Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Sam Brownback Proves: Some of us Didn’t Evolve (Much) from Monkeys

May 31st, 2007 · 6 Comments

The Republican senator from Kansas—one of three participants in the Republican primary debates to avow disbelief in the theory of evolution—takes to the pages of The New York Times to explain his views. He starts off with some reasonable-sounding sallies, rejecting a stark contrast between pure materialism and the view that life on earth was literally created in six 24-hour days. He suggests that the truths of science and faith should be seen as complimentary, and believers should be open to whatever reason reveals about creation. For a moment, you think he’s going to fall back on the old compromise position that the evolutionary story is essentially true, with the process “guided” in some inscrutable way by divine providence. But he quickly goes off the rails in a way that shows what’s dangerous about Stephen Jay Gould’s old can’t-we-all-just-get-along conception of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Because in denying a conflict between science and faith, Brownback ends up placing plenty of genuinely scientific questions into the religious sphere, denying they’re the proper subject of scientific inquiry at all.

So, for instance, Brownback accepts (since it’s beyond denying, being directly observable) “micro-evolution” within species, but then conflates the broader question of longer-term evolution between species with the much broader question of whether one accepts a purely mechanistic or materialistic conception of the universe. The latter is arguably more philosophical, but not really to the point on the crucial question of whether human beings are the descendants of some ancestor shared with other primates—either with or without divine tweaking to produce the key mutations. He closes with this:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Grok that? Science and faith are complimentary, but since we know certain conclusions must be true on the basis of faith, any investigation that appears to contradict these tenets is not just wrong, but not even science. I’m reminded a bit of the line attributed to Caliph Omar before the burning of the library at Alexandria:
If the books of this library contain matters opposed to the Koran, they are bad and must be burned. If they contain only the doctrine of the Koran, burn them anyway, for they are superfluous.

Somewhat related: Edge has an interesting piece on how we seem hardwired to find certain scientific truths counterintuitive.

Addendum: John Derbyshire has a pretty solid response to the whole “Microevolution: OK, Macroevolution: No Way” line.

Addendum 2: I see Eugene Volokh is pondering why and whether Brownback’s views on here matter, so I figure I might as well make this slightly more explicit. What’s most deeply troubling about this is not just Brownback’s rejection of evolution, but his apparent belief that, since science and faith are complimentary, any science that appears to conflict with faith is not science at all but rather disguised “atheistic theology.” This would be a highly dangerous view for a president to hold, given the amount of money the government pours into academic research institutions and its ability to threaten to withhold funds from any institution carrying on research it doesn’t like. It would be one thing if he’d said: “Well, science may teach X, but my faith tells me Y.” But what if you believe, as does Brownback, that when faith says Y, anyone asserting X is not a scientist at all, but rather an atheistic fraud proselytizing under cover of science? It seems you’d be a great deal more likely to conclude that no “science funding” should be going to any institution perpetrating such fraud. Brownback’s protestations of science-friendliness should suggest he might actually be rather more dangerous to science.

Tags: Religion



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // May 31, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    As it’s usually put by Christians: Science is the study of God’s order.

  • 2 razib // May 31, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    brownback is a bizarre cookie since catholic theology gives him an out re: secondary causes and first causes and all that stuff. as i note on my weblog, he objects both to the absolute determinism and randomness of material processes 😉 you can’t lose!

  • 3 David J. Balan // May 31, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    I’m certainly no expert, but Derbyshire’s thing seems wrong to me. I thought the position of the “micro yes, macro no” people was that there is no mutation, so the only kind of evolution you can get is changing the frequencies of genes already in the gene pool. If you mate the biggest flies with the biggest flies, you get really big flies after a while, but that’s it. It’s wrong, of course, but the people who hold that position do have a story that they tell.

  • 4 razib // Jun 1, 2007 at 1:08 am

    I thought the position of the “micro yes, macro no” people was that there is no mutation, so the only kind of evolution you can get is changing the frequencies of genes already in the gene pool.

    you must mean non-deleterious mutation? after all, mutation is an observable process biophysically.

  • 5 mediageek // Jun 1, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Interestingly enough, Brownbeck simply takes an old creationist standby argument: that there are no “transitional” fossils or species, and turns it on it’s head.

    The base of the “microevolution” creationist claim is that one can certainly see changes among species, but those changes aren’t big enough to create an entirely new species.

    Which, I suppose, is true, if you’re willing to narrow your view of a species enough so that no given “transitional” creature varies too much from the ones around it and can therefore be shoehorned into a particular category.

    Really, it’s just kind of a neat semantic trick.

  • 6 razib // Jun 1, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Really, it’s just kind of a neat semantic trick.

    species questions are kind of semantical tricks if you ask me.