"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Theories, Polls, and a God of Evolution

Down the road of confronting the arguments that creationists (“history deniers” as Richard Dawkins calls them) put forward, we cannot go far before we must pause. Wouldn’t you know it, what could be called the most preliminary creationist argument against the overwhelming evidence for evolution is neither biological nor biblical—it’s semantic.

“It’s only a theory. Doesn’t that,” I think their reasoning goes, “tell you something?” Yes, it tells me that you don't know what you're talking about. As I suggested at the outset of my review of Professor Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, the chances that anyone, let alone a person of a creationist position, can accurately summarize this theory are unfortunately abysmal.

But let’s consider that operative word. Theory, as any dictionary will demonstrate, has several meanings. Yes, we may use the word in the sense of speculation: I have a theory about why your roses won’t grow. But there’s also theory as it’s used here in the following phrases: the heliocentric theory (the earth revolves around the sun); atomic theory (matter consists of atoms); cell theory (cells are the basic unit of structure in all living things); and germ theory (infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms).

You may have noted that of all of these theories are well-established facts. Such is the case with…dun-Dun-DUN: the theory of evolution (all life forms have evolved from a common ancestor). In his The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins refers to the Oxford English Dictionary on this point, quoting in full the two senses of the word theory that are relevant here:

1. A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.

2. A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.
Obviously there’s no great mystery here. As Dawkins puts it, “scientists are using Sense 1, while the creationists are—perhaps mischievously, perhaps sincerely—opting for Sense 2.” In the end, as a point of argument, this “only a theory” salvo is a rather sad quibbling.

Continuing on, another creationist claim closely related to the above is that many scientists do not accept evolution. Let's consider some polls to further explore that claim. But first this caveat: Here’s what we know about polls. When they appear to support an argument, they are referred to. When they do not, they are either ignored or their validity is impugned. And that’s perfectly understandable. The process of polling does not come without its short-comings. And yet we encounter polls on an almost daily basis, especially in their use of measuring the direction and intensity of political winds.

And they do have their place. Reputable polling institutions such as Gallup have put decades of research and analysis into creating methods for the most accurate polling numbers. The validity—and intrigue for that matter—of a poll deepens, as I see it, when we are able to analyze it longitudinally, that is, over a lengthy period of time. Here’s a case in point courtesy of Gallup.com.

Gallup actually has an excellent, easy-to-use site to view a range of polls and accompanying information on the topic of evolution (as well as on anything else that Gallup has polled in the past 75 years). And it even has video such as this.

Based on a review of various polls that address the question of scientists’ acceptance of evolution, I’ve found data ranging somewhere between an 87% to 95% acceptance rate, with a reference to 99.9%. Here’s a great starting point to view polls and statistics on the subject, though you don’t need to take Wikipedia’s word; you can click on the many footnote links to go directly to other sources.

Problems with polls that measure scientists’ views include the ambiguous designation of just who a scientist is. Percentages for the acceptance of evolution will most assuredly be higher when narrowed to fields directly related to evolution and evolutionary research, such as biology and genetics, geology, and paleontology.

I have two points to make from taking a cursory review of existing polls on the topic of scientists and their acceptance of evolution’s validity. The first is that when you hear the argument that “many” scientists do not accept evolution, well, this is patently false. It’s a knee-jerk argument put forth by creationists who perhaps are thinking about those—I’m sorry but—laughable lists of “scientists” who dispute the validity of evolutionary theory such as this one.

One observation from this particular list is that the compilers were inclined to include such people as Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton. Hmm, that’s interesting, not because none of these men were biologists per se but that they were all long, long dead before the modern theory of evolution ever saw the light of day. None lived within even a century of Darwin’s first edition of On the Origin of Species in 1859. This would be called padding the stats in some circles. Now why would that be necessary? Surely there must be legions of active scientists, prominent PhDs who can hurl an astounding array of data and counter-evidence, right? Actually, no.

As for the small number of scientists—again, always a tricky designation—that do not accept the validity of evolution, Talkorigins.org wisely suggests that “One needs to examine not how many scientists and professors believe something, but what their conviction is based upon. Most of those who reject evolution do so because of personal religious conviction, not because of evidence. The evidence supports evolution. And the evidence, not personal authority, is what objective conclusions should be based on.”

In any case, supposed majority viewpoints, of course, should never be taken as the sole measure of what is right, correct, or accurate. The quality of the evidence is always the most important factor. I would never expect—nor want—statistics and polls themselves to sway anyone. And yet, to be frank, for creationists it's likely that it really doesn’t matter how the percentages play out regarding the number of scientists that do or do not accept evolution. The topic is just another opportunity to muddy the water and hoodwink any person who may actually be trying to emerge from a state of utter benightedness.

A second point derived from these polls is actually more fascinating, and it’s one that I think creationists have the hardest time dealing with. Polls such as this one, indicate the large percentage of scientists that hold what we can label as theistic evolution. The linked example is a poll of a thousand scientists randomly selected from the American Men and Women of Science. They were asked the same questions that Gallup has been asking for almost 30 years. The results showed that 40% of these scientists held this view: Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (Note, 55% held this view: Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.)

Note that I’m not arguing for the validity of theistic evolution. I’m simply pointing out that almost all scientists accept evolution, and that for a significant minority of them, this apparently does not preclude their religious beliefs.

Here’s one real and contemporary scientist in the field of biology (genetics, specifically) that is quite vocal on his religious beliefs—and on his unabashed acceptance of evolution. Francis Collins, MD, PhD, (right side of Time cover) is currently director of the National Institutes of Health. Prior to that he led the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993 to 2008, the organization that conducted the human genome project, a monumental endeavor that set out to, among other things, identify the nearly 25,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that comprise this DNA.

In an interview with Beliefnet.com, Collins explains why evolution is real and also why that does not at all diminish his religious faith:

As someone who's had the privilege of leading the human genome project, I've had the opportunity to study our own DNA instruction book at a level of detail that was never really possible before.

It's also now been possible to compare our DNA with that of many other species. The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming.

I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.

But I have no difficulty putting that together with what I believe as a Christian because I believe that God had a plan to create creatures with whom he could have fellowship, in whom he could inspire moral law, in whom he could infuse the soul, and who he would give free will as a gift for us to make decisions about our own behavior, a gift which we oftentimes utilize to do the wrong thing.

I believe God used the mechanism of evolution to achieve that goal. And while that may seem to us who are limited by this axis of time as a very long, drawn-out process, it wasn't long and drawn-out to God. And it wasn't random to God.
No, I’m not personally crazy about his claim to be a “Bible-believing Christian,” nor am I comfortable with his clams to know God’s intentions. Nevertheless, the point is clear and powerful. The guy who just may know more about genetics than anyone in the world doesn’t simply reject evolution because he understands it to be antithetical to his faith. He knows that evolution is undeniably real because of the evidence. It is obviously his own prerogative to make his idea of God work within that reality.

He goes on to address evolution rejecters: “I would say that the stance that some believers take, which is simply to reject evolution, is also to reject the information that God has given us, the ability to understand. I believe God did intend, in giving us intelligence, to give us the opportunity to investigate and appreciate the wonders of His creation. He is not threatened by our scientific adventures.”

And finally, one other creationist tack that needs to be raised here is the idea of "internal controversy." Creationists reliably seize upon disagreements within scientific circles when it comes to anything related to evolution—"They can’t even agree on it!" being the point they're trying to make. The problem is that the ostensible arguments are almost never about evolution itself; they involve debating the nature of specific processes. This is what science at its best looks like. Debate is actually encouraging and indicates that ideas are not accepted without putting them to rigorous analysis and investigation. This is what allows science to progress. (And this is why, for example, we no longer accept that the sun revolves around the earth.)

In the words of Professor Jerry Coyne, "Evolution is neither moral nor immoral. It just is, and we make of it what we will.” What the evidence is for it and even ways to react to this evidence are explored in numerous works, this not being a bad place to start. In the midst of this writing, I do have to share one lament: When not seeking knowledge seems to become a virtue for some, one begins to despair.

And yet I still managed to be moved by a biblical passage that Dr. Collins points to as one of his favorites, from the epistle of James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (1:5). How repulsive it is to not just lack wisdom but to reject it based simply on an ignorant rendering of one ancient creation myth.


Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Murk

Anonymous said...

Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!