science has been unable to explain the process by which that evolution occurs there are competing philosophical and religious explanations and that the main divide between the two is whether evolution is directed by God, to some greater or lesser degree, or just randomly generated by Nature.

Posted by: oj at July 8, 2005 7:32 PM

1) works great for species that only respond rotely to impersonal, outside or instinctive forces. Stumbles badly and looks foolish with conscious beings like man, who has obviously evolved away from fitness;

2) Pass the bong, Dude.

3) We have to be firm here. Creationism and ID should be banned from science classes and relegated to religion classes. Likewise, natural evolution should be dispatched to history classes. Somebody has to stand up for the integrity of science.

Posted by: Peter B at July 8, 2005 8:08 PM

(1) Yes, except the "gradual" part. Evidence suggest that the rate of evolutionary changes varies radically.

(2) Purely random.

(3) No.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 8, 2005 11:07 PM

1) No. Most of what I believe if found in Sacred Scripture and in the Nicene Creed. I withhold my intellectual assent from Darwin's theory of evolution on the grounds that randomness fails to account for the complexity of life in its adaptations to environment, as well as the speed at which adaptation has taken place.

2) No. My beliefs are as stated above. I find the scientific evidence to be more consistent with purposeful evolution than with random variation and natural selection.

3) No. Since I do not consider the theory proven, I hardly consider that it should be taught as the only scientific explanation of the origin of life. Where age-appropriate, I would teach that it is one possible explanation of the phenomena, with reference to statistical criticisms. In an upper-grade or advanced class the polemical role of Darwin's theory would be taught.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 9, 2005 12:49 AM

(1) Beats me. Don't know, don't care much if it accounts for all life forms. If you replace "all" with "at least some" and get rid of "gradual" or "purely", then I think it likely.

(2) Beats me. Don't know, don't care.

(3) I would strongly prefer that "the existance of design" thang not be taught to my children in their science classes, but if other parents with children in other schools would like that, fine by me.

Posted by: Bret at July 9, 2005 2:24 AM

1.) If by Darwinian evolution you are referring to the modern synthesis, then yes. Purely natural (taken to mean excluding any supernatural influence), yes. Gradual and ongoing, yes, and I note that this does not necessitate a constant rate of change.

2.) I find that the word "random" is often used in confusing ways in discussions of evolution, and I think that is the case here. Randomness plays a significant part in evolution, but the process as a whole is not random. That is not the same as to say it is teleological, which is where the confusion often arises. Since you are only giving two options, I think what you may mean in this instance is "non-teleological". I would opt for that. Or, if you insist on that exact wording, I'll go for "other".

3.) The modern theory of evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence, yes. There is no alternative scientific theory that suggests the existence of design, so the point is moot.

Posted by: creeper at July 9, 2005 3:25 AM

1) Believe in neo-Darwinian theory (i.e., random mutation and differential reproduction) -- No. I don't think it can genetically, statistically account for the origin of life or the appearance of the major phyla. Natural -- Yes, but this is meaningless. Gradual -- No, as reflected in the discontinuous, chaotic fossil record. Ongoing -- Yes, extinctions continue to occur.
2) Purely random -- No, this would only lead to homogeneous, maximum entropy states. Purposeful Design -- Who knows?
3) Neo-Darwinian theory clearly proven -- No. Existence of Design taught in schools -- No. Here I disagree with both Harry and Peter. Harry invokes the scientifically improper rule against negative argument, i.e., that you can not criticize a theory unless you provide an alternative. This is obviously anti-scientific, since it prohibits criticism, which is a proper and necessary part of the method. Peter would consign Neo-Darwinism to history and I.D. to religion, which is equally misguided. Neo-Darwinism is the current theory and therefore scientific (if deficient), and I.D., to the extent that it criticizes current theory, is equally scientific.

Posted by: jd watson at July 9, 2005 5:30 AM

I hate to say it, but OJ's answers are the most rational that I've heard from a religionist. Or from him.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 9, 2005 2:56 PM

Or from a Rationalist.

Posted by: oj at July 9, 2005 4:38 PM

NO, NO, and again NO. And I'm virtually a pagan. OJ's explications are very nearly my own. If you took the "purely random" out of Q2, incidentally, I'd call it a false choice. Anyone surprised by oj's answers hasn't been paying attention to The Compleat Dangler.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 9, 2005 5:11 PM