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The Evolution-Creationism Controversy as a Test Case in Equal Time and Free Speech

A book chapter for The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (December 26, 2018), edited by David Boonin.

During the second week of March, 1837, barely a year and a half after circumnavigating the globe in the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin met with the eminent ornithologist John Gould, who had been studying Darwin’s Galápagos bird specimens. With access to museum ornithological collections from areas of South America that Darwin had not visited, Gould corrected a number of taxonomic errors Darwin had made, such as labeling two finch species a “Wren” and “Icterus”, and pointed out to him that although the land birds in the Galápagos were endemic to the islands, they were notably South American in character.

According to the historian of science Frank J. Sulloway, who carefully reconstructed Darwin’s intellectual voyage to the discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Darwin left the meeting with Gould convinced “beyond a doubt that transmutation must be responsible for the presence of similar but distinct species on the different islands of the Galápagos group. The supposedly immutable ‘species barrier’ had finally been broken, at least in Darwin’s own mind.”1 That July Darwin opened his first notebook on Transmutation of Species. By 1844 he was confident enough to write in a letter to his botanist friend and colleague Joseph Hooker: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c, & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” Five years at sea and nine years at home pouring through “heaps” of books led Darwin to admit: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”2

Like confessing a murder. How could a solution to a technical problem in biology, namely the immutability of species, generate such angst in its discoverer? The answer is obvious: if new species are created naturally instead of supernaturally, there’s no place for a creator God. No wonder Darwin waited twenty years before publishing his theory, and he would have waited even longer had he not rushed into print for priority sake because the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had sent Darwin his own theory of evolution in 1858, the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.3 And no wonder it took some time for Darwin to convince others of the theory’s veracity. The geologist Charles Lyell, a close friend and colleague of Darwin who groomed him into the world of British science and whose geological works Darwin read on the Beagle, withheld his support for a full nine years, and even then pulled back from fully embracing naturalism, leaving room for providential design underlying the entire natural system. The astronomer John Herschel sniffed at natural selection, calling it the “law of higgledy-piggledy.” In a review in the popular Macmillan’s Magazine, the statesman and economist Henry Fawcett spoke of a great divide created by Darwin’s book: “No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much general curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world with two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.”4 (continue reading…)

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Evolution is Still True

This chapter contribution to Scientific American was originally published as “These Truths Are Not Self-Evident—but They’ve Been Firmly Established Over and Over by Scientific Research” (November, 2016). It was co-authored by Michael Shermer, Harriet Hall, Ray Pierrehumbert, Paul Offit, and Seth Shostak.

In a letter to his friend the botanist Joseph Hooker, dated January 14, 1844, Charles Darwin recalled from his voyage around the world in the HMS Beagle: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c…that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” After five years at sea and nine years at home thinking about the origin of species Darwin concluded: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

Like confessing a murder. Dramatic words. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or an English naturalist—to understand why a theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection would be so controversial: if new species are created naturally—not supernaturally—what place, then, for God? No wonder Darwin waited 20 years before finally publishing his theory in 1859, and why more than a century and a half later people of some religious faiths still find the theory threatening. But that 150+ years have brought together so much evidence in support of the theory that it would be truly astonishing if it turned out not to be true—on par with doubting the Big Bang origin of the universe or the germ theory of disease. Why? Because of a convergence of evidence from many lines of inquiry.

Cosmologists, for example, reconstruct the history of the universe through a convergence of evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology, and physics. Geologists reconstruct the history of the Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics, and geochemistry. Archeologists piece together the history of civilization through a convergence of evidence from pollen grains, kitchen middens, potshards, tools, works of art, written sources, and other site-specific artifacts. As a historical science, evolution is confirmed by the fact that so many different lines of evidence converge to this single conclusion. Independent sets of data from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, herpetology, entomology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics and population genetics, and many other sciences each point to the conclusion that life evolved. (continue reading…)

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Perception Deception

Do we perceive reality as it is?
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One of the deepest problems in epistemology is how we know the nature of reality. Over the millennia philosophers have offered many theories, from solipsism (only one’s mind is known to exist) to the theory that natural selection shaped our senses to give us an accurate, or veridical, model of the world. Now a new theory by University of California, Irvine, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman is garnering attention. (Google his scholarly papers and TED talk with more than 1.4 million views.) Grounded in evolutionary psychology, it is called the Interface Theory of Perception (ITP) and argues that percepts act as a species-specific user interface that directs behavior toward survival and reproduction, not truth.

Hoffman’s computer analogy is that physical space is like the desktop and that objects in it are like desktop icons, which are produced by the graphical user interface (GUI). Our senses, he says, form a biological user interface—a gooey GUI—between our brain and the outside world, transducing physical stimuli such as photons of light into neural impulses processed by the visual cortex as things in the environment. GUIs are useful because you don’t need to know what is inside computers and brains. You just need to know how to interact with the interface well enough to accomplish your task. Adaptive function, not veridical perception, is what is important. (continue reading…)

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The Rise of the Humans

A review of The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson.

Edward O. Wilson is one of the grand distinguished scientists of our time, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for On Human Nature in 1979 and The Ants in 1991) who writes intricate and detailed technical papers and books on the most narrow of topics (e.g., ant ecology) in between penning grand theoretical works about human nature, history, and the environment. He has been mistrusted by conservatives for his promotion of the teaching of evolutionary theory and his conservation efforts to preserve the environment, and he has been vilified by liberals for suggesting that humans have a biological nature that is not infinitely malleable by social engineering. His 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge was nothing short of a clarion call to resurrect the Enlightenment and reengineer it for the new millennium, suggesting that theologians and philosophers have had their day in the court of morality and ethics and that it is high time scientists had a say in what constitutes right and wrong and the good life. Anything that E. O. Wilson writes about is well worth reading, and The Social Conquest of Earth is no exception.

Readers who are already familiar with “big science” works by such authors as Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, covering everything from evolutionary theory through the evolutionary psychology of economics, politics, and morality, will find much of this same well-worn ground reviewed in The Social Conquest of Earth, but with Wilson’s unique perspective as a biologist who studies sociality and the evolution of social species. As such, The Social Conquest of Earth flips back and forth between human evolution and social history and insect evolution and sociality. What is new—or at least different from the other grand works produced by the authors noted above—is Wilson’s endorsement of a controversial idea in evolutionary theory called group selection, in which social groups are the target of natural selection, not just individuals. He describes the process by which groups become cooperative as “eusociality,” or good social groupness, which Wilson contends enables them to compete more successfully against other less-cooperative groups. (continue reading…)

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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.) (continue reading…)

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