Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Column on Science and Religion

The Kansas City Examiner has a columnist who comments on science and religion.
The column is available on-line at

Here’s a sample. This particular column is titled “On the swine flu and misunderstanding evolution”.

“In the arguments over the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory, it is always disheartening to see how easily the theory seems to be misunderstood. It’s no wonder that people should reject a concept as ridiculous, if their impression of it is ridiculously inaccurate. Any science-related issue which becomes news is going to be misunderstood to some extent, but evolution is so frequently news, in part, because it is misunderstood. It is for this reason that it is important for those of us who recognize mischaracterizations of evolution and its implications to speak up about it. I am going to take the opportunity to do so now.

Have you heard of Ray Comfort? He’s a Christian evangelist who co-heads a ministry called “The Way of the Master” with Kirk Cameron. Yes, former “Growing Pains” actor Kirk Cameron, now an active evangelist himself and anti-evolution crusader. Comfort and Cameron earned quite a bit of notoriety a couple of years ago by claiming to have defeated the theory of evolution by extolling the user-friendliness of the banana. Apparently both are “perfectly made, one for the other,” which demonstrates that this fit was the deliberate and direct work of God, which means that…evolution is false, apparently. Unaware of the history of the banana’s domestication (by humans) and the ensuing changes over the years which made the banana so perfect in the first place, and hence renders their argument effectively like one exclaiming over how uncannily a glove fits the human hand, Comfort and Cameron were pounced on by critics who were only too happy to point out this error.

However, that’s not what I intend to write about today. Today’s mischaracterization actually comes from Ray Comfort’s cartoonist, Richard Gunther, commenting on Comfort’s web site. Taking the current swine flu outbreak as his angle, Gunther chooses to skewer evolution thusly:

The spread of the so-called 'swine flu' demonstrates yet again how useless and sometimes deadly a mutation can be. Furthermore, as the infection spreads around the world, the search for an antidote is desperately sought, but the very fact that the virus is seen as something to be opposed actually supports the Biblical view of this world. It is always good and right to oppose sickness, but in evolutionary terms, why don’t humans simply resign themselves to it and allow the strong to survive? The evolutionary point of view would say the virus has a ‘right’ to live, so 'good luck' to it!

Actually, “the evolutionary point of view” says nothing about rights, but Gunther is not the first person to make this mistake. Not by a long stretch. What Gunther is committing is a form of the naturalistic fallacy, which with regard to evolution has a long and infamous tradition dating back to Herbert Spencer’s (not Darwin’s) concept of Social Darwinism. The naturalistic fallacy is a kind of confusion between what is and what ought to be—specifically, it is mistaking the former for the latter. Evolutionary theory is an explanation of a process that happens in nature; not a description of what should happen. Spencer and Gunther have committed this fallacy from different two directions, interestingly—Spencer maintained that the “survival of the fittest” portrayal of evolution means that those who are capable of assuming power over others are entitled to do so. Gunther interprets it to mean that we should allow anyone (or anything) capable of assuming power over us to do so. But the reality is that “fittest,” in Darwinian terms, refers to those species which are best able to adapt to their environment so as to survive and produce descendents. Being bigger, stronger, richer, or smarter doesn’t necessarily make you more “fit” in terms of the evolutionary arms race if it doesn’t make you more likely to produce viable offspring which can then perpetuate the genetic lineage. And when that is understood, it becomes abundantly clear why Social Darwinism—more appropriately called “Spencerism,” since Darwin neither originated nor agreed with it—is so mistaken. Evolutionary theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. It makes no more sense to speak of evolution “wanting” something than to talk about gravity preferring that some objects to remain in orbit around others, while still others spin off into space.

The swine flu virus is doing what viruses do if they are ”successful” in evolutionary terms, and so are we—surviving and reproducing. Since we humans have evolved the capacity for contemplative thought, we have come to view our existence as being about more than surviving and reproducing, even though those things are obviously important.

When speaking about this capacity, philosopher Daniel Dennett has occasionally asked his audiences how many of them believe that the most important thing in life is having as many grandchildren as possible. Very few, if any, raise their hands. Sure, grandchildren are great—very important, actually. But we are more than just child-producing machines. Some people even choose to go without producing children at all, whether because they have a religious position which requires celibacy, or because they don’t feel that they could be good parents, or because they just prefer to live their lives focusing on other things. As a species, humans have done remarkably well at surviving and reproducing, to the point that overpopulation has become a concern for many. When discussing this concern, the question is not whether evolution wanted us to be this way, but whether we want to be this way.

So, in reply to Gunther—yes, the spread of the swine flu demonstrates how useless and deadly a mutation can be—for us. It is working out quite well from the virus’s point of view. A genetic mutation that made humans better at resisting the swine flu would demonstrate how useless and deadly a mutation can be for the swine flu virus! The mistake that people such as Gunther so often seem to make is in believing that evolution happens for someone—to benefit some species. It doesn’t. Evolution roots for no team; it simply provides some rules for game play. And that game is not a matter or right or wrong. So while we as a species continue to play it, we humans as individuals continue making decisions for ourselves in terms of what we want out of life. Because most of us want to be healthy and happy, we strive to eliminate sickness and disease…and knowledge of evolution helps us to do so.

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