Potentially naive suggestion on how to re-invigorate the debate on evolution

Aug 12, 2013

Discussion by: binarybastard

Before I begin with my mission statement, I feel it necessary to account for my writing this post. I am a Master’s student of English at a Canadian University, and while I’m obviously not a scientist, I am a keen debater—who frequently turns to the lectures and debates of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Neil Tyson deGrasse for comfort and intellectual stimulation. Perhaps because I’m a stuffy and repressed Canadian, I usually avoid engaging in a debate of any real consequence (perhaps that’s why I picked literature as my field of study), however, given the recent and disturbing trends in political discourse on the theory of evolution, I feel compelled to offer my analysis on the subject and perhaps provide a fresh perspective on the task at hand. Please understand I offer this merely as constructive criticism, rather than disparaging hostility towards the scientific community. I’ve seen, read and even participated in more than a few debates and arguments on the matter, and much of the opposition to evolution seems built upon several critical misapprehensions of the theory that seem in need of rectifying before the debate can progress into avenues of any real scientific value in the popular discourse.

The first is to move the discussion away from Darwin. This is not to deprive the man of credit, simply to address the growing misapprehension that has resulted from linking evolution with Darwin (to the extent that some arguments even use the terms Darwinism and evolution interchangeably). The theory of evolution does not rely on Darwin to verify its accuracy, as if he were some holy prophet, and the book was his scripture. Any objector who uses the terms synonymously should be reminded that the theory of evolution does not require Darwin to legitimate its authority. That is to say, scientists who agree with evolution are not Darwinists, as if Darwin was the sole progenitor of their faith, and without him the theory of evolution would never have come into being. Darwin is not required for evolution to be true. The theory exists independent of any one particular theorist. Indeed, Darwin only published his seminal work (withholding it for years because of his faith and from fear of religious persecution) because his friends warned him he was in danger of being scooped by another scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace (who is woefully neglected in the scientific discussion, but I suppose if we can’t talk about Darwin for now, we shouldn’t go talking about him either). The rhetoric of the argument against Darwinism generally treats the man as the creator of the theory, as if evolution required any man to exist. But as we know, evolution did not suddenly become true because Darwin committed thought to words (unlike the basis of some other systems of thought, I might add).

Even the term theory is a misnomer, so incompatible with conventional language that the term does more harm than good, if only because the public is yet to be properly educated on the difference. While I don’t wish to oversimplify the term, few non-scientific people actually understand that scientific theories do not argue truth—for if they be correct, they are truth. Truth cannot—for obvious reasons—argue for its own truth, since such axiomatic reasoning would require presenting as evidence for truth the very facts that made it true. Instead, external evidence is used to refute the theory, and the lack of refutation suggests the theory’s veracity. That the theory itself contains no evidence for its own truth is a problem of argumentation frequently employed by creationists however, when they enter the bible as evidence for the truth they discovered from reading the bible (which may perhaps account for the misapplication of logic).

It is that hesitation however, “if they be correct”, that distinguishes theory from faith. If a theory is proven to be incorrect, it is discarded as such. Science requires this evolution of ideas, or else its various contradictions would have splintered it into tens of thousands of different sects. That is not to say there are no divisions in scientific circles—surely there are, and there must be, if scientific understanding is to progress—but that they simply represent contentions in current scientific understanding. Scientists do not still debate whether the Sun revolves around the Earth, as scientific evidence has ended that debate. Religion, however, because it can offer no evidence—merely the absence of evidence as evidence itself—can never truly end its debates. We can, for example, never know whether premillenialists got it right versus postmillennialists. Because both arguments rely on their own theory as evidence, there can be no conclusive winner, and indeed such debates continue to this day. Yet any scientist still arguing the heliocentric model of the universe, for example, is quite wisely rejected from the scientific discourse, because they serve only to splinter the debate with useless arguments that do not further the search for truth. They instead rely only on the rejection of accepted evidence, which means they can never offer a sound conclusion. Indeed, if we want to argue that faith exists as evidence of a flat earth, then no amount of argument can disprove that faith. It still relies on what the person believes.

Unfortunately, such fractious arguments have entered the debate on evolution and have stunted the progress of scientific debate, and worse yet have actually resulted in the regression of scientific progress. So, rather than progressing the science, scientists like Richard Dawkins are left to engage in a futile debate against the validity of faith in order to reclaim valuable ground on the truth of evolution lost to such arguments in the first place. This is a losing battle. In its necessary supplication to evidence, science is fighting against a methodology that relies only on the absence of evidence to prove itself. That is to say, by playing by the rules, science offers a vacuum of information that religion is all too willing to fill with anti-information (the nicest term I can provide). Whenever Dawkins is forced to concede “we don’t know why this happens (yet)”, we almost cringe at the necessary admission, because we know, just as quickly as he’s said it that the explanation supplied by the opposition immediately relies on a supernatural phenomenon. (Even Isaac Newton was guilty of this sin in logical deduction.)

Our lack of understanding, however, does not prove the existence of anything other than the fact that we lack sufficient understanding to prove something. Yet the effect of admitting our own ignorance is like arguing in cognitive quicksand. The more you struggle to explain what you don’t know, the more you venture into the unknown depths of truth (where answers no longer lie like gold amongst the riverbank, but must be instead cleaved from the rock of ignorance), and the more purchase is given to the opposition to fill in the void after you (since they seem quite happy to set the market with the few nuggets of gold they’ve already collected off the ground, lest their value be diminished). Obviously, the best way to avoid sinking would be to avoid the quicksand altogether, but since the debate is already up to its waist in a mire of specious arguments and critical misapplications of science and reasoning, we must wiggle our way out now, debate by debate, until we can clamber out, breath a sign of relief, and erect a warning sign to any future travelers who pass this intellectual way again. So how do we go about freeing the argument from the dense sediments of misunderstanding it’s currently submerged in?

When debating the theory of evolution, perhaps there should be a rudimentary framework laid out to distinguish between legitimate questions about the science and invalid objections based on ignorance and a critical misunderstanding of scientific evidence. If they do not meet this vital criteria, they should be barred from the public discourse as they serve only to spread the infectious misunderstanding of the facts. The first criteria for distinguishing between a specious argument and an argument grappling with science should be to determine whether someone’s argument accepts geological time. The biblical literalists, young earth creationists, put the earth at roughly 6,000 years, which means there’s precious little time to allow for the kind of slow and incremental development of species that evolution posits. Geological science puts the age of the Earth at roughly 4.6 billion years, which is obviously a considerably longer length of time, and one that provides a timeframe to allow 98% of all known species that ever existed to go extinct. The timeframe a person uses as the foundation for their argument should serve as a litmus test for determining whether this person intends to engage with science, or whether this person is simply interested in furthering an agenda. So if they accept the geological time, which is obviously the scientifically accepted view, then we move on to the next set of criteria. Do they argue that evolution should be discounted because it cannot explain where life began? This is a frequent argument I’ve noticed, and one which I believe may stem from an erroneous misreading of the title of Darwin’s seminal book on evolution. He does not entitle the work The Origin of THE Species because rather than attempting to account for the origin any one particular species, Darwin’s book instead provides a theory (and this is another term that has been grossly appropriated by the scientifically illiterate to argue that evolution is just a guess, and should be treated as such) by which we may understand how species, any species, may originate.

Returning to argumentation strategies for the theory, it should be made clear that evolution does not theorize the origins of life. This is perhaps the greatest objection to evolution, because evolution obviously doesn’t require any supernatural explanation; species do not arise out of nothing, they are product of a steady series of modifications. Obviously, if we trace the evolution back far enough we arrive at the original causality dilemma, and this seems for many to be the largest impediment to accepting evolution—it offers no argument one way or the other on the origin of life itself. “Well then!” the anti-evolutionists proudly declare as if the argument has been won, “how did the first life form appear? How do you get something out of nothing?” Since science must accept it doesn’t have all the answers, the opposition usually invoke a supernatural cause to supply the answer. If that’s the intellectual gymnastics that are required to account for the origin of life for these people, then so be it. Evolution does not attempt to account for the genesis of life, the universe and everything, as it is commonly misapprehended to purport. It simply accounts for the origin of species. Not any one species in particular, not THE species, but species in general. This is the single most frequently misunderstood concept of evolution, and it must be reclaimed by evolutionary scientists if the theory is to gain any traction in conventional wisdom. I don’t know who first erroneously lumped the two questions together, but ever since, the former question of where did life begin is often used to refute the latter of where a species began, when the latter doesn’t even attempt to answer the former.

Indeed, arguments for the theory don’t even need to accede to the reality of geologic time. Evolution can be seen in the microscopic realm as well. Just recently scientists led by French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux were able to trace the evolution of a bacterial strain of a cholera outbreak in Haita to a similar cholera outbreak in Nepal from 2010, concluding that the strain reached Haita by the careless disposal of sewage by Nepalese UN workers. Indeed, focusing on how bacteria replicates so quickly that we can actually witness the process of evolution in action would provide a compressed and relatable timespan for people to grasp. Who can conceive of hundreds of millions of years? The number becomes so abstract and vague as to have no cognitive meaning. I can’t identify with one hundred million years, but I can identify with bacterial strains developing resistances in a matter of weeks. The careful bit of explaining will be to not relate the human to a microbe, because if people are already sensitive to the idea that they share any relation to an ape (or chimpanzee as is commonly assumed), they will be presumably insensible to comparisons with a germ (assuming they believe in germs).

The religious people I encounter are for the most part eager to learn the truth about evolution, and are woefully misinformed, usually on the points I’ve outlined. But they want to know the truth; they want to know their faith is not a sham, that they haven’t devoted their lives to a fraud. That evolution has nothing to say whatsoever on the existence of god should give them pause when they consider how violently religious leaders have opposed something so compatible with their own belief system. Why is it that a religion would object so strenuously to a concept that does not in any way disprove the existence of their god? Please do not misunderstand, I do not mean to suppose that evolution proves the existence of any god, simply that evolution does not disprove the existence of god either, merely disproves the credibility of biblical fundamentalism. And it is these fundamentalists who have co-opted the discussion, and allowed it to become a debate about faith, rather than science and reason. And it seems that by allowing them to articulate the points I have outlined to a mass public, scientists have allowed the debate to be diverted. By squabbling over matters of faith, they’ve engaged in a losing battle. Since religion offers no scientific evidence, religious leaders have quite wisely steered the debate away from evidence, and instead have appealed to emotions. After all, who cares whether evolution is true or not, when it means god doesn’t love you, because you’re just an ape, an animal, descended from a fish. Nevermind the logical and deductive fallacies at work here, nevermind the extreme lapse in scientific evidence, nevermind that evolution has nothing to say on the matter whatsoever on what any god thinks or does, the fear tactic works great as a soundbite. And the inability for evolution to offer any correlative (and perhaps rightfully so) means that in the realm of public opinion, the fear tactics are working. Because the fossil record isn’t working, DNA evidence isn’t cutting it. Even after this irrefutable evidence, people are still balking, nearly two centuries after the discovery of evolution. It’s being banned in schools and even in my progressive Roman Catholic high school in Canada (which dared to allow us to believe that transubstantiation may just be metaphorical), evolution was taught under the banner topic of Intelligent Design, where god’s hand was at work in every evolutionary jump (but if that’s what allowed my teachers to talk about evolution comfortably, so be it, I still learned that we were not made of a lump of clay). We must remember, and must make it clear, that the issue of evolution is so clearly a non-issue. By discarding the arguments that circle evolution rather than engage, people would come to see that the only real issue at hand is why it is an issue at all. Science has truth on its side, verifiable, uncontestable evidence, yet the failure of scientists to succinctly shut down the non-arguments of scientific illiterates has allowed these religious fundamentalists to filibuster scientific inquiry, to the extent that we must tread carefully whenever the subject of evolution is even discussed in daily conversation, that the debate over banning the theory of evolution from classrooms is a serious topic rather than a pitiful joke.

I hold no illusions as to the intellectual capabilities of the human race; I don’t presume to know whether scientific truth can even be salvaged for the masses at this point, or whether religious fundamentalism will plunge the human race into another dark age of scientific ignorance. I don’t want my argument to fall into that slippery slope, but then, nor do I want this world to do the same either. So am I crazy? Foolishly naïve? Or hopelessly impassioned about something that can never be? Or am I thankfully behind the times, and the situation is already improving?

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