He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why Evolution Is True: The Whole Story

I recently began reading the book entitled Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne, famously an opponent of creationism, intelligent design, and religion in general by way of the conflict thesis.  This does not mean that he has no respect for any form of religion whatsoever, despite the fact that he recognizes that the opposition to evolution is grounded in religious views.

"It's clear that this resistance stems largely from religion.  You can find religions without creationism, but you never find creationism without religion.  Many religions not only deem humans as special, but deny evolution by asserting that we, like other species, were objects of an instantaneous creation by a deity.  While many religious people have found a way to accommodate evolution with their spiritual beliefs, no such reconciliation is possible if one adheres to the literal truth of a special creation."

I happen to disagree with Coyne that it is impossible to reconcile evolution with the literal truth of a special creation, but that's a philosophical issue for another time.  It's obvious that he does recognize that some religions are not the enemy of evolution, so we can't take his views as meaning that he harbors such a strong reaction against religion that he tends to reject everything that a religion might present.  It also does not mean that he is dogmatic with regard to the truth of evolution, as we can see from the following passage:

"Because a theory is accepted as 'true' only when its assertions and predictions are tested over and over again, and confirmed repeatedly, there is no one moment when a scientific theory becomes a scientific fact.  A theory becomes a fact (or a 'truth') when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor--and there is no decisive evidence against it--that virtually all reasonable people will accept it.  This does not mean that a 'true' theory will never be falsified.  All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence.  There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they've finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature.  As we'll see, it is possible that despite thousands of observations that support Darwinism, new data might show it to be wrong.  I think that unlikely, but scientists, unlike zealots, can't afford to become arrogant about what they accept as true."

Furthermore, Coyne understands the religious concerns and that they are non-trivial concerns.

"To many, evolution gnaws at their sense of self.  If evolution offers a lesson, it seems to be that we're not only related to other creatures but, like them, are also the product of blind and impersonal evolutionary forces.  If humans are just one of many outcomes of natural selection, maybe we aren't so special after all.  You can understand why this doesn't sit well with many people who think that we came into being differently from other species, as a special goal of a divine intervention.    Does our existence have any purpose or meaning that distinguishes us from other creatures?  Evolution is also thought to erode morality.  If, after all, we are simply beasts, then why not behave like beasts?  What can keep us moral if we're nothing more than monkeys with big brains?"

What's more, he notes the important point that religion isn't the only factor in a widespread public rejection of evolution in the U.S.

"Aside from its conflict with fundamentalist religion, much confusion and misunderstanding surrounds evolution because of a simple lack of awareness of the weight and variety of evidence in its favor.  Doubtless some simply aren't interested.  But the problem is more widespread than this: it's a lack of information.    Even many of my fellow biologists are unacquainted with the many lines of evidence for evolution, and most of my university students, who supposedly learned evolution in high school, come to my courses knowing almost nothing of this central organizing theory of biology.  In spite of the wide coverage of creationism and its recent descendant, intelligent design, the popular press gives almost no background on why scientists accept evolution.  No wonder then that many people fall prey to the rhetoric of creationists and their deliberate mischaracterizations of Darwinism."

I think he's basically correct about the lack of information being a big factor.  The fundamental problem with the average attempt to demonstrate the inadequacy of the theory of evolution is that the interlocutor generally forgoes dealing with the whole story.  Instead of looking at all (or at least a good sample) of the evidence and learning the proposed mechanisms by which evolution operates as well as how they relate to one another, it's criticized on the basis that our grandfathers were not actually spider monkeys.

Or that more complex organs like an eye could not possibly have arisen from far more simple organs which merely sense light.  Or perhaps that evolutionary theory precludes the possibility of a divine creator.  Or even that it rules out the possibility of a perfectly intelligent designer.  Those conclusions might be entirely correct if the theory of evolution were telling a very different story; if the theory of evolution claimed that species differentiation could occur in only one or two generations, then it might be a fair criticism to point out that our grandfathers were not spider monkeys.

The reason that it is definitely not a fair criticism is that the theory of evolution doesn't claim that speciation occurs that quickly.  Nor does it claim that simple light-sensing organs become complex eyes overnight.  The only way to come to the conclusion that the theory of evolution entails these things is to avoid reading most of the story.

I would be doing much the same thing if I believed that I understand the Bible because I have read The Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation and rejected Christianity because I found it incredible that God would create the Earth with such care and then unleash the four horsemen upon it in the very next book.  If I proclaimed Christianity completely absurd upon reading only two of the dozens of books in the Bible, then Christians would immediately spot the problem.  And the problem in this hypothetical scenario would be that I was failing to understand Christianity (at least in part) because I didn't have the whole story.

This is not to say that everyone would believe in Christianity (or evolution) if they but have the whole story.  It is to say that if one has the whole story, it becomes quickly apparent that those oft-repeated critiques are not very good ones, and that any critiques leveled against it need to actually respond to Christianity (or evolution) as a whole.

Accordingly, Coyne provides us with a synopsis of the whole story so that at the very least, a mere lack of information will not be the basis for objections to evolution, and hopefully we can find better ones to use for folks who still object to it.  I will be providing parts of the story from his book in future posts, and I am certainly open to letting someone who lives in the area borrow the book if they want to learn more.

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