About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Brownback and evolution

Senator Brownback from Kansas has recently written that our culture of sound-bites does not allow for reasoned discourse on complex issues, and he explained more fully why he publicly said that he doesn't “believe” in evolution.

Mr. Brownback's article is indeed a welcome breath of fresh air, as he admits that science attempts to discover how nature works, while religion (and philosophy) are concerned with human meaning and morality. He also maintains that people of faith should be rational, and that he himself says that he is “happy to see the facts speak for themselves.”

It is odd, then, that Mr. Bronwback goes on to assert a “unique and special place” for humanity in the cosmos, a statement for which there is not a shred of factual evidence, and that has been challenged by scientific advances ranging from the Copernican revolution to modern cosmology. It is the task of theologians and philosophers to think about the implications of what science tells us concerning our origins and evolution, but it is not reasonable to deny the science in order to fit our preconceived notions of what “must be safeguarded”.

Mr. Brownback perpetuates common misconceptions about evolutionary biology and the very nature of science that simply do not help his stated goal of moving the discourse among rational people in this country. For example, he cites “feuds” among biologists who support what he perceives as separate theories of evolution. While evolutionary biology, like any other science, is always on the move and open to revision of its own conclusions, the theory of punctuated equilibria to which Mr. Brownback refers is in fact part of – not in opposition to – the modern theory of evolution, based on the fundamental insights of Darwin that all organisms share a common ancestry and that their adaptation to the environment is the result of natural selection.

Mr. Brownback also accuses scientists of excluding the possibility of design, thereby “venturing far beyond their realm”. This is a misunderstanding of what scientists actually do. In order for science to work, one has to examine natural phenomena on the supposition that they are, well, natural. The supernatural is excluded not in the sense that scientists know that it doesn't exist (indeed, many scientists are religious). It simply does not help to invoke the supernatural to explain natural phenomena, because such “explanations” are not empirically testable hypotheses – which is what science is all about.

Indeed, I maintain that Mr. Brownback himself makes the same reasonable assumption of excluding the supernatural (what philosophers call methodological naturalism) whenever he encounters a problem in everyday life. If his car breaks down, Mr. Brownback will likely not invoke God as an explanation, he will call a mechanic. Even if the mechanic is ultimately incapable of finding anything wrong with the car, my bet is that Mr. Brownback will assume that there must have been a non-supernatural explanation for the breakdown, but that the mechanic either had insufficient knowledge or insufficient abilities to find it. That is exactly the sense in which scientists “exclude” the supernatural: they are in the business of finding naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

What is disturbing about all this, despite the obvious good intentions of Mr. Brownback, is that at the beginning of the 21st century we still have serious candidates to the highest office in the nation debating scientific theories – of which they demonstrably do not have any technical understanding – as if there were real scientific controversies surrounding them. Evolutionary theory is no more controversial (among scientists) than Einstein's relativity, and the reason the latter is not a factor in electoral campaigns is because few people think they understand it, or see any moral implication in it. Yet, a country in which half the population persists in denying large aspects of reality cannot be expected to maintain leadership in a world where science plays an increasingly crucial role in solving problems and shaping our understanding of the world in which we live.


  1. You wrote

    If his car breaks down, Mr. Brownback will likely not invoke God as an explanation, he will call a mechanic.

    While he'd undoubtedly call a mechanic to fix his car, there's one circumstance under which I'm certain that Brownback would invoke God as an explanation of the breakdown itself. If the breakdown saved him from driving over a bridge that was out, he'd say "God was watching over me and saved me from driving into the river and drowning."

    Interestingly, he almost certainly would not invoke God to explain the fate of a family of five who did drive off the bridge into the river and drown. To Brownback they'd be the victims of an unfortunate accident. That difference is a central hypocrisy of the "God is watching over me" notion. If God saves some, he must surely be responsible for killing others through inaction.


  2. RBH:

    You're right, of course. It's the paradox of football teams, or warring armies. Our rationale has "evolved" from "MY God can kick YOUR God's ass!" to "OUR God loves us best, so He will let US kick YOUR ass!"

    Kindergarten attitudes. Will we EVER grow up?

  3. I recall hearing Anita Bryant describe her religious awakening. A tree fell on the car in front of her on the highway. (I believe 2 people were killed). She thought this was a message from God. This could happen to her, and she would be unsaved.

  4. There is an argument that 'perception is reality' & those who control perception, control (shape, create) reality. The lure of this power seems hard for some to resist.

    This first struck me when I was reading Orwell's 1984 in which there were two countries who both thought they were at war with each other (although they weren't) because the government wanted the people to think this

    - I realized that it doesn't really matter what is true.

    What matters is what people think is true.

    Of course I'm not saying that one can suspend the laws of physics by belief, I'm saying that it's impossible to escape our internal viewpoints and so those who can control our internal viewpoints, essentially control reality as we know it.

    What does this have to do with Mr. Brownback? I think it's germane to the general issue of belief and whether humanity "is special."

    If one takes as best as possible, a non-organism viewpoint, then humans are just one, albeit odd, species among millions. Nothing too special there. But what is this non-organism viewpoint? How can a non-organism be conscious?

    I've gone full circle on this - starting out with our cultural viewpoint of humans being specially created & all of this world is "for us" to the opposite more mechanistic view that we're just another twig on a huge tree of life, evolved without any other purpose than perpetuating our DNA & now back to an intermediate view in which I realize that it's a fantasy to pretend we can imagine what it's like to view the world without being influenced by our nature.

    Sorry for the rambling & slightly off topic post. Just got me thinking...

  5. And while we're at it, if you're in the mood for feeling nauseated, check out these photos of the Creation Museum in Ky.


  6. "And while we're at it, if you're in the mood for feeling nauseated, check out these photos of the Creation Museum in Ky."

    Nauseated? Gee, i don't know how you can possibly go on, J.

    And were you equally discomforted that Haeckel's works are still used and quoted even tho most scholars are CERTAIN that he was wrong?

    "Biography of Haeckel

    Ernst Haeckel, much like Herbert Spencer, was always quotable, even when wrong. Although best known for the famous statement "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", he also coined many words commonly used by biologists today, such as phylum, phylogeny, and ecology. On the other hand, Haeckel also stated that "politics is applied biology", a quote used by Nazi propagandists. The Nazi party, rather unfortunately, used not only Haeckel's quotes, but also Haeckel's justifications for racism, nationalism and social darwinism.

    Although trained as a physician, Haeckel abandoned his practice in 1859 after reading Darwin's Origin of Species. Always suspicious of teleological and mystical explanation, Haeckel used the Origin as ammunition both to attack entrenched religious dogma and to build his own unique world view.

    Hackel studied under Carl Gegenbauer in Jena for three years before becoming a professor of comparative anatomy in 1862. Between 1859 and 1866, he worked on many "invertebrate" groups, including radiolarians, poriferans (sponges) and annelids (segmented worms). He named nearly 150 new species of radiolarians during a trip to the Mediterranean. "Invertebrates" provided the fodder for most of his experimental work on development, leading to his "law of recapitulation". Haeckel was also a free-thinker who went beyond biology, dabbling in anthropology, psychology, and cosmology. Haeckel's speculative ideas and possible fudging of data, plus lack of empirical support for many of his ideas, tarnished his scientific credentials. However, he remained an immensely popular figure in Germany and was considered a hero by his countrymen."



  7. cal:

    as usual, you don't know what you are talking about. Scientists are not prophets; they are never completely right, and very seldom completely wrong. Haeckel was wrong on his main idea, yet he wasn't wrong on many other parts of his work. Nowadays, and for several decades now, he's being quoted mostly for historical reasons (it's not a coincidence that the very text you posted came from a history page), to let students of biology know how their discipline has advanced and progressed; which ideas have stuck (some spectacularly so, like the theory of evolution) and which have been discarded. The same goes for any other discipline of science, by the way.

    The very words you pasted in your post show quite well why Haeckel has been very influential. If you condemn him for the misuse that the Nazi did of some of his words, I wonder why you do not do likewise for Martin Luther or St. Paul (not that these two clowns would have objected to the idea of getting rid of the Jews, of course).

    Can you spell "hypocrisy", cal?

  8. "....I think it's germane to the general issue of belief and whether humanity "is special."

    I have been thinking about this issue lately. Perhaps evolutionary thinkers ought to be accomodating the idea that humans are "special", but from a completely naturalistic perspective.

    Within the constraints of natural laws and processes, and from our primate lineage, humans evolved higher order cognitive skills, language, tool manufacture and use, and complex socio-cultural institutions etc.. Through these evolved human capacities humans have been able to live in just about every terrain based eco-niche on the planet.

    Human beings are the only species that can reflect, investigate, and understand our place, and other species' place, in the natural world.

    Thats pretty facinating, and from that perspective one can defend the idea humans are "special", but also animals.

  9. sheldon:

    "special" is the adjective of "species"; you will find very few people denying that we humans have "special" characteristics of our own, but so have turtles, sea anemones, tulips, earthworms, and plasmodia!

    What has been rendered utterly obsolete is the old idea of the Great Ladder of Being, with living entities somehow "ranking" from some humble monocellular thingie all the way to the King of Creation: Man himself (with Woman sitting on the immediately lower rung).

    That idea survives mostly in the minds of those who haven't grasped the facts of evolution, such as that every living being now in existence is the fruit of the same billions of years of evolution.

    A domestic cat is not "inferior" to the humans that keep her; a lizard is not "more primitive" than a horse. Even when we speak metaphorically of "living fossils", e.g. the coelacanth, the currently living specimens are definitely not identical to those that swam in the oceans of so many million years ago, because they've kept evolving!

    So, every species is "special"; this is basically a tautology. But no species, not even Homo Sapiens Sapiens, is "more special" than any other (the Orwellian quote is intentional).

  10. "Mr. Brownback's article is indeed a welcome breath of fresh air, as he admits that science attempts to discover how nature works, while religion (and philosophy) are concerned with human meaning and morality."

    Philosophy isn't just limited to "morality and meaning" or what's commonly precieved as "subjective matters". Its primary task is conceptual clarification.

    And I doubt that religion can give us good information on morality and meaning, as it postulates non-existent reasons for action.

  11. Senator Brownback's statements on evolution have inspired me to coin a new term, "brownbacking." It describes politicians who pander to scientifically illiterate voters by either condemning or casting confusion on the theory of evolution.

  12. aureola,

    Yes, I know. I was not attempting to defend the idea of "the great chain of being". And yes all species are the product of billions of years of evolution. None are "more evolved" than any other. I know this, and I have grasped the facts of evolution. I don't think there is anything I said originally that suggests otherwise.

    My point was to argue that we should attempt to replace peoples' idea of human "specialness" based on things like the "great chain of being", or that we are "created in the image of God, whom gave us a soul" with a genuine knowledge of the human species based on what we know of human evolution, and evolution in general.

    For example, many people may not know many of the specific traits we have in common with our nearest ape relatives, like opposable thumbs and stereoptic vision. They are not aware of the significance of these traits for later human evolution(i.e. tool use). This notion of the soul should be replaced with an appreciation of how and why the evolution of greater cognitive skills and language contributed to generalized human adaptibility across a broad range of ecological niches.

    Many people who might think that a God allegedly gave us some kind of moral sense (after C.S. Lewis) have not been sufficiently exposed to ideas on how the neccessity of living in social groups selected for the capacities that give rise to human morality.

    Again, the point would be both to accomodate peoples ideas about alleged human "specialness" while actually educating them about what purely natural evolutionary processes created the human species. And of course, we should dispel any notion that humans were somehow the end goal of evolution.

  13. The mechanic is God, but He is seldom on duty now due to the rebellion of the first two humans He created. The most costly thing God ever did was to give Man complete freedom of the will. Of course He knew ahead of time that all this would take place, but he was at war with the chief angel that created an uprising in Heaven and claimed that the angels didn't love God but was obeying Him our of FEAR, and not love. That war is still going on, but is quickly coming to it's end.

    Foolish men have concocted a belief in magic, the magic of nothing becoming something and then much later on some of that magic something becoming a living cell. Evolutionists are angry but the controversy can be stopped...

    If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a 'simple' living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the 'simple' cell.

    After all, shouldn't all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a 'simple' cell.

    If it weren't so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

    Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try answersingenesis.org. The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence 'FOR' evolution for THEMSELVES.

    Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the 'raw' stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth's recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

    Oh, you don't believe the 'original' Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

  14. Walla=voilĂ 

  15. Ahhhh yes, another "anonymous" commenter off his meds.

    Yes, let me see now, a supreme being is going to create an infinite universe full of planets, stars, galaxies and other celestial phenomena. Then on one planet in one galaxy this supreme being is going to pick a bunch of desert pastroralists to be HIS (as if a shapeless entity can have a gender) "chosen people". Then after a couple of thousand years go by, this supreme being decides to impregnate a virgin. And the superboy who results from this alleged union preaches for a few years, gets himself killed, and rises from the dead. One must believe in him in order to be saved in the afterlife, so this Supreme Being relies on imperfect humans who take some 1500 years to spread this vital news for salvation around the globe.

    Why is it that today we have the technology to send important documents to a recipient as an e-mail attachment in a matter of seconds, but God relies on a mode of transmission that makes the Pony Express fast by comparison?

    As for creating a cell, cells were created through a long process via natural selection. You can't just whip some ingredients together in a lab and voila you have a cell. There is still much we do not know about the conditions that facilitated the creation of life on this planet. But as we explore our solar system ever more, we will pick up more and more clues to the origins of our creation, especially if we find life elsewhere in the universe. And that will be the death of religious fundamentalism. I'm just sad I won't live long enough to see it.

  16. Hey, Cal brought a friend! One who can clearly express her/himself in written form, but with "ideas" like that, yuck...

    Dear "anonymous coward", what were you saying about mythology again? Ever heard a certain say about pots and kettles and all that? Get a clue, mate...


  17. I'm sure all of you have seen it, but if not, check out Blogs 4 Brown claiming that Heliocentrism is an Atheist Doctrine. Enjoy!

  18. "There is still much we do not know about the conditions that facilitated the creation of life on this planet."

    I hate to be a nit-picker, and I know you use the word metaphorically, but I don't think we should give them an inch with this word "creation". It would be better to say "formation of life" to refer to this original abiogenesis (damn, there is one of those pesky words sneakin in there again! They have had thousands of years to stack the language deck!)

    "..... And that will be the death of religious fundamentalism. I'm just sad I won't live long enough to see it."

    Don't count on it, people aren't neccessarily religious because there hasn't been enough accumulation of evidence to convince them of their folly. On the contrary, religious delusions I think are cultivated in spite of adequate rational grounds for disbelief.

    Look at Epicurus, he laid to waste the idea that God could be omnipotent and omnibenevolent cerca 500 B.C.. Yet still people proclaim the alleged goodness of "the Creator".

  19. The person who wrote the helioocentric gibberish must have been born and subseqently lived his (or her)entire life in a cave. Thank you globalizati for a good chuckle.

    New subject: I think we should bestow the title of "Cal II" on the new anonymous poster.

  20. "If it weren't so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology."

    Iwould never have believed it without evidence: a fundamentalist with a sense of irnoy.

  21. A Brief Introduction: I am not an Atheist myself, I am a devoted Pagan with great respect for Atheist thought. I am a Pagan as a result of my own personal experiences leading to my own personal beliefs, and I recognize that I could never expect someone ELSE to believe anything based on MY unprovable experiences.

    Atheism recognizes the importance of logic and rational thought, the limits of personal experience, and the value of empirical data. Atheists also earn my respect as individuals because of the general process by which one arrives at Atheism in the present day. People seem to become Christians out of pressure and habit, Pagans out of curiosity and spiritual hunger, and Atheists out of deep, careful, and logical thought.

    RBH is absolutely right about the selective nature of such "God's Protection". I am reminded of many such "inspirational stories", aptly named "glurge" by snopes.com. Their list is interesting and entertaining; worth checking out. http://www.snopes.com/glurge/glurge.asp

    And thanks for the photos, J. I wasn't nauseated though,they were actually good for a laugh. I especially liked the, "fossils don't come with tags saying how old they are..." I'm sure that even if they did, those people would say that the Devil put them there. ;-)

    In any case, I wonder if the anonymous "cell-maker" was actually serious. Possibly, but the mechanic not being on duty seems kind of contrary to what Christians believe. Perhaps he/she just liked how that sounded. Of course the cell analogy is ridiculous, it's akin to saying that gravity cannot be a fact because scientists have not created artificial gravity or anti-gravity boots.

  22. Raven,
    Define what you mean by "Pagan" and what kind of experiences have you had that makes you one?

    I am an anthropologist/archaeologist, and I am curious about these things. And the reason I ask is this.

    I have just been reading a book called Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints, A Prehistory of Religion by Bryan Hayden.

    He is the type of archaeologist who is referred to in the dicipline as a processual cultural-ecologist, which is diametrically opposed to a postmodern relativism.

    Now in the book he explicitly explains religion within a naturalist/materialist/rationalist framework.

    However, he also alludes to experiences he has had with indigenous peoples that would suggest he might believe in the truth validity of things that would be described as supernatural.

    Anyway, so this raises certain questions in my mind. For example, what kind of experiences do people have that lead them to believe certain things?

  23. RBH wrote "That difference is a central hypocrisy of the "God is watching over me" notion. If God saves some, he must surely be responsible for killing others through inaction."

    That comment misses the mark. I think for the people you're describing (I'd probably include myself), "saving" you does necessarily correspond to life or death, though I think anyone who wants to live would like it to. If you die, you'll realize that you were indeed saved and it was your time and those left behind will hopefully have enough faith to know that despite not seeing the greater plan or vision of God, that one exists.

    Sorry for the often uncomfortable solely based religious retort, but it was the only way to explain the possible discrepancy pointed out which simply hinges on a belief system.

    As for Brownback, it sounds to me that he has said he believes in evolution so long as it is not necessarily divorced from the fact that God could have played a role. People see the two as mutually exclusive and that is not necessarily so. I think his problem is that the discussion of evolution seems to box out any place for God or creator that drove it. At least that is what I think he was getting at or it could just be a clever staff writer trying to make Brownback less polarizing. But if I am right, I don't see why anyone on either side of the debate would have a problem with that view.


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